Monthly Archives: April 2013

The International Recognition of Latvian Independence 1918-1921

Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics the first Minster of the Foreign Affairs.

Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics the first Minster of the Foreign Affairs.

On January 8 1919 the president of United States of America Woodrow Wilson issued his fourteen points where he declared his vision that every nation has their rights of self sovereignty. However, the new state of Latvia for long years had a hard time to achieve international recognition. The leaders of Entente were skeptical about the stability of this new state and still hoped for the Bolshevik defeat in the Russian civil war. After the international recognition was achieved Latvia struggled to find its place in the European diplomatic arena. The process of gaining official recognition of Latvian independence was long and interesting story. Before we begin discussing an important explanation of juridical and diplomatic terms are needed. The de facto recognition means the country or government is recognized as existing legitimate body that can make legal contacts with other officially recognized nations. However, it means the borders of this country are not legally determined and it lacks full diplomatic rights. The de iure or de jure recognition means the country and its borders are fully recognized and the country has equal rights in the international affairs.

The first attempts of foreign diplomacy were made by Latvian Provisional National Council in 1918. It had its own chamber of foreign relations and its goal was to contact western powers to seek support for desired independence. The contacts were made with the western embassies in Petrograd (Petersburg). It was harder task to send delegates to allied countries. First Latvian delegate to London was Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics. His mission was to introduce everyone with the prospect of sovereign and indivisible Latvia. Before arriving in London Meierovics established an information bureau, that made important work by spreading the news and opinions about Latvia and it’s strive for independence.

In the mean time Germany and Soviet Russia had signed the Brest-Litovsk peace agreement, giving Germany full power over the Baltic region. It was now fully possible for Germany to annex the Baltic region. However, the German government was caught up with the troubled Western front and left the Baltic question behind. German Kaiser Wilhelm II even called the Baltic region as “free and sovereign region”. Although he possibly meant that local Baltic Germans can establish their own country, for Latvians such position was also promising.

Meierovics mission in London was successful. He could persuade the British about the need of the Latvian independence. On October 23 1918, the British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour informed Meierovics that the British government has decided to temporary recognize the Latvian Provisional National Council as the Latvian government until the future peace conference would fully decide the Latvian question. Latvian politicians understood this as a de facto recognition. Meierovics asked Balfour to make a written resolution to confirm the British position. This was done in November 11 that again confirmed British support for the LPNC.

Latvians made contacts with the German government, however no direct answer came because of the revolution of the November 9 and the German capitulation changed everything. Allies instructed Germans to keep their forces in the Eastern front as long as necessary to fight of the Bolsheviks.

New German social democratic government decided to abandon all plans for desired “BalticState” and accepted the Latvian Provisional Government that was formed on November 18. The first Minister of Foreign affairs was Meierovics.

German-Latvian relations worsened in spring 1919 when Latvian army together with German Landeswehr and Iron Division fought off the Bolshevik invasion. The anti-Latvian coup in April 16 and forming of pro-German government clearly showed that Germany support for independent Latvia was only temporary.

Latvians sent their representatives on Paris Peace conference on January 1919. There they discovered the British inflexibility in the support for Latvia. Great Britain and France thought that the Bolshevik revolution in Russia soon will collapse and therefore was no longer interested in supporting Latvians. The Latvian delegation consisting Meierovics, Jānis Čakste, Jānis Seskis and others could not participate directly in the Peace conference. Instead Latvian representatives worked in background, keeping contacts with the leaders and gave many proposals. The western diplomats and leaders replied that Russia needs to decide the Baltic question. However the Treaty of Versailles concluded that Germany respects the independence of territories of the former Russian Empire and gives up all claims for them. Also Germany was allowed to keep its army in the Baltic region but not interfere the Baltic national governments. It was small but significant achievement.

The German-White Russian joint attempt in destroying the Latvian independence in November 1919 resulted the declaration of war against Germany. After the initial defeat of the army of Bermont, Latvia received German radio message that the Army of Bermont is now under the command of the State of Germany. Previously it was supposed to be under command of the White Russian general Yudenich. After Latvian received the confirmation from the German Foreign ministry; the Latvian government concluded that Latvia is at the state of war with Germany. On November 25 Latvia issued a note to Germany of entering the state of war and cancelation of all diplomatic relations. Ironically the German government did not understand the reason for this declaration of war and replied that Germany is in no means in the state of war with Latvia.

After the final defeat of German reactionary forces in 1919 things started to brighten up. Finland, Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Belgium and France recognized Latviade facto. At the first half of 1920 the western powers discussed the de iure recognition of the Baltic independence. Italy and Japan was supportive, France was elusive about it, but the US was strictly against it. US were skeptical about the long lasting of the Baltic States and feared that other territories in Far East may break away from Russia favoring Japan.  Also Poland was quite hesitant of the de iure recognition since it would mean that it had to give up its claims for Latgalian region.

After complete defeat of the Soviet forces the peace talks with Germany and the Soviet Russia begun. Latvian side presented documents proving German extended support for the Bermot army. Germans became more compliant and promised to acknowledge Latvia as de iure after the Entente powers do this. Germans also gave indefinite promise to compensate the war losses done by German military formations. Germans also proposed not to call the coming agreement as Friedensvertag (peace agreement) but simply Vertag (agreement) since they still did recognized that they are in the state of war with Latvia.

The Agreement for restoring of contacts between Latvia and Germany was signed in July 15 1920. The formal state war was cancelled and issued the German formula of de iure recognition. However, Germany failed to take any responsibility for the Bermont army and the anti-Latvian actions. Therefore the Latvian declaration of war against Germany lost it meaning. Ironically Germany was the only country that Latvia has ever declared war and no real peace agreement was ever signed, because the other side did not recognized the Latvian declaration of war.

While neither Soviet Russia nor Latvia had ever declared war on each other, they had to sign a peace agreement. That was done in August 11 1920 and Soviet Russia promised to recognize the sovereignty and independence of Latvia and voluntary for ever gives up all claims against Latvia.

The peace agreement with Soviet Russia now paved way for full recognition of Latvian independence. Since the Bolshevik revolution had won and its government had recognized Latvia there was no other option for the western powers.

