Soviet Legacy Looms Large Over Latvia's Upcoming Russian Language Referendum

Latvians will decide this weekend whether to make Russian the country's official second language. Demographically, doing so makes sense. A third of the population is Russian. Many Latvians, however, still associate the language with their years u

The historic old town in Riga, Latvia (Desmond Kavanagh)
The historic old town in Riga, Latvia (Desmond Kavanagh)


DIE WELT/Worldcrunch

RIGA -- "Yes, we're National Bolsheviks," says 53-year-old Vladimir Lindermans, a Russian living in Latvia. Although he doesn't have Latvian citizenship, he's the driving force behind a referendum that will have Latvians voting Saturday on whether or not Russian should become the country's second official language.

The "Natsbol," originally a Russian party but now banned in Russia itself, still exists in various former Soviet states and defends the rights of Russians in those states.

A third of Latvia's population is Russian. In the capital Riga, there are more Russians than Latvians. Some 300,000 Russians is Latvia possess no papers at all and are in that sense "stateless." Others have a Russian passport. In 2009 alone, Russia issued papers to 4,000 Latvian residents who applied for them.

Lindermans says he finds the situation of Russians in Latvia "discouraging." But many Russians in Riga don't see things quite so dramatically. Kira, a 24-year-old woman who works in a travel agency, is a Russian who acquired Latvian citizenship. "The whole issue of language used to bother me," she says, "but now it's not a big deal. Personally, I'm against a second official language because I can understand Latvian."

Are Russians in Latvia discriminated against? "All in all, no," says political scientist Nils Muiznieks. "It's less of a human rights issue than a political issue. I'm for one official language. Practically everywhere where there's more than one language it's because the country is ethno-federal: Belgium, Switzerland, Spain. But here in Latvia the majority and minorities are completely mixed."

Muiznieks was formerly Latvian Minister of Integration – a post that no longer exists. In April, he will take up a post as Commissioner for Human Rights with the European Council.

Stirring up bad memories

Egija Inzule, a 25-year-old art historian, is determined to vote on Saturday. "I would gladly live in a country with two languages," she says. Living in a multilingual country is something she has experience of – she graduated from high school in Switzerland, where her father is a pilot. "But, in Latvia, it's too early. Having Russian as a second language would just stir up a lot of bad memories."

It's an opinion shared by many. Members of the young urban Latvian elite fear for their own language, and even their existence as a nation, if Russian is ushered back in.

Everyone has an opinion. The Catholic archbishop, Lutheran bishop and head Jewish rabbi are against Russian as a second language, the Orthodox Metropolitan bishop is for it. Riga's extremely popular mayor, himself a Russian, at first distanced himself from the move but now says he'll vote in favor of the Russian language measure. Russian diplomats in the capital have stayed out of the debate entirely.

Former Latvian President Valdis Zatlers says that for his family, the Soviet Union spelled years of imprisonment in Siberia and decades of fear. "The referendum is a provocation, aimed at dividing the nation," he says. "But it has been introduced, even though its chances of success are minimal. So we have to go vote, and get our position through."

Read the full story in German by Gerhard Gnauck

Photo - Desmond Kavanagh

*Newsbites are digest items, not direct translations

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Running of the Bulls in Tafalla, northern Spain

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здравейте!*

Welcome to Monday, where an apparent coup is underway in Sudan, Colombia's most-wanted drug lord gets caught, and Michael Jordan's rookie sneakers score an auction record. We also focus on a report that the Thai government is abusing the country's centuries-old law to protect the monarchy from criticism (lèse-majesté) to target pro-democracy activists and protesters.

[*Zdraveite - Bulgarian]


• Developing: Sudan leaders arrested amid military coup reports: Soldiers have arrested several members of Sudan's transitional government as well as civilian leaders, and Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok has reportedly been put under house arrest, in what the information ministry called a military coup. Pro-democracy protesters have taken to the streets of the capital city Khartoum where there are reports of gunfire and clashes.

• Colombia's most wanted drug lord to be sent to U.S.: Colombia's most dangerous drug trafficker, known as Otoniel, was caught after a joint army, air force and police operation and faces extradition to the U.S. He led the country's largest criminal gang, and was on the U.S. most wanted list for years.

