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Archive for April, 2018

Three Presidents Face Jail

Presidents and prime ministers who start wars still don’t go to jail, but in democratic countries it is getting common to see presidents facing jail for corruption. In fact, we have had three since last Friday.

In South Korea, former President Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison and fined $17 million on Friday for bribery, extortion, abuse of power and other offences. She is guilty as charged, but she is also a victim.

On Saturday, former South African President Jacob Zuma appeared in a Durban court to face corruption charges over a $2.5 billion arms deal soon after his own party forced him to resign a year before his term ended. Since Zuma’s former financial adviser has already served jail time on identical charges, his chances of a happy retirement seem rather slim.

And on Sunday former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, universally known as ‘Lula’, began serving a 12-year jail term for corruption. However, he’s probably not guilty of anything that would justify his imprisonment.

That’s three gone or going in one weekend, and there are others in the queue – like former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces charges that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi illegally funded his 2007 presidential campaign.

Running a country is clearly a high-risk job, and the people who get the job tend to be risk-takers. Not all of them are rich, and they are exposed to many temptations. Nevertheless, not all cases of corruption are about simple self-enrichment.

Ex-president Park’s was not, although she collected at least $35 million in bribes from major Korean companies including Samsung and the giant retailer Lotte. But Park Geun-hye was doing it all at the behest of her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a preacher and cult leader who won the trust of Park’s father more than forty years ago.

The ex-president’s father, Park Chung-hee, ruled South Korea as a military dictator in the 1970s. When Park Geun-hye’s parents were both assassinated, the orphaned girl was befriended by the preacher’s daughter, Choi Soon-sil, who established a comparable control over her.

In 2013 Park Geun-hye was elected to the presidency, but Choi Soon-sil’s influence never weakened. The bribes that Park received while in office almost all went to foundations controlled by Choi. Both women have gone to jail, and both deserved to, but Park was as much a victim as a villain.

Jacob Zuma’s is a simpler story. He was a major figure in the African National Congress during the decades of struggle against apartheid, first in prison on Robben Island and then in exile as the ANC’s head of military intelligence. (His former chief of staff in that job once described him to me as a “military genius”.)

But Zuma had no money, and when he got political power in post-apartheid South Africa he set about to remedy that problem. There has never been any real doubt that he benefited enormously from the arms purchase deal, and he was forced to resign the deputy presidency in 2005 – but after he was elected as leader of the ANC in 2007 he managed to get the charges dropped.

By 2009 he was the president of South Africa, and for the next nine years the charges remained in abeyance. When he was forced out of office two months ago for further brazen acts of corruption and for general economic mismanagement of the country, the charges were resurrected almost instantly, and now he faces a world of woe. About time, too, many would say.

And Lula? There probably was no crime in the first place. Brazil is going through an enormous corruption scandal and more than half the members of Congress face charges, but so long as they control Congress and the presidency they can probably stave them off. An election is due in October, however, and Lula would probably win it – if he were not in prison.

The crime he is charged with is petty by Brazilian standards: accepting free renovation work when his wife moved to a bigger holiday apartment in the seaside town of Guaraju. His judgement may have been clouded at the time, because he was fighting cancer, but in any case
he was no longer in office and unable to do any political favours in return. He denies the whole thing, but at worst it was foolish to accept the help, not corrupt.

Lula still lives in the industrial city of Sao Bernardo do Campo, 20 km from Sao Paulo, in a modest house within walking distance of the steelworkers union headquarters where I first interviewed him almost forty years ago. He is an honest man of simple tastes, but at the moment he is sitting in jail.

He still has an appeal working its way up through the courts, but it’s unlikely to set him free. The real reason he is in jail is to keep him from contesting the election, so there he will stay.

The rule of law is an excellent thing, but no system devised by human beings is invulnerable to manipulation by other human beings.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 8 and 15. (“That’s…campaign”; “The ex-president’s…her”; and “Lula…jail”)

Latvia: Language Rights

Lots of countries have two or more official languages: Canada (two), Belgium (three), Switzerland (four), South Africa (eleven), India (twenty-three), and so on. They all have trouble balancing the competing demands of the various language groups. But Latvia has only one official language, and it has a bigger problem than any of them.