However, the new founded international body the League of Nations was hesitant to join all three Baltic nations in their ranks, since they were still not fully recognized. International diplomats and lawyers could not decide whether the joining the League of Nation mean the full de iure recognition. That was crucial for the state of Georgia that also submitted the application for joining the League of Nations since the lack of the international support made it vulnerable to the Soviet occupation.

At the end of 1920, Meierovics visited Italy, France and Great Britain. Italy was generally supportive to Latvian juridical recognition, since it had no interests in Russia and also was disappointed with the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile in France the political circles were more and more convinced that there is no way how to topple the Bolsheviks. This was crucial for France, since it was old-time supporter of Czarist Russia and had given large credits to it. The president of France Alexandre Millerand promised to support de iure recognition of Latvia. On 29 December France issued proposal to other partner states to recognize the Baltic States de iure. The British were however, still hesitant, the Foreign Secretary George Curzon was strictly against, but Prime Minister David Lloyd George wavering, however at the last moment he managed to persuade his Foreign Secretary to support Latvia.

On January 26 1921 the Higher commission of Entente (Great Britain, France, Belgium, Japan and Italy) unanimously decided to recognize Latvia and Estoniade iure. Entente now wanted to empower the newly founded national states in Eastern Europe to prevent any Soviet expansion. Soon Poland and Finland recognized Latvia. After that came Germany, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Persia, Austria, Portugal and Romania. United States of America was the last of the superpowers to recognize Latvia de iure – on July 28 1922. It was because of American new emerging isolationist policies and loss of general interest in European affairs. During the inter war period 42 countries officially recognized Latvia. On September 1921 Latvia joined the League of Nations. Latvia was no ready to play active role in international politics.

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Latvian Army 1918-1940

The Latvian Army Cockade 1919

The Latvian Army Cockade 1919

No country cannot exist without its armed forces. There are few exceptions with fully sovereign countries without any official national armed forces, but even the smallest nations have their own armies. The Republic of Latvia was born in combat. With great difficulty the national Latvian government managed to form their own armed forces. Latvian Army fought the Bolsheviks and Germans and secured the Latvian independence. During first twenty years, Latvian Army became a disciplined and venerable force. However, in 1939 -1940 Latvian Army was unable to defend their country against Soviet occupation. It was partly due the completely disadvantageous military situation and mistakes done by Latvian rulers. This article tells the story about Latvian army during the years of independence.

When on 18 November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed it had no armed force. Latvia was still under German military control and the Bolshevik invasion was looming. One of the first national armed units was the Special Student Company formed on 20 November 1918. It was formed from University students and members of the student fraternities. They were stationed at Brīvības Boulevard 32 where later for long years the Faculty of History and Philosophy was located. Many smaller units were made with the help of Latvian National Rifleman Union.

The first largest Latvian armed unit was formed in 5 January 1919. The Special Latvian battalion later brigade was commanded by lieutenant – colonel Oskars Kalpaks. He became the first supreme commander of the Latvian army. Sadly he was killed in accidental fire exchange with allied German forces in 6 March 1919. He was replaced by colonel Jānis Balodis. The second largest Latvian armed force was the North Latvia brigade commanded by colonel Jorģis Zemitāns. The brigade was formed with Estonian help. Latvian army baptized in fire in battles against German Iron Division at Cēsis, Bermont army at Rīga and against Soviets in Latgalia. On 1920 52 000 soldiers took part in Latvian army.

First commander of the Latvian Army Oskars Kalpaks

First commander of the Latvian Army Oskars Kalpaks

After peace agreement with Soviet Russia, the army moved to state of peace. The planned size of Latvian peacetime army was planned 240 00 men, but the real count was much smaller. Army was formed in four divisions – Courland, Vidzeme, Latglian and Semigallian with three infantry and artillery regiments in each. The regiments were numbered and named after largest Latvian cities: 1 Liepaja, 2 Ventspils, 3 Jelgava, 4 Valmiera, 5 Cēsis, 6 Riga, 7 Sigulda,8 Daugavpils, 9 Rezekne, 10 Aizpute, 11 Dobele, and 12 Bauska infantry regiment.

The technical units were united in the Technical division. It was based on Auto tank division, Field Engineer Division, Aviation Division, Electro technical division, Armed train division, Heavy Artillery Division, Coastal Artillery Division and Anti-air artillery division. On 1939 the Aviation division was formed of three fighter squadrons, four mainland and one fleet reconnaissance squadron. Latvians had 100-150 planes, but most of them outdated. The most modern aircraft in army where the British biplane fighters “Gloster Gladiator”.  Latvian army command planned to upgrade their air force and started talks with British to purchase “Spitfire” fighters. However, the outbreak of WWII halted this.

Tanks of Latvian army

Tanks of Latvian army

Latvian Air Force. Note the swastika was the official Latvian Air force sign and had nothing to do with Nazi Germany. Swastika was used a prehistoric national symbol

Latvian Air Force. Note: the swastika was the official Latvian Air force sign and had nothing to do with Nazi Germany. Swastika was used a prehistoric national symbol

The whole Semigallian division and Cavalry regiment was stationed in Daugavpils. Latgalian division in Alūksne, Cēsis, Valmiera and Rēzekne. Courland division was stationed at Liepaja.

The Latvian War Fleet was located at Liepaja, the home of ex Russian Baltic Imperial Fleet. Latvian flagship was “Virsaitis”. Latvia had two submarines “Ronis” and “Spīdola”. Two minesweepers “Imanta” and “Viesturs”.

Latvian submarine "Ronis"

Latvian submarine “Ronis”

The Vidzeme division along with Technical division was placed in Riga. According to data in 1 January 1939, Latvian Army had 1969 officers, 3988 service instructors, 11 118 soldiers, and 1244 contract workers. Together 18 389 men. Latvia Army also included Latvian Guard (Aizsargs) organization a paramilitary force that was formed during the War for Freedom. It was under control of Ministry of Interior, from 1937 under Social affairs ministry. Aizsargi was an auxiliary force that maintained civil order in the countryside. They were formed in 19 territorial regiments and had its own aircraft and armed trains.

The most prestigious Latvian armed unit or special guard was the Army Staff Company. Only specially chosen men could serve in it. The requirements were personal height no less than 1,80 meters, the shoe size no less than number 43. Health had to perfect and also recommendation from local authorities were needed. Their tasks were to represent the state in national celebrations or during official foreign visits. Army Staff Company was entrusted of defending the main national objects – Presidential palace and the House of Ministers. Also their most honorable task was the guard of honor of the Monument of Freedom. The Army Staff Company was restored after the regain of independence and is doing the same tasks.