• Xi speech marks China's UN anniversary: China's President Xi Jinping marked the 50th anniversary of Beijing's entry into the United Nations with a speech calling for greater global cooperation, adding that issues like climate change, terrorism and cyber security needed multilateral solutions. Taiwan was not mentioned.

• German ISIS bride jailed for crimes against humanity: A German court has sentenced a German woman and former member of the Islamic State to 10 years in prison for letting a 5-year-old Yazidi enslaved girl die of thirst in Iraq. The case is one of the world's first trials to prosecute a war crime against the Yazidis.

• COVID update: The Beijing marathon scheduled next weekend has been postponed until further notice as China seeks to stamp out Delta variant outbreak and return to zero cases ahead of the Winter Olympics next February. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases in Eastern Europe have surpassed the 20 million mark as the region fights against its worst outbreak since the pandemic started and vaccination efforts lag.

Goodbye, Gunther: U.S. actor James Michael Tyler, best known for his role as the barista Gunther on the TV show Friends, has died at 59 of prostate cancer.

• Sneakers record: A pair of Michael Jordan's white-and-red Nike shoes, which he wore during his rookie season with the Chicago Bulls in 1984, sold for $1.47 million — a new record price for sneakers at auction.


"The end of a boss," titles Colombian daily El Espectador, reporting on the arrest of drug lord Dairo Antonio Usuga, known as Otoniel, who had led Colombia's largest criminal gang and had been on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's most wanted list for years. He was captured in a raid and will be extradited to the U.S.



A Georgia man is being prosecuted for wire fraud after spending most of his business's COVID relief loan to buy one Pokémon trading card for $57,789.


How Thailand's "Lèse-Majesté" law is used to stifle all protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

👑 Thailand's Criminal Code "Lèse-Majesté" Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family. But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

🚨 The recent report "Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand," documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations." The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

💻 The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them. Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind.

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"Children are going to die. People are going to starve."

— The United Nations warns that Afghanistan verges on a "total breakdown" as millions of Afghans, including children, could die of starvation unless urgent action is taken by the international community. The agency calls for the release of frozen assets to avoid economic and social collapse, despite concerns over the Taliban government. A recent report said that about 97% of Afghanistan's population may sink below the poverty line, and World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley warned that more than half of Afghanistan's population of 39 million were facing acute food insecurity and "marching to starvation" in comparison to 14 million two months ago.


Dutch cities have been secretly probing mosques since 2013

At least ten Dutch towns and cities have secretly used a private agency to probe mosques and other local religious organizations, Amsterdam-based daily het NRC reports in an exclusive investigation.

The clandestine operation — funded by NCTV, the National Security Services, the Netherlands' leading counter-terrorism agency — was prompted by the social unrest and uncertainty following multiple terror attacks in 2013, and a rise in Islamic radicalization.

The NCTV, which advises and financially supports municipalities in countering radicalization, put the municipalities in touch with Nuance by Training and Advice (Nuance door Trainingen en Advies, NTA), a private research agency based in Deventer, Netherlands. Among the institutions targeted by the investigations, which came at a cost of circa 500,000 euros, were the Al Mouahidin mosque in the central Dutch town of Ede, and the Nasser mosque east of the city of Utrecht, according to NRC.

Unlike public officials, the private agency can enter the mosques to clandestinely research the situation. In this case, the agents observed activity, talked to visitors, administrators, and religious leaders, and investigated what they do and say on social media.

All findings then wound up in a secret report which includes personal details about what the administrators and teachers studied, who their relatives are, with whom they argued, and how often they had contact with authorities in foreign countries, like Morocco.

It is unclear whether the practice is legal, which is why several members of the Dutch Parliament are now demanding clarification from the outgoing Minister of Justice and Security, Ferd Grapperhaus, who is said to be involved.

"The ease with which the government violates (fundamental) rights when it comes to Islam or Muslims is shocking," Stephan van Baarle, member of the leftist party DENK, told De Volkskrant, another Dutch newspaper.

Leaders of the Muslim organizations that were secretly probed say they feel betrayed. Hassan Saidi, director of one of the mosques investigated, said that the relationship with the local municipality had been good. "This puts a huge dent in the trust I'd had in the municipality," he told the Dutch public broadcaster NOS.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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