“There’s no need for a second language. Whoever wants can use their language at home or in school,” said Latvian President Andris Berzins in 2012, when there was a (failed) referendum about making Russian a second official language in Latvia. But on Monday Berzin’s successor, President Raimonds Vejonis, signed a new law decreeing that Russian will no longer be used in secondary schools.

Even Russian-speaking high-school students will be taught only in Latvian by 2021, Vejonis said: “It will make society more cohesive and the state stronger.” Freely translated, that means it will make Latvian society less Russian.

The Russian-language media exploded in outrage at the news, and in Moscow on Tuesday the Russian Duma (parliament) passed a resolution urging Vladimir Putin’s government to impose sanctions in Latvia. The Russian foreign ministry said that the new measure was “part of the discriminatory policy of the forceful assimilation of Russian-speaking people that has been conducted for the past 25 years.”

That is true. The long-term goal of Latvia’s language policies is obviously the assimilation of the Russian-speaking minority – but it is a huge task. Russian-speakers were 42 percent of the population when Latvia got its independence back from the Soviet Union in 1991, and if you include those who speak Latvian at work but Russian at home they still account for at least a third.

The discrimination has been blatant from the start. After independence Russian-speakers whose home was in Latvia were excluded from citizenship unless they could pass a Latvian language test. About half the Russian-speaking population couldn’t or wouldn’t, so around 13 percent of the people in Latvia are russophone ‘non-citizens’ without the right to vote, hold public office, or take government jobs.

It has long been the case in Latvia that university is only free for students doing their studies in Latvian, and that primary schools for minority language groups (mainly Russian but also Ukrainian, Yiddish, Roma, etc.) must teach Latvian from the first grade. Since 2004 at least 60 percent of instruction in secondary schools has had to be in Latvian. And by 2021 it will have to be all Latvian in the high schools all of the time.

So the Russians certainly have a right to complain – but look at it from a Latvian point of view. The Latvians got their independence from the Russian empire in 1918, but were re-conquered by its successor, the Soviet Union, in 1940. (The Nazi-Soviet Pact, the starting gun for the Second World War, divided Poland between the two totalitarian regimes, but the Soviet Union got all of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.)

The Soviet secret police then murdered or deported most of the Latvian political, intellectual and cultural elite: between 35,000 and 60,000 people. So the Latvians welcomed the German attack on Russia in 1941, which freed Latvia from the Soviet occupation, and many of them fought alongside the German army until the Russians conquered Latvia yet again in 1944.

By then Stalin had concluded that the Latvians were incorrigibly ‘disloyal’, and decided to solve the problem permanently by overwhelming them with immigrants from Russia. The proportion of Latvian native-speakers in the population dropped from 80 percent in 1935 to barely half (52 percent) by 1989 – and most of the immigrants never bothered to learn Latvian, because the entire Soviet Union worked in Russian.

The Latvians were on the road to linguistic and cultural extinction until they got their independence back, so you can see why they want to ‘Latvianise’ this huge, uninvited immigrant presence in their midst as fast as possible. But now look at it from the position of the Russian-speakers again.

Most of the current generation are not immigrants at all. They were born in Latvia, before or after independence, and they grew up in the familiar streets of Riga or Daugavpils, part of a large Russian-speaking community among whom they feel comfortably at home. They have no other home.

Yet they know they will never be accepted as fully Latvian even if they learn to speak the language fluently. And since they mostly get their news and views from Russian media, which portray Latvia’s allies in the European Union and NATO as relentlessly anti-Russian, Latvian-speakers don’t even trust the Russian minority to be loyal in a crisis.

On the other hand, why should Russian-speakers in Latvia go along with measures that are clearly designed to shrink the role of Russian in the country’s life? There is no right or wrong here.

