Home News In the midst of an economic crisis, Latvia debates its flag

In the midst of an economic crisis, Latvia debates its flag

Published on February 26, 2009

Riga -- As the economic crisis develops, many nations are reassessing basic tenets of their pasts and presents, including their national flags.

This is case in Latvia where, despite major problems such as a collapsing economy, riots in the capital city and a constitutional face-off between parliament and president, part of the Latvian government is turning its attention to whether the national flag is the right colour. 

The Baltic state’s foreign ministry has noticed that several different shades of red are being used on flags that are commercially available. 

As a result, it is proposing the establishment of a "national symbols commission" which would regulate the quality of flags and their compliance with uniform standards. 

"The intention is to set up a commission that would regulate the exact size, shape and colour of the flag," said a foreign ministry spokesman. "It is important that exactly the right Pantone colour is used — the dark red that we call Latvian red.”

The spokesman said there is also a plan to introduce an official pennant, similar to those in many of the Scandinavian countries. “This would prevent flagpoles being empty for much of the year.”

Some foreign diplomats eager to observe correct protocol have been confused by the variety of "Latvian" flags and the symbols commission could also encourage the use of the European Union flag alongside the national flag on government buildings, the spokesman added. The commission would have the power to restrict what could be sold as a Latvian flag and would issue permits to certified flag makers. 

Latvia’s flag consists of a red-and-white striped triband with the central white band half as thick as the red bands. According to legend, it originated from a white sheet used to carry a mortally wounded tribal chief from the battlefield. Soaked with his blood on two sides, the warriors raised the sheet as their banner. 

"Latvian red" is a dark maroon hue that is not easy to reproduce when most commercial dyes favour a more eye-catching bright red. 

When a normal red colour is used, the Latvian flag is often mistaken for the flag of Austria — which also has a similar battlefield-inspired story behind its origins. 

A Latvian law dating from 1994 goes into considerable detail concerning how, where and when the national flag can or must be displayed. 

On various days each year, Latvian residents are obliged to fly the national flag from their homes. They include not only Latvian Independence Day on November 18 but even the independence days of the other two Baltic states, Lithuania and Estonia. 

On other days, such as the 17 June commemoration of the start of Soviet occupation, a black ribbon whose width is set at one-twentieth the width of the flag and must be tied to the flagstaff above the flag. 

In theory, anyone failing to fly a flag in the appropriate manner risks a fine, though levels of enforcement vary between municipalities. 

The practice ensures that flags are steady sellers from supermarket shelves all through the year and not just around national celebrations or when the Latvian ice hockey team is playing a big match. 

Riga-based advertising company ABI2 manufactures various large pennants and advertising banners, including two versions of the national flag. 

"We sell around three to four Latvian flags per day," said the company’s spokesman Kristina Varance. "Yes, the flag is sometimes mistaken for Austria’s and the colour is particularly difficult to get right. But we use the correct Pantone colour so would probably be in favour of standardisation.”

Any flags not meeting the required standards would be banned from public sale under the new proposals but perhaps an alternative market for defective Latvian flags could be found — in Austria.

Mike Collier/DPA/Expatica