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Gwynne Dyer

Gwynne Dyer has written 1592 posts for Gwynne Dyer

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)”)

Yemeni Missiles: SSDD

“We must speak with one voice in exposing the regime for what it is – a threat to the peace and security of the whole world,” said US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley last December, trying to drum up support for stronger international sanctions against Iran, and maybe even an actual attack on the country. Here we go again.

Those old enough to remember the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq will recall the deluge of doctored American ‘intelligence’ reports about alleged Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” that were used to justify the attack. ‘Everybody’ was in danger, presumably including Bolivia, Switzerland and Nepal, so everybody must support the invasion.

President George W. Bush wanted to overthrow Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, and the American intelligence services worked overtime to come up with reasons for doing it. We were told that Saddam had been trying to buy ‘yellowcake’ uranium in Niger (false, based on forged documents). The US could not afford to wait for final proof of Saddam’s intentions “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, said President Bush.

And former general Colin Powell, Bush’s secretary of state, showed the United Nations General Assembly a vial containing a powder – harmless, one hopes – in order to emphasise that just a tiny amount of a lethal biological weapon Saddam was allegedly producing would kill gazillions of people. (Powell, basically an honest man, later called the speech a permanent “blot” on his record.)

In the end the United States got its war – and found no evidence whatever of an active Iraqi programme to build weapons of mass destruction. But no lessons have been learned. Ms Haley at the UN was laying a foundation of lies for a comparable Trump adventure in the Middle East. Same Story Different Day.

The story-line goes as follows. Iran is an aggressive and expansionist power that threatens everybody everywhere. The proof is that it is helping the bad guys in Yemen, known as the Houthis, to launch missile attacks on innocent Saudi citizens. In fact, it is actually giving the evil Houthis the missiles.

The Houthis, a large Shia tribe in northern Yemen, are indeed rebels, and they now control most of the country, including the capital. This greatly angered the Saudi Arabians, who installed the previous government in 2012 as a way of shutting down the Arab Spring uprising in Yemen.

The Saudis didn’t like seeing their man overthrown, so they created a nine-country coalition of Sunni Arab states and started bombing Yemen in 2015. According to the UN, at least 8,670 people have been killed and 49,960 injured since the coalition intervened in Yemen’s war. But on 25 March one of the highly inaccurate Houthi missiles killed one person in a suburb of Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The anti-Iran propaganda machine went into high gear. “This aggressive and hostile action by the Iran-backed Houthi group proves that the Iranian regime continues to support the (Houthi) armed group with military capabilities,” said coalition spokesman Turki al-Maliki. And the inimitable Nikki Haley said that the missile “might as well have had ‘Made in Iran’ stickers” on it.

This is the nub of the matter: is Iran actually supplying missiles to the Houthis that are being fired at Saudi Arabia? If so, then the United States, Saudi Arabia’s main ally, has an excuse to attack Iran.

The American accusation basically depends on the ignorant but widespread belief that Yemenis, and in particular Shia rebels from the north, are too ‘backward’ to be able to make or upgrade missiles themselves. But most of the Yemeni armed forces’ weapons, including a variety of short-range ballistic missiles based on the old Soviet ‘Scud’ series, fell into the Houthis’ hands in 2015-16.

None of those original missiles could have reached Riyadh, but extending the range of a simple rocket like the Scud is not rocket science. You just reduce the weight of the warhead and lengthen the body of the rocket to carry extra fuel.

The Houthis have lots of people with metal fabrication and basic engineering skills, and it appears that they did exactly that. The upgraded missile is inaccurate (only one Saudi casualty in at least 40 launches) because lengthening it and lightening the warhead changes the balance, but it cheers the Houthis up because it lets them retaliate for all the bombing.

Jane’s Information Group Ltd, established in 1898, is the world’s leading independent provider of intelligence and analysis on defense matters. Here is what Jeremy Binnie, Middle East/Africa Editor of Jane’s Defence Weekly, said about Yemen’s rockets in 2017 in Jane’s Intelligence Review.

