Autonomous Zones

Keystone of the Caucasus: Ignored Ossetia and Its Snow Revolution

Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia

Map of the Caucasus, Showing North Ossetia-Alania and South Ossetia If the arch of the Great Caucasus can be said to have a keystone, it would have to be Ossetia. This east-west range presents a formidable barrier to traffic between southern Russia and the Middle East, as it is pierced by few negotiable passes. By far the most important route across the mountains extends along the Darial Gorge through the so-called Caucasian Gates, which passes directly through Ossetia. After seizing northern Ossetia in the late 1700s, Russian empire builders founded the fortress-city of Vladikavkaz at the northern terminus of this route; the city’s name literally means “ruler of the Caucasus.” In 1799, Russian engineers began building the inordinately expensive Georgian Military Road through the Darial Gorge. This roadway allowed Russia in 1801 to annex Georgia, which had been recently devastated by an Iranian invasion, and hence to dominate the Caucasus over most of the next two centuries.

Google Earth Image of Darial Gorge, Georgia and North OssetiaMilitary control of the Caucasian Gates passed among several imperial powers over the centuries. For many hundreds of years, however, the pass and its environs have been the territory of the Ossetians, a people generally regarded to be the descendants of the medieval Alans. From the 700s to the 1200s, the powerful kingdom of Alania ruled a broad area of the north-central Caucasus and the adjacent plains to the north, profiting handsomely from trans-Caucasian trade. Alania never recovered from the blows of the Mongols in the 1200s and 1300s, but the Ossetians remained ensconced in their remote mountain valleys. Today they are the only Caucasian ethnic group whose territory spans the Great Caucasus Range.  North Ossetia-Alania forms a semi-autonomous Russian republic, while South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country whose territory is considered by most of the international community to belong to Georgia.

Events in Ossetia rarely make the international news. In 2008, South Ossetia briefly made headlines when the Russian army moved in to block Georgia from reclaiming the area. Over the next two years, a few sources noted South Ossetia’s declaration of independence, as well as its official acknowledgment by a handful of countries other than Russia, specifically Venezuela, Nicaragua, Tuvalu, and Nauru (with Russia paying Nauru an estimated fifty million dollars US for the gesture). Several years earlier (2004), the Beslan School Hostage Crisis in North Ossetia received widespread attention—as well it should: over 1,100 persons, mostly children, were taken hostage by Chechen and Ingush militants, and some 385 died when Russian security forces stormed the school. The crisis heightened the power of Russia’s federal government and helped Vladimir Putin cement his iron grip on power. Yet most international news stories framed the event strictly as part of the Russian-Chechen conflict, rarely mentioning the fact that the victims were mostly Ossetians, not Russians, and seldom noting the possibility that the attackers meant to intensify a local conflict pitting the mostly Christian Ossetians against their Muslim neighbors.

More recently, South Ossetia’s “Snow Revolution,” as it was dubbed by the Russian press, went almost unnoticed outside of the region. This conflict emerged in December 2011 after the South Ossetian Supreme Court nullified the presidential election of opposition leader Alla Dzhioyeva in favor of the Moscow-backed candidate, Anatoly Bibilov. Dzhioyeva proceeded to lead massive street protests as thousands of her followers “camped out for 10 days in sub-zero temperatures on the central square in Tskhinvali, the republic’s capital, to protest that Supreme Court ruling.” Anger in South Ossetia had evidently been building for some time, focused on the authoritarianism and corruption of the outgoing regime of Eduard Kokoity. A political standoff ensued between supporters of the two leaders, punctuated by calls for renewed Russian intervention. In the end, Kokoity stepped down in favor of a caretaker government, and new elections were scheduled for March 25, 2012—shortly after the upcoming Russian presidential contest.

Ossetia may seem to outsiders like a small, obscure, and unimportant place. North Ossetia covers only 3,000 square miles (8,000 square kilometers) and is home to only 700,000 people, while South Ossetia is half that size and contains only a tenth the population. But despite its modest extent, Ossetia is geopolitically significant, sitting at the crux of the restive Caucasus region, and embroiled in a conflict that involves not just the Russian Federation but also the United States and its allies. After the 2008 war, the U.S. government suspended the sales of military equipment to Georgia, but in December 2011, the American Congress passed a bill featuring a provision calling on the U.S. to normalize military relations with Georgia, including the sale of weapons. This move was denounced by both Russia and South Ossetia, with the South Ossetian foreign minister claiming that it would “push” Georgia to engage in renewed aggression against the break-away statelet. Georgia, of course, was pleased. The Georgian government insists that South Ossetia is an integral part of its own territory and worries about the threat posed by Russian troops stationed in the break-away republic.

