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European Union: No Populist Breakthrough?

For the second time in a month, a member country of the European Union has NOT voted a populist into power. Could it be that the populist wave has broken?

It would be a good time for that to happen, because elections to the EU’s parliament are next month. The hard-right populist parties that have already proliferated in the 28 member countries were hoping to sweep into a dominant position in the EU parliament as well next month, but maybe the story will be more nuanced.

The Spanish election on Sunday saw the traditional socialist party (PSOE) increase its vote by a quarter under the leadership of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. “The future has won and the past has lost,” said Sánchez, who has raised the minimum wage, appointed a female-dominated cabinet and promised to bring in laws defining rape as sex without clear consent during his brief time in power.

That wasn’t the headline on Monday morning, of course. Good news is no news, so the media played up the fact that a particularly nasty party of right-wing populists called Vox has made it into the Spanish parliament for the first time.

Vox is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and promises to “make Spain great again.” It wants to repeal laws against gender violence, and opposes abortion and same-sex marriage. But it actually only got 10 percent of the votes, and most of those it stole from the Popular Party, the traditional home for nationalist and ultra conservative voters.

Sánchez will still have a hard time putting a coalition government together – he’s probably going to have to make some deal with the Catalan separatists, which will alienate many other Spaniards – but this is not exactly populism triumphant.

It wasn’t a populist triumph in Slovakia last month either. The neo-fascist candidate, Marian Kotleba, didn’t even make it into the run-off presidential vote. In the second round Zuzana Caputova, a neophyte in politics, beat the candidate of Robert Fico’s ruling Smer-SD Party, which plays by right-wing populist rules and has close links with Viktor Orban’s elective dictatorship in Hungary.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial office in Slovakia, so Fico is still really running the government (although he had to step down as prime minister last year after an investigative journalist looking into links between Slovak politicians and organised crime was shot dead by hired killers). It’s not all roses yet in Slovakia, but spring is in the air.

So what does this tell us about the populist wave in Europe in general, and about the EU parliamentary elections next month in particular? Not as much as you’d like, because ‘Europe’ is a very complicated place.

What we can say is that there is a general rise in nationalism, from Brexit-supporting Britain to a huge surge of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant feeling in Eastern European countries
(which have almost no Muslims, or indeed immigrants of any sort). We can also say although most people won’t admit it) that nationalism on this scale does pose a real threat to the future of the European Union.

The European Union was the great political success story of the latter half of the 20th century. What was once the most war-torn part of the globe, the source of both the world wars, has become the most peaceful, cooperative and democratic region on the planet. It also looks after its citizens, on average, better than almost anywhere else.

Why would they (or at least a lot of them) now be in rebellion against all that? Economic growth has been slower in the past few decades, but they are not poor. The gap between the rich and the rest has been widening, but not nearly as much as it has in the United States or China or Russia. Why risk throwing it all away?

The EU has lost its unifying external threat. It was the menace of an allegedly expansionist Soviet Union that drove the Western European founders of EU to bury all their old quarrels and come together, but the Soviet Union is long gone and Putin’s Russia is not really a plausible replacement.

Another irritant is the growing pressure of immigration: refugees from wars in the Middle East and from both tyranny and climate change in Africa. The ‘threat’ that immigration poses is greatly exaggerated, but the 28 different governments of the EU have not come up with a coherent and effective policy to deal with it while the populists exploit it with great success.

The right-wing populist group of parties in the European Parliament currently holds 37 seats in the 751-member parliament but the latest opinion polls predict that it will rise to 61 seats in next month’s election. If the United Kingdom is still in the EU at that time, which seems likely, the total could rise to a hundred, but that’s still hardly a landslide.

