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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.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The discrimination…time”)

Universal Basic Income

In a referendum on Sunday, Swiss voters rejected a proposal for a guaranteed annual income for everybody by an overwhelming 78%-22% majority. But the idea was not crazy, and it is not going to go away.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is developing a pilot project for a universal basic income that will launch in January 2017. The Finnish government is designing a trial to see whether giving low-income people a guaranteed basic income destroys their motivation to do any work at all, as critics allege. The idea is not going away because most “real” jobs are on the way out.

The old argument in defence of technological change – that it creates more new jobs than it destroys – no longer holds water. In the 1980s, 8 percent of new jobs created in the developed economies were in entirely new occupations, from call-centres to computer programmers. In the 1990s, only 4.4% of the new jobs involved newly invented occupations. In the 2000s, only half a percent did.

So full-time jobs with benefits have declined – only one-quarter of working-age Americans now have one – and the so-called “gigging economy” has not filled the gap. You may be able to stay afloat financially by doing a variety of “gigs” – low-paid, short-term, often part-time jobs – but you will never make ends meet, let alone get a mortgage..

Industrial jobs were the first to be destroyed by automation, but it soon moved on to the less demanding clerical jobs as well. As somebody said: “Every ATM contains the ghosts of three bank tellers.” And now it’s moving on to the kinds of jobs that it once seemed impossible to automate. Driving, for example.

The driverless vehicles that are now to be found meticulously observing the speed limit (and causing angry traffic jams behind them) on the roads of various major cities will soon be out of the experimental stage. At that point, the jobs of many millions of truck-drivers, bus-drivers and van-drivers will be in jeopardy.

Another huge chunk of the economy will start shedding jobs rapidly as online health monitoring and diagnosis take over the routine work of non-specialised health professionals. A similar fate awaits most mid-level jobs in the financial services sector, the retail sector and “management” in general.

The standard political response to this trend is to try desperately to create other jobs, even if they are poorly paid, almost pointless jobs, in order to keep people “in work” and off welfare. Unemployment is sees as a failure by both the government and the victim.

Yet this “problem” is actually a success story. Why would you see an economy that delivers excellent goods and services without requiring people to devote half their waking hours to work as a problem? The real problem is figuring out how to distribute the benefits of automation when people’s work is no longer needed.

And so to this relatively new idea: universal basic income. The core principle is that everybody gets a guaranteed income that is enough to live on, whether they are poor or rich, employed or not. They can earn as much more as they want, if they can find the work, but their basic needs are covered.

The actual amounts did not get mentioned in the Swiss referendum, but the people who proposed it were thinking in terms of a monthly income of $2,500 for every adult, and an additional sum of $625 a month for every child. It would replace the usual humiliating jumble of welfare payments with a single fixed sum for everybody, so it has appeal for the right wing as well as the left.

In the Swiss model (and in many others) the cost of a universal basic income is about 50% higher than current expenditure on welfare payments, so taxes would be higher. But so would incomes, including those of high earners, since even they are getting the same flat annual payment of $30,000 per adult.

As for the inevitable rise of the “gigging economy”, that then becomes just the way people top up their incomes in order to afford luxuries. If there is work available, then people would still want to do it – but if there is not, they would still have decent lives.

About half the remaining traditional full-time jobs in advanced economies will be eliminated by automation in the next 10-20 years, so this is an idea whose time has come. Then why did the Swiss reject it by a 4-to-1 majority? Mainly because their deal with the European Union means that they have relatively open borders.

Luzi Stamm, a member of parliament for the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, liked the idea in principal but opposed it in practice: “Theoretically, if Switzerland were an island, the answer is yes,” he told the BBC. “But with open borders, it’s a total impossibility…If you offered every individual [living here] a Swiss amount of money, you would have billions of people who would try to move into Switzerland.”

