02/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Latvians Riot As Country Faces Financial Meltdown

Watching black-helmeted military police subdue protesters in the streets of Riga this Tuesday felt shocking on two distinct levels. For one thing, these are the streets on which I grew up -- hey, is that my favorite coffee house they're smashing? Far more jarring, however, is the gulf between the protests' intensity and what I have, in my 16 years there, come to know and partly absorb: the Latvian temperament.

This is, after all, the country whose idea of protest, as parliament member Krisjanis Karins told the New York Times, consists of "standing, singing and just going home," never crossing on red along the way. (Latvians' near-clinical aversion to jaywalking is a point of national pride and international ridicule). Its 1991 transition to independent statehood was the quietest, most orderly affair imaginable amid the chaos of the Soviet Union's breakup. So this week, as crowds looted a boutique selling a bitter aperitif called Latvijas Balzams -- an action tantamount to Vermont protesters trashing a maple-syrup factory -- this was the thought that came to mind: wow, something got their goat worse than the Soviet Union ever did.