Autonomous Zones

The Relative Lack of Regional Voting Differences in the Netherlands – And the Partial Exception of Friesland

The Dutch general election of 2023 reveals a low degree of regional political differentiation, with most parties receiving relatively similar vote percentages across the country. The main exception is the special Dutch municipalities in the Caribbean: Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba.

Consider, for example, the provincial voting patterns for the top five parties (see the maps below). Geert Wilders’ PVV took between 17.6 (Utrecht) and 30.1 (Limburg) percent of the vote everywhere, coming in first place in every province except Utrecht and North Holland. As the first map shows, PVV did slightly worse in the Netherlands’ demographic and economic core (North and South Holland and Utrecht) and slightly better in more peripheral regions, but the differences are relatively small, and South Holland, the most populous province, defies the generalization. The GreenLeft-Labour Party narrowly came in first place in North Holland and Utrecht and also did relatively well in Groningen, historically noted for its labor activism, but again the discrepancies are relatively minor. Regional differences were also relatively muted for the main center-right party, VVD. The new centrist NSC party does, however, have something of a positive outlier in Overijssel; it is not coincidental that NSC is closely associated with its founder, Pieter Omtzigt, who lives in that province. The centrist party D66 also shows relatively minor regional voting variation, with the notable exception of the Netherlands’ Caribbean municipalities.

The Netherlands does, however, have a number of strictly regional political parties, but they generally restrict their activities to provincial elections. But as the map below shows, few of them gained more than a few percent of the vote in the 2023 provincial elections, and in the three core provinces (North and South Holland and Utrecht) their share was negligible. The one outlier on this map is Friesland, where the Frisian National Party took over 8 percent of the vote and the Provincial Interest of Friesland Party a little more than 2 percent. In 2003, however, the Frisian National Party received more than 13 percent of the vote in Friesland’s provincial election.

It is not surprising that Friesland would have the Netherland’s strongest regional party, as it is a culturally distinctive province with its own language, West Frisian. (In Frisian, “Friesland” is called “Fryslân.”) Despite its nationalistic name, the party does not push for independence. Instead, it advocates a federal system of governance for the country, which would allow substantial autonomy for Friesland. It also wants more support for the Frisian language and provincial control of local natural gas reserves. Although most regional political parties in Europe lean decidedly either to the left or the right, the Frisian National Party spans the spectrum. As reported by Wikipedia,  “According to a survey of 554 party members done by the European Policies Research Centre… in 2009, 5.05% of members identified as far-left  on the political spectrum, 13.9% as left-wing, 28.16% as center-left, 17.51% as centrist, 14.98% as center-right, 7.4% as right-wing, and 2.53% as far-right, with 10.47% unsure. Whether such ideological diversity helps or hinders the movement for Frisian autonomy is an open question.

Although the Frisians are not recognized as a distinct national minority in the Netherlands as they are in Germany, the Frisian language is in a much healthier condition in the former country. Whereas roughly half a million people speak West Frisian in the Netherlands, the two Frisian dialects (more properly, languages) of Germany together have only around 12,000 speakers. In schools in Dutch Friesland, instruction in the language is mandatory. But as the map posted below indicates, most people in southern Friesland cannot speak the language, although many more can understand it. Many Frisians fear, moreover, that their language will be gradually supplanted by Dutch.

Frisian was a much more important language a thousand years ago than it is today. As one of the maps posted above shows, it once covered the entire North Sea coast from what is now the Netherlands’ border with Belgium to Germany’s border with Denmark. Frisian is usually regarded as the language most closely related to English, although this interpretation remains somewhat controversial and it holds only if Scots English is reckoned as a dialect rather than a separate language. It must also be noted that English has undergone such profound transformations that its relatively close relationship with Frisian is by no means obvious to native speakers of either language.

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Who Are the Gagauz, Where Is Gagauzia, and Why Are They in the News?

The “Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia,” located in southern Moldova, rarely makes the news. On September 25, 2023, however, the New York Times ran a full-page article on the region under the vague title “Fugitive Oligarch Gaines Surprise Foothold in Moldova.* The article describes Gagauzia as an “enclave” within Moldova. That is not technically correct, as a geopolitical enclave is part of one country that is surrounded by the territory of another, whereas Gagauzia is merely an autonomous region of Moldova. Fear of losing that autonomy lies behind the ethnic tensions that have given this obscure region international attention.

The New York Times article focuses on the shady activities of Ilan Shor, a disgraced financier who was “convicted in 2017 for his role in ransacking Moldova’s banking system.” In the summer of 2023, a follower of Shor, Evghenia Guțul (Yevgenia Gutsal), was elected governor of Gagauzia, allowing Shor to gain considerable power in the autonomous unit. This victory was internationally significant because Guțul and Shor support Russia and oppose the E.U. The United States accused Shor in 2022 “of working with ‘Moscow-based entities’ to undermine Moldova’s efforts to join the European Union and engaging in ‘persistent malign influence campaigns on behalf of Russia.’” (Note: direct quotes in this paragraph are from the Times article.)

The description of Gagauzia in the New York Times’ article is minimal. It notes only that Gagauzia is a “Russian-speaking region wary of the largely Romanian-speaking authorities in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital,” and that “the enclave, with around 140,000 people, mostly members of the small Turkic community of Orthodox Christians, remained out of step with the rest of the country.” Although largely accurate, this depiction is not adequate for understanding the tensions in the region. One might wonder, for example, how Gagauzia can be “Russian-speaking” when its majority ethnic group, the Gagauz, are “Turkic,” indicating that they speak a Turkic language. Yet both assertions are essentially true. The Gagauz tongue, the territory’s official language, is indeed in the Turkic language family, but its use is rapidly declining, especially in cities and towns, in favor of Russian, long used as Moldova’s main language of inter-ethnic communication. While the Gagauz are turning to Russian, they are also rejecting Romanian (or “Moldovan,” as it is often locally called), their county’s official** language. Such attitudes do not augur well for Moldova’s national future.

The origin of the Gagauz people is obscure, owing in part to their combination of speaking a Turkic language and following Eastern Orthodox Christianity. As the Wikipedia article on the Gagauz notes, “In the beginning of the 20th century, a Bulgarian historian counted 19 different theories about their origin. A few decades later the Gagauz ethnologist M. N. Guboglo increased the number to 21.” The most intriguing, if highly unlikely, theory is that they are descendants of the original Balkan Bulgarians, who were a Turkic-speaking people who conquered the area now known as Bulgaria beginning in the late seventh century. The Bulgars subsequently adopted the Slavic language widely spoken in their new kingdom, which became known as Bulgarian, and also converted to Christianity under influence from the neighboring Byzantine (East Roman) Empire.

Whatever their origins, the Gagauz stress their affinity with the Bulgarians. In early times they generally called themselves “Hasli Bulgars” (True Bulgarians) or “Eski Bulgars” (Old Bulgarians), Under Russian Empire, they were usually called “Turkic-speaking Bulgars,” as the term “Gagauz” was at the time often considered offensive. Most Gagauz today live near Bulgarian-speaking settlements in southern Moldova and the adjacent Ukrainian region of Budjak, as can be seen on the map posted below. (Since I cobbled this map together from separate and questionable language maps of Moldova and Ukraine, its accuracy is probably not very high.)

It might be surprising that so many Bulgarians live in southern Moldova and southwestern Ukraine, considering how far this area is from Bulgaria. Before population exchanges in the early twentieth century, however, many Bulgarians lived in the intermediate coastal region of Romania, thus forming a nearly continuous swath of settlement in an admittedly highly mixed area (see the first map below). The language map of the Bessarabia Governorate of the Russian Empire in the late nineteenth century, posted below as well, is also revealing. Bessarabia, which included what is now Moldova, the Budjak region, and a small section of northwestern Ukraine, was highly ethnically mixed. Note the sizable German-speaking area and the prominent positions of Jews in the towns and cities (visible in the pie charts). Today there are probably fewer than 20,000 Jews in Moldova, and its German population is negligible.

The Gagauz in Moldova identify with Bulgarians and Russians rather than with ethnic Moldovans in part because they are concerned about cultural domination by Romanian-speaking people. When the Soviet Union began to fracture in 1990, Gagauz leaders declared the formation of a Gagauz Republic, which gained de facto independence when the Soviet system collapsed in the following year. A similar situation emerged in eastern Moldova, where the heavily Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking region called Transnistria also separated from the rest of the country. Unlike Transnistria, however, Gagazia was peacefully reunited with Moldova in 1995 after its people accepted limited self-rule within their own spatially reduced Autonomous Territorial Unit of Gagauzia (see the map below). Importantly, the Gagauz were promised that if Moldova were ever to unite with Romania, they would be able to opt out of the union. Unification with Romania, however, has little support in Moldova; in the country’s most recent parliamentary election, the pro-unification party AUR (Alliance for the Union of Romanians) received less than one half of one percent of the vote. In Romania, in contrast, AUR got over nine percent of the vote in the most recent election, finishing in fourth place.

But if union with Romania is unlikely, the Moldovan government has still been emphasizing the use of the Romanian (“Moldovan”) language and deemphasizing that of Russian. In protest, as noted in a Balkan Insight article, “Gagauzia adopted a regional education code that implied a greater use of the Gagauz language in school, as well as a more detailed study of Gagauz history and culture” in 2016. The Moldovan government, however, declared this new policy to be “unconstitutional and provocative.” Today, a more immediate concern of the Gagauz is Moldova’s quest to join the European Union (official candidacy was gained June 2022). If that were to happen, Gagauzia could lose its autonomous status. To guard against this possibility, Gagauz leaders have been seeking support from Moscow, a dangerous gambit indeed.

Reports on feelings of national identity in Gagauzia are mixed. One recent article cites a Gagauz informant as stating that “anyone who lives in our autonomy feels like a citizen of Moldova, because the Gagauz have no other homeland. For example, Bulgarians can go to Bulgaria, Greeks to Greece, Russians to Russia… But the Gagauz have no other homeland.” The same person also stated, however, that few Gagauz students seek higher education elsewhere in Moldova, preferring to study instead in the break-away statelet of Transnisria, where Russian is the main language of instruction. Other sources, moreover, claim that anti-Moldovan sentiments are so pronounced that most Gagauz do not even want to learn Romanian, their “national” language. In response, many Moldovan observers fear that the autonomous territory is planning outright secession, in concert with Russia.