According to Latvian constitution (Satversme) the supreme commander-in-chief was the President of Latvia. Army and war fleet was ruled by the War Ministry. The orders and directions were fulfilled by the Army Staff. Latvia had military draft. The time of service was 18 months after 1931 12 months for infantry and 15 months for rest of the army men.

According to data sent to the League of Nations, on 1 June 1940, Latvia had 2013 officers, medical officers and administrative officers. 27 555 officer deputies, instructors and soldiers in all 29 569 men.

On 17 June 1940 Soviet tanks crossed the Latvian border and occupied Latvia. Latvian army was ready to resist the aggression, but was told not to resist. With Soviet garrison in Courland already stationed according to the Mutual agreement signed in 1939 it was already too late to resist the enemy. As the armies of Estonia and Lithuania also decided not to resist the independence was lost. If there ever was any chance of resistance it had to happen in 1939 by declining the Soviet demands for mutual assistance pact. As in case of Finland such move would cause Soviet invasion, and only joint resistance by three Baltic States would make any difference. Latvian army was subjected to Soviet repressions and its leadership was destroyed. Latvian army was included in Red Army 24th Territorial Corpus that was nearly destroyed in 1941. The trauma of inability to resist the Soviet occupation later resulted in support for forming the Latvian Waffen SS Legion.

Latvian Army was reborn in 1991 after the regaining of independence. Today Latvian army may seem much smaller than before, but it’s a member of NATO and taken part in international operations. The ideals of the War for Freedom and the Latvian army are the prime motivation for Latvian National Armed forces.

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Latvian Finances and Economy 1920-1940

From 1920 to 1940 Latvia was one of the leading exporters of butter, beckon and other goods across Europe

From 1920 to 1940 Latvia was one of the leading exporters of butter, beckon and other goods across Europe

World War I did a great damage to all territory of Latvia. The War of Freedom was no less damaging and true peace only came to Latvia at August 11 1920 after peace agreement with Soviet Russia. Now Latvians had the chance of rebuilding what was lost and make whole new sovereign economy for the benefit of the Latvian people.

One of the first issues was the lack of the national currency. German Marks, Ostmarks (German currency for occupied Eastern regions during WWI), Ostrubles, Czar Rubles, Kerensky Rubles were used in same time sparking currency chaos. On March 27 1919, the Provisional Government issued directions in exchange rates. One Latvian Ruble equals 1 Ostruble, 2 German Marks, 1,5 Czar Rubles. The main source of income for the government was money emission that helped to cover the war costs and administration fees. From 18 November 1918 to 1 April 1920 37,9 millions of paper money were emitted. On 18 March 1920 the Latvian Ruble was declared single official currency in Latvia.

However, inflation was on the rise, the price of rye bread rose from 2,25-2,40 rubles 10,8-12,0 rubles. Government issued more directions to stabilize the ruble, also the preparations for establishment of new stable national currency Lats followed. On 3 August 1922 1 Latvian Lats equaled 50 Latvian Rubles, and Lats was fixed according Swiss Frank rate. On 1 November the Bank of Latvia was established. It also had commercial service rights. At 1929 there were three state banks (Bank of Latvia, State Land Bank and Latvian Mortgage Bank) and 19 private commercial banks.

Latvian governmental budget during the first years of independence had debts, until 1922/1923 for the first time had surplus that was kept until 1929/1930. The main source of income was taxes, state monopolies and gain from state enterprises. The main priorities were state security, education and capital investments. Two main state monopolies were flax and ethanol. Largest state enterprises were the bank, postal service and railroad service.

The Agricultural reform drastically changed the economic situation in the country. Before the war 53% of land belonged to 2% of landowners mostly Baltic Germans. Latvian government decided to change that by making special State Land Fund that gathered 61% of land, 45% of it agricultural. Previous landowners were stripped of their large possessions. This radical move changed the Latvian countryside in small farm economies. 54, 243 new farms were made.

New Farm building in Latvia

New Farm building in Latvia

Latvians put large efforts in agriculture. During the first years after the war Latvians had to import crops, because of low harvest and the fact that most new farms were more effective in cattle production. Also the crop prices in global market fell down as the butter prices rose up. Because of this exports of butter, beckon and eggs reached great heights. The butter industry was one of the most progressive and until 1932 one-third of all export. Latvia also exported flax and timber to whole Europe.

Before the war, Latvia was one of the main industrial centers of the Russian Empire. After German invasion, large part of equipment, even workers was evacuated to Russia and the new Bolshevik government was not wiling to give it back. After the war Latvian industry worked mostly for inland needs. Latvian government had to subsidize the struggling industry for many years. However, the foreign capital from Germany, Great Britain, Soviet Union and others helped to get back on the track.

On 1929 Latvian export rose up by 10 times, however import was still larger than export. The main importer was Germany; the main source of export was Great Britain. After trade agreement with Soviet Union in 1927 export with that country started to rise up. With other neighbors – Estonia, Lithuania and Poland the import was greater than export.

Latvian export goods ready for shipping

Latvian export goods ready for shipping

The Great Depression reached Latvia on 1930. Crisis begun with drop of wholesale prices, the drop of prices for Latvian export goods and the breakdown of Latvian state gold reserves and foreign currency reserves. On 1931 the Bank of Latvia stopped issuing credits. Many companies went bankrupt. Banks took the first hit. Latvian banks suffered from German bank troubles making them impossible to settle with their depositors. After Great Britain devaluated their currency and canceled the golden standard the Bank of Latvia lost 2,1 million Lats. Latvia unlike Estonia kept the golden standard and issued many regulations to cancel unrestricted exchange to gold or foreign currency.

 Latvia had to sign clearing agreements with France, Great Britain and Germany to ease export costs during the crisis. The Nazi rise in power on 1933 caused economic disruption between Germany and Latvia as social democrats and Jews issued a boycott of German goods. Germany answered by halting butter exports causing great financial losses. Latvian government had to back down and make the boycotting stop. Also the export with the Soviet Union weakened as the export orders from the Soviet state ended. Almost all transit now went to Germany.

