Queen draws crowds in Latvia

Associated Press
October 18, 2006

RIGA, Latvia — Thousands of Latvians congregated in downtown Riga on Wednesday to watch Queen Elizabeth II lay flowers at a monument and unveil a statue to an Englishman who was mayor of the Baltic state’s capital a century ago.

It was the Queen’s first visit to Latvia, which acquired its independence after splitting from the Soviet Union 15 years ago. In 2004, Latvia joined the European Union and NATO.

The Queen, accompanied by Canadian-educated Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, listened to a military band play the British and Latvian national anthems. After the flower-laying ceremony at the Freedom Monument, the Queen and Prince Philip mingled with the crowd of about 4,000, who responded by cheering and waving the British flag.

The Freedom Monument was erected in 1935 during Latvia’s first period of independence. In 1940, the Soviet Union annexed Latvia.

In a speech given during lunch in Riga’s Blackhead House, a neo-Gothic building rebuilt after having been destroyed during the Second World War, the Queen acknowledged Latvia’s economic achievements.

“Your economy has made enormous progress since 1991 and the pace of growth since you joined the European Union in 2004 has been dramatic — the fastest in the EU,” the Queen said.

The monarch unveiled a statue to George Armistead, an Englishman who was mayor of Riga a century ago when the city was one of czarist Russia’s fastest growing towns.

Most of Riga’s celebrated Art Nouveau architecture dates from Armistead’s term as mayor — 1901-1912 — and it remains a top tourist attraction for the city.

There was a minor glitch when the Queen tried to pull the shroud off the statue of Armistead. The rope she yanked refused to pull the shroud off and several men rushed to the Queen’s assistance and unveiled the statue manually.

The Queen was then whisked off to the newly built Riga Arena, where she attended a dancing and singing performance put on by Latvian teenagers.

The Queen arrived from Lithuania on Wednesday morning and was met in Latvia by Vike-Freiberga. They then travelled to a welcome ceremony at the Riga Castle, the Latvian president’s office, where they were greeted by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and other top politicians and diplomats.

The Queen, wearing pink, helped inspect the Latvian honour guard before the entourage disappeared into the castle, situated along a river that winds through the capital’s old city district.

The Queen is scheduled to finish her Baltic tour in Estonia on Thursday.