In the Ukrainian region of Budjak, Bulgarian and Gagauz speakers have generally supported Russia-friendly candidates over their Ukrainian nationalist rivals. As can be seen on the paired maps posted below, in the first round of the 2019 election, Ukrainian-speaking areas in Budjak generally supported Volodymyr Zelensky, whereas the Bulgarian- and Gagauz-speaking areas supported Yuriy Boyko. Boyko’s party, Opposition Platform – For Life, has been banned by the Ukrainian government for its pro-Russian leanings. But as the Wikipedia article on Boyko notes, after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine he reversed most of his pro-Russian stances and now supports Ukraine’s proposed ascension to the European Union. Not surprisingly, the political environment of Ukraine changed much more dramatically than that of Moldova after the 2022 invasion.

* That is the title in the print edition. In the on-line edition it isCash, Mules and Paid Protests: How a Fraudster Seized an Ethnic Enclave”

** Moldova also recognizes Belarusian, Bulgarian, Gagauz, German, Hebrew, Polish, Romani, Russian, and Ukrainian as minority languages

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Tatarstan: A “Hostage of Freezing Relations between Russia and Turkey”?

[Many thanks to Ekaterina Lyutikova for most helpful discussions of some of the issues discussed in this post, as well as for the photos, some of which are used as illustrations below. I’m also grateful to Martin W. Lewis for helpful discussions and edits and for modifying the Wikipedia map of Percentage of Ethnic Tatars, used below.]

Tatarstan_location

Tatarstan has not been much of a geopolitical hotspot in recent years and has largely remained “under the radar” for most mainstream Western media. This may soon change, however, if the present trends continue. Rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey, as well as Tatarstan’s ambivalence in relation to both, lead experts such as Rais Suleimanov to doubt its continued peaceful existence; the quote in the title of this post is from Suleimanov’s recent article titled “Tatarstan can not decide: is it a part of Russia or a governorate of Turkey”. (All translations from Russian in this post are mine.)

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As can be seen from the maps in the previous posts (see here, here, and here), Tatarstan is one of the most economically and socially developed regions of the Russian Federation. Although it lags in per capita GDP behind such resource-rich yet sparsely populated regions as Nenets Autonomous Okrug or Chukotka, Tatarstan registers lower alcoholism and crime rates, as well as longer life expectancy for both genders. According to maps reposted from Kommersant.ru, an average resident of Tatarstan receives a reasonably balanced diet (blue map), and the overall obesity rate in the republic is relatively low (orange map).

 

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According to the data from the Federal State Statistics Service, Tatarstan ranks 9th of 83 regions by the percentage of university students (4.7% of total population). Two of the country’s three dozen national research universities are located in Kazan, Tatarstan’s capital: Kazan State Technological University (founded in 1890) and Kazan State Technical University named after A. N. Tupolev (established in 1932). Moreover, Kazan (Volga region) Federal University, founded in 1804, is Russia’s second oldest university. The eminent mathematician Nikolai Lobachevsky served there as the rector from 1827 until 1846, and the list of the university’s famous students includes Vladimir Lenin (expelled for revolutionary activity), Leo Tolstoy (quit his studies), and composer Mily Balakirev (graduated in 1855).

Kazan, TatarstanKazan, Tatarstan 2Further contributing to its livability is the extraordinary cleanliness of Tatarstan’s cities, towns, and villages, including its capital Kazan, a metropolis of nearly 1.2 million, as can be seen from the photos of city center on the left. The striking cleanliness of the Tatars, noticeable particularly in the lack of rubbish on the streets and the general appearance of houses and yards, has caught the attention of many a traveler to the region. A good example is Jonas Stadling, who wrote an account of the famine in Eastern Russia in 1892, published in The Century magazine (volume 46, p. 560). As Stadling wrote: “The Tatars made a very favorable impression by their cleanliness and politeness”. Similar mentions of exceptional cleanliness are made also in David Lewis’ After Atheism (p. 126), Paul William Werth’s At the Margins of Orthodoxy (p. 164), and in many other sources. dvornik-2The character of a Tatar yardman/caretaker, sweeping the grounds of some large building in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, makes frequent appearance in Russian 19th-century fictional and memoir literature, including Dostoyevsky’s works.* (The Volga Tatars’ ethno-linguistic “relatives”, the Crimean Tatars, made the same impression on travelers such as German explorer Gustav Radde, who traveled to Crimea in 1850s and noted the “special care about cleanliness of [Crimean Tatar] homes and bodies” in his ethnographic treatise about the group.)

Not only does Tatarstan manage to optimize economic and social development, but its economy is more balanced than that of Russian regions with higher per capita GDP. In the 1970s-80s, Tatarstan was one of the largest oil producing areas in the USSR, but starting in the mid-1990s, the Republic has managed to diversify its economy. Tatarstan’s overall GDP is less than a third of that of Tumen or Sakhalin oblast, but much less of it, only 21.3%, comes from natural resources (chiefly unrefined oil), compared to 54.6% in Tumen oblast, 61.6% in Sakhalin, or the whopping 71% in Nenets Autonomous Okrug. According to Deputy of the State Council of Tatarstan Rafael Khakimov, “since 1996 … we switched to the deep processing of oil, to the development of industry as a whole, to the high-tech manufacturing, aeronautics and IT‑technologies. We succeeded in doing that and today we depend on crude oil exports only minimally.” A substantial share of Tatarstan’s GDP comes from manufacturing (18.3% in 2012), trade and real estate operations (24.1%), construction (10.4%), and agriculture (6%). Several sources note a 5% growth in Tatarstan’s agricultural output in 2015, particularly in crop and milk production. (The latter makes sense since Tatarstan has the highest dairy consumption rate in Russia, 364 kg, or over 800 lbs, per capita per year.) Tatarstan was also ranked highest in “innovation activity” in 2015, well ahead of Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, and Novosibirsk.

But Tatarstan’s economy may take a serious hit in the near future as a result of rapidly worsening relations between Russia and Turkey. A significant contributing factor to Tatarstan’s prosperity in recent years has been investments by Turkish businesses, to the tune of $1.5–2 billion, according to different sources (see here and here), which constitutes one fourth of all foreign investments in Tatarstan, and one sixth of all Turkish investments in the Russian Federation. Among those Turkish investments are “about a dozen of major enterprises built by Turkish investors … located in the Alabuga special economic zone” in north-central Tatarstan, notes Russian News Agency TASS. Unlike the case with many Chinese-owned business in Russia’s Far East, “98% of workers [in Turkish-owned businesses in Tatarstan] are Russian nationals”.

For the last 15 years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey has generally been very productive. But on November 24, 2015, the relations between the two countries took a nose-dive after Russia’s Su-24 bomber was shot down in Syria by an air-to-air missile fired from a Turkish F-16 fighter jet. Russia’s President Putin responded harshly, calling the attack “a stab in Russia’s back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices”, according to Russian News Agency TASS. Two days later, Russia introduced economic sanctions against Turkey, which prohibited “the imports of many Turkish food products including fruits, vegetables, poultry and salt and imposed a ban on hiring Turkish nationals”, as reported in The Moscow Times. According to an early RBC report, other measures considered by the Russian government include freezing of economic cooperation programs, restrictions on financial operations and commercial transactions, the revision of customs duties, and “interventions” in tourism, air transportation, and shipping. Several large-scale cooperative projects also fell under these restrictive measures: for example, the proposed “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline was suspended by Russia and subsequently terminated by the Turkish side. Similarly, the fate of what was to become Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, located in Akkuyu in southern Anatolia, is now unclear. The abovementioned RBC report concluded that these measures would “unavoidably hit both Turkish and Russian businesses”. Because of Tatarstan’s extensive economic ties with Turkey, it is liable to be among the worst-hit regions of the Russian Federation.

Tatars

However, Tatarstan’s relations with Turkey go far beyond their economic ties. Speaking of Turkey in December 2015, Tatarstan’s President Rustam Minnikhanov (note the title, more on that below!) reportedly said: “We are in the same language group, of the same religious identity”. The Republic’s titular ethnic group, the Tatars (or more precisely, the Volga Tatars), who constitute 53% of Tatarstan’s population, speak a Turkic language. According to the 2002 census, moreover, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, making them one of the most successful minority groups in Russia in preserving their linguistic identity.** Although little-known outside Russia (and indeed to many people in Russia), Tatar is the 7th largest Turkic language globally and the largest Turkic language in the Russian Federation. In fact, with over 5.3 million speakers, it is the 2nd most widely spoken native language in Russia. The Tatar and Turkish languages are traditionally classified as belonging to different branches of the Turkic language family (Kipchak and Oghuz, respectively); nonetheless, there are many linguistic similarities between them and the internal classification of Turkic languages remains controversial. While I disagree with Bernard Lewis, who wrote in The Middle East. A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years that “the differences between these various languages were no greater than between the vernaculars spoken in the Arab lands from Iraq to Morocco”, similarities between Tatar and Turkish are much greater than those between languages from different branches of the Indo-European family, such as English and Russian.

Another link between Tatars and Turks is that of religion: both groups are Sunni Muslims. Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region, has written extensively on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” (his multi-part article can be read here and a shorter version here). Moreover, the Grand Mufti of Tatarstan Kamil Samigullin studied in Turkey under Mahmut Ustaosmanoğlu, the leader of influential İsmailağa Jamia.

Yet historical and cultural links between Tatarstan and Turkey go deeper still. Symbolic of this connection is the planned installation of a monument to the prominent statesman and scholar Sadri Maksudi Arsal, a Tatarstan native who moved after the Bolshevik Revolution to Turkey where he worked as an advisor to the first President of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The monument was supposed to be opened in Kazan’s Istanbul (!) Park in December 2015 by Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. After the events in late November, Erdoğan’s visit was cancelled. Around the same time, the Yunus Emre Institute for Turkish Studies at the Kazan Federal University, opened as a Turkish “soft power” initiative in 2012, was closed. As part of the anti-Turkish measures, the Russian Ministry of Culture circulated a “recommendation” to all republics with Turkic titular populations, including Tatarstan, to break off relations with the International Organization of Turkic Culture (TÜRKSOY).***

As a result of this confrontation between Russia and Turkey, Tatarstan found itself between Scylla and Charybdis, and its response has been rather cautious and ambivalent. According to Rais Suleimanov,

most federal subjects [in the Volga region] exhibited solidarity with the federal center. The only exception was Tatarstan, which adopted a not-completely-loyal attitude in relation to the federal center, preferring not to spoil its relations with Turkey, simultaneously sending clear signals to Ankara: “we are not on the side of Moscow”.