As the grocery product prices since 1927 begun to drop, the traditional Latvian exports brought smaller revenues. Government tried to lower import and raise export. Grocery import was halted, as foreign crops could be replaced with homegrown ones. With exception in 1937 because of dry summer, crop import was halted along with sugar import. Latvia could fully sustain itself with its own grocery production.

Industry suffered great losses, foreign capital went away and purchasing capacity dropped. As the trade agreement with the Soviet Union ended in 1932 many large industrial companies suffered losses. However, the worst of the crisis ended in 1933 and on 1934 during last months before the coup Latvian economy was again in the upswing. The government debt had dropped from its highest point 24, 2 million Ls 1931/1932 to 7,8 million Ls in 1933/1935.

The coup in 15 May 1934 was not caused by economic reasons rather political. However, Kārlis Ulmanis made significant changes in economic system making it more centralized. He issued a corporate chamber system forming four chambers: Trade and industry chamber, Agricultural chamber, Craftsman chamber and the Chamber of Labor. Such model of economical control was popular among many European authoritarian countries. The example for all was Fascist controlled Italy.

Authoritarian government made a great deal by fixing the crucial farmers debt problem. Agricultural auctions were canceled, debt rates for farmers were lowered and payback period was extended. New law allowed state corporative revision commission to change of fire members of the corporate boards. With that the state granted itself more power to control largest enterprises.

The new economy by Kārlis Ulmanis was based on protectionism and state enterprises. A new state owned Latvian Credit Bank was formed to make credit reorganization. State took over many private companies like vehicle factory “Vairogs”. Until March 1939 there were 38 state enterprises. Latvian industry started to recover. Textile, food, metal and machine industry begun to flourish. State owned industrial company VEF produced radios, telephones, MINOX cameras and even airplanes. “Vairogs” released first private cars based on Ford models.

The presence of foreign capital significantly dropped, however the construction of the first hydroelectric station at Ķegumi involved large investments from Sweden.

On 1936 Lats was fixed to British Pounds causing partial devaluation of Lats. Devaluation caused inflation and other troubles; however at 1936 the Latvian export gross total rose up fast and import went down. The export balance was positive and things were looking up good in the late thirties. However, an influx of agricultural foreign workers in later years started to become a problem. Because of the lack of native workers, people from Lithuania and Poland came to work in Latvia. It caused social and political problems and fully emerged after Nazi-Soviet invasion in Poland.

The great advancement of the Latvian economy was stopped in 1939. As WWII started Latvia declared full neutrality. Government issued regulations in trading Latvian recourses and prohibited Latvian ships from sailing under foreign flag. Lats was removed from the British Pound rate.

As Germany blocked the access to the Baltic Sea, Latvian traders were unable to send their productions elsewhere but Germany. All major ties with Great Britain were cut. On 5 October 1939 Latvia was forced to sign Mutual Assistance agreement with Soviet Union. Few days later both sides signed trade agreement allowing Latvia to export more to the east. The secret protocols of the Molotov – Ribbentrop pact included Latvia into Soviet sphere of interest. Similar agreement was later signed with Germany then a Soviet ally.

On 17 June 1940 Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union and annexed in 5 August 1940. The sovereignty of Latvian finance and economy was canceled. Germany viewed this with anger, because they needed Latvian exports. Germany and Soviet Union both had different understanding over meaning of the “sphere of interest”, and Germans did not expect the occupation and annexation of their trade partner. That was one of the reasons that lead to German –Soviet conflict.

Latvia managed to recover from WWI damage and reached growth in trade and industry. For many years Latvian state budget was balanced with surplus. However, the Great Depression did a great strain on Latvian economy. But, Latvia managed to recover from the crisis and again reached growth at 1934 just before the coup. The coup by Karlis Ulmanis did not end the crisis as it was mostly ended before him. His policy only changed the economical system not the positive course of Latvian economy. Kārlis Ulmanis semi-centralized economy was successful for some time until the hardships of WWII brought end to it. Soviet occupation, German invasion and war ultimately destroyed many achievements of independent Latvia. The complicated story of Latvian soviet economy is to be told in future.

Latvian produced private cars

Latvian produced private cars

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Latvian Parliament and Governments 1920-1934

The main building of the Latvian parliament Saeima in 1920-1934

The main building of the Latvian parliament Saeima in 1920-1934

When on 18 November 1918 the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed it was indented as a democratic republic with free elections and equal political rights for all. But, Latvians had no experience in this as they never had a real chance for the sovereign government for many centuries. Despite all the difficulties Latvians managed to make one of the most democratic constitutions in whole Europe. Five parliaments were elected without serious voting violations. The governments however were another story as rivalry between numerous political parties made short-lived governments and political instability. The intrigues, treachery and personal ambitions lead to end of Latvian democracy in 15 May 1934. However, we cannot say that Latvian parliamentary system was deeply flawed as Latvia managed to achieve many successes and could achieve even without the coup of 15 May.

During the war for independence the official pre-parliamentary body that was responsible for the Provisional government was the Peoples Council. On December 2 1918 council gave the order to its Constitutional commission in two weeks time to make provisions for elections of the Constitutional Assembly. In Latvian the constitution is called Satversme the word that originated from the early days of the Latvian ancestors. However, the Bolshevik invasion halted these preparations for elections. After Latvian Provisional Government returned to Riga on 16 July 1919 again a new order was made to prepare a special draft for the election law.

The law was issued on September 27 1919. The Constitutional Assembly was to be elected in general, equal, direct and proportional elections by voters of equal gender from 21 years. Citizenship was given to those persons and their descendants who lived in Latvia until 1 August 1914. Latvia was divided into five electoral districts with defined number of elected seats in Riga 22, Vidzeme 37, Semigallia 26, Courland 26 and Latgalia – 39.  The elections were set for a time when whole Latvia will be liberated from the enemy. There were still Bolshevik forces in Latgalia.

The liberation came in 1920 and Provisional governments issued the elections for the Constitutional Assembly on 17 -18 April. Two main contestants were the Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party (LSDWP) and Latvian Farmers Union (LFU). LSDWP had its roots since 1905 and after falling out with Bolsheviks they supported the independent Latvia. LFU was lead by Kārlis Ulmanis the Prime Minister of the Provisional government. However, it was not a two-party contest as the liberal election law allowed only 100 petitions to form a party list and there was no percent barrier. Because of this numerous Latvian parties also took part, along with Baltic German, Russian and Jewish national lists. Also many regional like Latgalian parties took part. A two-party system in Latvia was impossible as there were too many personal interests and ambitions in many Latvian, not to forget the national minorities.

