The Fifth Column

20. novembris, 2008

Political struggle often has little in common with fair play, especially not when it comes to inflamatory rhetoric employed by some politicians to reduce public support for their opponents.

It is perhaps not surprising that ideological cliches and shortcuts are used by politicians in oder to discredit the opponents, but in societies where the media are serious about their role in democracy such rhetoric is normally criticised and discouraged. Not so in societies where the media themselves are divided and polarised on some half-fictional point ofthe political agenda. In Latvia, the printed media are for the most part united in maintaining a fairly low level of critical analysis and journalist ethic, but divided on the point of so-called ‘ethnic politics’ (the term itself by its vagueness suggests it may be a purely ideological construct). Therefore, there is vurtually no one to notice that rather murky rhetorical devices are being used to systematically discredit part of the country’s citizens by suggesting they serve hostile interests.

The terms employed by politicians eager to represent society as a battlefield with two distinct fighting camps between which no communication or compromise is possible have a military ring to them: ‘enemies’, ‘secret agents’ and ‘the fifth column’. Those who have attempted to call a referendum on constitutional amendments in Latvia are, possibly, ‘enemies of the nation’ (according to J. Dobelis, MP). The Russian-speaking minority on the whole and the MPs belonging to that group in particular are ‘the fifth column’ – especially when they claim that voting rights in local government elections could be given to non-citizens. That group in itself is commonly referred to as ‘the fifth column’ par excellence – the MP Pēteris Tabūns has managed to use the term 4 times during the parliamentary sessions in August and September alone. One may try to work out the logic behind this demonisation only if one takes into account the historical trauma of Latvia’s occupation by the Soviets: the non-citizens are for the most part the descendants of those who entered the country during occupation. Yet the result is still unconvincing. There is no single political creed represented by non-citizens, and contrary to what Mr. Tabūns’ rhetoric may suggest, they are not organised into para-military units. Even the fact that some Russian-language media approved the invasion of Georgia by Russia last summer gives absolutely no excuse to bundle a large group of individual, politically unorganised inhabitants of the country under one military label.

Meanwhile, the history of the term ‘fifth column’ in itself is interesting and in many ways elucidating. The term was coined in 1936 in Spain when the insurgent generals besieged Madrid – and invited their supporters inside the city to join them as ‘the fifth column’. Ironically, that did not have any major effect on the course of the war: Madrid was only taken in 1939. Subsequently, the term was used in wartime propaganda by a number of countries to justify limiting the civil rights of foreign or foreign-born inhabitants. The German nationals in England and Chechoslovakia, the Japanese in the US and Canada and the Finns, the Germans and other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union were at different times deported from their places of residence and kept in camps or expelled from large territories on mere suspicions that they MIGHT form a fifth column. Middle-class Latvians who were deported to Siberia were victims of exactly this kind of logic. There have been many other uses of the term – from the search for a Communist fifth column among liberal intellectuals in the West the 1950s to the fear of an Islamic fifth column in the West today.

The term is by now loaded with so much ideological ballast, there is hardly any semantic added value to it. It is, however, a potent ideological trope – that is why there is no shortage of irresponsible orators still willing to use it.

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