Monday, February 20, 2012

More on the Latvian referendum and the Nisei Russians

Well, the balagāns (carnival) of sorts is over. The outcome of the referendum was clear to start with. More interesting are the results of the referendum when analyzed as a kind of survey or popularity poll. Clearly, something is the matter in Latgale, the eastern region of Latvia, and it is not only that most people there seem to be happy speaking Russian. Even before the vote, Latgallians were dissatisfied with new government rules preventing the daily crossing of the Russian border to bring back cheaper motor fuel, cigarettes, alcohol and other goods. For many “bordertown” inhabitants, this essentially “legal smuggling” for resale was a means of survival. According to some reports, when the new policies were announced, there was a near-riot in Rēzekne.
In the long term, ways have to be found to create jobs in Latgale and to at least slow down the emigration that has taken around 20% of the region's population since the last census in 2000.
The point has also been made that something has to be done to resolve issues with the so-called Russian speakers. Mostly it seems to a kind of Rodney Dangerfield complex (the late American comedian known for his repetitive line: I don't get no respect). Since just what this means, exactly, is hard to define, maybe people should talk about it.
I suspect the Rodney Dangerfield thing is something that afflicts sovoks a lot more than it affects the part of the population I called the Nisei Russians (like the second and onwards generation ethnic Japanese in the US). The Slavic Nisei are people who are fully aware that they are no longer living in the Russian motherland and, for whatever benefits their country of residence offers, there are certain sacrifices. One is that Russian is not the state language, but that it is respected or at least benignly neglected as long as you can communicate in whatever the local language is.
When Latvians arrived in the US as refugees after World War II, they learned English, and when many Latvians moved to English-speaking countries to seek work in recent years, they also had to speak English. No one is going to make their language the new state language, although countries suddenly facing significant numbers of Latvians are taking pragmatic steps to ensure that important matters are explained to them in Latvian – basic laws and regulations, procedures for dealing with the authorities, perhaps safety rules at some workplaces.
This is nothing new – countries with large migrant labor communities provide services in their languages, be it Turkish in Germany, Finnish or Serbo-Croatian in Sweden. However, by the second or third generation at the latest, the descendants of the immigrant laborers are fluent in the local language, sometimes, perhaps all too often, at the cost of their “native language”. For this reason, places like Sweden even offer home language teaching. This leads to bizarre employment ads seeking instructors (with higher education) to teach an obscure African language spoken mostly by illiterate goatherds.
What I mean to say is that there is a range of options short of adding new official languages for dealing with a significant and often permanent population that doesn't speak the local and indigenous language. In the time of the Nisei Russians (who had been there for generations) in Latvia, the Russian language was also handled pragmatically. Latgale, already a problem child back then, prevented Latvian being enshrined as a state language in the 1922 constitution. Someone wanted the Latgallian dialect (with different spellings and pronounciations) also made a state language. Latvian was later made a de facto state language in practice and by later legislation, but as I understand it, made it into the constitution only in 1998. In the Saeima, where most deputies were multilingual, indigenous languages such as German, Russian and Yiddish could be spoken, bu the transcripts of proceedings were published in Latvian.
Back in the 1920s and 1930s, except for some historical irritation with the Germans, the local ex-lords and landowners, languages had largely co-evolved, with only Russian being briefly pressured on certain parts of Latvia at certain times under the Czars when it was decided to russify the non-Slavic peoples of the Russian Empire. So no language, except for German, was politically loaded and even then, it was resented rather than resisted because no one was forcing on free citizens in a free country.
It was the Soviet Union, led mostly by Russians cowering under a fearsome Georgian, that weaponized the Russian language and turned it on the non-Russian peoples of the aptly named prison of nations. Russian was going to be the common language of a Soviet people to be forged, first by the subtractive terror of executing, deporting or imprisoning national elites and national bourgeois elements, then by “gentler” proactive methods of teaching a Soviet newspeak that closely resembled Russian. Along with it, to Latvia, came the first speakers of Soviet Russian, many of them descendants of ethnic Russian or other Slavic peoples who had already had been put through one or two runs of the Soviet grinder.
The result was that the Soviet Russian used in publications and official speech also embodied or in various ways served the totalitarian regime that the Soviet occupation brought with it. It was, after a while, the Slavic language of sovokshomo sovieticus by another name – but often, too, of lowlife and criminals (maybe I am mistaken, but the Soviet industrialized Baltic states were a place of work release for large numbers of Soviet criminals finishing their sentences for ordinary crimes). The Russian of the Soviet era (OK, I don't speak a word of it, so I am told and have read) became the carrier of totalitarian lies and nonsense in one aspect of a pretty unpleasant life, and the bljed! suka!bellowing drunk ex-jailbird neighbor pounding on the door because his wife has locked him out again in another side of Soviet reality.
Latvia's Nisei Russians, who for the most part were ordinary folk who celebrated Christmas in January and celebrated Easter for hours with kissing all around, were buried under the sovok avalanche dumped on the country under Soviet rule. They were lumped with the Russian-speaking sovoks and I have spotted a few Nisei in my circle of aquaintances. Back in the day, most Russians in Latvia spoke at least some Latvian, and it was not a threat to what they were.
However, the new Soviet world permeated by sovok-Russian was a direct threat to Latvians and Latvia's indigenous nationalities, it was a weaponized language aimed at making sovoks of everyone, with real Soviet Russians being just a bit more equal that others.
It is this attitude, that of Soviet Russian privilege, that has survived the end of Soviet rule in Latvia and has not been moderated in many cases by attempts at “integration”. Even without examining the practical effectiveness or theoretical validity of Latvia's integration efforts, it seems obvious that while immigrants can, in many societies, integrate “upwards” from the “lower” status of new arrivals to being accepted or even part of the elite (see how Latvian-born Laila Freivalds became a minister in Sweden), it is harder, if not impossible for self-proclaimed or self-deluded elites to “integrate” in a direction they perceive as downwards. For Tovarsich Bljed-Suka adjusting to a free Latvia where he had to speak the Dog Language was a serious challenge. In many cases it still is. That is what the referendum was about for many Latvians.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The referendum and Latvia's Nissei Russians