Despite the fact that some areas in Northern Latvia were unable to vote because of the presence of the Estonian forces, the election turnout was high: 84,88% of registered voters took part. There was some interference from Bolshevik activists, even failed assassination attempt of Kārlis Ulmanis. However the elections were successful and the LSDWP won by 38,66%, LFU gained 28,36%. Third came the Latgalian Farmers party. Many Latvian parties won three to single seats. Jews gained eight seats from different parties, six Germans and four Russians and one Pole also were elected. Six female deputies were elected including notable writer the wife of Jānis Rainis Aspazija (E, Rozenberga). Later in November after the Estonian army left the elections were held in areas where they originally could not be held. With that the first Latvian parliament had 152 members.

The new parliament was called to work for the first time in  May 1 1920. Jānis Čakste was elected the president of the assembly. Kārlis Ulmanis resigned from his head of the Provisional Government post. The main goal of the Constituent Assembly was to write the Satversme – Latvian constitution. The working place for the Assembly was the former house of Riga Chivalry at Jēkabs street 11.

The first session of the Contutional Assembly

The first session of the  Constitutional Assembly

On  June 11 1920 Kārlis Ulmanis again took the post of the Prime Minister. The first goal was to finish the peace talks with Soviet Russia and Germany that resulted in success. Then next and most important target was the Agricultural reform. Land had to be distributed to the Latvian nation to rebuild the country. Before the war the major part of agricultural lands belonged to Baltic German nobles. Now the Latvian government took away the most from them leaving only their mansions and land of 50 hectares. It was painful but right decision as Latvians at last could freely maintain their own land. That however left a rather hateful Baltic German minority.

The Satversme was passed on  February 15 1922. It stated that Latvia is a democratic republic in where the sovereign power belongs to the people of Latvia. The parliament was named Saeima and was to be elected for three years in the same matter as the Assembly. The size of the parliament was 100 seats. During the work of the Assembly first government change was witnessed as Kārlis Ulmanis was forced to step down leaving his college Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics to take charge. The LSDWP split in two fractions as more progressive right wing social democrats left the main party. Kārlis Ulmanis deeply regretted his loss of power and that was the beginning of his year long disappointment of the parliamentary system.

The first Saeima was elected in 7 -8 October. It was rumored that originally the election date was set for September 30, however because of the Jewish festival Sukkot the date was moved to October. It has been the official election month since then. 82,2% people took part in the elections. LSDWP won by 30,56%, their splinter party social democrats “minors” gained 6,26%. LFU won 16,77% seats. Their main rivals were the Democratic Center (DC) and Latvian New Farmers party (LNFP). Also Nonparty nationalist block and Christian Democratic Union gained scores. The Germans gained the most seats also Jews, Poles and Russians were elected. The Germans had united party list while Jews and Russians had many rivaling lists. No female candidates made in parliament.

The first Chairman of Saeima also the formally second man after the president was social democrat Frīdrihs Vesmanis. He was later replaced with party member Pauls Kalniņš. On November 14 1922 Jānis Čakste was elected as the first Latvian president.

Čakste was responsible for nominating the Prime Minister; the parliament had to approve his proposed government. After many failed talks with party leaders, the independent Jānis Pauļuks was chosen as the compromise figure. His government included LSDWP and worked for five months. After right wing activists caused riots in LSDWP lead demonstration, the social democrats left the coalition in protest. He was then replaced by LFU leader Meierovics on June 28 1923. After few months social democrats deposed him in revenge for assault against their two deputies done by the officers of the Latvian army. Social Democrats arranged government by independent Voldemārs Zāmuels, he was supported by them, but they did not part in the government. His government lasted from  January 24 1924 until  December 19 1924 when LFU again won the upper hand by installing their member Hugo Celmiņš as the PM. Despite the rivalry First Saeima managed to form the provisions for ministry work and passed the Conscription law. Also laws regarding unions, societies and political organizations were finished. The new law of the press was liberal and friendly to the emerging Latvian press industry.

The elections for the Second Saeima took place in 1925 3-4 October. The activity dropped to 74,89% 141 electoral lists were submitted and only 48 of them entered the parliament. That was usual for those times and nobody wanted to change that. LSDWP won again in 31,36%, the “social democrats minors” gained 3,61% much lower than last time. LFU won 15,3 %, Catholic and Christian Farmers Union was second in the right wing party list. DC and LNFP gained some seats along with many other single mandate right wing parties. Five Germans, five Jews, four Russians and two Poles were elected. Belorussian and Estonian lists failed to enter the parliament.

New parliament elected Jānis Čakste as the president for the second term; he died in office on March 14 1927. After many failed attempts an independent Gustavs Zemgals was elected.

The new parliament had problems forming a government as in the same night of 22-23 December two governments were proposed. First was Voldemārs Zāmuels who was declined and then Kārlis Ulmanis government formed a minority government. He could hold office for only four and half months. On 4 May 1926 LFU managed to form government lead by Arturs Alberings. On December 17 1926 he was replaced by the leader of the “social democrats minors” Marģers Skujenieks who formed the leftist government. LSDWP with the help of their splinter force again entered the government. After the DC who supported the leftists switched sides the government collapsed. On January 24 1928 DC member Pēteris Juraševskis formed the right wing government and included Baltic Germans in the coalition.

The greatest test for the Saeima was the amendment in the citizenship law that allowed people and their descendants living in Latvia before 1881 gain citizen rights. That sparked large protests from nationalists who feared that large numbers of Jews will gain citizen rights. Protests caused referendum against the amendment that was labeled “Jew law”. However, the protesters could not gather necessary votes to halt the citizenship reforms. Another issue was a trade agreement with the Soviet Union that caused large controversy. Achievement was reforms in social policies and healthcare.

