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Latvia's large Russian minority gathered Wednesday to mark 67 years since Nazi Germany surrendered to the Soviet Union, in a commemoration still controversial in the Baltic state.
Thousands of all ages converged on Riga's Soviet Victory Monument to lay flowers while veterans proudly displayed their medals as pro-Russian political groups handed out leaflets, under the eye of a heavy police presence.
Known as "Victory Day" to Russians, May 9 remains a divisive date in Latvia.
Ethnic Russians -- comprising more than a quarter of the ex-Soviet state's two million population -- regard it as a celebration of the day Nazi forces surrendered to the Red Army in Berlin in 1945, according to Moscow time.
But most ethnic Latvians see it as the start of a harsh 50-year Soviet occupation of their country.
The official Latvian day for commemoration of victory over the Third Reich is May 8, the day the German surrender took effect according to Central European Time.
Leaders including Latvian President Andris Berzins and Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis attended a ceremony at Latvia's main military cemetery Tuesday, but declined to participate in the much larger May 9 event.
"I can't understand the attitude of our government," 29-year-old Riga resident Aleks, who declined to give his surname, told AFP in the shadow of the Victory Monument.
"I want to say thank you to the people who defeated Hitler, not the people who fought for him. How would the world look if he had not been defeated?" he said.
Caught between Russia and Germany, which disputed rule over the three Baltic states, more than 100,000 Latvians fought on each side during the war.
The controversy generated on May 9 is matched by that of March 16 when a parade through central Riga commemorates members of the Latvian Legion, a combat division of the Nazi Waffen-SS.
A small demonstration against the May 9 celebration took place on the opposite side of the River Daugava as right-wing extremists staged a procession from the Latvian Occupation Museum to the Freedom Monument.
"Red (Soviet) fascism is no better than brown (Nazi) fascism. We should liberate Latvia from these liberators. They should all go home," pensioner Ligija, who took part in the demonstration, told AFP.
© 2012 AFP
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