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Vladimir Putin

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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”)

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”)

No More Pootie-Poot

20 February 2005

No More Pootie-Poot

By Gwynne Dyer

President George W. Bush leaves the flourishing metropolis of Mainz on the evening of 23 February, after meeting with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and flies to Bratislava for a dinner with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. (Mainz? Bratislava? Not Berlin and Moscow? Is Mr Bush avoiding European crowds?) The Russian and American presidents will doubtless maintain a polite facade, but it’s unlikely that Bush will emerge from this meeting to declare once again that “Pootie-Poot” is his soulmate.

The Russian-American relationship is not thriving, and the proof of it is the fact that the United States granted political asylum a month ago to Alyona Morozova, a Russian citizen who claims that her life is in danger because of her role in investigating a series of “terrorist” bombing attacks that killed 246 Russians in September 1999. The chief suspect in the bombings, according to her, is Vladimir Putin.

Three apartment blocks in Russian cities were destroyed by huge bombs that month, including one that left Alyona Morozova’s mother and boyfriend dead under the rubble. There had been peace between Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya since 1996, and no Chechen claimed responsibility for the bombings, but then-prime minister Vladimir Putin immediately blamed the atrocities on the Chechens and launched a second war against them that continues to this day.

Boris Yeltsin was in the last year of his presidency then, and he was seeking a way to retire without facing prosecution for the fortunes he and his cronies had amassed in their years of power. Vladimir Putin, former head of the FSB secret police, had recently been appointed prime minister by Yeltsin but was still largely unknown to the Russian public.

The deal was that Yeltsin would pass the presidency to Putin at the end of the year, and Putin would then grant Yeltsin an amnesty for all crimes committed while he was in office. But there was still the tedious business of an election to get through, and Russians who scarcely knew Putin’s name had to be persuaded to vote for him on short notice. How to boost his profile as Saviour of the Nation? Well, a war, obviously.

Alyona Morozova (and many others) claim that Putin’s old friends at the FSB carried out the apartment bombings themselves, in order to give their man a pretext to declare war on Chechnya and make himself a national hero in time for the presidential elections. It would be just one more unfounded conspiracy theory — except that only days after the big Moscow bomb, a resident at a similar apartment building in the city of Ryazan spotted three people acting suspiciously and called the local police.

The police founds sacks in the cellar that they initially said contained hexogen, the explosive used in the other bombings, together with a timer set for 5.30 am. They also discovered that the three people who had planted the explosives were actually FSB agents. Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the FSB, insisted that the sacks contained only sugar and that the whole thing was a training exercise, and the local police fell silent, but there was no proper investigation.

Alyona Morozova fears the Russian government’s wrath because a number of other people who have tried to investigate the incident have been murdered or jailed on trumped-up charges of “espionage”. So she asked for political asylum in the United States: nothing surprising in that. It’s much more surprising that the US government actually granted her asylum, because it is implicitly acknowledging the possibility that President Vladimir Putin, in addition to being a mass murderer of Chechens, may also be a mass murderer of Russians.

You do not do this to countries you expect to be friends with. It may be the RIGHT thing to do, in moral terms, but that has not been a significant constraint on US policy towards trusted allies like Algeria, Egypt and Turkmenistan. Something else is going on here.

Just straws in the wind, but count them. Russia has refused to cut its support for Iran’s nuclear power projects despite all of Washington’s blandishments. Moscow is on the brink of a surface-to-air missile deal with Syria that would give that country the ability to challenge Israeli and even American overflights. The European Union is about to end its embargo on arms sales to China. The EU will go ahead with its Galileo satellite geo-positioning system, which can greatly improve missile accuracy, despite US protests that the existing American system (with fuzzed data for non-US military customers) is good enough for everybody. And it will sell the Galileo data to the Chinese.

There is a realignment going on, and it isn’t about ideology. If Russia were a fully democratic country, its foreign ministry would still be worried by US adventurism in the Middle East. If China were a democracy, it would probably be MORE active in opposing the American military presence in East Asia. And France and Germany, which are genuine democracies, increasingly see the US as a threat — not to them directly, but to global stability.

This change of attitude is not yet an accomplished fact, and a change of course in Washington could still abort the trend. But most of the world’s other major powers are starting to see the United States as a rogue state, and gradually they are responding to that perception. Nothing George W. Bush will say or do on this European trip is likely to change their minds.

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