Third Saeima was elected in October 1928. Despite obvious flaws in the election law little was done to stop the influx of the mini party lists and fragmentation of the Latvian political system continued. LSDWP gained 24,5% a great drop in popularity caused by failed government and appearance of more radical leftist movements. Leftist workers list gained 5%. The radical socialist movements were actually legal covers of the Latvian Communist Party that was illegal. Its main goal was the breakdown of the Latvian state. Right wing parties kept their ranks, LFU and DC had relative successes. The Latvian New Landowners and Small Landowners party (LNLSLP) became more stronger while LNFP fell out. National conservative lists gained strength. Russians and Germans gained six seats, Jews five but Poles two.

This was unusual Saeima as there were only two governments both lead by LFU. Hugo Celmiņš managed to lead the government for three years, a record only to be broken in the second period of independence. Kārlis Ulmanis took after Celmiņš government collapsed. The work of Saeima was severely disrupted by the radical Workers and Peasants fraction that openly supported the Soviet Union and condemned the independence. Calling for the establishment of the Worldwide Socialist Republic and singing the anthem of the Soviet Union in the parliament sessions, communist deputies made it difficult to make decisions. The Latvian legal system was struggling to find ways to stop them. In return far right wing nationalist members formed a National fraction.  The last legally elected president by Saeima was Alberts Kviesis in 1930.

The caricature depicting constant party struggle.The young woman representing Latvia wonders: "Who knows if they struggle for me or my dower?"

The caricature depicting the constant party struggle.
The young woman representing Latvia wonders: “Who knows if they struggle for me or my dower?”

The elections for Fourth Saeima took in the height of the Great Depression of 1931. Crisis took Latvia in 1929 along with the rest of the world. The economical situation worsened in 1931-1932. However, instead of greater gains the crisis only weakened the positions of LSDWP and their radical counterparts.  LFU also had losses. DC and LNLNSLP gained more votes. Many smaller crisis themed parties like Former depositors and the debtor’s party entered Saeima. The nationalist parties also suffered losses, the main force National Union fell out while Christian Democrats lost many mandates. Germans and Russians gained six seats, while Jews only three, and Poles two. The election turnout showed great dissatisfaction with all the leading parties and path to radicalization as former supporters on both left and right-wing official parties turn to support anti-governmental movements. This was the first and only Saeima with elected female deputy Berta Bīpiņa from DC list.

Instability returned to the governments. First government was formed by Marģers Skujenieks, an ex social democrat minor who shifted to progressive nationalism. On May 22 1933 he was replaced by LNLNSP leader Ādolfs Bļodnieks. The growing danger of right-wing radicalism became stronger as Germany was taken over by the Nazis. Latvian nation radical movement sympathetic to the Italian fascist regime “Thundercross” filled the society with anti-Semitic propaganda and national hate. They openly declared that they desire to overthrow the parliamentary system. Many other smaller radical Latvian movements as United Latvian National socialist Party and colonel Ozols movement also strived for this. Latvian Communist party on the other hand also took an active fight. In the end their elected deputies under the guise of “Leftist workers block” were removed from the parliament. The exposed Communists including famous writer Linards Laicēns moved to the Soviet Union where they perished in Stalin’s purges in 1937. Even more dangerous where the Baltic German Nazi movement.

In the end it turned out that destroyers of the Latvian democracy were the democrats themselves. Kārlis Ulmanis in 1918-1920 was the national hero. Leader of the Provisional Government he was one of the most influential politicians ever. However, the failure of becoming president and short-lived governments lead by him scorched his popularity. He was involved in many scandals and was the constant laughingstock of the Latvian journalists. The last elections showed a great danger for Ulmanis to not to be elected again in the next elections. Ulmanis was the example of what they call a “political animal” a man whose life is all about politics. Ulmanis had no wife and children and no other hobbies beside politics and financing. But his ambitions were still strong and seeing authoritarian regimes springing up all Eastern Europe, he saw no wrong by taking all the power himself.

So begun the plot that lead to coup in May 15 1934. Before that Ulmanis legally deposed Bļodnieks and become the Prime Minister. Using his administrative power and support within the army and Civil Guards (Aizsargi) he gathered enough power. To keep his actions in secret he derived the public attention to LFU proposed changes in Satversme that would greatly expand the presidential powers and weaken the parliament.  While parliament was caught up in heated arguments about this proposal for months, Ulmanis and his supporters without any causalities and heavy resistance deposed the parliament and forced president Kviesis to accept his power.

The May 15 1934 was bright and sunny day. Tired from the quarreling parliament the majority of the Latvian society welcomed or at least did not mind the coup. Kārlis Ulmanis stopped the work of Satversme and the parliament and formed his own government. He promised to cancel the state of emergency and rewrite the Satversme. None of these promises were ever made and Ulmanis was the leader of Latvia until 1940.

What could happen if the coup never took place? Latvian parliaments would probably work the same way with constant inner rivaling. The pressure from the radical movements of both the wings would become more dangerous. The reports from local newspapers on 1933 show rise of anti-Semitism and national hate that would grow larger if not sustained by Ulmanis regime. The parliamentary system likely would adapt to these threats and find legal ways how to stop them. The falling popularity of the old parties may open doors for new movements. But, how would democratically elected Saeima would respond to threats of occupation by the Soviet Union in 1939-1940? As Saeima was always caught up in quarrels it could lead to all kinds of things. The outcome would be even more complicated as Saeima was already entered by the Soviet agents that would stir up the process. Also if the national radical movements and Baltic German Nazis would enter Saeima the reaction to Soviet threats would be even more dramatic. However, it’s doubtful that Latvia would rather silently submit to the Soviet Union, like Kārlis Ulmanis government. But as in case of Czechoslovakia the democratic parliament was not enough to rescue the country.

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The Latvian Red Rifleman in the Russian Civil War 1917-1922

The Monument of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The Monument of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The formation of the Latvian Rifleman regiments had national causes. Latvian land was invaded by the German army, and large numbers of Latvians applied to make national armed forces in the Russian army. The Czar Nicholas II had doubts about that – he remembered the revolution of 1905 where Latvians took active role. After three years of war his fears became true – Latvian rifleman joined the Bolshevik revolution. Latvian red rifleman is one of the controversial subjects in Latvian history. Praised by Lenin, doomed by Stalin and hated by nationalist Latvians, Latvian rifleman had made their place in Russian history. Their role in the Russian Civil war are often overestimated and filled with many myths. Only in last twenty years we are able to discover who these men really were.