Map of ethnic groups in the Caucasus, emphasizing Georgians and OssetiansThe conflict between the Georgians and the Ossetians is made more complicated by the geographical distribution of the two groups. As can be seen in the map to the left, the territory occupied by the Georgians is elongated east to west and is almost pinched off in the middle, while that of the Ossetians runs north to south, almost cutting the Georgian zone in two. As long as relations between the Georgians and the Ossetians are hostile, this unusual pattern enhances the vulnerability of each group.

Beyond its international significance today, Ossetia’s world-historical role was once much greater, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

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The Nation, Nationalities, and Autonomous Regions in Spain

In everyday speech, “nation” and “nationality” are largely synonymous terms. “Nationality,” my desktop dictionary informs me, is “the status of belonging to a particular nation.” In Spain, however, the Spanish equivalents of the two terms have come to convey distinct meanings through political fiat. The official differentiation of the Spanish nation from several distinct Spanish nationalities is bitterly contentious, potentially threatening the Spanish state.

When Spain began to democratize after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 it faced an existential crisis. Franco had presided over a centralized state that suppressed regional languages and identities – in turn intensifying secessionist sentiments. Basque- and Catalan-speakers especially tended to insist on their nationhood, seeking political autonomy if not outright independence. To maintain the integrity of Spain yet satisfy regional aspirations, the country’s new leaders crafted an intricate terminological and geopolitical compromise, which they institutionalized in the new constitution. Spain, they declared, was an indivisible nation that joined together several territorially defined nationalities. “Nationality,” in the process, was redefined to refer not to a group of people possessing or aspiring to political sovereignty, but rather to a region whose inhabitants have a strong, historically constituted sense of identity.

The changes pushed forward were not merely rhetorical. Initially, the three most linguistically distinct regions were offered substantial autonomy as historical nationalities: Catalonia in the northeast, the Basque County in the north-center, and Galicia in the northwest. Autonomy was promised to Spain’s other regions as well, but at a reduced level; it also had to be gained through a more involved process. Such unequal treatment proved unpopular in several areas. In Andalusia, a million-and-half-person protest broke out as residents clambered for similar consideration. As a result, Andalusia joined the “fast track” to regional autonomy as its own nationality. Elsewhere, provinces were allowed to establish their own foundations for self-rule, either by themselves or in conjunction with neighboring provinces of similar background. Through this process, the internal political geography of Spain rearranged itself between 1979 and 1983, with seventeen “autonomous communities” coming into existence. The process reached completion in 1996, when Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa were reconstituted as “autonomous cities.” Spain is now a highly decentralized state in which most tax revenues are spent not by the central government put by the first-order political subdivisions, the autonomous communities. Spain’s fifty provinces still exist, but they serve more as geographical referents than as administrative units.

As the reorganization of Spain proceeded, different regions based their self-government claims on different grounds. Aragon, Valencia, and the Canary Islands, each of which emerged through the union of two or more provinces, declared in their statutes of autonomy that they too formed nationalities. So did the Balearic Islands as a single province. Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha emerged from provinces banding together as “regions of historical identity,” as did Murcia as a single province. The new multi-province aggregation of Castile and León selected the term “historical community,” as did the provinces of Asturias and Cantabria. La Rioja claimed autonomy as a “province with historical identity.”

Only one Spanish province did not officially become “autonomous,” whether in its own right or as part of a larger region: Navarre. Instead, Navarre reemerged as a “chartered community,” updating and expanding on the historical autonomy that it had long maintained. In practice, however, it functions as if it were an autonomous community. Navarre’s official name is Comunidad Foral de Navarra (or, in Basque, Nafarroako Foru Erkidegoa). “Foral” is usually translated into English as “chartered”: it stems from “fuero,” the traditional rights (or privileges, depending on one’s perspective) that were historically granted to certain regions of the Spanish kingdom, especially those in the Basque-speaking north-center (see the map showing “Foral Spain”). In the case of Navarre, such rights were bestowed when the formerly independent kingdom of Navarre was divided between Spain and France in the 1550s; to ensure the loyalty of its new subjects, the Spanish monarchy allowed them to retain their traditional customs and laws. Navarre’s fueros were subsequently whittled back and contested, but the basic idea has persisted.