The concern is not for the immediate future, but for the trend line. The populists have been gaining strength for two decades now, and if that goes on for another five years the EU could just vanish, the way the old Soviet Union did in 1991. So from that point of view, at least, the news from Spain and Slovakia is good news.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 11 and 12. (“Sánchez…triumphant”; and “The European…away”)

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”)

The Man Who Saved the World

Stanislav Petrov was never famous in Russia, just another forgotten pensioner, so the news of his death at 77 in Moscow on 19 May only recently reached other countries. He wasn’t all that famous abroad either, but people in the know think he may have saved the world from nuclear war.

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big back-lit red screen with the word ‘Launch’ on it,” he told the BBC’s Russian Service in a 2013 interview. “I had all the data (suggesting that there was a US missile attack underway)….All I had to do was to reach for the phone to raise the direct line to our top commander – but I couldn’t
move.”

He couldn’t move because his screen was giving him reports from a Soviet spy satellite that five American Minuteman missiles had been launched at the Soviet Union. In the tense international atmosphere of September 1983, Soviet military doctrine was ‘launch on warning’: send a full retaliatory strike against the United States even before American nuclear weapons start to explode over Soviet missile silos and cities.

It was only three weeks since a Soviet fighter had shot down a Korean Air Lines flight and killed all 269 people aboard, including a US Congressman. Six months previously US President Ronald Reagan had called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and called for a roll-back strategy that would “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union.”

The Soviet leadership was genuinely frightened, and had a view of Reagan not unlike that of the US government about Kim Jong-un today. They feared a surprise attack designed to destroy all of the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles and bombers on the ground, and so had moved to ‘launch on warning’ mode. If Colonel Petrov reported what his screen was telling him, the machinery of Armageddon could start moving very quickly.

Stanislav Petrov didn’t report it. It was a new system, and it could be making a mistake. Besides, Petrov knew that you only get one chance at a surprise attack, so logic says you should launch all your missiles at once – more than a thousand of them, in the case of the United States. Launching just five would be beyond stupid. So he waited.

And waited, for 23 eternal minutes, to see if the Soviet Union’s ground radars also picked up the incoming missiles as they descended towards their targets. They didn’t. “I realised that nothing had happened. If there had been a real strike, then I would already know about it. It was such a relief.”

He was an ordinary man who did one extraordinary thing in his life, but think of the courage it took to ignore his orders, trust his judgement, and risk exposing his country to a surprise American nuclear attack. Think of what went through his mind in those 23 minutes. He was a hero.

No good deed goes unpunished, so Petrov was officially reprimanded for failing to describe the incident in his logbook. He was initially praised by his commanding officer for doing the right thing, but then it was realised that if he was rewarded, the senior people responsible for the system that produced the error would be punished. So he was sidelined, retired early, and subsequently had a nervous breakdown.

And the system error? The satellite had spotted a rare alignment of sunlight, reflected from the cloud-tops over the US Minuteman fields, that resembled missile launch tracks to its simple-minded image-reading device. There were several similar incidents during the Cold War – a US over-the-horizon radar once reported Moonrise as a mass missile launch – but this was the only one that happened when the relevant side was in launch-on-warning mode.

Given how full of bugs the missile-detection programmes of those days were, it’s remarkable that the United States and the Soviet Union got through 40 years of the Cold War unharmed. Full credit to the professionals on both sides who understood how grave the consequences would be if they got it wrong, and always relied on their own intelligence and experience when confronted with terrifying data from their machines.

Full credit too to the leaders who stayed calm and never actually threatened each other. Occasionally they declared the other side doomed by history – Nikita Khrushchev’s famous “we will bury you” comment in 1956, Reagan’s “write the final pages of (Soviet) history” speech of 1983 – but they were always talking about the other side’s economic and political defeat, not its nuclear annihilation.

Things are bit different now. Kim Jong-un’s lunatic threat to “sink” Japan and reduce the United States to “ashes and darkness” with his handful of nuclear weapons, like Donald Trump’s all-too credible threat to “totally destroy North Korea” (that’s 25 million men, women and children barbecued, irradiated or simply vaporised, if he means what he says), go far beyond the language that was used during the Cold War.