Moreover, Suleimanov points out that Tatarstan’s “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position has been in marked contrast to that of Bashkortostan, a neighboring region that also has a substantial Turkic-speaking Muslim population (in addition to its Turkic titular ethnic group, the Bashkir, Bashkortostan also has a significant Tatar population and a smaller group of Chuvash, which combined constitute 57.6% of the republic’s population). Yet, Bashkortostan’s authorities, Suleimanov says, “have chosen not to depart from the political line of the federal center”. After adopting a wait-and-see position for some time, Tatarstan ultimately refused to follow Minister Vladimir Medinsky’s “recommendation” regarding TÜRKSOY, and the Republic’s officials questioned whether the federal Ministry of Culture can “dictate” to regional cultural authorities. Tatarstan’s cultural authorities certainly have good grounds for their resistance, which can be understood through a brief historical excursion.

The Expansion of Russia

Tatarstan has a long history of being under Russian rule. After a brutal siege and assault, Kazan was taken in 1552 by Ivan the Terrible (Saint Basil’s Cathedral at the edge of Red Square in Moscow commemorates the event). The conquest of Kazan marked the second wave of non-ethnic-Russian territories annexed by Moscow (shown in green on the map on the left). (The first wave, shown in purple, included Finnic-speaking groups, such as Merya, Meschera, Murom, and Veps, which were largely absorbed in the 11-12th centuries, as well as the still-surviving Komi and Nenets populations.) Although technically a sovereign tsardom in personal union with Russia, Tatarstan was henceforth administered from Moscow. In 1708, in the course of Peter the Great’s administrative reform, the Kazan tsardom was transformed into a gubernia (governorate), to be administered by a governor sent from Saint-Petersburg. The first governor was Peter Apraksin, a close associate of Peter I, handpicked to oversee the strategically important area. At the time, Tatarstan supplied timber for naval use and horses for the cavalry, and its workshops on the Volga River built ships for Peter’s new navy. Revealingly, the Wikipedia list of governors contains no Tatar names. Quite a few of the region’s governors, however, were of German descent. After the Bolshevik Revolution, Tatarstan became an Autonomous Republic within the Russian Union Republic, but despite this title, it had little real autonomy. Several proposals were considered to upgrade its status to that of a union republic, but all were rejected. But despite their lack of self-rule for over four centuries, the Tatars managed to retain a sense of ethnic and cultural identity, and, as mentioned above, their indigenous language (nearly all Tatars speak it as their mother-tongue, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen, according to the 2002 census).

On the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, in August 1990, Tatarstan issued a Declaration of State Sovereignty, and after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 it continued on the course for separation from Russia. In a referendum conducted in March 1992, over half of the votes were cast for the independence, and in November of the same year a Constitution of the Republic of Tatarstan was adopted, declaring it a sovereign state. However, the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared those documents to be illegal. In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. (The same agreement was offered to Chechnya, which did not accept it.) Tatar authorities accepted the deal, giving Tatarstan many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and its own citizenship system. The Kazan government can conduct its own relations with other subjects of the Russian Federation and even foreign states, and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But it remains to be seen how much actual economic independence will be allowed by Russia.

Tellingly, the head of state in Tatarstan is called “President”, again in marked contrast to Chechnya and other ethnic republics within Russia. (This would be analogous to having a “President of California” who would nonetheless be under the power of President of the USA.) While it may seem a trivial matter, labels can matter a great deal, and Tatarstan fought tooth and nail to preserve its right to call its head a President. A Russian law adopted in 2010, however, allowed for only one president—that of the Russian Federation. All internal republics, except for Tatarstan, switched to calling their heads of state glava, “head”. Tatarstan has ever since been lobbying to keep its “President”, most recently by using the 94.4% vote in favor of President Minnikhanov in the September 2015 election. (These election results may have been falsified, claims Rais Suleimanov.) While the issue has not yet been closed, it appears that Tatarstan has more leeway than Russia’s other federal subjects. This unbalanced situation “allows one to consider Russia an asymmetrical ethno-federation”, according to Suleimanov, thus forming another example of the “myth of nation state”, which GeoCurrents has written about extensively.

Kazan Kremlin

The currently brewing confrontation between the Kremlin in Moscow and the Kremlin in Kazan (see photo of the latter on the left) is not the only issue threatening Tatarstan. Suleimanov and other experts talk about a possibility, even likelihood, of exploding terrorist activity in the region. The most frightening scenarios involve an expansion of radical Islamism in Tatarstan and further forging of connections between such home-grown groups and extremist organizations based elsewhere in the Muslim world, including Hizb ut-Tahrir and ISIS.

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As indicated in ISW map of ISIS activity, discussed in an earlier GeoCurrents post, Russia has been one of the main sources of ISIS recruits. While many of them have come from the Caucasus region, a substantial number—over 200, according to some sources—are from Tatarstan and the rest of the Middle Volga region. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria is said to be the chief reason for the sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan: while several brutal attacks shook the Republic in 2012 and 2013, there has been a relative calm in 2014-2015. But some of these ISIS fighters are now coming back from Syria to Tatarstan. Moreover, according to Suleimanov, in November 2015, ISIS propagandists released two videos in which Tatarstan is explicitly mentioned as a target of radical Islamists. Future developments in the conflict in Syria will, no doubt, have a critical impact on the situation in Tatarstan, which remains for the time being “a place to watch”.
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*One source even claims that the entire cleaning staff of the Winter Palace, over 100 people, consisted of Tatars.

**According to the same census, 96% of Tatars also know Russian to some extent.

***Although some anti-Turkish protests occurred across Russia, even in the Middle Volga region, many people felt that the Russian government’s reaction was too strong, leading several journalists and bloggers to post tongue-in-cheek proposals to “prohibit” or “rename” Turkish coffee, Turkish sweets, the espionage thriller (book and film) titled “Turkish Gambit” (set in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War), Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca, and even the music group Turetsky Choir (whose director’s last name means “Turkish” in Russian).

 

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The Rural/Urban Divide in Catalonia’s 2015 Election

According to most media sources, the Catalan independence movement scored a major victory in the September 28 regional election, taking 72 out of 135 seats in Catalonia’s parliament (Parlament de Catalunya). More careful reporting, however, noted that the results were actually mixed. In terms of the popular vote, candidates advocating independence gained the support of less than half of the electorate. Had the vote been an actual plebiscite on soverienty, skeptics argue, the motion would have been defeated. But Artur Mas, the leader of the independence movement, offered a different interpretation, claiming that “the Catalan people have spoken”—and have spoken for independence. As he put it, writing in The Guardian:

On 27 September Catalonia’s voters went to the polls and with a record 77.4% turnout gave a win in every single electoral district to the political forces whose campaign promise was, if elected, that they would follow a “roadmap” towards Catalan independence from Spain. Pro-independence lists obtained 48% of the votes and 72 seats out of 135, whereas unionist lists got 39% of the votes and 52 seats. These plebiscitary elections were the only way possible to give the Catalan people the vote on the political future they have long called for, after the Spanish government’s longstanding refusal to allow an independence referendum.

The fact that the pro-independence vote and the Spanish-unionist vote together fall well short of 100 percent indicates the presence of a third option, that of enhanced regional autonomy without actual sovereignty. But this third “regionalist” option, which rests on a mixed sense of Catalan and Spanish identity, was favored by relatively few voters. According to a recent Politico article, this “middle ground” lost support in part “because the campaign was not based on a rational debate on whether it makes economic sense to have full fiscal autonomy or leave the EU, the eurozone or NATO. Rather, it pandered to nationalistic feelings and prejudices…”

 

Catalonia 2015 Election MapAs mentioned in an Economist article, the pro-independence parties were able to gain control of the regional parliament without winning an outright majority due to “Catalonia’s unequal voting system, which favours less-populated rural areas.” The uneven electoral geography of the contest is clearly evident in a series of maps, posted on the website Saint Brendan’s Island, that show the percentage of the vote taken by the top six parties in each comarca (administrative division). I have amended these maps slightly by providing a crude characterization of the political philosophy of each of these groups (in red), along with their percentage of the vote across Catalonia. The leading contingent, an electoral coalition called “Together for Yes” (Junts pel Sí), is marked as “big tent” on the map because its constituent parties span a fairly wide range of political positions, falling both to the right and the left of center. The much less popular Popular Unity Candidacy party also favors Catalan independence but is situated too far to the left to have joined the “Together for Yes” coalition.

 

Catalonia Population Density Election MapThe second illustration, which juxtaposes a population density map with an expanded map of the “Together for Yes” vote, clearly shows the urban/rural electoral divide in Catalonia. The region’s most densely populated areas in general gave relatively little support to the independence movement, favoring instead the unionist and regionalist parties. One factor here is the presence of many migrants from other parts of Spain, who not surprisingly tend to support the unionist cause. In Barcelona, Spanish (or Castilian, as most Catalan nationalists insist) is the main language, and although three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants can speak Catalan, fewer than half are able to write in the language. Similar situations are found in the other major urban areas of Catalonia. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the historic city of Lleida: “After some decades without any kind of population growth, it met a massive migration of Andalusians who helped the town undergo a relative demographic growth.”

 

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Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy

Socotra mapYemen’s Socotra Archipelago, dominated by the main island of the same name, is best known for its unique flora, with almost 700 species found nowhere else. Some of its plants have gained fame for their unusual forms, such as the dragon blood tree and the cucumber tree. Socotra’s millions of years of isolation, its complex geology, and its harsh climate have contributed to the evolution of its vegetational oddities. Owing to such plant life, the Dragon Blood Treeisland is often described as the “most alien place on Earth” (see also here). It has also been famed since antiquity as a place of magic. Marco Polo supposedly claimed that, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”

Cucumber TreeA relatively arid land, most of the island receives only about 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain annually, fairly evenly distributed across the year. The Haghier Mountains in the center-northeast, which reach 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), are considerably wetter and cooler than the rest of the island. Catching both the southwest and northeast monsoon winds, Socotra Satellite Imagethese highlands experience frequent seasonal fog. As a recent meteorological study concluded, “Preliminary measurements suggest that at higher altitudes, fog-derived moisture may constitute up to two-thirds of total moisture, amounting up to 800 mm.” Fog drip is vital for dragon blood tree, which in turn provides shade necessary for the survival of many other species. The tree itself is widely regarded as something of a wonder, as its red resin provides a wide array of products. According to the Wikipedia, it is used as a stimulant, abortifacient, astringent, toothpaste, breath freshener, lipstick, wound dressing, coagulant, varnish (especially for violins), and treatment for rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, and ulcers.

