Border Disputes

The End of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Continuing Reduction of Armenian-Populated Lands

Let us begin with a paradox: “On September 20, 2023, the world political map underwent a significant change, but that change is not reflected on the world political map.” This seemingly nonsensical statement makes sense with the addition two Latin terms: “On September 20, 2023, the de facto world political map underwent a significant change, but that change is not reflected on the de jure world political map.” The de facto map, which shows actual power on the ground, was transformed by the defeat of the self-declared Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and its impending annexation by Azerbaijan. But as Nagorno-Karabakh was already part of Azerbaijan according to diplomatic convention, the official de jure map of the region registered no change.

From its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 until late September of this year, Azerbaijan did not exercise power over its full internationally recognized territory. Its southwestern corner was instead under the power of the self-declared and unrecognized state called Artsakh, better known as Nagorno-Karabakh. This Armenian-populated region functioned as a client state of the Republic of Armenia, if not as an appendage of it. In 2020, Azerbaijan defeated Armenia/Artsakh in a brief war and took control of most of the disputed territory, leaving only the core region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was connected to Armenia proper by the narrow Lachin Corridor, patrolled by Russian troops. Earlier this year, Azerbaijan cut-off access to the corridor, putting great pressure on Artsakh. On September 19-20, Azerbaijan’s military overran the entire area, after which Artsakh’s leadership announced that their statelet would be dissolved on January 1, 2024. As a result, Azerbaijan will for the first time control its entire territorial extent as recognized by international convention. But the de jure and de facto maps remain out of alignment elsewhere in the Caucasus, as two official parts of Georgia are still under the control of two Russian client states, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

An extended New York Time headline of September 29 nicely captures the current geopolitical situation of the losing country: “Armenia: Cast Adrift in a Tough Neighborhood. While the Caucasus nation might want to reduce its reliance on Russia for a more reliable ally, Western nations have offered moral support but little else.” After independence in 1991, Armenia turned to Russia for military support, hosting a Russian military base and joining the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan). But Russia was of little help in its 2020 war with Azerbaijan, in which Azerbaijan’s Turkish- and Israeli-made drones outperformed Armenia’s Russian-made armaments. Armenia then began edging away from Russia and toward the West, a process that accelerated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Just before Azerbaijan conquered the rest of Artsakh in late September 2023, U.S. military personnel were helping train Armenian troops in Armenia. But the U.S. offered nothing beyond vaguely smoothing words after Azerbaijan’s military assault. As reported by the New York Times, the United States “has so far resisted placing sanctions on Azerbaijan for a military assault that the State Department previously said it would not countenance.”

The lack of support for Armenia by the United States is not surprising. The U.S., like most countries in most circumstance, stands in favor of the official de jure world political map, and is thus reluctant to acknowledge any alternative arrangements. (Although there are certainly exceptions, such as Washington’s recognition of the independence of Kosovo, which seceded unilaterally from Serbia and is thus unrecognized by the United Nations.) Brute geopolitical realities also favor Azerbaijan, as it is much more populous and economically developed than Armenia. As a relatively secular Shia Muslim nation, moreover, Azerbaijan is also a useful counterweight against Iran (more Azeri speakers live in Iran than in Azerbaijan).

Immediately after the fall of Artsakh, ethnic Armenians began streaming out of the region, seeking refuge in Armenia proper. It is expected that by the end of the year there will be few if any Armenians left in the region. Azerbaijan claims that Armenians could remain in place as Azerbaijani citizens. Armenians, however, point to Azerbaijan’s threats and purported atrocities, arguing, with some international support, that genocide would be the more likely outcome if they were to remain. Azerbaijani apologists, for their part, point to the fact that many Azeris once lived in what is now Armenia, but were themselves victims of Armenian-led expulsions (see the map below). It also true that ethnic Kurds, who were formerly the dominant population between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh proper, fled or were expelled after the expansion of Armenian power following the fall of the Soviet Union (see the map below). (Other Kurdish populations from both Armenia and Azerbaijan had been deported by Soviet authorities to Kazakhstan in 1937.)

From a world historical perspective, Azerbaijan’s conquest of Artsakh and the subsequent removal of the Armenian population from the region represents one more chapter in the long history of the diminution of the Armenian territorial sphere. As the paired maps below show, Armenians once constituted either a majority or a large minority over a broad zone extending across what is now eastern Turkey and beyond (unfortunately, the Vivid Map posted here has no key). Ottoman expulsions of Armenians before and especially during World War I, recognized by most historians as an episode of genocide, vastly reduced the extent of Armenian populated land. After the downfall of the Soviet Union, Armenian communities were either expelled from or voluntarily left many former Soviet lands. With the downfall of Artsakh, the contiguous zone of Armenian-populated territory is now reduced to the small rump state of Armenia.