“The Burkan-2 appears to use a new type of warhead section that is locally fabricated. Both Iran and North Korea have displayed Scud derivatives with shuttlecock-shaped warheads, but none of these match the Yemeni version. The range of the Burkan missiles also appears to have been extended by a reduction in the weight of their warheads.”

No nonsense about ‘made in Iran’ stickers. The Yemenis aren’t stupid, and they did it themselves. But the other story suits the Trump administration’s purposes better.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“President…record”)

Dictators and Elections

Why do they bother?

Last week, Vladimir Putin, the Russian dictator, got himself ‘re-elected’ to his fourth six-year term by a 76 percent majority on a 76 percent turn-out. This week (26-28 March) the Egytian dictator, former general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, will be ‘re-elected’ with close to 100 percent support, although probably on a very low turn-out. A quarter-billion people are being inconvenienced in order to wield what amounts to giant rubber stamps.

So why do they bother? Both dictators control the mass media in their countries, so they can be reasonably confident that most people will not be exposed to much criticism of their actions. They both can and do have people who oppose them arrested or killed (and Sisi’s enforcers also torture people). Yet they feel the need to go through these fake democratic elections in order to validate their rule.

The charade goes even further in many African countries. At some point in the past, often after popular protests or even a revolution, term limits were imposed on the presidency, but later the man in power (it’s always a man) realises that he actually wants to rule the country for life. Once again, however, abolishing the term limits is done with due ‘democratic’ decorum, generally involving a state-managed referendum.

China is the latest dictatorship to end term limits, making Xi Jinping in effect president-for-life, although it skipped the referendum part. Indeed, even China pretends to be a democracy, more or less, although the Communist Party must always be in the ‘leading role’ and there are no direct national elections. Why do they go through all this rigmarole, when the outcome is invariably a foregone conclusion?

Egypt’s pharohs felt no need to ask the people’s opinions on their performance as rulers. The kings of 18th-century Europe ruled by ‘divine right’, not by the popular will (and they didn’t actually ask God’s opinion on their performance either). But at some point in the past century, democracy has won the argument world-wide.

It has not won all the power struggles, and many dictators survive in practice, but they are all obliged to pretend to have popular support. This is a very big change from the past, when tyrannical power was generally based on a combination of religious authority and brutal armed force. Why, and in particular why now?

The anthropologists may have an answer. It is now pretty widely agreed in their profession that pre-civilised human beings almost all lived in bands where all adult men, at least, were treated as equals, and all had an equal right to share in decision-making. They even had well-established methods for making sure that nobody got too big for his boots.

These primitive ‘democracies’ all collapsed in the early stages of civilisation, when the huge rise in population (from dozens to millions in a thousand years) made it physically impossible for everybody to take part in the discussion about means and ends any more.

At the same time all the traditional social controls that kept ambitious people from seizing power failed too. You can’t shame people into respecting the opinions and personal freedoms of other people if the numbers get so big that you don’t even know them personally. Result: five thousand years of tyranny.

But give these mass societies mass media, and they regain the ability to communicate with one another. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that they want to be treated as equals again. The first successful democratic revolution happened in the American colonies in 1776 because printing presses were everywhere, and over half the population was literate.

Now mass media are everywhere, and even the dictators have to pretend that they are in power by the will of the people. It will be a long time before they actually disappear (if they ever do), but they already rule less than half of the world’s people, and they all have to go through a charade of democracy to legitimise their rule.

When the first results of the Russian election were coming in last week, a reporter asked Vladimir Putin if he would run again in six years’ time. “What you are saying is a bit funny,” Putin replied. “Do you think that I will stay here until I’m 100 years old? No.” But that’s what Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s former ruler, would also have said when he had been in power for only eighteen years.

In the end Mugabe stayed in power for 37 years, and he was 93 and planning to run for another term when he was finally overthrown last year. Putin would be a mere 85 years old when he broke Mugabe’s record, although China’s Xi Jinping would have to live until he was 97 to do the same. I’ll bet neither one makes it.
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To shorten to 650 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The charade…conclusion”)