It would be reassuring to know that the professional military on both sides, at least, are as responsible and grown-up now as they were then. Alas, we don’t even know that.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“No good…mode”)

Angola: All Change?

There is momentous change in Angola. The oil-rich country of 28 million people on Africa’s southwestern coast has just elected J-Lo as president.

There is also very little change in Angola. The new president is not Jennifer Lopez, the American J.Lo (which would definitely mean big change). It is João Lourenço, a member of the ruling Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) since the 1970s, a general since the 1980s, and most recently the Minister of Defence. He can’t sing, either.

J-Lo replaces 75-year-old José Eduardo Dos Santos, who has been president for the past 38 years (the second longest-ruling president in the world). But it’s questionable how much power he will really inherit from the outgoing president, who passed a new law prohibiting his successor from changing the heads of the army, the police or the intelligence service for eight years. Dos Santos wants no surprises after his retirement.

In fact, it’s hard to say that Dos Santos is retiring at all. He will remain the head of the ruling MPLA party, his daughter Isabel (Africa’s richest woman) runs the state oil company, and one of his sons controls the $5 billion state investment fund. Other allies and cronies dominate the rest of the economy.

J-Lo, by contrast, holds no positions that provide opportunities to steal massive amounts from state funds, and is widely believed to be non-corruptible or nearly so, a rare quality in the MPLA’s senior leadershiip. That may be why he was forced on Dos Santos by the party as a successor.

The MPLA has a little problem. After a devastating 27-year civil war between rival liberation movements ended with the death in battle in 2002 of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (Unita), rapidly growing oil production and high world oil prices created a huge boom in the Angolan economy. In several years since then it has been the fastest-growing economy in the world.

A great deal of the new wealth went to senior MLA members and their allies, but enough trickled down to keep the impoverished masses quiet and obedient. But the collapse in oil prices since 2014 has halved the Angolan government’s income and killed the private economy, such as it was. In the sprawling capital, Luanda, half-finished, abandoned apartment towers line the shore.

The poor are getting poorer, and they may eventually get angry. This is a relatively rich country where 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday and a quarter of the adult population is officially unemployed (unofficially, much more). There is a lot of dry political tinder lying around waiting for a match.

The opposition Unita party won 27 percent of the votes in last week’s election, ten percent more than ever before, despite what was probably large-scale vote-rigging. The rank-and-file of the ruling party is getting worried, and despite having made the transition from hard-line communist to free-market capitalist over the years the MPLA remains a disciplined organisation.

Dos Santos was invulnerable until he got ill, but for more than a year he has been receiving treatment for cancer. He had his cousin, Vicente Manuel, made vice-president in 2012 with the intention of making him the designated successor, but the party chose João Lourenço instead in 2015. And though nobody is admitting it publicly, it probably pressured Dos Santos not to run again in the 2017 election.

So change is probably on the way in Angola after all, despite Dos Santos’s strenuous efforts to protect his family’s own wealth and power and hamstring his successor. What kind of change it’s hard to say, because like all prominent MPLA members J-Lo has had to hide any contrary opinions he may have held during the long reign of Dos Santos.

One clue, however, is Lourenço’s reputation for honesty. Long-ruling parties faced with collapsing popular support often try to win it back by choosing somebody known to be clean and competent as leader: think of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union picking Mikhail Gorbachev as General Secretary in 1985.

But remember also what happened to the CPSU in 1991. It was already too late to “reform” the Communist Party in the Soviet Union by 1985. It may already be too late to reform the MPLA now. And Angola’s civil war is only fifteen years in the past: a transition to a less corrupt, more open, less repressive regime would be a tricky thing to manage.

Lourenço has fought for and served the MPLA all his adult life, and he certainly has no intention of removing it from power. But he could be seduced by the idea of making it really popular again, and thereby holding onto power by genuinely democratic means.

In which case we must wish him luck, while knowing that he is likely to fail.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12-13. (“One clue…manage”)