By Patrick Lannin and Aleks Tapinsh
RIGA (Reuters) - Veterans from a Latvian World War Two SS division and their nationalist backers marched through Riga on Friday, angering the country's large, Russian-speaking minority and drawing a rebuke from its former imperial master Moscow.
The marchers say their fight was for Latvian freedom against the Soviet Red Army after mass deportations under dictator Josef Stalin. Critics say it is wrong to honor men who fought on the same side as Nazi Germany.
About a hundred counter-demonstrators, mostly Russian-speakers who say Latvia discriminates against them, watched in silence as several hundred grey-haired veterans and young nationalist supporters walked past them through the city centre.
Some of the Russian-speaking protesters wore the striped uniforms of prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. They also held placards with photos of people murdered in the Holocaust.
"This resurrection of nationalism like in the 1930s has been going on for the last 20 years and we don't like it," said Grigory Drozdov, 69, a Russian-speaking pensioner.
Russia's foreign ministry called the SS veterans "Hitler's henchmen" and said the "odious" march was an attempt to re-write history and whitewash Nazi atrocities.
"We believe that the Latvian authorities' indulgence of the former legionnaires and the attempts to rewrite history should be met with an appropriate reaction from the international community," the ministry said in a statement.
Russia, proud of its World War Two role and seeing the Soviet Union as having liberated Latvia and the other Balts from the Nazis, has reacted angrily to such events in the past.
The Latvian government had distanced itself from the commemoration, an annual event which also angers Jewish leaders. Police had warned it could cause trouble but it passed off peacefully.
"We have come here to honor our dead, it is very important to do that," said marcher Janis Johanson, 82, who said he was forced to join one of the Latvian SS divisions at the age of 18 and fought in 1944-1945.
"If you did not join up you were shot as a deserter. That was it. That was what happened in a time of war," he said. Many Latvians also fought in the Red Army, showing how the small country squeezed between two powerful neighbors.
Young men and women holding the national flag on long poles flanked the marchers, who then laid flowers at the Freedom Monument, a key symbol of Latvian independence.
Latvia's Jewish Community organization issued a statement opposing the march. Ephraim Zuroff, a Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said men who massacred Latvian Jews later joined the SS units, as well as those forcibly conscripted.
"This is a horrible message here. You are talking about people who wanted the Third Reich to win, some of whom are mass murderers," he told Reuters.
The Baltic state was left with a large Russian minority after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Though Latvia last month overwhelmingly rejected making Russian a second language, the holding of the vote was seen as a sign of discontent by the Russian-speakers in the face of what some see as discrimination by the ethnic Latvian ruling elite.
Many Russian-speakers also still feel resentment they had to apply for citizenship of Latvia after the Soviet collapse and that there are still 300,000 people who have no citizenship, which means no right to vote or take certain jobs.
Some Latvians see the Russian-speakers as illegal occupiers who came during 50 years of Soviet rule.
But the march is also controversial amongst Latvians and a poll of 750 people on Friday showed 49 percent were against it.
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis told all his coalition ministers to stay away, including two nationalists from the All For Latvia-For Fatherland and Freedom group.
The Foreign Ministry also said in a statement this week that Latvia condemned the Holocaust and totalitarianism.
All For Latvia-For Fatherland and Freedom, the smallest of three ruling parties, are the main backers of the march. Several of its 14 members of parliament took part.
(Reporting by Patrick Lannin; Editing by Philippa Fletcher)