So the vote has started in the language referendum. The effort to make Russian a second state language in Latvia is doomed to failure. There is no real need for it, anyone who is monolingual in Russian can not only get their daily business done (with a bit of hassle in some places) but they can also enjoy a broad spectrum of local Russian culture and information (theater, radio, local TV) as well as a massive amount of Russian-language electronic media from Russia (both on local cable channels and with satellite dishes).
Indeed, the default choice in putting together cable TV program packages is a few local channels and almost everything else but CNN and BBC World (if available) is either in Russian or with a Russian soundtrack. Even Lattelecom, the national telecoms and pay TV operator, recently replaced the English-language History Channel (which I think could be switched to a Russian soundtrack) with a monolingual Russian science channel Nauka. It is impossible to switch languages on this, even when the Russian soundtrack seems to have been laid over English in some kind of adapted segment.
A number of commentators have said that the underlying causes of the referendum are unresolved ethnic issues after 20 years of independence and should be seen as a strong signal of failure to build a unified society based on multi-ethnic solidarity. As “let's all sing Kumbaya” - desirable that may seem, suffice it to say that there are few societies on the planet that have achieved this. That includes the US, despite the 1940s war movie Army squads where the Italian guy, the Irish kid, the wisecracking Brooklyn Jewish guy, the Scandinavian farmer's son and the college kid from Philly all joined together to fight the evil buck-toothed Jap (more on that later).
I am sure integration would have worked had Latvia been towed away in 1991 and anchored as a large island next to Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. Completely isolated from its ex-aggressor and occupier neighbor, the island republic would be a happy nation of Latvians of different ethnicities, with Russian as a home language (as were Latvian, German, Greek in hypothetically neighboring Australia) for part of the population.
This, however, was not the case. Latvia and its Russians remained under the powerful, sometimes chilling political and increasingly state power-elite-controlled media shadow of an unrepentant Russia. Vladimir Putin's outrageous statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union (prison of nations, anyone?) “was a major geopolitical disaster of the century”. How do you say WTF?? in Russian? The ethnic Russian and non-Latvian Russian speakers (Belarussians, Ukrainians, other “Soviet nations” represented here) were enveloped in a separate Russian media bubble that was hostile by default to the Baltic states, portraying them as cryptofascist apartheid societies.
Latvians, in the early and mid-1990s, frankly, had other concerns than being hypersensitive to the needs of a nation or national minority that they saw as the oppressor nation for the previous 50 years. Never mind that those concerns were making a Charlie Foxtrot of their politics and economy with incompetence, corruption, bungling, you-name-it. The perception of Russia and what Russians in Latvia represented (whether individual Russians themselves had chosen to do so or not didn't matter) was determined by hard, recent historical experience. The Latvians and Russians shot down by the OMON paramilitary police in January, 1991, were not shot by Samoans, in case anyone hadn't noticed.
Which brings us back to the Japanese and the US in 1941. I think one of the unseen and sad aspects of the ethnic situation in Latvia has some rough parallels with the way US citizens of Japanese ancestry were perceived after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Latvia in 1940 had an indigenous, integrated Russian community, all were citizens, served in the Latvian military, had their own fraternities, the Russian Orthodox or Old Believers churches, etc. Then the “motherland” of Latvia's ethnic Russians, in a series of actions led by Russians from Russia (and aided by Latvians and other nationalities, to be sure) committed the long, drawn out atrocity of the 1940-41 and 1945-1991 occupation of Latvia. As a result “our Russians” who had lived here for centuries were overwhelmed in the consciousness of Latvia's Latvians and other victim nations by the image of the Russian as conqueror, occupier and oppressor.
In the US, in the space of a few hours on December 7, 1941 and in the years of war that followed, the “mother nation” of the Japanese in the United States became a treacherous aggressor, killing American boys on a Sunday morning, marching them to death on Bataan, and fighting with the perceived savagery of mad dogs on Pacific islands like Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where soldiers had to be burned in their caves by Marines with flamethrowers and Japanese mothers shot by snipers to keep them from throwing babies off cliffs into the sea. A slightly different image than the mild-mannered math teacher at a California high school or the family running a grocery store on Hawaii.
By no means was the internment of Japanese Americans justified, but it can be explained by the shock of what Japan did to the US (and by no small measure of racism back then). Latvia has done nothing of the kind to its Russians (including the huge contingent that were moved in during the Soviet period). Think of the mild-mannered hypohetical Mr. Nakamura being replaced at Santa Monica High by 20 samurai-sword waving wanna-be Tojos (that is the military leader of the wartime Japanese government). Something like that happened in Latvia, and it lasted almost 50 years. So maybe don't blame the Latvians too much for the referendum having a number of ironic and even absurd angles to it.
That is my quick take on things as voting gets under way. I have to go off and do some work for a a foreign newspaper as a one-off freelancer. More later.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What has Latvia's transition turned into? - a comment on political scientist Iveta Kažoka's views

