It’s Genocide!

A sign in Russian reads: "Stop the genocide"

RIGA – Words are a powerful tool. They paint a picture. They persuade. They dissuade. They arose people to war. They declare peace.

They matter in a public discourse. They set the public mood and reveal the mindset of its leaders, who rely on words to persuade the armies of Joe Six-packs.

Sloppy word usage is destructive.

Mayor of the seaside town of Ventspils, Aivars Lembergs – described by a colleague as a miniature Silvio Berlusconi – compared the international bailout to the Auschwitz concentration camp, on the eve of the Auschwitz liberation anniversary this January.

“If you’re placed into the Auschwitz concentration camp against your will and you survive, then it makes sense to praise you for your perseverance and heroism. But if you yourself go to Auschwitz and sign up to live there, how can one praise you? One can only wonder about you, how stupid you really are. Latvian political leaders have led Latvia into Auschwitz and voluntarily forced the people to live there,” Lembergs said.

Last week, Lembergs urged to extend the time this country spends in Auschwitz.

Auschwitz is not the only overpowering metaphor used in the public discourse. Of all the ways to describe the economic crisis, the populists’ favorite word is genocide.

On a recent cold sunny spring day, several hundred people gathered outside the presidential castle to protest. The crowd – surrounded by banners from opportunistic marginals like – had a slew of demands. Their main demand was to “stop genocide of the people of Latvia.”

“Everything is done to destroy the Latvian state. Why are we all working now? My children and my grandchildren would have to work to pay back to the International Monetary Fund?” said one Latvian protestor to TV-3 journalists.

The public perception – cynical it may be – is that the government is intentionally and systematically killing off its own people by raising taxes, hiking electricity rates, raising retirement age. It fits into the general narrative of the Latvian suffering in the 20th century, a cornerstone of the modern Latvian ethnic identity. Moscow and Berlin both raped these people, pillaged their homes, deported and killed their men, women and children. It is bound to leave scars on the psyche. It is the worst thing they can think of when they describe their dire conditions.

Ironically, the frequent use of the word “genocide” makes the actual genocide seem less terrible. With more days of mourning than of celebration on the country’s political calendar, the word “genocide” has devalued so much that today it means very little. In the future, perhaps, the word could be used to describe a rainbow of feelings – from sadness to extreme joy. Teenagers could embrace the word to use it to describe something they like. As in “Dude, that’s genocide.” Ok, Latvian teens don’t use the word “dude.” But nevertheless, no longer it’s a reference to the Holocaust, or even to the deportations of 1941 and 1949. It’s now a reference to the current government policies as if reincarnated Hitler’s henchmen run the government. I struggle to picture the finance minister Andris Vilks as Goebbels.

Some of the public grievances are legitimate. The times are tough and socially unfair. The highest-earning employee of the central bank had claimed 44,000 lats (US$88,000) in child benefits for his family last year as he continued to earn. It turned out to be perfectly legal. At the same time, a family in Riga lives on a disability and Ls 8 ($16) child benefit unable to find work in this crisis. Policy makers are more concerned with populist slogans than with social justice. It’s frustrating. But it’s hardly genocide.


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