Unfortunately, Socotra is currently a troubled place, and even its iconic dragon blood tree is in some danger. Socotra’s problems are mostly not of its own doing, but rather stem from the fact that it is part of Yemen. As Al Jazeera recently reported:

The current power vacuum in Yemen has left Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a precarious situation. Concerned about the rise in food, fuel and gas prices, islanders have scrambled to purchase goods in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Budgets for infrastructure and recreation have also dropped amid the turmoil, island residents say – and because all flights to Socotra require a stopover on the mainland, tourism has also taken a hit.

According to the BBC, tourist arrivals dropped from around 4,000 in 2010 to some 1,400 in 2013, delivering a devastating blow to the nascent business. But tourism on Socotra seems to be adapting, and direct flights from Dubai now available weekly for $650. The drop in fuel subsidies, however, continues to generate discomfort. According to a recent article in Yemen Times, “the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood”

Socotra has faced other perils in recent years. In 2011, reports claimed that Somali pirates were using the archipelago as a refueling hub. More recently, rumors have been circulating that the United States and Yemen are planning “to build a military prison — a ‘new Guantánamo’ — on the remote island of Socotra.” A less likely threat comes from the government of Somalia, which has “claimed that the islands of Yemeni Socotra Archipelago are part of it, requesting the United Nations to determine the status of the archipelago…” Considering Somalia’s inability to control its own territory, such claims hardly seem realistic. They would also be vehemently rejected by the majority of Socotra’s inhabitants, whose cultural and historical affinities are with the Al Mahrah region of eastern Yemen, not Somalia. (The marginalized

Greater Somalia MapSocotran minority of African descent, however, might feel otherwise.) Still, in newspaper discussion forums, some commentators claim that Socotra is rightfully part of Somalia. Here I find the comments of one Hassan Adam to be particularly pertinent: “In the good old days of greater Somalia we were taught in the school that Socotra is part of Somalia — but no more.  I guess Somaliland or Djibouti could claim better. Today its part and parcel of Yemen and the people are more Yeminate in their Arabic than Somali. Let us conserve for all.”

Although, as Hassan Adam notes, Arabic is widely spoken on Socotra, it is not the first language of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. The people of Socotra, some 50,000 strong, speak Soqotri, a South Arabian Languages Mapmodern South Arabian language most closely related to Mehri of Yemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate. Soqotri, however, is quite distinctive. As noted in the Wikipedia, “the isolation of the island of Socotra has led to the Soqotri language independently developing certain phonetic characteristics absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland.” As Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle noted in a 2003 study, Soqotri is characterized by a high level of dialectal diversity. She expressed concern, however, that many of its dialects are disappearing. She also claimed that the language itself is under some threat from the spread of Arabic:

The influence of Arabic is noticeable in the numeration system: seven years ago, Soqotri people, from the inland or remote places, used the Soqotri system of numeration from one to ten in commercial transactions with other Soqotri speakers in ˆadibo. But, in 2001 in ˆadibo, even old people used Arabic system, and it was very difficult to obtain the first ten numbers in Soqotri from young people. When they remember Soqotri, the syntax was often incorrect, and copied from Arabic.

Many young people in the town borrow from Arabic, and code-switch with Arabic; they do not remember any piece of literature…

One problem faced by Soqotri is its historical lack of a written form that could be used to preserve the island’s rich poetic traditions. That stumbling block, however, has recently been eliminated, as a Russian team of linguists led by Vitaly Naumkin has devised a writing system for the language. As was recently reported in Al Jazeera:

[Naumkin’s] team also invited Socotri-speaking “informants” to Moscow – where they spent months retelling their mother island’s oral poetry and folk tales, or conjugating verbs for the Socotri grammar tables.

There, in 2010, one of the informants named ‘Isa Gum’an used the Arabic script to write down a story he’d heard from a friend. “It was our major surprise … when one November evening in 2010, ‘Isa Gum’an somewhat timidly revealed to us that, in order to better preserve an interesting story he had heard from a friend a few days earlier, he had decided to put it in writing using Arabic script,” Naumkin wrote in the preface to the 2014 book of Socotran folklore.

The eureka moment prompted the invention of an easily accessible Socotri alphabet based on the Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, Russian linguists decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet – using symbols that denote non-Arabic phonemes in the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

But it was not the use of the Arabic script and additional symbols that make the new alphabet matter – it is the comprehensive scientific effort that followed it.

Such Russian interest in Socotra might seem surprising, but Socotra was formerly part of South Yemen, which was a close Soviet ally in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a time, the island even hosted a Soviet military base.

Today, political discontent in Socotra understandably runs high. Dissatisfaction with Yemeni rule, however, may be leading to a revival of the Soqotri language. A 2012 article by Nathalie Peutz provides essential context. As she reports:

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Mahra Sultanate MapPeutz also reports that although many Socotrans look back at the period when the island was part of the Mahra Sultanate of central-southern Arabia as a “time of autonomous, sovereign statehood,” they still tend to view the sultanate itself as a foreign, mainland imposition. As a result, many want full autonomy or even independence. Yemen did make Socotra a separate governorate in 2013, but that was not enough to satisfy local aspirations. But as Peutz’s reporting makes clear, Socotran’s are far from united in their vision of the island’s political future:

Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. … Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.

 

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Yemen’s Beleaguered Al Mahrah Seeks Autonomy

Al Mahrah Yemen MapYemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate has much in common with Oman’s adjacent Dhofar Governorate. The two areas share the seasonally humid landscape of the south-central Arabian coastal uplands, and both have large non-Arabic-speaking communities, which instead speak languages in the Modern South Arabian group. Both Al Mahrah and Dhofar also maintain a strong sense of distinctiveness from the rest of Yemen and Oman respectively. Dhofar, however, has made peace with its incorporation into Oman, following a prolonged struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s. Al Mahrah did not experience anything like the Dhofar Rebellion, but today it finds itself in a precarious situation, owing mainly to the near collapse of Yemen.

Yemen Proposed Regions MapAs Yemen began to unravel in 2014, its government hatched a plan to try to keep the country together by turning it into a federation composed of six semi-autonomous regions. Yemeni officials thought that this plan could satisfy the aspirations of southern separatists as well as those of other disgruntled regional forces. But it quickly backfired, as the Zaidi Shia Houthi rebels of the north concluded that the proposal would, as reported by J. Millard Burr, “only cement Yemen’s existing uneven distribution of wealth.” As a result, the Houthi rebels surged ahead, forcing the governmental forces to retreat from the densely populated northwestern highlands.

The plan for a federal Yemen also went over poorly in Al Mahrah Governorate. The main problem here is that the proposal would put Al Mahrah in the Hadhramout region, which is a very different place in terms of both cultural geography and historical development. The Mehri-speaking people in particular tend to be suspicious of the Hadhrami people of the Hadhramout, but even the Arabic-speakers of Al Mahrah overwhelmingly reject the six-region federal plan. An October 2014 National Yemen article, quoting Elisabeth Kendall, senior research fellow in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Pembroke College, Oxford University, explains the situation:

[P]lans to transform Yemen into a six-region federation are deeply unpopular in Al-Mahra, which would be lumped together with Hadramawt, the neighbouring governorate and Al-Mahra’s long-time foe due to lingering animosity since 1968 when Al-Mahra was overrun by socialist forces entering from Hadramawt, said Kendall.

One of the few Western researchers to gain regular access to eastern Yemen, Kendall helped conduct in April and May a poll of Al-Mahra electorate in which 99 percent of 34,000 respondents said they opposed the idea of a merger with Hadramawt.

“If something is going to be instituted which is that strongly against the wishes of a well-armed people with not much to lose, I think you’re going to have a civil war,” she said.

Yemen June 2015 Political MapAlthough the most recent maps of the political situation in Yemen show Al Mahrah remaining under the control of the Saudi-backed, internationally recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, its hold on the region is not secure. According to Kendall, two-thirds of the local inhabitants do not believe that they benefit from being part of Yemen, and resentment against Hadi “runs high” throughout the region. Deep poverty and a lack of infrastructure exacerbate the situation. One result of such problems, Kendall claims, is an underground economic system: “Their economy is largely illegal – it’s smuggling drugs, guns, weapons and people.” Al Mahrah has also Yemen January 2015 Political Map2been plagued by Islamist extremist groups infiltrating from the west. Kendall argues that the people of Al Mahrah have little sympathy for extremists, noting that they “have taken to patrolling their capital al-Ghayda and its border with Hadramawt to prevent incursions by the jihadist group.” But she also fears that al-Qaeda could gain a foothold in the region if its problems are not addressed, and further worries that the destabilization of Al Mahrah could lead to a humanitarian disaster.

The situation in the neighboring Dhofar Governorate of Oman could hardly be more different, owing largely to the political stability and successful developmental programs of the Omani state. Not surprisingly, Oman is concerned about the chaos along its western border. One of its proposed responses is a separation barrier, and it has been negotiating with an Indian firm to Arabian Leopard Mapcommence construction. This proposal, not surprisingly, is highly controversial. Elisabeth Kendall fears that by cutting off smuggling routes and preventing the cross-border movements of cattle herders it could drive some local people into the fold of Islamic extremism. Omani and Yemeni environmentalists are also wary of the project. Of particular concern is the Arabian leopard, whose last remaining redoubt of any size is the Dhofar highlands. As Al Jazeera reported in May 2014:

“[The border fence] would cut the population [of Arabian leopards] in two,” Abdulrahman al-Eryani, Yemen’s former Minister of Water and the Environment, told Al Jazeera. The creation of two distinct breeding groups unable to access each other for mating – already from one decimated population – could prove disastrous, he said.

