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Soviet Union

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Armenia and Azerbaijan

28 September 2020

It’s probably Azerbaijan that started the shooting in this latest round of fighting with neighbouring Armenia. Which is not to say that it’s all Azerbaijan’s fault.

The killing that started on Sunday is the biggest clash since the cease-fire of 1994: helicopters shot down, tanks blown up, and dozens of soldiers dead already. It could go the distance – the 1992-94 war cost 30,000 lives and drove a million people from their homes – or it could die down in a few days. But it won’t settle anything.

In the Caucasus, neighbouring countries can be wildly different: Azerbaijan is Shia Muslim and speaks what is really an eastern dialect of Turkish, while Armenia is Orthodox Christian and speaks a language that has no known relatives within the Indo-European family. But the two countries share a long history of oppression.

They both spent almost a century in the Russian empire, got their independence back briefly during the Revolution, and then spent another 70 years as part of the Soviet Union. When they both got their independence again in 1991, however, they almost immediately went to war.

That was Joseph Stalin’s fault. When he was Commissar of Nationality Affairs in 1918-22, he drew the borders of all the new non-Russian ‘Soviet Republics’ in the Caucasus and Central Asia according to the classic imperial principle of divide-and-rule. Every ‘republic’ included ethnic minorities from neighbouring republics, to minimise the risk that they might develop a genuine national identity.

In the case of Azerbaijan, Stalin gave it the district of Nagorno-Karabakh (‘mountainous’ Karabakh) even though that area was four-fifths Armenian in population. When the Soviet Union began crumbling 70 years later, the local minorities in both countries started fleeing to areas where they would be safely in the majority even before the war got underway.

The actual war in 1992-94 was a brutal affair involving active ethnic cleansing: 600,000 Azerbaijanis and 300,000 Armenians became refugees. On paper Armenia should have lost, for it has only 3 million people to Azerbaijan’s 9 million, but it actually won most of the battles.

When post-Soviet Russia brokered a cease-fire between the exhausted parties, Armenia wound up holding not only Nagorno-Karabakh but a large amount of other territory (now emptied of Azerbaijanis) that connected Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia proper. And that’s where the border – more precisely the cease-fire line – remains to this day.

I haven’t been near the front line since shortly after that war, so why would I claim to know that it’s Azerbaijan starting up the war again this time? Three reasons.

First, Armenia already controls all the territory it claims and more. However, in terms of international law it has no legal claim to it, and the UN Security Council has four times called for the withdrawal of Armenian troops. Why would Armenia draw further unwelcome attention to the fact that it has been illegally occupying ‘foreign’ territory for 26 years?

Secondly, Armenia is much weaker in military terms. Not only has it far fewer people but it is poor, whereas Azerbaijan has enjoyed great wealth from oil. Both countries buy most of their weapons from Russia, but in the past two decades Azerbaijan has consistently outspent Armenia on defence nine-to-one.

Finally, Azerbaijan’s ‘elected’ dictator, Ilham Aliyev, has a strong political need for a war right now, while Armenia’s new leader, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, does not.

Pashinyan came to power in 2018 in a free election, after non-violent protests forced out his long-ruling predecessor, who was trying to ‘do a Putin’. (That is to say, stay in power when he hit the two-term limit as president by moving real power to the prime minister’s office, and coming back himself as prime minister.) Armenia now has free media and a popular president.

Aliyev is fighting to prolong his family’s dynastic rule for a third generation in the face of popular protests. His father, Heydar Aliyev, was a career KGB officer who became leader of the Azerbaijan Communist Party and took over as dictator after the Soviet Union collapsed. (This happened in most of the Muslim ex-Soviet republics.)

Heydar managed to pass power to his son Ilham before he died in 2003. Ilham changed the constitution to scrap presidential term limits in 2009. In 2016 he even lowered the age limit on the presidency, to smooth the path to the throne for his then 19-year-old son.

Azerbaijan’s opposition parties, despite oppression, jail and torture, are resisting Ilham Aliyev’s tyranny, and their most effective rallying cry is Armenia’s occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mobs of anti-regime demonstrators took over central Baku last week demanding action, and this mini-war is Aliyev’s attempt to placate them.

It will all die down if Armenia can hold on long enough for Russia to impose another cease-fire. Otherwise, it may get very ugly again.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“Aliyev…son”)

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”)