Saturday, February 18, 2012
The Russian election and a vote on the Russian language
In two weeks, Russia has elections which will determine the new President and Prime Minister. Yesterday according to Reuter's article, pro-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rallies were held from one end of the country to the other, aimed at showing that Mr. Putin, who could remain president until 2024 if he wins two straight terms, has majority support despite the biggest opposition protests of his 12-years of ruling positions.
Tens of thousands of people have turned out for opposition protests in recent months, venting anger over suspected fraud in December's parliamentary election, and over what they see as a lack of say in Putin's tightly controlled political system. In those December elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party won less than 50 percent of Sunday's vote, a steep fall from its earlier two-thirds majority.
None the less, it appears likely Putin will once again take on the role of President in the country, with his emphasis on nationalism, order and control, and a loss of momentum for a broader, more democratic public square.
The discontent runs deep. From the BBC, we read that "parts of Russia, including many of the big cities, have turned against Mr Putin's United Russia, which opponents have nicknamed the "party of crooks and thieves".
Novosibirsk, for example, Russia's third-largest city, returned one of the lowest votes for United Russia in December's parliamentary elections. The ruling party was beaten into second place by the Communists in every district of the city.
As in many places in Russia, the big issue in Novosibirsk is corruption, which now affects much of people's lives. However, according to the BBC article, citizens have stopped just blaming local officials who they believe are stealing from them, and have started blaming Moscow ...
A money-grab by some officials in this region seems to be particularly galling. In the Novosibirsk region even veterans of the "Great Patriotic War" - as World War II is called in Russia - have been taken advantage of. Russian veterans are revered, and in the last few years there has been a scheme to provide the few surviving soldiers from the war with new housing. But some officials appear to have used the sentiment and program as a way of enriching themselves.
Under the veterans' housing scheme, one such veteran, Ivan Uvarov, qualified for a grant of 5m roubles - more than $150,000. (During the war he was an engineer, and walked all the way to Berlin, accompanying infantry as they fought their way to the German capital.) In his old age, he was entitled to choose his new home, and dreamed of buying a traditional wooden Siberian house in his village.
But some local officials persuaded him to accept a tiny one-room flat in a block built for veterans out of bricks from a factory owned by one of the officials. Anti-corruption campaigners believe the flat was worth half of the 5m roubles Mr. Uvarov had been awarded. And no-one knows where the rest of the money went.
So, although unrest and resistance to the current level of integrity in governance rising across the sprawling country, the March 4 Russian election seems unlikely to change much or herald any form of a "Russian spring."
Latvia votes against adding Russian as a second language.
Today, Latvia voters decided against adding Russia as a second official language in their small country. Again, from the BBC, "Ethnic Russians, who make up about one-third of Latvia's population, had long complained of discrimination. But many ethnic Latvians believed the referendum was an attempt to encroach on the country's independence.
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The referendum was initiated by the Russian-speakers' movement, Native Tongue, which collected signatures from more than 10% of voters to force a ballot. "I think that over the past 20 years Russian residents of Latvia have been humiliated by authorities, by endless attempts either to assimilate or make them second-class citizens," said Vladimir Linderman, co-chairman of Mother Tongue, to the Associated Press, "So this is our answer."
If it was the answer, it wasn't likely to be the one Russians wanted. Officials said that with more than 90% of votes counted, 75% of votes cast in Saturday's referendum were against the proposal.
Learning Latvian was a prerequisite for citizenship in the years after the country split from the Soviet Union two decades ago. But many Russian-speakers resisted, and some 300,000 remain without citizenship, which means they cannot vote in elections, hold public office or work in government institutions, according to some reports.
The referendum had been described as "absurd" by Latvian President Andris Berzins, who said most people were more concerned with the country's recovery from a severe recession. He pointed out that the government funds own-language schools for minority groups such as Russians. "There's no need for a second language. Whoever wants, can use their language at home or in school," he said.
Language is always an issue of identity in countries. Latvian, sometimes referred to as Lettish, is the official state language of Latvia. According to Wikipedia, there are about 1.4 million native Latvian speakers in country and about 150,000 abroad. Because of the language policy in Latvia about 1.9 million or 79% of Latvian population speak Latvian. (Of interest, the US has no official language, much less two as desired in Latvia by an apparently small minority.)