THE smell of burning wood fills the air and classical music blares across the central cathedral square of this medieval city, as volunteers sit around bonfires or fill sandbags to strengthen the parliamentary defenses. Despite the violence that left four dead and at least 11 wounded when ``black beret'' Soviet security forces stormed the Latvian Interior Ministry Jan. 20, the leadership of this Baltic republic is determined to defend its sovereignty through negotiations rather than armed resistance.
In contrast to Lithuania's leader, who heads another Baltic republic whose independence drive is threatened, Latvian leader Anatoly Gorbunov left Riga for talks scheduled for Jan. 22 with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Latvian officials deny reports from Moscow that Mr. Gorbunov and Mr. Gorbachev would discuss a formula for introduction of direct presidential rule from Moscow in Latvia.
Lithuanian President Vytautas Landsbergis has not left the parliament building in Vilnius since the crisis began more than two weeks ago, having only what are described as ``heated exchanges'' with Gorbachev. The Latvian government is perhaps more predisposed to negotiate with Moscow because about 40 percent of the republic's population is ethnic Russian, Latvian officials explained. Lithuania on the other hand is virtually homogeneous with 80 percent of its population ethnic Lithuanian.
Soviet Deputy Interior Minister Yuri Kukushkin held talks in Riga on Jan. 21 with Latvian Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis. At about the same time, Soviet Interior Minister Boris Pugo met in Moscow with Aleis Vaznis, his Latvian counterpart.
Latvian officials say the primary purpose of both meetings was to get Moscow to rein in the black berets, a paramilitary force responsible to the Soviet Interior Ministry.
``They [the black berets] appeared to follow unknown orders ... orders at least unknown to us,'' says Latvian Justice Minister Viktors Skudra. ``As far as further action, it will depend on the outcome of talks.''
Preliminary indications were favorable, says Latvian parliament spokeswoman Inese Birzniece. Mr. Pugo hinted to Mr. Vaznis that the black berets would be restricted to their base pending an investigation, she added. But uneasiness remains.
``The question that scares me is whether the black berets will listen to Pugo,'' she says.
The other threat to the government comes from the so-called All-Latvian Public Salvation Committee, widely believed to be a front organization for the Communist Party. The committee over the weekend declared it was in charge of Latvian political life, a claim drawing quick condemnation from Mr. Skudra.
``The committee's declaration to take power is illegal and a violation of the Constitution,'' the justice minister said. ``No one has the power to establish a parallel government.''
The link between the black beret troops and the Salvation Committee is difficult to define. The Latvian crisis began Jan. 2 when the black berets took over Riga's publishing center at the request of the party, which maintained it was trying to retrieve property that it rightfully owns. But the troops appeared to operate more independently than did the regular Soviet Army paratroopers who were used to storm television facilities in Lithuania - an operation that left 14 dead.
Latvian Communist Party boss Alfred Rubiks, a member of the Salvation Committee, did nothing to clear up questions about the relationship. On Jan. 21, he denied any involvement in the assault on the Interior Ministry, but defended the security forces, saying they had been fired upon first. He repeated the committee's claim that it was in charge. At approximately the same time Mr. Rubiks was speaking, an unidentified black beret officer warned in a televised interview that there could be further bloodshed, saying they had uncovered a Latvian nationalist plot designed to wipe out Communist influence in the republic.
Though Latvian leaders are pressing for a peaceful solution, there is no sign they will back away from a fight. Just hours after the Interior Ministry raid, parliament met in emergency session and authorized the creation of the self-defense force, asking people to flood the Interior Ministry with qualified candidates to defend the republic's elected government. Several thousand men responded to the call Jan. 21.
``I want to fight for private property. If we had private property we wouldn't be having these kinds of problems,'' says Sviatoslav Neplokho, an ethnic Russian who lived in Latvia since 1971. ``The struggle for democracy began in Vilnius and now has moved to Riga. If we don't make a stand, it will move to Estonia and then on to Russia itself.''