Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Dismiss the Saeima" - an even brighter false dawn?

It finally happened. What has been chanted frequently in the street of Latvia's capital by larger or smaller crowds of demonstrators or picketers has at last been set in motion: Dismiss the Saeima(parliament)! Dismiss the Saeima!
After what can only be described as a partly depraved, largely cowardly “vote” by 37 abstentions to NOT lift the parliamentary immunity of oligarch Ainārs Šlesers so that a court authorized search of his residences could be conducted, President Valdis Zatlers probably did the right thing. It was the second major event after the January 13, 2009 riots that made the ruling elite wake up to “a new Latvia” the day after. Or so it seemed and seems.
The problem is that complete political depravity, incompetence, cluelessness etc. has become endemic to Latvia and one need not have a “wake-up call” event to discover that. It has been going on with various degrees of intensity for 20 years. That is long enough to conclude that the “symptoms” are not temporary, transitory (as in side effects of transition from the Soviet system) or even easily curable, if at all. The inability to rule itself with out massive self-plunder and waste of resources given in good faith by (starting with G-24 funds in the early 1990s, to EU Phare programs in some of which much was taught, little learned or applied, to EU funds the past few years) is no longer an anomaly of Latvia, it is a characteristic. It is what the anti-corruption police were fighting in their raids against the offices of the oligarchs Andris Šķēle and Aivars Lembergs and with the warrants to search Šlesers' residences. 
I doubt that this gesture by President Zatlers, who concisely and mildly defined the problem in his televised speech, will do very much to solve the problem. By bringing about new elections (a Saeima trusted by 10% of the population is unlikely to get referendum support) Zatlers has at least opened a very thin crack (not a window, we have been missing “windows” through 20 years and five elections) of opportunity for some kind of change.
The question is, who will carry out those changes? We have seen false dawns of reform, starting with the founding of New Era (Jaunais Laiks/JL), one of the components of the present Vienotība (Unity) alliance. That brought us the “golden hands” of the corrupt surgeon/Minister of Health appointed by the loopy Prime Minister Einars Repše, who at least decided to serve not having collected LVL 1 million (around USD 2 million ) in contributions for a personal fortune that he asked for. Not being as rich as he wanted to be didn't keep Repše from making huge crackpot investments (a luxury yacht ride business, real estate in the middle of nowhere) and borrowing money like a sheik who had spend too much time at the water pipe.
The JL government fell, paving the way for the good old boys of Aigars Kalvitis and the “fat years” to run the Latvian economy (with a little help from Swedish banks and a population that never learned the difference between loans and gifts) into the ground, leading to the present years of depression, stagnation and mass emigration. Then, in a surge of hope for which there was little basis, the 2010 elections brought in Vienotība, the new amalgam around JL (JL2 or JL and New Friends, were it a band). The previous administration, which was effectively “re-elected” unter the Vienotība banner, had already done much to make spending cuts with an axe and in a manner that demoralized and depleted vital public services rather than making them more efficient, leaner and meaner. Hundreds left the ranks of the police, there was probably much “negative selectivity” among other bureaucracies, with those hit by salary cuts but able to sell their education and skills elsewhere willingly moving on, most likely, out of Latvia. The medical professions (doctors, nurses) started a major bleed-off to other EU countries. All in all, the catastrophe and demoralization continued.
Vienotība also got in bed with the puppet party of oligarch Aivars Lembergs, the Green and Farmer's Union, in order to form a government and keep both the pro-Russian Harmony Center and the radical nationalist “ All for Latvia” in opposition. Even without mentioning the disunity preventing a quick unification of “Unity” into a single party, Vienotība has failed most expectations raised in the election campaign. It deserves to be run out of town, but probably with fewer dogs and pitchfork waving citizens chasing it than the other parties.
So one the euphoria fades after Zatler's speech and historical decree number 2 starting dismissal of the Saeima, what happens next? I don't see a solution. Many of the best and brightest have simply left the country for places where their efforts result in a better quality of life and where rational (though often flawed) governance is not an issue. The political elite, like a drunk someone is trying to deal with, has gotten another loud slap with a towel soaked in ice-water, but as we know, this doesn't make anyone less drunk. It will be interesting to see what new chimerical political creatures will appear over the next few months to drag what is left of the electorate into new illusory traps.
Maybe I am wrong, I am not on the scene at the moment (visiting the US for personal reasons), but I am not placing any hopeful bets.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Crusading Obscurantists attack a social studies textbook