Understandably, many Armenian-Americans have been enraged about the lack of U.S. action on this issue. As reported in the Guardian:

Everything that is happening today is utterly predictable, and much of it could be avoided with more forceful American action,” Paul Krekorian, the first Armenian American president of the Los Angeles city council, told the Guardian.

It’s a catastrophic situation. Genocide is happening before our very eyes,” Krekorian said. “And my country is doing essentially nothing.” Memories of the 1915 Armenian genocide, when 1 million to 1.5 million Armenians died under the Ottoman Turkish empire, remain strong in the community and many of the signs held outside the Ronald Reagan library referenced it and what the protesters saw as its echoes.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, few American media outlets have done much substantive reporting on this issue. At one time, something like this would have been a major news story. Over the past half-century, however, the U.S. new media have become increasingly insular, tightly focused on American politics, society, and culture, and hence little concerned with most events occurring outside the country. Economic globalization has oddly coincided with journalistic deglobalization.

The End of the Republic of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) and the Continuing Reduction of Armenian-Populated Lands Read More »

Slides on Conflicts in the East Asian Seas

Disputed Islands in the East Asian SeasDear Readers,

East Asian Seas MapRegular GeoCurrents posts continue to be delayed, due to a combination of illness and teaching obligations. Today’s post merely links to a set of slides that I used for my lecture last night on territorial conflicts in the East Asian Seas. I made several original maps (on Google and Google Earth base maps), which are posted here directly.

Six Seas of Eurasia's Eastern RimNext week’s lecture  will be on the 2015 UK election. I hope to write a blog post or two on the election before  next Tuesday.

East Asia Seas Conflicts

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Does Pakistan Claim Junagadh in the Indian State of Gujarat?

Kashmir MapIndia and Pakistan’s territorial conflict over Kashmir (“Jammu and Kashmir” officially) is well known, as are the complications that it creates for cartographers. Maps produced in India must portray all of the disputed area as Indian land, while Pakistani maps show it as part of Pakistan. Outside observers who try to remain impartial usually divide these two countries at the actual line of control, depicting the areas under Indian administration as part of India and those under Pakistani administration as part of Pakistan. Careful maps note that the boundary line is disputed. If one does not indicate the conflicted nature of the division, controversy can ensue. As we have discovered at GeoCurrents, maps that do not include Pakistani-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir as parts of India can arouse the ire of Indian readers.

Northern Pakistan MapThe new edition (2012) of the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan is an interesting source to examine the Pakistani position on this issue. The atlas has official status; its copyright is marked as “Government of Pakistan,” it was printed by the Survey of Pakistan, and it was published under the direction of Surveyor-General of Pakistan. Not surprisingly, its maps portray Kashmir as part of Pakistan, but they do mark most of this area as “Disputed Territory,” further specifying that its eastern border with China remains “undefined.” The Atlas does, however, oddly exclude Gilgit from the disputed zone. It also never marks the actual line of control that separates Indian-administered from Pakistani-administered territory.

Junagadh MapThe truly peculiar feature of the atlas, however, is not its portrayal of Kashmir, but rather that of the Indian state of Gujarat. All maps of Pakistan in the atlas depict a sizable section of western Gujarat as an integral, non-disputed part of Pakistan, whereas its world political map seemingly classifies this same region as if it were an independent country. The area in question is the former princely state of Junagadh. In the imagination of the cartographer, “Junagadh and Manavadar” retains its former complex territory, with numerous exclaves and enclaves, that in actuality vanished shortly after the end of British India. Such fractionated territoriality reflects its heritage as an autonomous statelet that had been under the suzerainty of the British Raj during colonial time. After partition, Junagadh became part of the Republic of India, but evidently that incorporation is still viewed as illegitimate in some World Political Map JunagadhPakistani governmental circles. The map in question also portrays the city of Diu as remaining under Portuguese control, whereas in actuality it was annexed by India in 1961.

The Junagadh controversy goes back to 1947-1948 and the emergence of India and Pakistan as independent states. At the time, the rulers of the “princely states” were given some leeway in regard to which country their territories would join. Problems emerged in several princely states, especially those in which the ruler followed a different religion from that followed by the minority of his subjects. Whereas Kashmir at the time was ruled by a Hindu but had a clear Muslim majority, the situation in Junagadh was reversed. During the partition process, the Nawab of Junagadh tied to join his state to Pakistan, much to the displeasure of both his subjects and the British viceroy, Lord Mountbatten. India was also infuriated, and responded with a blockade of the territory. As explained in the Wikipedia:

Eventually, [India’s Deputy Prime Minister Vallabhbhai] Patel ordered the forcible annexation of Junagadh’s three principalities. Junagadh’s state government, facing financial collapse and lacking forces with which to resist Indian force, invited the Government of India to take control. A plebiscite was conducted in December, in which approximately 99% of the people chose India over Pakistan.