The Latvian-speakers will have to accept that the Russian minority is a permanent presence in their country, and the Russian-speakers will have to accept that preserving the endangered Latvian language and culture comes first. They are both having trouble getting to that point, but there is really no alternative.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The discrimination…time”)

No Hell Below Us, Above Us Only Sky

The Pope did not say there is no Heaven. There is nothing intellectually embarrassing about the notion that good people go to Heaven when they die. It sounds a bit like a wish-fulfilment fantasy to outsiders, but it’s the sort of thing a loving and all-powerful god might provide for his creatures. However, the Pope did say there is no Hell.

As soon as he said it, the Vatican’s communications department mobilised to deny that he had said it, as they have done on several previous occasions when the Pope went off the rails. But of course he said it, and the reason why is obvious.

It is very hard for a well-educated person of modern sensibilities to believe that a loving god would condemn any of the human beings he created to an eternity of physical torture and mental anguish. That is not what loving human fathers do, even to children who disobey them, so the traditional notion of Hell is a permanent problem for many Catholic theologians.

If you do not live inside the bubble of faith, it’s not a problem at all: no Heaven, no Hell, no God, just us under an empty sky. But people of faith like Pope Francis, who want to believe that ‘God is love’, struggle with the concept of Hell – and people like Eugenio Scalfari, who grew up in the faith but left it long ago, still sympathise with their struggle.

Scalfari, now 93 years old, was the founder of the highly respected Italian newspaper La Repubblica, and is still a practicing journalist. He is an avowed atheist, but has been meeting Pope Francis in private for years for long conversations on religious matters. And Scalfari is an unusual journalist, in that he does not record his interviews or even take notes. Instead, he “reconstructs” the conversation from memory.

As somebody who has done thousands of interviews (and does record them or take notes), I envy Scalfari the freedom he enjoys to participate fully in the conversation. I doubt that he can always remember the interviewee’s words verbatim, but I am sure that he is rarely mistaken about the meaning of what was said. And I suspect that it is exactly the fact that Scalfari does not provide an undeniable verbatim text that draws Pope Francis to him.

The recent exchange between the two men, as recounted by Scalfari in Repubblica last Thursday, began with the journalist asking Francis where “bad souls” go and how they are punished. According to Scalfari’s account, Francis replied as follows:

“Souls are not punished. Those who repent obtain God’s forgiveness and go among the ranks of those who contemplate him, but those who do not repent and cannot be forgiven disappear. There is no hell – there is the disappearance of sinful souls.”

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is heresy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (ccc 1035) states that “Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire’.” The Catechism does go on to say that “The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God,” but there’s no getting around the fact that official doctrine says they are lamenting this sad separation from God while also burning in eternal fire. Which probably hurts quite a lot.

Pope Francis is clearly uncomfortable with this idea of God as the Eternal Torturer, and much prefers the notion that the souls of those “who do not repent and cannot be forgiven” will simply be destroyed. “Annihilationism” is the formal name for this argument, and it crops up quite often in modern theological speculation – but until and unless the Catholic Church changes its formal doctrine, it is still heresy.

Pope Francis is a practical man, and he chooses his battles carefully. Changing Catholic doctrine on Hell would be a long battle that consumed most of the energy within the Church that he would like to devote to other, more urgent changes. Yet he still cannot resist making his true views known (in a deniable way) by having these occasional conversations with Eugenio Scalfari.

Other topics he has raised in the same way include the “solemn nonsense” of trying to convert non-Catholic Christians to Catholicism (2013) – “there is no Catholic God,” Francis on that occasion – and the injustice of excluding divorced and remarried Catholics from full participation in the Church (2015).

Scalfari doesn’t mind the fact that the Vatican subsequently denies what he reported the Pope said, and that Francis himself tacitly goes along with that denial. It’s a game that both men play, and the accuracy of Scalfari’s reports is amply demonstrated by the fact that Francis keeps giving him more interviews despite his alleged ‘mis-reporting’ of previous ones.

But it’s hard not to wonder what the two of them think this game is achieving.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“As…him”; and “Other…Church (2015)”)