A lot of buzz has been generated among the Latvian twitterati by an essay by political scientist Iveta Kažoka in her Latvian language blog on the website . Kažoka contends that Latvia is no longer “a society in transition” (from totalitarian socialism to...whatever?), but something else, showing the seeds and potential for a better society. To be sure, she asserts, there are significant hinderances to such development, but, nonetheless, she is an optimist, if only Latvians (or Latvia's inhabitants as a whole) were to change their mentality somewhat.
Kažoka writes, that after attending a conference in Lithuania and getting around a bit elsewhere, she can't accept that the “transition society” label applies to Latvia any more:

Despite that 10, 6 or 4 years ago, labeling Latvia as a transitional society was almost automatic. It seems, intuitively, that in recent years the use of this term has gradually faded. Today, when identifying ourselves to an international audience, a more frequently heard description is “new European Union member state” or “new democracy”
It seems to me that this change is not simply one of description and a change of labels. It is the start of new thinking, a new paradigm about our society, a new approach to life and development. From a comparatively blind, unreflective construction of a desirable model of governance and the copying of discourse to modeling governance after one's own image and likeness (with individual borrowings from those societies that are most successful in some area). To my mind, this is the most significant change.

Kažoka goes on to say that one characteristic of the change she perceives is that Latvians no longer view other model societies uncritically, they see the flaws in such places as Germany, Switzerland and Scandinavia. The political scientist believes this can lead to a desire to do better in our own way, rather than a “cynical relativism” that says that if the Scandinavians have not fully eliminated corruption, it cannot be done in Latvia.
Kažoka lists what she believes are the good qualities of Latvian society, including:

-the ability to cope, adapt, change, search for and find compromises
-a pragmatic ability to learn from their mistakes, having self-esteem, involvement as values
-education as a value
-a growing intolerance for superficial glamour, Nordic modesty.