As mentioned the Latvian rifleman regiments were originally formed in 1915 to defend Riga from the Germans and liberate rest of the Latvian land. Latvian rifleman fought in heavy frontline for two years. In the outcome, Germans could not capture Riga, but Russian army also was unable to chase Germans away. Latvian rifleman suffered heavy losses in battles of Island of Death (1916) and the Christmas Battles (1917). Latvians were angered by the incompetence and hypocrisy of the Russian high command. Also the Russian supporting divisions were not much of a help.

On 23-27 February (8-12 March) Czar Nicolay II resigned. Russia was now ruled both by Provisional government and by the Petrograd Soviet. The two government situation led to confusion and rivalry. The armed forces now became center of political fight arena.

The Interim government was ready to continue war, while Bolsheviks promised peace and bread. The leadership of 12th army where Latvians fought tried to establish loyal executive committee called Iskosol. However, Latvians had no interest about it. On 26 March representatives of the rifleman first met at Valmiera and decided that they must continue to fight and support the Petrograd Soviet. They also asked for autonomous Latvia in democratic Russia. Soon the rifleman circles were entered by the Bolshevik agitators. From 9 to 11 April in Riga 1st rifleman congress took place deciding to organize united officer and soldier executive committee or Iskolatsrel.

The Iskolatsrel was ruled by far left-wing majority, however there were calls for Latvian national autonomy. The leading figure was staff captain Ozols. Despite the presence of right wing views among Latvians, the Bolsheviks started to gain upper hand. They were superbly organized and experienced. Their sympathizers were mainly low rank soldiers, while officers were more nationally minded. Also there so-called Mensheviks that fell out with the Bolsheviks and asked to support the Provisional Government. On 29 May at Second rifleman congress conducted a resolution that disapproved the Provisional government and asked the handover of power to the workers, soldiers and peasants.

On spring 1917 the German general staff decided to finally capture Riga and encircle the 12th army. The attack was set at 1 September and Russians were aware of this. However, the army was demoralized and could not withstood the German cannonade and fell back. However, Latvian rifleman continued to resist faced Germans at Mazā Jugla. Facing German majority, Latvian rifleman held of the offensive rescuing the Russian army units who retreated in panic.  Even despite Bolshevik sentiments the Latvian riflemen were ready to defend their homeland. In same time loyal to Russian government units fled without a fight. Latvians managed to hold for 26 hours and then retreated with the rest of the 12th army. The army was saved but Riga was lost.

Meanwhile in Petrograd (Petersburg) the Provisional government started to lose its power. Bolshevik uprising in July and Kornilov Affair in August made Lenin stronger.

When 12th army was in disarray on 25 October (7-8 November) Bolsheviks seized the power by coup and called it an international revolution. Majority of the Latvian rifleman supported this. Only small circle of Latvian officers and nationally minded soldiers gathered in Latvian National Soldiers Union. The Iskolatsrel lead by Bolsheviks turned down the right wing Latvian National Provisional Council.

For a short time a Soviet power was established in Latgalia and much of Vidzeme. Meanwhile in Petrograd it was decided that Red Guards and Sailors are not enough to defend the city. So first Latvian rifleman 6th Tukums regiment was sent to defend the Bolshevik headquarters in Smolny institute. Many Latvians were against this. The new arrived Latvians took part in disbanding the Constituent Assembly 19 January 1918.

Lenin could not legitimize his seizure of power. The Russian army had collapsed and the new Red Guards were poorly disciplined. So Latvian rifleman who still kept relative unity and discipline were summoned to help the Bolshevik revolution. A Latvian revolutionary corpus was made. On 19 February 1918 Germans launched a full-scale attack to capture all parts of Latvia and Estonia. Latvians retreated this time. On March Latvia rifleman marched in Moscow. Russia was already full of Latvian refugees from WWII. Latvian riflemen were forced to abandon their homeland, but their will was still strong and hopes for returning were high.

Latvian Red Rifleman in Red Square at Moscow

Latvian Red Rifleman in Red Square at Moscow

On 3 March Soviet Russia signed peace agreement with Germany. The Russian military command was reorganized; all high command posts were disbanded and staffs were fired. It turned out that of destroyed multi-million Czar army only Latvian rifleman were left intact. At Moscow 5700, at Petrograd, Toroshin and Bologoje – 6000 Latvian man still were ready to fight. Initially an order came to disband the Latvian regiments, however with the lead of commander Jukums Vācietis the order was disputed. While Soviets officially declared that they have an international army, they were forced to include national division in their ranks. Latvians had great reputation and still ready to fight. Also Estonian divisions in the Red Army were formed.

On 13 April 1918 the Soviet Wartime and people’s commissariat issued an order to form Latvian Soviet rifleman division. The commander in charge was Vācietis, and commissars were Pētersons and Dozīte. It was one of the first divisions in the Red Army. Nearly all remaining Latvian men joined, all believed in coming defeat of Germany and the liberation of Latvia. Most of them took the rifleman regiment as their family and had nowhere to go since the border was closed. At the end of 1918 there were 23-24 thousand man in the division along with 400 machine guns, 80 cannons and 20 airplanes.

 One of the first serious Latvian battles in the Russian civil war was the uprising of the Czech legion May 1918. The legion of Czech and Slovak nationals was formed from prisoners of war and included in the Russian army. Soviets initially promised to transport them over Vladivostok to France. However, Soviet war commissar Leon Trotsky ordered to disarm them. A legion of size of 51 000 man revolted and too over large areas from Volga to Far East. After first incidental encounter between Latvians and Czechs, that proved successful for Latvians, more regiments were sent to deal with the enemy.

On 6 July at Moscow the anti-Soviet leftist movement the Socialist Revolutionary Party of so-called Esers, launched a coup against the Soviet government. Latvians took the most important part in defeating the Eser uprising that crushed this important movement completely. Latvians also crushed the Esers at Yaroslavl, where ex Latvian rifleman officer Kārlis Goppers was one of the anti-Soviet leaders. Also another Latvian officer Fridrihs Briedis was arrested by Cheka.

As the situation in the Eastern front was critical Latvian officer Vācietis was appointed as the commander in chief of the whole Red Army. At night between 16 and 17 July Soviets murdered the whole family of Czar Nicholas II. It has been speculated for many years that Latvians took part in the murder. While Latvian historians drastically denies that any Latvian took part in the shooting, Russian historians name at least one Latvian named Celms and claims that five other Latvians refused to fire at the Czar’s children.

