Russians seek better epitaph in free Latvia: The fight for minority rights is illustrated by a row over the national cemetery, writes Adrian Bridge from Riga

IT HAS been a long time since so many fresh flowers were placed at the foot of the Lenin statue which, rather incongruously, occupies one of the prime spots in Latvia's national cemetery in Riga.

For Latvians, coming to pay homage to those who fought for their country's independence between 1918 and 1920, the flowers and the statue represent an ugly thorn in the side, a constant reminder of the brutal invasion of Stalin's Red Army in 1940 and annexation by the Soviet Union.

To many of the country's 900,000-strong ethnic Russian 'minority', however, the solid features of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin are a reminder of an almost golden age in which the word of Moscow was law and, within Latvia, it was very much the Russians who held the upper hand.

In part, the flowers for Lenin reflect nostalgia for the not-so- distant Communist past. But they are also there to protest at plans to dig up and relocate the remains of up to 200 mainly ethnic-Russian Communist Party officials who, according to the Latvian government, were inappropriately placed in the cemetery in the 1970s and 1980s and whose continued presence offends against both its original design and purpose.

'The whole plan to move the graves is both unchristian and unwholesome,' complains Aleksejs Grigorjevs, an MP championing the ethnic Russian cause. 'In addition to harassing the living, ethnic Russians now feel the government is hounding the dead. Why can't they be left to rest in peace?'

More radical representatives of the ethnic Russian community have accused the government of wanting to exhume the remains of every Soviet Second World War veteran buried in the cemetery as part of a rising wave of Latvian nationalism in which, increasingly, non-Latvians are being made to feel second-class citizens. And in Russia, which still has some 27,000 troops stationed in Latvia, government officials are reported to have warned that if war veterans are disinterred, Moscow will not stand idly by.

The row over the renovation of the Brethren Cemetery, which was designed in the 1920s as a memorial to Latvian riflemen who fell in the First World War and the independence battles of 1918 to 1920, is the latest example of the rising tension between Latvians and ethnic Russians since Latvia regained its independence in 1991.

According to Ojars Blumbergs, the MP behind the cemetery proposals, the issue has been blown out of all proportion. Rather than heroes in the fight against Fascism, the corpses in question are almost all of Soviet Communist Party dignitaries whose burial in the cemetery was designed to weaken its significance as a memorial to Latvian independence.

'These people were Communists who stood against the very idea of Latvian independence,' said Mr Blumbergs. Quite apart from ruining the symmetry of the run-down cemetery, their continued presence could be compared to having SS soldiers buried beside their Jewish victims, he says. Mr Blumbergs' plan, which was approved by parliament this month, enables the relatives of all those moved to select the site and manner of the reburials.

But such assurances have done little to quell the anger of Russian-speaking minorities, which make up 48 per cent of Latvia's 2.7 million people. 'The row over the Brethren Cemetery has simply added to the general climate of fear and mistrust,' said Mr Grigorjevs. 'It is just the latest example of an overall policy aimed at making life as uncomfortable as possible for non-Latvians here.'

According to Mr Grigorjevs and his colleagues, the government has enacted a range of discriminatory policies, foremost of which is the refusal to grant automatic citizenship to the thousands of ethnic Russians brought into the country after the war to work in factories set up to serve the Soviet economy. As non-citizens, a large percentage of the population will not be able to vote in elections due in June and is barred from owning land.

The Latvian government, which denies charges of violating human rights, has promised to pass a citizenship law after the election in which guidelines will be laid down for the naturalisation procedure.

(Map omitted)