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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”)

Duterte: Mass Murderer in Power

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte once said that Ferdinand Marcos, who was overthrown by the first non-violent revolution (‘People Power’) in 1986, would have been the Philippines’ best president “if he did not become a dictator.” Just as Duterte himself had the potential to be the Philippines’ best president if he had not become a mass murderer.

He doesn’t react well to criticism, either. Last month the International Criminal Court began to investigate a complaint by a Filipino lawyer that the extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug war (now 8,000 and counting) amount to ‘crimes against humanity’. He responded by declaring that the Philippines would not longer accept the authority of the world tribunal.

On Sunday he went further, urging other countries to withdraw from ICC too: “Get out, get out, it’s rude.” Rude? That’s a bit rich coming from a man who has called former US president Barack Obama, former US ambassador Philip Goldberg, and even the Pope “a son of a whore”, but Duterte does not suffer from an excess of self-awareness.

Less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations too. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.

That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it.

It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.

Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work, after a fashion: Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39 percent of the vote, almost twice as many votes as the nearest runner-up among the five candidates.

It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.

The murder rate is around the same level as the United States: four per 100,000 people in 2015 (but up to six per 100,000 people in 2016 due to Duterte’s killing spree).

In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the ‘extrajudicial’ murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. It is a classic displacement activity: the real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty, but it’s much easier to wage a war on drugs and crime.

Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Rodrigo Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency.

He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor. During the Marcos dictatorship he protected opposition protesters in Davao, and he is gay- and Muslim-friendly in a country that has little tolerance for either. He calls himself a ‘socialist’, but the city of Davao achieved the highest economic growth rate in the country under his mayorship.

Alas, Duterte is also a mass murderer (he has said he will sign a pardon for himself “for the crime of multiple murder” before he leaves office.) He has become addicted to the cheap popularity he gets from saying and doing shocking things, and lacks the discipline to work on the country’s real problems.

He is a disaster for the Philippines, but that’s probably where the damage ends. And although he occasionally talks about abolishing the Congress and leading a self-appointed “revolutionary government”, he is unlikely to be able to carry it off, because by then he won’t be popular any more. The Philippines will not prosper under his rule.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 9. (“On Sunday…self-awareness”; and (“Amphetamine…people”)

Italy: The Migrant ‘Flood’

Lucky old Italy just got two Donald Trumps for the price of one. One of the big winners in last Sunday’s Italian election was the Five-Star Movement, whose 31-year-old leader Luigi di Maio has promised to stop sending out rescue boats to save migrants from drowning when their flimsy craft sink halfway across the Mediterranean. A “sea taxi service”, he calls it, and promises to send all the survivng illegal immigrants home.

So does Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League (formerly the Northern League), the other big winner in the election. “I’m sick of seeing immigrants in hotels and Italians who sleep in cars,” Salvini told supporters at a recent rally in Milan. He pledges to send 150,000 illegal migrants home in his first year in government.

It is not yet clear whether Salvini and/or di Maio will actually be in government. A coalition between the Five-Star Movement and the League would command a majority in parliament and is one possibility, but other combinations are also possible. However, it’s already clear that these two populists won more than half the votes on openly racist platforms.

‘Openly racist’? Di Maio and Salvini generally stop just a millimetre short of that, but Attilio Fontana, the senior League member who has just won the governorship of Lombardy, Italy’s richest region, has no such qualms. “We have to decide if our ethnicity, if our white race, if our society continues to exist or if it will be canceled out,” he said recently.

Now it’s true that 600,000 illegal migrants, mostly from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslim, and mostly young men, have arrived on Italy’s shores in the past four years, which was bound to startle the older residents. On the other hand, there are 60 million people in Italy, so that’s just one percent of the population. Why is that such a big deal?

You might as well ask why it’s such a big deal that an estimated half-million illegal migrants enter the United States each year. That is only one illegal immigrant per year for every 600 people who are already in the country. Half of those illegals aren’t even Mexicans, and yet Donald Trump won a lot of votes by promising to build a Wall on the Mexican border to stop them.

Both in the United States and in Italy, the real fuel behind the populist surge is high unemployment (the official US figure is a fantasy) and long-term stagnation in the incomes of the lower-paid half of the population. The immigration issue just serves as a visible symbol of the displacement so many feel as the economy pushes them to the margins.

The popular discontent and the political malaise cannot be cured by sending a few hundred thousand migrants home, even if that were easily done. In many cases, it is practically impossible.

The Mexican government currently cooperates with the US, so at the moment it is relatively easy to send illegal immigrants back across that border. The illegal migrants in Italy and other European Union countries are a quite different story, because their countries of origin will generally not want them back, and EU human rights laws make it hard to just give them parachutes and push them out of planes.

What we are seeing now, however, is a foretaste of the time when the migrant flows grow very large and the politics gets really brutal. In the not too distant future the Mediterranean Sea and the Mexican border will separate the temperate world, where the climate is still tolerable and there is still enough food, from the sub-tropical and tropical worlds of killer heat and dwindling food.