She then discusses three negative characteristics that Latvians have to overcome in order to advance along the path that she thinks is opening up. She calls them “three reflexes of helplessness:.

-a low level of mutual trust that the political scientist and commentator describes as “tragic”
-a culture of self-depreciating lamentation and “loser-ism”
-stagnant conservatism and an inability to think outside the box

In a rather upbeat ending to her post (perhaps my summary doesn't do it justice, Latvian readers or those who wish to amuse themselves with Google translate can check it out here) Kažoka writes:

I have not hidden the fact in earlier posts that I am skeptical about traditional development planning methods. I see some sense in them, but I don't believe that they are a decisive factor in the faster or slower development of a society. In my opinion, more important processes take place in people's heads, in their perception of the world, because it it is these that either encourage a person to action in the hope of some achievements, or put a brake on doing anything at all. In very general terms, things will be such as is our attitude.

No one can say for certain what the world will look like in 20 years. At the same time, it is clear that the keys to success for a society in this century are new technologies, the ability to learn and cooperate, and inner freedom for creativity. Let us take this into account and do everything so that people in Latvia will have these keys. In my opinion, Latvia as a society presently has the preconditions to become a society where people want to live (rather than leave at the very first chance) if we deprogram ourselves from three learned reflexes of helplessness (mistrust, “loser-ism” and traditionalism) we can be at the very forefront of change.

The Latvian saying “from your mouth to God's ear” is my first reaction to Kažoka's post. But in more critical terms, I would ask – does this analysis and possible future scenario fit the data? OK, I am not a social researcher, Iveta is probably better trained on such matters. The Eurobarometer survey she mentioned to me in a Twitter exchange shows that 78% of Latvians don't trust the government, 89% don't trust political parties and 82% don't trust the parliament. If this isn't dismal, perhaps it is better not to ever see dismal...
The other data that I look at are emigration and is corollary, depopulation. The region of Latgale has lost more than a fifth of its population (21.1%), even Vidzeme, often regarded as a kind of Latvian heartland, is down 17.5%. Among Latvia's cities, Daugavpils has lost 19.3% of its population since 2000, Rezekne is down 18,1% and even the capital Riga has lost 14,2% of its inhabitants.
Admittedly a lagging indicator, figures on the impoverishment of the nation from 2010 show that 46% of the Latvian population would be below the poverty line but for various kinds of social welfare payments. That could be considered a sign that the welfare system works in the country, but at the same time, that people are unable to earn a living wage in Latvia, hence the continuing emigration. Figures on household disposable income show it had fallen by 20% in 2010 compared to 2008, the last year before the economic crisis struck with full force.
There is also a recent study by University of Latvia researchers showing that the alleged Latvian love of work is a myth – the countryside population in many places has sunk into a culture of existing at a subsistence level on welfare and other transfer payments or doing temporary subsidized day labor. A culture of heavy drinking and alcoholism has also become endemic, with the result that employers – farmers and small businesses – cannot find suitable workers. The boozers and welfare dependents prefer their lifestyle to getting a steady job with taxes and social fees paid.
Another recently published “positive” figure is that the number of youth unemployed age 15 to 24 has decreased at the end of 2011 by over 7 800 from the end of 2010. Somehow I don't think these people all got jobs in Latvia. In fact, a fair guess is that most of them emigrated and only a few found work or started their own enterprise in Latvia.
Unfortunately, I don't think the data I see fits Kažoka's conditional optimism, nor, for that matter, that her conditional optimism is based on the data (unless she, whose day job is political analyses, facts, figures etc., has seen other data sets that I haven't seen).
As things stand, the paradigm for Latvia is stagnation (with some bright islands of progress in the economy, like the IT start-ups that gathered at the recent TechCrunch Baltics) and continued emigration simply because it is so easy to find places that are better governed than Latvia and where work is better paid and people better treated, in general, than here. That just comes from the facts and figures, it has nothing to do with whether I am a pessimist or optimist or cheering for Latvia to do better. In a race where your favorite horse is almost dead, it is this fact, not the cheering, that matters.