 

 

It is unfortunate for both the people and the leopards of Al Mahrah that they ended up on the Yemeni side of the border. That they did was largely an accident of political history. From the 16th century, the region formed the Mahri (or Mahra) Sultanate of Qishn and Suqutra, which, as its name indicates, included as well the island of Socotra. At times the Mahri Sultanate was under the hegemony of Oman, but it remained an autonomous polity. In 1866 the mainland portion of this Arabia 1905-1923 Mapstate came under British “protection,” as did the island of Socotra in 1886. (The geographical extent of the Mahri Sultanate is difficult to determine. Curiously, the detailed political map of Joaquín de Salas Vara de Rey of the Arabian Peninsula in the early 20th century shows the core area of Oman’s Dhofar governorate, Salalah and its hinterlands, as having belonged to it. If that was indeed the case, it is unclear how this vital area became part of Oman. The formal boundary between Oman and Yemen was only established in 1992.)

 

South Yemen 1965 mapIn any event, as Britain prepared to depart from its Arabian imperial realm in the early 1960s, it reorganized the local political geography. In 1962, 15 small protectorates were merged with the crown colony of Aden to form the Federation of South Arabia, still under British authority. The larger protectorates located further to the east, including the Mahri Sultanate, rejected membership in this federation and were therefore grouped together as the Protectorate of South Arabia.

Meanwhile, opposition to British rule mounted, encouraged by both Yemen and Egypt and underwritten by socialist and Arab nationalist sentiments. The Egyptian-supported, Marxist National Liberation Front (NLF) began to fight the British military in 1963, resulting in the so-called Aden Emergency. Unlike Oman’s Dhofar Rebellion of the same period, British forces did not prevail. Exhausted, the government of Harold Wilson made a hasty agreement with the NLF and withdrew from the region in 1967. Almost immediately, the NLF took control of both the Federation and the Protectorate of South Arabia, which it merged together as the People’s Republic of South Yemen. Needless to say, the local sultanates were abolished. Britain’s abandonment of its “protected” states in the region to communist forces was seen by many as an act of betrayal. A recent thread in Monarchy Forum, a discussion board dedicated to the perpetuation of monarchical rule, frames it as nothing less than a “monstrous betrayal.”

Some voices are now calling for a return of the sultanates of southern and eastern Yemen, either as independent states or, more commonly, as parts of a more finely divided federal state. Such sentiments seem to be particularly pronounced in Al Mahrah and Socotra. Shadiah Abdullah Al Jabry, in a June 2014 article in The National World, reports that:

Slogans such as “We reject exclusion and marginalisation” and “A separate Socotra and Al Mahra region is the future and dignity” were everywhere. Also ubiquitous were the flags of the former Mahra Sultanate of Qishn and Socotra, which was abolished in 1967 after the British occupation. …

Sheikh Al Afrar denied he had any hidden agenda to restore his dominion of the former sultanate and said he had no plans to run for political office. As to why he wants the two provinces [Socotra and Al Mahra] to be autonomous under one regional authority, he said it was because they shared a common language, culture and history that can be traced back 700 years.

“My intention is not to claim territory or even independence from the central government,” he said. “Our primary objective is to achieve the aspirations and the hopes of the people of Socotra and Al Mahra and their right to have a separate region within the federation away from dependency, exclusion and marginalisation.” …

Sheikh Al Afrar also said that the demands of the people of Socotra and Al Mahra should not be ignored or denied and called for a popular referendum to be held. He said he was in favour of the federal system as an alternative to the unitary system, which, during the past few decades, has proved to be an utter failure in creating a successful country, as per his analysis. “Now is the time to give the federal system an opportunity to make a comprehensive development framework in all the regions of Yemen,” he said.

A post in the Monarchy Forum mentioned above claims that some local people want more than regional autonomy, as a “movement supporting an independent Mahra and Socotra sultanate is in evidence.” Unfortunately, the links provided are either dead or refer to articles in Arabic, which are inaccessible to me.

 

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Catalan Secession Looming?

Fear are mounting that Spain will face a new secession crisis after the government of Catalonia called for a snap election on November 25, which is widely seen as a referendum on enhanced autonomy if not outright independence. The move came shortly after the Madrid government rejected Catalonia’s demand for greater autonomy on taxation issues. Desire for political separation is growing in the region, as evidenced by massive (600,000+) pro-independence demonstrations in Barcelona earlier this month. Catalonia is Spain’s most indebted region, and one of its wealthiest ones as well, and most Catalans believe that they pay a disproportionate share of taxes.

The Spanish constitution bans outright votes on secession, and it is unclear in any event if most Catalans want full independence or merely enhanced autonomy. The central government, however, is taking the current challenge very seriously. According to blogger Tyler Durden, “the Spanish Military Association (SMA) has warned Monday that those who cooperate or allow ‘fracture’ of Spain should ‘respond with all the utmost rigor’ in the courts in the field of military courts by the ‘serious charge high treason.’”

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The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?, By Seth Jackson

Dear Readers,

Although GeoCurrents does not normally accept guest posts, I was so taken by this piece by Seth Jackson that I decided to make an exception. One of the main themes of this website is geopolitical complexity, and here we have it in spades!

Martin W. Lewis

 

The Crown Dependencies: What Exactly Are They?

By Seth Jackson

We often hear that the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey are not part of the United Kingdom, but are instead classified as Crown Dependencies.  The question then arises about the possession of their sovereignty.  If the U.K. doesn’t maintain sovereignty over the islands, who then does?  Is the Crown a separate entity from the U.K.?  If the Crown Dependencies are outside the territorial scope of the U.K., then why are they not considered to be independent countries in their own right?

Sovereignty over the Crown Dependencies and the United Kingdom are vested in the Crown.  Indeed, the reigning monarch is the Sovereign.  All powers of sovereignty symbolically emanate from his or her person.  The Government of the United Kingdom is formed in his or her name, and likewise the autonomous governments of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands operate and function in the name of the Sovereign.

Each government defines the Crown differently.  The Isle of Man describes it as the “Crown in right of the Isle of Man” and declares it as separate from the “Crown in right of the United Kingdom.”  Jersey defines it as the “Crown in right of Jersey”, whereas Guernsey does so as the “Crown in right of the république of the Bailiwick of Guernsey”.  Likewise each of the 16 independent Commonwealth realms defines the Crown in a similar fashion, such as the “Crown in right of Canada” and the “Crown in right of Tuvalu”.

As a result, the Sovereign, currently Elizabeth II, is officially known by different titles in each jurisdiction, such as Queen of the United Kingdom, Queen of Canada, and Queen of Tuvalu.  In the Crown Dependencies, her titles are more unusual.  She is the Lord of Mann while in or acting on behalf of the Isle of Man, and in the Channel Islands she is known as the Duke of Normandy.  She is perhaps the only woman to hold the titles of Lord and Duke, as opposed to the female equivalents of Lady and Duchess.

Is there one crown that represents all the Commonwealth realms and its dependencies, or does each realm and dependency have its own separate, unique crown?  In other words, is Elizabeth II queen of 16 realms, or is she simultaneously 16 different queens?  The Statute of Westminster 1931 granted each realm its own crown that is a separate legal personality from that of any other crown.  However, does this mean the “Crown in right of the Isle of Man” is a separate legal entity from that of the “Crown in right of the United Kingdom”?  It seems that the answer is “no”: the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey are dependent upon the British Crown, or the “Crown in the right of the United Kingdom”, but this in no way implies that they are part of the United Kingdom.

This seems to suggest that the independent country of the United Kingdom is really only a subset of something larger – the British Crown.  The Crown contains within it the sovereignty of four national governments: the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey.  In addition, the U.K. itself consists of four non-sovereign yet increasingly autonomous countries (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), as well as several overseas territories.  Perhaps the relationships of the Crown Dependencies to the United Kingdom most closely resemble those of states in free association, such as the relationship of the Cook Islands and Niue to New Zealand.

The Crown Dependencies are outside the European Union, and have limited engagement in international organizations.  However, as the economies of the Crown Dependencies have grown the last several decades, especially in the financial sector, there have been elevated discussions on how to define their individual “external personalities” within the international community.  Will this eventually result in a change of their political status as Crown Dependencies? We shall see.

How does one interpret the sovereignty of the Crown Dependencies and their place within the British Crown? The question is not easily answered. Although conventional opinion regards the global geopolitical community as a straightforward assemblage of mutual recognized sovereign states, the actual situation is vastly more complicated.

Notes

1. There are some who claim Orkney and Shetland are Crown Dependencies, or more specifically Crown Trust Dependencies, and are not legally part of Scotland or the United Kingdom, owing to their history of being pawned by King Christian I of Denmark to King James III of Scotland in 1468/9, as security against the dowry in the marriage of Christian’s daughter to James III.  The assertion is that this act of pawning did not transfer sovereignty, as the pawn can technically be redeemed (although previous attempts to do so have been unsuccessful), and as such, the islands have remained a trust asset of the Crown ever since.  The islands were openly recognized as Scottish Crown Dependencies prior to the Acts of Union 1707, when the independent Kingdoms of Scotland and England joined together to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Today, there is a movement for greater autonomy for the islands, with the small Shetland island of Forvik going so far as to declare itself a Crown Dependency in 2008, and an independent country in 2011.

2. The Sovereign is also the lord paramount of all soil in the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies.  The Crown assumes title through the process of escheatment of any lands that are declared to have no other owner, such as in cases of bankruptcy or the dissolution of companies.

3. However, since Canada and Australia are both federations, each province and state has a direct relationship with the Crown as well.

4. We often hear Elizabeth II titled the “Queen of England”, but this term is inaccurate.  The Kingdom of England ceased to exist with the Acts of Union 1707, when England and Scotland merged their kingdoms to form the Kingdom of Great Britain.  Later, following the merging with the Kingdom of Ireland in 1801, it became known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and finally, when three-fourths of Ireland seceded and formed the Irish Free State in 1922, the U.K. gained its current name: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Presently, Elizabeth II is known as the Queen of the United Kingdom while representing that realm.

5. Although, Queen Victoria was styled as the Lady of Mann during her reign.

6. The Queen is also referred to as the Duke of Lancaster during formal settings in Lancashire, England or within her duties pertaining to the Duchy of Lancaster.

