Image: Latvians gather for protest
Roman Koksarov  /  AP
Latvians gather Tuesday for an anti-government rally in Riga's historic Old Town, Latvia. Thousands of protesters gathered to demand the resignation of the center-right government.
updated 1/14/2009 6:00:00 PM ET 2009-01-14T23:00:00

Latvia's president lashed out at lawmakers Wednesday and threatened to dissolve Parliament after more than 40 people were injured in the worst rioting since the Baltic country split from the Soviet Union in 1991.

President Valdis Zatlers said he would disband the legislature by March 31 unless lawmakers agree to a series of reforms to help restore political and economic order in the crisis-hit nation.

Latvia's economy was once the fastest-growing in the European Union, but it has undergone a dramatic reversal and is expected to contract 5 percent this year. The Central Bank burned through about one-third of its reserves to defend the currency, the lat, and unemployment rocketed from 6 percent to 7 percent in December.

Financial assistance for struggling nation
International lenders including the EU, the International Monetary Fund and Nordic countries have pledged $10.5 billion in financial assistance to help the nation of 2.3 million recover.

Zatlers' ultimatum came a day after an anti-government demonstration that included an estimated 10,000 participants turned violent when scores of angry protesters tried to storm Parliament and clashed with police.

More than 40 people were injured, mostly protesters but also six police officers and eight military police, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Sigita Pildava said. Police detained 106 people.

The rampage echoes similar clashes in Greece and Bulgaria, where protesters vented their anger at deteriorating economic conditions and widespread corruption.

In Latvia, government and opposition leaders blamed each other for the violence, but Zatlers said politicians must address "the catastrophic collapse of trust in authorities and state officials" that was expressed at the demonstration.

His ultimatum surprised many in the Baltic state considering the current coalition placed him in the president's chair. In Latvia, the president is elected by Parliament.

Latvians are irate about recession
Latvians are irate about the country's deepening recession, and many blame Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis' center-right government for the economic woes.

Zatlers demanded lawmakers amend the constitution to give voters the right to dissolve the legislature between elections, and called for the creation of a council to oversee Latvia's economic recovery program.

He also told Godmanis that his Cabinet had to restructure the way the government works, including minimizing the number of ministerial posts.

"Both Parliament and the government have lost touch with voters," Zatlers told reporters.

The violence started as a peaceful anti-government demonstration ended in Riga's historic Old Town. Most of the demonstrators left the area but about 100 of them turned violent and tried to storm the Parliament building. Riot police kept them away, using tear gas and truncheons.

The rioters pelted officers with cobblestones and chunks of ice and vandalized three police vehicles. They smashed windows of boutiques, the Finance Ministry and a bank, and looted a liquor store.

Complaints about security
Godmanis told the LNT TV station Wednesday that protest organizers bear responsibility for the violence, citing their decision to hold the rally despite tensions over the deepening economic crisis.

Opposition lawmaker Aigars Stokenbergs, one of the rally's main organizers, called the government incompetent for not providing sufficient security at the protest.

"What happened at Parliament was because of a lack of competence on the part of the Interior Ministry," Stokenbergs said. He called on Interior Minister Mareks Seglins to step down.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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