Madrid presented a conundrum for Spain’s geographical reorganization. Historical linkages called for its inclusion into either Castile-La Mancha or Castile and Leon, but the other Castilian communities were wary of being overshadowed by the capital and its environs. In the end, the province of Madrid was granted autonomous status in its own right, supposedly to uphold the “national interest” of Spain.

Spain’s reconstruction as a decentralized nation of regions and nationalities has been at best a partial success. Its basic structure is compromised by the geographical mismatch between ethnicity and autonomy; the autonomous communities were built out of preexisting provinces, several of which are themselves divided by language and identity. Navarre, for example, is Basque-speaking in the north and Spanish-speaking in the south, resulting in a considerable dissatisfaction. More pressing is the demand for greater autonomy – and recognition – among certain groups. Many Catalans, as we shall see tomorrow, are adamant that they constitute not a nationality but a full-fledged nation, thus roiling Spanish politics. When it comes to matters of political identity, terminology matters.

Note on sources: The Wikipedia has a number of excellent articles on this issue. Of special note are its competing articles, Nationalisms and Regionalisms of Spain and Nationalities and Regions of Spain.

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Whither Acehnese Autonomy?

Despite the attention that sensational natural disasters receive in the media, their long-term significance sometimes seems questionable. But when nature’s calamities do change societies, the consequences can be profound. The All Soul’s Day Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, for example, purportedly led many European thinkers to question whether natural calamities reflect the will of God, boosting Enlightenment skepticism and launching the science of seismology. The 2005 Kashmir earthquake, by contrast, is often said to have bolstered religious fundamentalism, with local Muslim clerics convincing many believers that their lack of piety had provoked God.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami may not have had similar ideological effects, but its political repercussions were significant; the disaster brought peace to the troubled region of Aceh in northern Sumatra, ending a three-decade old civil war. With more than 100,000 lives lost, the devastation was so severe and the needs for reconstruction so profound that the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) agreed to lay down its arms, just as the Indonesian government agreed to grant Aceh self-rule. Thus the “Special Territory” of Aceh came into being as an autonomous area within Indonesia, subject to its own laws. Election in the region soon brought former GAM rebel leaders to power.

The majority population of the region, the Acehnese, speak their own language and follow many of their own traditions. They are also reputed to be the most devout Muslims of Indonesia, adhering to a strongly orthodox version of the faith. Islam first entered Southeast Asia through Northern Sumatra, and the Acehnese have long maintained close religious and cultural connections with the Arabian Peninsula, particularly with the Hadhramaut region of Yemen. On gaining autonomy, Aceh instituted shariah (Islamic law), enforcing harsh penalties against drinking and the mingling of unrelated men and women. As in Saudi Arabia, “vice and virtue patrols” now have broad power to punish those who flout strict Islamic norms.

The granting of autonomy to Aceh raised concerns in other parts of the world. Some observers feared that with religiously inspired ex-militants coming to power, Aceh would become a haven for Islamist radicals. Dedicated Muslim militants, according to this line of thinking, would never be content with mere regional autonomy, as their ultimate goal is to create a unified caliphate that would bring all Islamic areas in Southeast Asia, and ultimately the world, under one government. Other experts countered that the rebellion in northern Sumatra was inspired more by Acehnese nationalism than by religious fanaticism, and that Aceh would probably not become a terrorist sanctuary.

Recent events in Aceh could be used as evidence by either school of thought. In March 2010, Indonesian authorities discovered and dismantled a major militant training camp in the region. The camp was reportedly used to train fighters for operations not only elsewhere in Indonesia, but also in the Gaza Strip. A number of anti-terrorism raids were subsequently conducted elsewhere in Aceh. Yet none of the people thus far killed or apprehended have any demonstrable connection with GAM, the former revolutionary movement that now helps run the government of Aceh. One former leader of the group has gone so far as to proclaim that “GAM, in fact, works with the military and police to hunt terrorists.” To the extent that this statement is correct, one must conclude that the Islamist militants of Indonesia have serious erred, misinterpreting what was actually a religiously inspired nationalist movement as a front for global jihad.