7. The United Kingdom, however, is responsible for the defense and foreign relations of the Crown Dependencies as matter of tradition and convention.  Each dependency pays the U.K. an annual fee for these services

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Self-Rule and Environmental Crisis in Ogoniland

In recent months, relations between the Ogoni people of Rivers State in southeastern Nigeria and the government have come under intense pressure (map at left from the UN). On August 2nd, a group of Ogoni led by Goodluck Diigbo of the pro-autonomy Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) declared their sovereignty in internal affairs while stopping short of secession. According to allAfrica.com, the declaration asserted “political control of Ogoni affairs by Ogoni people, control and use of Ogoni economic resources for Ogoni development, adequate and direct representation as of right for Ogoni people in all Nigerian national institutions, and the right to protect the Ogoni environment and ecology from further degradation.” The governor of Rivers State attacked the declaration as “treasonous”, maintaining that Diigbo and his followers do not represent the wishes of most Ogonis. In the intervening months, confusion has reigned, with the government trying to ignore the issue and keep it from escalating, while different groups of Ogonis make different demands.

Suspicion has plagued the relationship between Nigeria and the Ogoni since the early 1990s, when the MOSOP’s creation of an “Ogoni Bill of Rights”, the outbreak of a protest movement, and several assassination attempts targeting Diigbo helped create a crisis situation. In 1993, MOSOP and the Ogoni took on Shell Oil, demanding billions of dollars and a stop to pollution in the area. After a Shell employee was beaten, the company withdrew from the region, prompting Nigeria to take heavy-handed measures to quell the resistance, resulting in around forty deaths. Ogoni antipathy to the national government intensified in 1995, when the military government of Sani Abacha hanged the noted Ogoni activist, novelist, and television producer Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Environmental damage due to petroleum exploitation has remained a huge stumbling block in negotiationsbetween Ogoni activists and the government. According to a UN report, roughly 1,000 square kilometers of Ogoniland are contaminated by oil, and clean drinking water is nearly impossible to find.  Ogonis can’t help but be exposed to petroleum toxins through a number of channels. The same report outlines cleanup strategies, but emphasizes that any such efforts would take decades and cost billions. The Ogoni obviously bear the brunt of local environmental damage, but they see few of the benefits, most of which accrue to Nigeria’s central government and Shell Oil. As seen in the August declaration of autonomy, the Ogoni want to keep oil royalties for themselves and to force Shell to either extract oil in a more responsible way or leave.  The Nigerian government, however, has a clear economic incentive to maintain the status quo.

The Ogoni do not necessarily agree about what kind of future they want for their region. Some favor complete independence, though most see that as unrealistic and undesirable. Others, such as senator Magnus Abe, would like to see the creation of a new “Bori State”, ahomeland for the Ogoni and several other ethnic groups. According to Abe, “State creation has been a major tool for enhancing a sense of belonging and promoting development by groups that feel marginalized. It is an important means of strengthening federalism, though; economic viability should also be an important criterion.” A pro-unity faction led by an ad-hoc group of politicians, community leaders, and scholars has also emerged, claiming that the “Ogoni remains committed to the unity of the Nigerian state and that we are with Nigeria, which is contrary to recent media report on Ogoni.” The group’s conciliatory stance is aimed at creating a stable situation that would allow environmental cleanup to proceed. Meanwhile, MOSOP seems to be following up on its claims to Ogoni autonomy, ordering a Mexican firm recruited by the River State government to aid banana producers to stay out of Ogoniland. Which of these groups, if any, will emerge as the dominant voice of Ogoniland, and what the government will do about it, remain open questions.

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Puntland’s Security Offensives and the Growing City of Galka’yo

The most recent version of the ever-changing and always excellent Wikipedia map of the political situation in Somalia shows the internationally recognized Federal Republic of Somalia controlling roughly half of the country, with most of the rest falling either under the power of the Islamic Emirate of Somalia, closely aligned with the Al-Shabaab radical Islamist Group, or that of  the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. What the map fails to adequately convey is the fact that several of the regions that acknowledge the Federal Republic are actually fully autonomous political entities. Polities such as Puntland support eventual Somali reunification, but tense relations between the country’s different autonomous regions make such a scenario unlikely, at least in the short run. Puntland and neighboring Galmudug, for example, have tussled over a number of issues, although the two governments did agree in 2011 to “cooperate on security, economic and social matters.” Yet in July of this year, the airport in the important city of Galka’yo came under mortar shelling, which the Puntland-based management blamed on “a local armed militia from Galmudug state.”

The situation in Galka’yo, a regional metropolis of more than half a million people, is complicated by the fact that city is divided between Puntland, which controls the urban core to the north of the airport, and Galmudug, which controls the suburbs to the south. Overall, the city has prospered since the fall of the Mogadishu warlords to the now-defunct Islamic Courts Union in 2006; money and resources that previously flowed to the Somali capital of Mogadishu now remain in the region. According to a 2011 article in Africa Review:

Hotels, guest houses, supermarkets, restaurants, and new office blocks for NGOs and the government compete in height with the newly-erected, tall minarets of the mosques. The city [of Galka’yo] also boasts of social services like hospitals, schools, police stations and petrol stations. Even the former Somali army barracks in the city has been renovated and is kept in good condition.

Tensions between Puntland and Galmudug, however, are not the only threats to Galka’yo’s stability. The Puntland government had been widely been seen as acting in concert with pirate captains; a January 2012 BBC report claimed that the Puntland economy overall had reaped substantial benefits from piracy. More recently, however, Puntland has apparently been taking on the pirates of its coastal strip, and at some cost. The reach of the pirates evidently extends well inland. On August 13, Garowe Online reported that:

Puntland forces repelled an attack by armed pirates on the Galkayo central jail station early Sunday afternoon. Pirates equipped with automatic guns attacked the Galkayo central station in a bid to forcefully free fellow pirates who were apprehended in a raid by Puntland security forces that netted over 40 people related to insecurity in the region.

More recently, Puntland security forces have also taken on Al-Shabaab insurgents who seek to destabilize the region and impose their own exceptionally harsh version of Islamic law. On August 23, Shabelle News reported that the Puntland military had “detained dozens of armed men carrying explosives, whom the officials are accusing to have links with Al Shabaab militants and are now being held at a prison northern Galka’yo.”

Puntland’s military is evidently relatively well run and well equipped. Even its paramilitary division, the Puntland Dervish Force, controls its own battle tanks (T-54/T-55) and armored personal carriers.

 

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Rioting Threatens Zanzibar’s Tourist Economy

Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island in the country of Tanzania, is still reeling from widespread rioting in late May. At that time, members of an Islamist separatist movement allegedly set fire to two churches and clashed with the police. The Zanzibar government accuses the leadership of Uamsho, or the Islamic Revival Forum, of ordering its followers into the streets to cause havoc. Uamsho leader Sheikh Farid Hadi Ahmed denies the charges and has condemned the rioting, but also insists that he will not rest until Zanzibar is liberated from Tanzanian rule. Ahmed claim to be following a peaceful path to separation, stating that “We need a referendum about the union between Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Let the people decide whether or not they need this union.”

Zanzibar’s secular government is concerned that the unrest will damage its tourism industry. Tourism is currently responsible for roughly a quarter of Zanzibar’s gross domestic product (GDP) and generates almost three quarters of its foreign currency. Some 200,000 foreign tourists visit the island each year, about 70,000 of whom are British. Officials in Zanzibar’s government were thus distressed when the “British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) issued an advisory statement, cautioning British tourists visiting Zanzibar to be cautious in the places hit by violence, telling them to keep away.” In response, the island’s President Ali Mohamed Shein intensified security and then “banned public gatherings that are bent on discussing the future of the Union, advising the people to wait for the Constitutional Review Commission which is entrusted with the task.”

Zanzibar was long linked to Oman but became a British protectorate in 1890. It was briefly an independent state in 1963 and early 1964 before joining Tanganyika to form the new republic of Tanzania. Relations between the mainland and the semi-autonomous island have long been strained. Zanzibar’s leaders stress the island’s autonomy and its status as a state, irritating Tanzania’s leadership. The resulting terminological debates can be intricate. As the Wikipedia reports, “In 2008, Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete tried to silence the matter when he addressed the nation in a live conference by saying that Zanzibar is a state internal but semi-state international.”

Religious tensions exacerbate Zanzibar’s problems. The island’s population is reportedly 95 Muslim and five percent Christian, and Islamist organizations are increasingly influential. Christian leaders claim that their followers are under pressure to leave the island, and they allege that plots have been established to destroy all Zanzibari churches. Islamists youths have on occasion have attacked bars, further jeopardizing the tourism economy. Under Islamist pressure, Zanzibar’s government outlawed homosexual relations in 2004. Two years later, a major controversy erupted when the Islamist group Uamsho threatened to hold massive demonstrations after rumors began to circulate that the island’s government would officially commemorate the birthday of the late Freddy Mercury, the gay leader of the British glam band Queen. Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara to Parsi (Zoroastrian) parents in Zanzibar in 1946.

Rioting Threatens Zanzibar’s Tourist Economy Read More »

Scotland Vs. the Shetland and Orkney Islands

The Scottish National Party (SNP) has gained enough power to have arranged for a vote on Scottish independence in 2014. But although the party has made major gains in recent years in many parts of Scotland, it has done poorly in others. Voters in the northern islands have generally rejected the SNP. A local political leader, the Earl of Caithness, recently called for a “clause [to be] added to Westminster legislation to allow Shetland and Orkney to remain part of the UK if voters [there] reject Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum.”

As the electoral map posted here shows, support for the SNP is strong in the oil-rich northeast and in the Scottish-Gaelic-speaking Outer Hebrides in the northwest. Support reaches notably high level in and around the city of Fraserburgh in the northeast, Europe’s largest shellfish port.

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Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014

Map of the Circassian Republics in Russia

Map of the Circassian Republics in RussiaThe resurgence of Circassian identity in recent years faces daunting obstacles. Many Circassians believe that the long-term sustainability of their community requires a return to the northwestern Caucasus, but both the Russian state and the other peoples of the region resist such designs. Circassians are thus focusing much of their efforts on global public opinion, building a protest movement in preparation for the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014.

Requests by Circassian exiles to return to the Caucasus began to pour into Russian consulates not long after the expulsion of the community in the mid-1800s. Until the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, re-migration in any numbers was not feasible. In the early 1990s, however, thousands of Circassians from the Middle East managed to move back, although some later abandoned the effort, discouraged by the poverty of the region. Return migration slowed after the war in Chechnya heated up in the mid 1990s, and was again constricted in the early 2000s by the imposition of restrictive Russian laws. Would-be immigrants must abandon their foreign citizenship and learn the Russian language. Quotas are imposed as well. Local opposition by non-Circassians also inhibits the movement. The “Union of the Slavs,” founded in 1991, seeks to forestall any return, warning others that the Circassian returnees plan to overwhelm the region and then marginalize local Russians. The Union has also fought proposals to increase the autonomy of the existing Circassian-oriented Russian republics, only one of which, Kabardino-Balkaria, actually has a Circassian majority.