Well, tens of millions anyway. But the solution to that is to control the borders, not to abandon the whole idea. And it will be back.
To shorten to 700 words, omit 2, 7 and 8. (“The Dutch…out”; and “Another…victim”)

Provocations: Switzerland and Iran

29 November 2009

Provocations: Switzerland and Iran

By Gwynne Dyer

There are only four minarets in Switzerland: one for every hundred thousand Muslims in the country. Swiss Muslims keep a low profile, so as not to excite the numerous people in the country who hate and fear them. But since those people are numerous, a political party can prosper by demanding a referendum on whether further minarets should be banned in Switzerland. With luck, that will provoke protests and demonstrations by Muslims.

There is only one nuclear power station under construction in Iran, at Bushehr, and none that are operational. The fuel for the Bushehr reactor will be supplied by Russia, under a contract that was signed long ago. So when the Iranian government orders ten new uranium enrichment plants for reactors that have not even been designed yet, you may safely assume that it is trying to provoke an attack on Iran.

“Provocation” is no longer a fashionable word, but the tactic it describes has never been more popular. The 9/11 attacks on the United States, for example, were meant to provoke the United States into invading Afghanistan.

During the late 1970s and the 1980s, Osama bin Laden watched Washington lure the Soviet Union into invading Afghanistan and cripple it in a long guerilla war. (Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser in 1977-80, still boasts about it in his after-dinner speeches.) Bin Laden fought in that war, supported by American money and weapons. With 9/11, he planned to do the same to the Americans themselves.

Even those officials in Washington who understood bin Laden’s strategy could not avoid falling into the trap, because American public opinion demanded a prompt military response to the outrage. What makes provocation so effective is that it often works even when your opponent knows what you are up to. He has to act in order to retain credibility with his own political clientele.

So let us consider the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which sponsored the referendum on 28 November that banned the construction of new minarets in the country. The SVP has become the largest party in the Swiss parliament by playing on popular fears that immigrants are taking over the country. About twenty percent of the Swiss population are foreign residents, attracted there by the country’s prosperity, but only five percent – some 400,000 people – are Muslims.

Muslims have nevertheless become the main target for the SVP’s anti-immigrant propaganda, because they inspire more fear than the others. During the referendum, the SVP plastered on every flat surface in the country with a poster showing a Swiss flag covered with six black minarets (which looked remarkably like missiles), with a black-clad Muslim woman in full niqab gazing on the scene. Religion, weapons, an oppressed woman who was probably going to produce lots of Muslim babies – it had it all.

The SVP won 29 percent of the votes in the last election in 2007, which is embarrassing enough for the Swiss. In this referendum, it got 57 percent of the votes, so it has clearly found the right button to press. Its ultimate goal, however, is to provoke Switzerland’s Muslims into protesting publicly against its policies. If they can be lured into doing that, the backlash among the Swiss could give the SVP complete dominance in the next election.

The next election is probably what is driving policy in Iran, too. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the conservative clerical faction with which he is allied lost most of their political credibility during the rigged elections and the subsequent street protests last spring. They have stabilised the situation by killing dozens of protesters in the streets and jailing and torturing hundreds of others, but that is only a temporary solution.

The only thing that could rebuild popular support for the present government is a foreign attack on Iran. That can only come from the United States and/or Israel, and what would motivate them to do such a thing? Well, we could announce that we are going to build ten new uranium enrichment plants.

Think about it. Why would Iran ANNOUNCE such a thing in advance? Hitherto, it has always kept what it is doing in the nuclear domain secret as long as possible. Besides, it simply lacks the resources to build ten uranium enrichment plants at the same time, or even five. Moreover, it knows that this announcement will panic those in Israel and the United States who obsess about Iranian nuclear weapons. So what’s the point?

The point of the provocation is to get the Americans and/or the Israelis to attack Iran. The country is too big for them to invade, so the attacks would just be air strikes. Whatever they destroyed could be repaired after they stop – and they would stop. Iran can shut the Gulf to all tanker traffic by using sea-skimming missiles, and the world cannot do without Gulf oil for more than a few weeks.

If the US or Israel attacks Iran, Ahmadinejad and the clerics will be in power for another ten years. That’s worth putting up with a few bombs for. The decision has been made in Tehran. Now Washington has to decide if it is going to fall for the provocation.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“During…clientele”)