Obscurantism and theocratic tendencies, never far in the background in Latvia, are raising their heads again as a virulent debate rages over the inclusion of psychologist's views on homosexuality in a 9th grade social sciences textbook. The psychotherapist Jolanta Cihanoviča is quoted in a reprinted interview as saying that homosexuality is not an illness, that this has been acknowledged by medical and psychiatric organizations around the world, and that it is a “normal aspect” of human sexuality.
Religious organizations, including the archbishop of the Latvian Lutheran Church Jānis Vanags, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Latvia, Zbigņevs Stankevičs, representatives of Baptist and Seventh-Day Adventist congregations, signed a letter to the Latvian government demand that the textbook be withdrawn because of what they deemed unacceptable views on homosexuality. Interestingly, the letter was also signed by a nationalist member of the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, Imants Parādnieks, who, according to press reports and his own statements, maintains long-term, affectionate relationships with two women and has been called a “polygamist” by some media.
Latvia's Ministry of Education and Science has now caved in to the demands of the ultra-conservative religious factions (mainstream Lutheranism is tolerant of homosexuality, Latvia's church does not even ordain women) and hinted that the views of “the church” would be included in the next edition of the textbook. Presently, it looks like the “church” is considered to be only those religious leaders that vehemently denounce homosexuality as sin and depravity, and also reject the views of medical science and psychology that different sexual orientation is not an illness or disorder.
I wouldn't object to a social science textbook that illustrated contemporary trends by examining the debate in society and within world religions on sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular. That could very well include quoting the condemnation of gays as depraved sinners by some Latvian religious leaders and the acceptance of gays and all other people by such ministers as Harvard-trained Juris Cālitis, who has held religious services ahead of Latvia's controversial “Gay Pride” events a few years ago.
However, the danger in the present turn of events is that the education authorities of a formally secular democracy are caving in to the demands of obscurantist religious movements and their political supporters. If they make gains on the “hot” issue of gays, other attacks on the secular teaching of science are not far behind. After all, as recent polls show, this is a country where 35% of the population believe that the sun revolves around the earth.
Media stories about the controversy, as always, generated hundreds of reader comments, most of them vehemently homophobic, supporting the censorship of the textbook, and referring to various conspiracy theories about why most medical and psychiatric organizations in the world, including the World Health Organizaition (WHO) do not see gays as Satan's agents sent to deprave the young and to destroy Latvia in particular.
Cihanoviča, an experienced psychotherapist who has been published internationally, was denounced in violent, hateful language in many of the comments, something that has almost become a norm in Latvian internet media. It yet again affirms my observation some time ago that Latvians hate free speech and love hate speech or something to that effect.
To be “fair”, or at least to explain why the endemic witches' kettle of ignorance, xenophobia, paranoia and twisted national inferiority complex was set a-boiling again, Cihanoviča used the word “normal” (normāls) in Latvian. It became a red flag to a herd of intellectually blind (or disabled) raging bulls, because to many Latvians, normāls is seen as meaning “this is what you MUST accept” or “this is what you MUST go out and do”. In other words, in the narrow, scared and information deprived mind-space of many Latvians, it mean that “we are turning your kids into gays and they better obey, because it is normāls.” In fact, normal simply means that it is something that is out there, that doesn't go away, that is part of nature, life and society. In Latvia, snow is normal, but I don't have to affirm that I love it or to run out and buy skis or a sled.
The whole issue is interesting, because it falls squarely across the themes of two of my blogs – one on free speech issues, because text book censorship by religious groups is a major free speech issue in many countries, It also addresses the issue of Latvia as a failed state of sorts, whose failure is partly rooted in the persistence of ignorance, xenophobia, authoritarianism and the populist appeak of crusading obscurantism or, as Latvians put it karojošā tumsonība. The warriors of intellectual darkness have made the education authorities blink, which is a very bad sign.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Protests and flowers mark 21 years since Latvia's independence renewal vot

A small protest rally and an official flower-laying ceremony marked the 21st anniversary of a vote on May 4, 1990 by Latvia's then Soviet-style legislature, the Supreme Council, to start restoring the nation's independence and break out of the crumbling Soviet Union.
Two decades and a year later, Latvia fits the initial description I wrote when starting this blog under its current title -- a "failed state lite" where the facade of modern civilization remains, but society's trust in the institutions of governance and in a viable future is probably irrevocably shattered.
To be sure, independence was accompanied by some unrealistic expectations that could be still heard among the protestors. Independence is not complete economic autarky (self-sufficiency) in some kind of surreal economic system where everything is owned by "the Latvians". Independence is not a stern, all-providing powerful state/government, that ensures and enforces 19th century morals and values on an obedient population. On the same subject, independence is not an instrument for finding a new, charismatic "leader" for an isolated pastoral (largely farming) nation looking only to itself and the past.
Independence was and still may be an opportunity for Latvia and the people living there to participate in the modern, Western world as it is (hardly an ideal place, but much better than the world before the Enligtenment and the spread of much maligned and totally misinterpreted "liberalism" that gave birth to the idea and possibility of free nations of free individuals governed by the consent of these individuals).
In any case, this was not meant to be an essay, but a videoblog, which I now present:

Monday, May 02, 2011

An update on the state of affairs (videoblog)

I did a videoblog update on the state of affairs in Latvia. Sometimes I don't feel that I have time to write, so instead, I sat down in front of my iMac webcam and recorded this.