Map of Kuban CossacksCossacks have long been at the forefront of the anti-Circassian movement. Cossacks—Slavic-speaking people who had adopted the semi-nomadic lifestyle of the steppes—were instrumental in the expansion of the Russian Empire, and the northwestern Caucasus was no exception.  The Kuban Cossack Host, established on the edge of Circassian territory in the late 1700s, figured prominently in the Russo-Turkish (and Russo-Circassian) wars. During this long period, local Cossacks borrowed extensively from their Circassian enemies. Even the uniforms of Kuban (and Terek) Cossacks are a form of the traditional Caucasian garb known as “chokha.” Historical emulation, however, did not entail peaceful coexistence. When the Tsarist government decided to clear out the Circassians in the 1860s, the Cossacks were in the vanguard. Their assaults usually began with the mass theft of horses—according to a local adage, “a Circassian and a horse together cannot be defeated”—and ended with the burning of villages and the expulsion of the people. As a result, Cossack communities acquired some of the best lands in the northwestern Caucasus.

After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks themselves became the victims of a fierce “decossackization” program. In an ironic twist, a number of Cossacks fled south from the Kuban region to avoid the purges and ended up assimilating with the Abkhazians, who are closely associated with the Circassians. With the fall of the Soviet Union, Kuban Cossack traditions and identity quickly rebounded. Mounting Circassian activism and return migration immediately after 1991 help provoke the re-militarization of local Cossack contingents, angering and often intimidating the other peoples of the region. According to a 2008 article by Fatima Tlisova, Cossacks now have a privileged position that they use against Circassians activists. Yet Cossack relations with the Abkhazians remain strong. A 2008 YouTube video about the Kuban Cossacks boasts that, “1500 Kuban Cossack volunteers are now serving in aid to Abkhaz freedom.”

Circassian activists have sought to enhance group solidarity by diminishing the differences among the various Circassian sub-groups. The Russian state has long divided the Circassians into four categories: the Kabardins, the Adyghe, the Cherkes, and the Shapsugs. (Three of these terms are reflected in the names of the three “Circassian,” or partly Circassian, Russian Republics: Republic of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkar Republic, and Karachay-Cherkess Republic.) Members of the Circassian community increasingly insist on the ethnonym “Adyghe” for the entire group, and they hope for the eventual unification of the Circassian parts of the three republics. A related movement involves the quest to craft a new literary trans-Circassian language, as currently two standardized official languages, Kabardian and Adyghe proper, co-exist within a broader continuum of local dialects.

The drive for unification encounters a potential snag in the Abazas and especially the Abkhazians. These peoples are historically and linguistically linked to the Circassians, but have generally been regarded as separate groups. Over the past several decades, the general tendency has been to try to fold all of the indigenous peoples of the northwestern Caucasus into one broad ethnic or national formation. More recently, however, tensions have mounted between Circassian and Abkhazian nationalists. Abkhazia is now a self-declared independent country of its own that functions as a client state of Russia, and Russia is seen as the main obstacle to Circassian unification.

A recent article suggests that tensions have arisen between Circassians and Abkhazians over Krasnya Polyana, the main skiing facility of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Some Abkhazian politicians have evidently claimed that Krasnya Polyana is rightfully Abkhazian, while Circassians view it as a monument to their own tragic history, the site of the last major battle in the Russian-Circassian war. In one sense, neither view is fully correct: before the expulsions of the 1860s, the larger Sochi area had been the home of the Ubykhs, the one northwestern Caucasian people to disappear entirely in the diaspora.

Circassian nationalists differ in their ultimate goals. Some demand nothing less than an independent Circassia blanketing the northwestern Caucasus, but others would be content with political and cultural autonomy within the Russian Federation, coupled with a right for members of the diaspora to return. Even these more limited aspirations, however, face long odds. The three nominally Circassian republics all have limited autonomy, two are officially shared with non-Circassian groups, and all include many Russians and other non-indigenous peoples. Such diversity makes for complex local politics, which often devolve into three-way struggles among Russians, Circassians, and Turkic groups such as the Balkars. Russian activists have tried to dismantle the nominally Circassian Republic of Adygea, situated near the middle of Krasnodar Krai. Circassian officials in Adygea subsequently attempted, without success, to annul the immigration quota for Circassian returnees, hoping to bolster their own numbers in the fragile republic.

Although their national ambitions face deep challenges, the Circassian community possesses many resources of its own. The diaspora includes many influential and wealthy persons. The proposed merging of Adygea and Krasnodar Krai, for example, was forestalled in part by the lobbying of Jordanian Circassians. The Circassian internet presence, moreover, is extensive and impressive, conveyed by many websites and YouTube productions. Yet as the lessons of “Virtual Tibet” show, it is extraordinarily difficult to translate internet activism into real political clout when faced with the concerted opposition of a powerful state.

Despite the sophistication of the Circassian outreach program, their cause has hardly penetrated into the consciousness of the global community. I doubt that one person in a thousand in the United States has any knowledge of the Circassian people. But I do anticipate an upsurge in both information and interest as the 2014 Winter Olympics approaches. Circassians view Sochi and especially the ski resort at Krasnya Polyana as the focal points of their tragic history, and they are already denouncing the upcoming “Genocide Olympics.” Sizable demonstrations against the event have occurred in Istanbul and other cities, and more are on the way. Olympic competitions have long served as theaters of political demonstration, and the Sochi event promises to be particularly theatrical.

Protests against the Sochi Olympics will likely draw on historical themes and motifs associated with the Circassian people. Although the Circassians are little-known in the West, that was not always the case. In the late 1800s the group was so famous that it inspired brand names, as we shall see in Monday’s post, the final offering on the Circassians.

Dreams of a Circassian Homeland and the Sochi Olympics of 2014 Read More »

The Politics of Genocide Claims and the Circassian Diaspora

Map of the Caucasian Language Families

Map of the Caucasian Language FamiliesAllegations of genocide are often politically charged. On January 23, 2012, the French parliament voted to criminalize the denial of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In Turkey, by contrast, it is illegal to assert that the same acts were genocidal. The Turkish government remains adamant, threatening to impose unspecified sanctions on France for passing the new law. Turkish critics meanwhile accuse France of having engaged in a genocidal campaign of its own against Algerians in the 1950s. France is one of twenty-one sovereign states to officially recognize the Armenian genocide, but is the only one to specifically outlaw its denial. Most countries offering recognition are in Europe and Latin America; many, France included, have substantial Armenian populations. Although the United States has not acted, forty-three U.S. states have passed Armenian genocide acknowledgement bills.

The mass killing of Armenians is not the only example of a politically contested charge of genocide in the Caucasus. In May 2011, the Georgian legislature voted unanimously to classify the Russian assaults on the Circassian (or Adyghe-speaking) community in the 1860s as acts of genocide. The only legislator to speak against the bill warned that it would offend Georgia’s Armenian community, considering the fact that Georgia has not acknowledged the Armenian case. Thus far, Georgia is the only country to officially consider the expulsion and slaughter of the Circassians as a case of genocide. Critics charge Georgia with self-interested behavior, noting that its intractable struggle with Russia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia provides incentive to denounce the past actions of the Russian government in the Caucasus. Hard-core Turkish partisans have also highlighted the Circassian massacres, in their case to downplay the Armenian example; according to one blogger, the Circassian genocide was “infinitely worse than what happened to the Armenians,” yet it has been almost entirely forgotten by the international community.

Controversies surrounding the “genocide” label are often definitional, hinging on whether actions must be consciously aimed to exterminate an entire people to be so classified. Yet regardless of the formal label used, the massacres and evictions of Armenians in the early twentieth century and of Circassians in the mid nineteenth century were horrific. Based on the original definition of the term, the “genocide” label does seem appropriate. Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1943 in reference to the Nazi extermination of the Jews, but he began working on the idea much earlier, in response to the catastrophic expulsions of the Armenians and the massacres of Assyrians in northern Iraq in the 1930s. (Like the Circassian genocide, that of the Assyrians has garnered little international recognition, apart from Sweden in 2010.)

Wikipedia Circassian diaspora map The Russian-Circassian conflict dates back to the mid-1700s, part of a much broader struggle pitting the Russian Empire against the Ottoman Empire. After roughly 100 years of war, the Russian government decided in the early 1860s to drive the Circassians into Ottoman territory. Russian forces and Cossack irregulars systematically burned villages and slaughtered civilians. According to an article posted in the Circassian World website, these actions were “the first intentional large-scale genocide of the modern times. … It was also the largest single genocide of the 19th century.” By most accounts, some ninety percent of the Circassian population was either killed or driven out, effectively depopulating most of the northwestern Caucasus. A few Circassians, especially members of the eastern Kabardin group, were able to remain, and in time their numbers grew. Nonetheless the expulsion was devastating. Of an estimated 3.7 million Circassians worldwide today, only 700,000 live in the homeland. The remainder reside primarily in Turkey and other lands of the former Ottoman Empire, particularly Syria and Jordan.

The depopulation of the northwestern Caucasus in the 1860s is reflected in the modern linguistic map. The distribution of the northwestern Caucasian linguistic family today is markedly discontiguous. Whereas the northeastern Caucasian and the Kartvelian languages (Georgian and its relatives) cover relatively solid blocks of territory, the northwestern Caucasian languages appear in small pockets surrounded by areas in which people speak Russian and other languages. Even in the Russian republics of Karachai-Cherkessia and Adyghea, ostensibly based on Circassian ethnicity, Circassians constitute only about a quarter of the total population. Yet before the events of the 1860s, the Circassians and their relatives had occupied a large block of contiguous territory in the mountains and the adjacent lowlands of the northwestern Caucasus.