Jukums Vācietis - the High commander of the Red Army

Jukums Vācietis – the First Main commander of the Red Army

Latvians took the most part in defending the Kazan. On September British Secret service agent’s ambassador R. H. Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Rielly was provoked by Latvian rifleman in to plot to depose the Soviet government. British believed that the Latvian rifleman will help them to stage a coup, however it was a trap by Cheka and the ambassador was arrested.

Latvians were sent to Southern front to face the Don Cossacks. Latvians remembered the actions done by Cossacks in Latvia in 1905-1907. However in 11 November 1918 Germany surrendered ending the WWI. On 13 November Soviet Russia annulled the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty. Latvians were ready to go back to homeland and make it as Soviet republic. On 18 November in Riga the right-wing Peoples Council proclaimed the Republic of Latvia as national independent state. Soviets saw this as an obstacle. On 23 November the Commissar in the National issues Joseph Stalin ordered to form a provisional soviet Latvian government. That was done in 4 December. Soviets needed the puppet republics to justify the occupation of the Baltic States.

On November Red Army Pskov division entered Latvia. Latvians were still far behind caught up in other sectors of the whole civil war front. Latvian riflemen were told that the democratic Latvian provisional government is actually ruled by German barons and whole idea of sovereign Latvia is just a German trick to annex Latvia. Latvian government was forced to cooperate with Germans and ask for their armed assistance. However, both sides knew that is a temporary union dictated by the Soviet offensive. Latvian government issued a call to Latvian rifleman to join the ranks of the new Latvian army. Rifleman never heard this and it would not change much. On 18 December first red rifleman entered Latvia.

While the Latvian government had issues forming their own army, red rifleman defeated Germans at Inčukalns. On 3 January 1919 red rifleman brought Soviet power to Riga. A Latvian Soviet Army was formed with Vācietis in charge. The head of the Latvian Soviet government was Pēteris Stučka. Latvian army along with Germans were chased away to Courland and held small strip of land from Ventspils to Liepāja.

However, soon troubling news came from Estonia. Estonian army had defeated the Red Army and head into Northern Latvia. Red riflemen were sent to face the Estonians but were beaten. Estonians had effectively defeated the red rifleman along Valka.

The Soviet plans for communist revolution in Germany crumbled. Latvian Soviet government carried out nationalization angering the peasants who at first believed that Soviets will give them land. Soviets issued a mobilization and gathered a force of 250 000 man – young, untrained without any will to fight. Red rifleman in the end managed to stop Estonians from taking all of Vidzeme. Meanwhile Germany sent a large force of auxiliary forces of the so-called “Iron Divison”.

Germans along with Latvians started the offensive on February. Soviets were defeated in all fronts also Estonians continued to attack at northern Latvia. In April Estonians formed the 1 Valmiera infantry regiment made of Latvians, many of them deserters from the Soviet army. The mobilized Latvians refused to fight and joined the Estonian ranks.

Latvian Soviet republic crumbled. On 22 May Germans captured Riga. Latvian army followed behind but met their fellow Latvians in the battlefield of Kaugurciems. Soviets were chased away from Vidzeme and retreated in Latgalia. After Germans and Latvians turned against each other in the battle of Cesis, the situation stabilized. Meanwhile Moscow was unsatisfied with the red rifleman and renamed the Latvian Soviet Rifleman division to 53 Rifleman Division removing its national status. At last a communist fraction was made within division to suppress any anti-soviet activity.

On July red rifleman were sent to Belorussian front to fight Lithuanians and Poles. Disappointed Latvian rifleman left their homeland for the last time. On September they were sent to fight of White Guard offensive to Moscow. Latvians now fought on the fields of Orla and Kursk. After finishing Denikin Latvians were sent against Yudenich at Tula region. While other Red Guards run off from approaching White Guard tanks, Latvians did not lost courage and stood against them. Latvian rifleman entered Eastern Ukraine and encountered Anarchists lead by Nestor Makhno.

Meanwhile in Latvia at the winter months Latvian army liberated Latgalia. On 1920 news came to faraway rifleman about peace talks between Latvian Republic and the Soviet Russia. It now came to Latvian rifleman that their cause for free Latvia was lost and those who they stood against were the real heroes.  There was no way back they were trapped in Soviet Russia.

The Insignia badge of the Latvian Red Rifleman

The Insignia badge of the Latvian Red Rifleman

Despite that the remaining Latvian forces fought battles in Crimea. After a year of hard battles the remaining Latvian rifleman divisions were finally disbanded. Large numbers of Latvian rifleman choose to move to independent Latvia. Others however stayed. Many of them like Vācietis, Bērziņš, Pētersons and others stayed in Soviet Russia and took high governmental posts. In the purges of 1937-1938 the remaining elite of the Latvian rifleman was eliminated. Soviet leadership disliked the Latvian rifleman from the start, but was forced to relay on them.

Stalin destroyed most of the top Latvian red rifleman. After the occupation of Latvia, the Soviet propaganda remembered about them and used to justify the Soviet power. Monument commemorating them was placed in center of Old Riga. Museum dedicated to them was built nearby which now serves as a museum of occupation.

The reason why the Latvian Red Rifleman is sometimes called the core of the Red Army and the rescuers of communist revolution was their great discipline and will power. The Red Army units were often unorganized and cowardly. The Soviet commanders lacked talent. So the Soviet leadership sent Latvians to the most troublesome spots of the front where other Red Army units could not handle. The main dream of the Latvian rifleman was to liberate Latvia from the Germans. The fate made to fight for Soviets that did not want any independent Latvia. Undoubtedly many really believed the Soviet propaganda, but seeing how many left Russia for Latvia in disappointment shows that real ideal for them was their fatherland. Latvians did took part in many Soviet atrocities, however in overall Latvians were one of the most disciplined in the Red Army. The fate of the Latvian Red rifleman is one of the greatest tragedies of the Latvian nation. 20 years later Latvians again were forced to fight in the Soviet ranks where they met their Latvian brothers in Nazi ranks. Latvians must never again fight in ranks of the totalitarian armies. The main army for Latvia is our National Armed Forces that is a pride of our nation.

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