This is a regular subject of confidential discussions in various strategic planning cells in European governments, and also in the grown-up parts of the US government.Ten years ago a senior officer in the intelligence section of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told me that the US army expected to be ordered by Congress to close the Mexican border down completely within the next twenty years. And he was quite explicit: that meant shooting to kill.

This was many years before Donald Trump came up with the Wall, and even today it’s still not needed. But one day it will be, because global warming will hit the countries closer to the equator far harder than the fortunate countries of the temperate zone, and the main casualty will be food production in the tropics and the sub-tropics.

So the hungry millions will start to move, and the borders of the richer countries in the temperate parts of the world will slam shut to keep them out: the United States, the European Union, Russia, South Africa, Australia. If you think the politics is ugly now, just wait

Of course, a miracle could happen. There could be early and very deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, so that most of the catastrophe never arrives. But I’m having trouble even believing in the Easter Bunny any more. This is harder.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 9. (“Openly…recently”; and “The Mexican…planes”)

Russia’s Future

Why wait another month to report on the Russian election (18 March) when we can wrap it up right now? Vladimir Putin is going to win another six years in power by a landslide – probably between 60 percent and 70 percent of the popular vote. The real question is what happens after that, because he will be 72 by the end of his next term and will not legally be allowed to run for president again.

Putin doesn’t take chances, so he has barred opposition leader Alexei Navalny from standing in the election by having the obedient courts convict him of fraud on a trumped-up charge. Not that Navalny ever threatened to beat Putin, who is genuinely popular in Russia, but none of the other presidential candidates in this election are even serious contenders. Their only function is to make the election look legitimate.

First up is Ksenia Sobchak, a former TV ‘reality’ show host whose wealth and establishment links (her father Anatoly was the mayor of St. Petersburg and Putin’s political mentor) have earned her the mocking title of ‘Russia’s Paris Hilton’. She’s liberal, pro-gay, all the things that Putin isn’t, but she is nevertheless seen as his preferred opponent, and not to be taken seriously.

Certainly the youthful Communist candidate, Pavel Grudinin, the boss of a former collective farm enterprise called Lenin State Farm, is not to be taken seriously. Neither is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a raving ultra-nationalist caricature of a man. Putin will win in a walk – and yet Russia is a modern, well-educated country with a democratic constitution. It must one day take charge of its own affairs, but when and how?

Russia is in an unending political holding pattern, forever circling the destination of democracy but unable to land. It’s easy to explain how it got into this dead-end, much harder to see how it gets out of it.

The collapse of more than 70 years of Communist dictatorship in 1987-91 left most Russians in a state of shock. The young felt liberated, the older generation was apprehensive, but nobody quite knew what to do next. The first and last truly competitive elections were held in that period, but by the mid-1990s the oligarchs (mostly ex-Communists) were back in the saddle.

The oligarchs had ‘privatised’ the formerly state-owned economy into their own pockets (with a little help from the local mafia), and they had co-opted President Boris Yeltsin as their front-man. Freely elected and once popular for his dramatic defence of democracy in the attempted Communist come-back coup of 1991, Yeltsin was a drunken and corrupt wreck of a man by the time of the 1996 election.

He ‘won’ that election thanks to massive Western and particularly US intervention in support of their favoured candidate (the traffic goes both ways), but his mismanagement of the economy wiped out the savings of most Russians and brought democracy itself into disrepute. Down to this day many Russians associate the word ‘democracy’ with the lawless and violent chaos of the ‘90s.

Putin, Yeltsin’s chosen successor, has maintained his popularity through 18 years in power because he has provided Russians with what they wanted above all: a fair degree of stability and predictability in their lives. Living standards for most Russians are probably still below what they were in late Soviet times, but they were slowly but steadily rising from their 1990s nadir until the collapse of oil prices three years ago.

Putin’s foreign adventures (Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine) are essentially defensive from a Russian point of view. Countries that were once part of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union are known as the ‘Near Abroad’, where different rules of conduct supposedly apply, but Western fears of a Russian military ambitions against NATO countries are largely self-serving myths peddled by Western military-industrial-political complexes.

In fact, Russia is far too weak economically and too fragile politically to embark on a military confrontation with any of the major powers. Putin is a deeply cautious man whose conservatism have given Russia a desperately needed respite from continuous and ruinous political upheavals.

He is for all practical purposes a dictator, of course, although by Russian historical standards a fairly non-violent one. And he has always meticulously observed the constitutional rules, even leaving the presidency and serving as prime minister in 2008-12 in order to comply with the ban on more than two consecutive presidential terms.

It sometimes feels like Putin, for all his faults, sees himself as a caretaker leader until Russia is strong and stable enough to try democracy again. He has certainly been careful to leave the entire legal structure of democracy in place, although he manipulates it ruthlessly for his own short-term purposes.

And the great unanswered question is: how would a post-Putin Russia revive the democratic experiment it embarked on in 1989-91, in the face of certain opposition from the oligarchs who benefit so greatly from current arrangements?

We may find out in the 2024 election, when Putin again comes up against the two-term limit.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Putin’s…upheavals”)