Map of Circassian Areas in Turkey The Ottomans generally welcomed the Circassian refugees, valuing their military expertise against the Russian enemy, and hence offered them haven in scattered locales. Yet in their unwilling diaspora, the Circassians have had some difficulty maintaining their language and ethnic identity. This has been particularly true in Turkey, where a politically enforced nationalism has meant categorization as Turks, regardless of self-identity. In the past, many Circassians in Turkey have been willing or even eager to assimilate; a result, the use of northwestern Caucasian languages in the diaspora has declined sharply.  Many younger Circassians in Turkey, however, are now reclaiming their identity. In April 2011, “Circassians in Turkey staged a rally … in Istanbul’s Kadıköy district to demand broadcasting and education rights in their native language…” One participant claimed that “The denials, exiles, betrayals, insults, policies of assimilation and social exclusion that have taken place during the 87 years that have passed since the foundation of the Turkish Republic nearly amount to a gallery of sins.”

According to some sources, Circassian identity has been more easily maintained in Jordan, Syria, and Israel, whether due to the less homogenizing political cultures of these countries or simply to the greater cultural distances separating the Circassians from their majority populations. In 2010 Jordan opened a Circassian academy, featuring classes in Adyghe. Such classes may be a challenge to pull off, however, as even in Jordan relatively few Circassians have preserved their language. In both Jordan and Syria, Circassians have tended to form privileged communities, marked by some political and even military clout, encouraging assimilation in the long run.

The position of the Circassian community in Syria, however, may be in danger. Like the Christians and Alawites, the Circassians have tended to support the al-Assad regime, which—brutal through it may be—has generally kept the lid on sectarian and ethnic strife. Several Circassian leaders in Syria are now seeking permission from Russia for re-migration to the northwestern Caucasus. Such a request reflects both the insecurity of present-day Syria and the lure of the homeland; as Circassian ethnic consciousness grows, many Circassian are concluding that long-term cultural survival is possible only within Circassia itself. Russia, however, has placed firm limits on return migration, angering Circassian activists. As we shall see in a later post, Circassian activism is increasing in Russia, generating concern in the country’s political establishment. Any returnees, moreover, might find disappointment; some of the Jordanian Circassians who recently moved to the Caucasus later returned to Jordan, having discovered that the reality of their homeland and their dreams about it did not coincide.

GeoCurrents will continue to explore the Circassians for the next week or so. The Circassians are of major—although woefully under-appreciated—world historical significance, and they were once well-known in Europe and North America. They may become noted again; Circassian protesters are already gearing up for the Sochi Winter Olympics, situated in what they consider to be the epicenter of their genocide. In winter 2014, the global press may have a few words to say about the forgotten Circassians.

The Politics of Genocide Claims and the Circassian Diaspora Read More »

The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

Map of the Former Greek Communities in Georgia, CaucasusReaders who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek population of Georgia has plummeted from over 100,000 to less than 20,000, due largely to emigration to Greece. Many of the remaining Georgian Greeks are elderly, and a few locales are reported to have only a handful of remaining Greek residents, putting the survival of the community in some doubt

But regardless of the community’s future, its Greek nature raises some interesting issues about identity. Members of the group consider themselves Greek, generally belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and use the Greek script when writing their own language; they are also reckoned as Greeks by the Athens government. As a result, their homeland has been accurately mapped as “Greek” on ethnic maps. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to linguistic maps, as most of the Greeks of south-central Georgia speak a Turkic language called Urum. They are not unique in this regard. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Greeks expelled from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s were actually Turcophones. Today, the remaining Turkic-speaking Greek population is concentrated in three areas: south-central Georgia, the north Azov area of southern Russia, where the community was reported to be 60,000 strong in 1969, and in Donetsk Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, which Ethnologue claims contains 95,000 Urum speakers.*

Map showing the Empire of Trebizond circa 1235 CEThe Greek presence in the area that is now Georgia apparently dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were a maritime people who established outposts all along the shores of the Black Sea, many of which survived, in one form or another, into the modern era. The focus of this so-called Pontic Greek community was the coastal strip of what is now northeastern Turkey, an area that enjoyed its heyday from 1204-1461 as the Empire of Trebizond, a prosperous and highly cultured Byzantine successor state. After the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond in 1461, some of its Greek residents abandoned Greek for Turkic dialects while remaining Map of the Aborted Republic of PontusChristian and Greek-identified, others retained both Christianity and their distinctive Pontic Greek dialect (or language), others converted to Islam and adopted the Turkish language, and still others became Muslim while continuing to speak “Rumca,” the local term used to denote Pontic Greek.** Those who retained Greek identity tried to build a Republic of Pontus during the chaotic years from the end of World War I until the early 1920s, but were unsuccessful. After repelling the Greek invasion from the west in 1922, the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a firm hold over Anatolia. Turkish assaults at this time on the Greek community in the northeast have been deemed by some the “Pontic Genocide”; in the end, most of the Greeks of Turkey were expelled to Greece, just as the Turks of Greece were expelled to Turkey. Today, Trebizond is an ethnically Turkish area described by the BBC in 2007 as a football-mad hotbed of Turkish nationalism.

The Pontic Greeks were not limited to northeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands lived in the coastal areas of what are now Georgia, Abkhazia, southern Russia, and Ukraine. These communities also suffered periodic bouts of persecution in the twentieth century. Under Stalin, as many as 100,000 Pontic Greeks were exiled to Central Asia in two waves, the first in the late 1930s and the second in the late 1940s. Even after Stalin’s death, Greeks in the Soviet Union faced discrimination. According to one source, “Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies.” Ronald Suny, however, notes that Greek interests were accommodated in Georgia under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1970s and early 1980s (see The Making of the Georgian Nation, p. 313).

One of the main centers of Greek culture in the early Soviet Union was the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, formerly part of the Georgian Soviet Republic and now a self-declared independent state aligned with Russia. Before World War II, Sukhumi’s Hellenic community of some 65,000 supported Greek schools, theaters, newspapers, and libraries. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Sukhumi still had some 17,000 Pontic Greeks. As Georgians, Abkhazians, and Russians began to struggle over the fate of Abkhazia in 1991, the local Greeks began to flee, even though “[they] were encouraged by both sides to remain in the area throughout the conflict, and were even offered high ministerial and administrative positions.” In 1993, the Athens government carried out “Operation Golden Fleece” to evacuate most of the remaining population from the conflict zone. By 2003, only around 2,000 Greeks still lived in Abkhazia.

Although the Greek communities of the coastal zone are of long standing, those of interior Georgia date back only to the late eighteenth century. In 1763, Heraclius II, one of the last independent Georgian monarchs, enticed a sizable contingent of Pontic Greeks to settle in the area that now straddles the border of Georgia and Armenia, where he was developing silver and lead mines as part of an aborted modernization program. A second group fled the Ottoman Empire for Russian-ruled Georgia in 1829-1830, after the Greek War of Independence triggered the harassment of Anatolian Greeks. These refugees settled mostly in the Trialeti Plateau region of south-central Georgia, with the multi-lingual and now majority Armenian city of Tsalka forming their hub. Although these so-called Tsalka Urums were almost entirely Turkic-speaking—as the label “Urum” indicates—late Soviet ethnographic studies found that “36% of them considered Greek their mother tongue despite their lack of knowledge of that language, [and that] 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.”

With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia, the Tsalka Urums began to forsake Georgia for Greece. According some reports, the Greek community of south-central Georgia declined from 35,000 in 1989 to 3,000 in 2002, although the 2002 Georgian census still listed 7,415 “Greeks” in the Kvemo-Kartli administrative unit. The reasons for this precipitous decline are debatable. Some Greek sources claim that the Tsalka Urums were basically driven out by other ethnic groups. According to an April 2005 report in the Hellenic Resources Network, “Greek families have been massacred and others have been forced out of their villages, according to local ethnic Greek organizations.” Another report on the same site claims that internal migration within Georgia added to the community’s woes: “The remote Tsalka … became attractive for the Svanja, the domestic immigrants from western Georgia, and the Adjarians. … The squatters committed acts of violence … to force the ethnic Greeks to abandon their homeland.” The same sources, however, also mention an economic rationale for the migration, noting that retirees in the area receive pensions equivalent to twelve Euros a month, far less that what they are able to collect in Greece.

Maps showing ethnic changes in GeorgiaSeveral lessons can be drawn from the story of the Pontic Greeks of Georgia. The first is that ethnic mapping often fails to keep pace with events on the ground. Older maps depicted a substantial Greek population in south-central Georgia, as was indeed appropriate. More recent maps tend to copy from these sources, failing to capture such recent changes as the near disappearance of this Greek community. Recent maps also generally fail to note the disappearance of the southernmost area of Ossetian inhabitation in Georgia. I have accordingly changed one of the most widely used ethno-linguistic maps of the Caucasus, erasing the “Greek” and “Ossetian” areas from Georgia proper. I have also deleted the “Georgian” area from South Ossetia, as a significant degree of ethnic cleansing has occurred here as well.

A second lesson concerns the complex relationship between ethnic identity and language. One might assume that an area labeled “Greek” on an “ethno-linguistic map” would be Greek-speaking, but that is not the case in regard to Tsalka. Strictly speaking, such a designation is incorrect, as Urums are Greek only in the ethnic sense. Yet polling data from the late Soviet period indicated that many people here proclaimed a Greek linguistic identity even though they did not actually speak Greek, but merely hoped to learn it. Also important was their use of the Greek script to signal group membership.

Finally, the plight of the Georgian Greeks also speaks to the broader reduction of the Greek community abroad. The Greeks, like the Jews, the Armenians, and the Lebanese, are one of the great diasporic peoples of western Eurasia, their communities historically scattered over a vast territorial expanse. But ethnic persecution and economic hardship abroad, coupled with enticements from the national homeland, have reduced the extent of the Greek diaspora. In the process, the modern ethnic map of the Caucasus has become less intricate than that of the recent past.

In a similar process, many members of the Armenian community living in other parts of the Caucasus have relocated to Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh), a movement that has been going on for some time. Yet Armenia is now to sending many more migrants abroad than it takes in, thus perpetuating the Armenian diaspora in a different manner, as we shall see in a subsequent GeoCurrents post.

* The 2001 Ukrainian census lists 91,000 “Greeksfor the country as a wholewhereas the 1989 census counted 98,500 Ukrainian Greeks, only 14,286 named Greek as their native language. Whether the others are Turkic or Russian speakers was not mentioned.

* Some sources claim a few thousand Rumca speakers, many of them elderly, still live in northeastern Turkey, although the comprehensive Ethnologue has no information on the group.

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