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Autonomy and Insurgency in the Southern Philippines

Last Friday’s post on the Maguindanao Massacre in the southern Philippines linked the event to a combination of Philippine electoral politics and privatized military forces. Deeper roots are found in centuries-old imperial conflicts and religious rivalries. Islam was spreading northward through the Philippines when the Spaniards arrived in the late 1500s. Although the Spanish colonial regime successfully introduced Christianity to the northern and central islands, Islam remained entrenched in the southwest. Despite Spanish claims to the entire archipelago, the Muslim sultanates of Mindanao and the Sulu islands resisted colonial power. Spain maintained strongholds, such as Zamboanga on the southwestern tip of Mindanao, but never effectively ruled most of the region. As can be seen on the map above, Islam and animism dominated the southern Philippines in 1890, with Christianity largely limited to the northern and eastern coastal zones of Mindanao.

When the United States gained control over the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century, it too had great difficulties subduing the south. But by 1913, Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago were effectively under American rule. This set the stage for the southward migration of Christian Filipinos. With Philippine independence in 1946, the migration stream intensified. As the second map above shows, the dominant language across most of Mindanao is now Cebuano, originally from the island of Cebu in the central archipelago. As Christians moved into formerly Muslim or animist areas, ethnic tensions heightened. Entrenched poverty in the Muslim-majority areas contributed to anti-government sentiments. By the late 1960s, the southwestern Philippines was again in open rebellion, now under the leadership of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

Peace initiatives between the Philippine government and the MNLF began in the late 1970s. For years, both sides offered limited concessions, but a settlement remained elusive. In 1981, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) split from the MNLF, objecting to its compromising approach. Peace between the government and the MNLF finally came in 1986, with the establishment of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM; see map above). The more intransigent MILF rejected the deal as offering too little territory and inadequate autonomy. As can be seen on the map, key areas in the historically Islamic southwestern Philippines are excluded from the region, including the city of Cotabato, ARMM’s ostensible capital. But effective local autonomy is still strong enough that the central government has to work with armed local allies, thereby empowering such clans as the Ampatuans (see last Friday’s post).

Relations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have showed some recent signs of improvement. Talks about having talks are now underway. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported on February 19, 2010, the MILF is willing to negotiate as long as any agreements made with the current administration remain binding on future Philippine governments. It also demands more extensive powers for the autonomous regional government, calling for the creation of a “sub-state within the Philippine state.” If this were to happen, the Philippines would become a federal country, which in turn would probably require an amendment to its constitution.

Even if a comprehensive deal can to be reached with the MILF, the insurgency in the southern Philippines will probably not end. The most violent and radical Islamist group in the region is Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked organization that shows no indication of wanting to make a deal. Although recent reports emphasize the military losses that it has recently suffered, Abu Sayyaf retains the capacity for violence. On February 27, 2010, its militants attacked the village of Tubigan on the island of Basilan, killing 11 people. As the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported, “The attack on Tubigan came barely nine hours after authorities rescued the two Chinese nationals that [the] group had abducted in November, along with a local. The local, Marquez Singson, had been beheaded.”

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Vojvodina: Europe’s Newest Old Autonomous Region

In late 2009 Europe gained a new autonomous region when Serbia granted its northern area of Vojvodinia control over its own regional development, agriculture, tourism, transportation, health care, mining, and energy.Vojvodina, population two million, will even gain representation in the European Union (although it will be allowed to sign only regional agreements, not international ones). On December 24, Serbia’s main opposition party challenged the autonomy provision in the country’s constitutional court, arguing that it could lead to Vojvodinan independence — further dismantling Serbian national territory. Most observers think that this objection verges on paranoia. Vojvodina’s population is 65 percent Serbian, and a recent poll found that only 3 percent of local residents want independence. Vojvodinans evidently favor autonomy largely for economic reasons. But claims for heightened self-rule can lead to further claims; already a local ethnic Hungarian group wants its own autonomous zone within the larger autonomous area of Vojvodina (see map).

The flat, fertile expanse of Vojvodina is noted for its ethnic diversity. The region has no fewer than six official languages (Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, and Pannonian Rusyn), and its actual linguistic diversity is greater than that. Romani (“Gypsy”), for example, has no official status, even though more Vojvodinans speak it than speak Croatian. Of the official languages, Pannonian Rusyn is the most intriguing. While Ukrainians regard it as a dialect of their own language, those who speak it insist that it is a language in its right. Pannonian Rusyn is a language of instruction in one of Vojvodina’s public schools, and regular television and radio broadcasts are made in the language. There is even a professorial chair in Rusyn Studies at Novi Sad University.

The struggle for the autonomy of Vojvodina is said to date from 1691, when local Serbs pushed the Austrian Empire for a separate “voivodeship” (the word “voivode” originally meant “one who leads warriors”). In 1849, the region was granted limited autonomy by the Habsburg emperor as a separate duchy, but that status was soon lost when the Austrian Empire became the Austro-Hungarian Empire and most of Vojvodina passed to Hungarian control. When that empire was dismantled after WWI, Vojvodina went to the new state of Yugoslavia.

The people of Vojvodina continued to push for autonomy. Limited self-rule was gained in 1945 when the new communist government of Yugoslavia began organizing the country on federal lines. In 1974, much greater autonomy was gained when a new Yugoslav constitution created the “Socialist Autonomous Province of Vojvodina.” But Vojvodina, like Kosovo (another “socialist autonomous province”), remained part of Serbia, and thus did have the full scope of self-rule granted to such constituent Yugoslav republics as Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia. In 1990, as Yugoslavia was breaking up, Vojvodina lost ground. Under the rule of the hard-core Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic, it was still called an autonomous region, but it no longer had autonomy.

Although Vojvodina did not experience the ethnic violence that visited Bosnia, and while it has continued to make accommodations for its minority groups, tensions persist. Hungarians, by far the largest minority, often feel threatened, and many have been moving to Hungary. In Hungary itself, far-right nationalists continue to insist that Vojvodina, like Slovakia and Transylvania, are by rights Hungarian territory. But that is a topic for another posting.

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South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

South Ossetia is a self-declared independent country located in what the United States and most of the international community regards as Georgian territory. It has functioned as an autonomous client state of Russia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. When Georgia made moves to reclaim South Ossetia in the summer of 2008, Russia invaded and defeated Georgia, and then officially recognized South Ossetia as an independent state. Russia’s diplomatic recognition of the breakaway region was in part done in protest against the recognition of the independence of Kosovo (formerly part of Serbia) by the United States and most European countries.

Russia is now attempting to bolster its diplomatic position by encouraging other countries to recognize South Ossetia. Nicaragua was the first to sign on, followed by Venezuela. In mid-December, 2009, South Ossetia gained another political partner: the tiny Pacific country of Nauru. Informed sources claim that Russia essentially purchased such recognition with a $50 million economic aid package. Nauru, once one of the world’s richest counties on a per capita basis, certainly needs the money, as it has exhausted the phosphate deposits that once gave it wealth, generating an environmental disaster in the process.

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

Such diplomatic maneuverings are not unique to South Ossetia and Kosovo. Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, for example, have long dangled out aid packages in exchange for recognition, a game that Beijing is slowly winning. Thus far, Russia has fared poorly in its quest for international support for its client state. While only four internationally legitimate countries recognize South Ossetia, sixty-four currently recognize Kosovo. (South Ossetia is, however, recognized by several other generally unrecognized countries, such as Abkhazia).

How many countries are there in the world today? As the South Ossetia example shows, no precise answer can be given, as it all depends on what one counts as a country.

South Ossetia is plenty interesting in its own right, regardless of such diplomatic games. The Ossetians are the descendents of the ancient Alans, who were themselves an offshoot of the ancient Scythians. According to C. Scott Littleton and Linda Malcor’s fascinating book From Scythia to Camelot: A Radical Reassessment of the Legends of King Arthur, the Knights of the Round Table, and the Holy Grail, most of the Arthurian legends stem directly from the folklore of the Alans, many of whom were among the invaders of the dying Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. For a film interpretation of the Littleton and Malcor thesis, see Antoine Fuqua’s 2004 King Arthur.

Also to note is the fact that South Ossetia is a small part of the larger Ossetian “nation.” Only some 70,000 people reside in South Ossetia, while over 700,000 live in neighboring North Ossetia-Alania, which is an internal republic of the Russian Federation (it is part of Russia, in other words). Roughly two thirds of the people of both North and South Ossetia are ethnically Ossetian.

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