Nehru [subsequently] sent a telegram to Liaquat Ali Khan about the Indian take-over of Junagadh. Khan sent a return telegram to Nehru stating that Junagadh was Pakistani territory, and nobody except the Pakistan government was authorised to invite anybody to Junagadh. He also accused the Indian Government of naked aggression on Pakistan’s territory and of violating international law. The Government of Pakistan strongly opposed the Indian occupation.

As evidenced by the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the government of Pakistan has never accepted India’s annexation of the territory, which did proceed in a highly irregular manner. (In fact, as reported to me by by Munis Faruqui, “the Pakistan government still issues a very limited number of car license plates emblazoned with the name “Junagadh,(presumably to members of the former royal family.”) But its also seems clear that a sizable majority of Junagadh’s people wanted union with India, although the 99-percent pro-India vote does make me rather suspicious of the plebiscite.

Gujarat Princely States MapAnother complicating factor was the extraordinarily complex and essentially feudal nature of the political geography of India’s princely states, especially those in Gujarat (see for a superb map, reproduced here at a reduced scale). Manavadar, for example, formed a separate territory under the vassalage Junagadh, which in turn was something of a vassal of the much more populous state of Baroda, which had been ruled by a Hindu Maharaja. According to some sources, such subordination meant that their rulers had no right to choose between India and Pakistan. As outlined in a different Wikipedia article:

On 14 September 1947, following the independence of the new Dominions of India and Pakistan, the Khan Sahib Ghulam Moinuddin Khanji acceded the state of Manavadar to the Dominion of Pakistan though the state had no such right to do so being a vassal of Junagarh. This act was done at the same time as his master, the Nawab of Junagadh who himself had no right, being a vassal of Baroda State. Indian police forces were subsequently sent into Manavadar on 22 October 1947, and the Khan Sahib was placed under house arrest at Songadh.

In a fascinating and informative article, Sandeep Bhardwaj refers to the accession of Junagadh to India as a “farce of history.” As he notes:

Junagadh itself contained dozens of petty estates and sheikhdoms within it. In fact the situation was so confusing that it took the Government of India several weeks just to figure out the correct borders before they could formulate a military plan. Moreover, the government lawyers couldn’t figure out whether these tiny sheikhdoms were legally independent or under the suzerainty of Junagadh even after the accession. But Junagadh was an important state, with a population of 700,000, 80% of them Hindus and, predictably, ruled by a Muslim prince.

The Nawab of Junagadh was an eccentric character, famously obsessed with dogs. He was said to have owned 800 of them, each with its individual human attendant. When two of his favourite dogs mated, he is said to have spent Rs. 20-30 lakhs in “wedding” celebrations, and proclaimed the day as State holiday. It is no surprise that the actual governing of the Junagadh was carried out by his dewan (Chief Minister). In the last months of British India his dewan was a Muslim League politician named Shah Nawaz Bhutto (father of future Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar and grandfather to Benazir Bhutto).

Farce or not, the accession of Junagadh to India apparently remains a highly contentious issue in Pakistan, at least from the evidence found in the Atlas of Islamic Republic of Pakistan. But as we shall see in a later post, this atlas is itself an extremely problematic work at a number of different levels.

(Note: I am indebted to Chris Kremer for bringing this atlas, and its depiction of Junagadh, to my attention)

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Cyprus: Between East and West?

(Note: This is the second of two articles by Stanford student Claire Negiar that together contrast the situations of two geopolitically divided islands: Saint Martin and Cyprus)

Cyprus and Saint Martin – two very different islands sharing one key property: both are split by their “mother countries,” Greece and Turkey in the case of Cyprus, France and the Netherlands in the case of Saint Martin. However, these two islands have known very different fates over the past several decades, which are worth exploring in greater depth. What makes Saint Martin successful in its division, while Cyprus has remained in a stalemate since 1974? Why have France and the Netherlands been able to coexist and build an amicable system despite the division, while Greece and Turkey still struggle over finding an agreement for Cyprus, with Nicosia remaining the last divided capita around the globe, the only militarily-divided city of Europe, and a seeming vestige of the past?

The earlier colonization of Saint Martin has given time the chance to blow over some of the initial tension that resulted from this dual presence, enabling the emergence of a stable border and the near-assimilation of the people of Saint Martin into a common identity. In many ways, however, the population of Saint Martin is much more diverse that of Cyprus, where the indigenous population remains starkly split between Greeks and Turks. Yet in such diversity, a degree of unity is also found. The difference in geopolitical tension may also be related to the much greater distance separating the island from its mother countries: if Saint Martin were as close to France and the Netherlands as Cyprus is to Greece and Turkey, would the two have been more inclined to have resisted their gradual relinquishing of control? Or is it that they do not see Saint Martin as enough of an economic asset, while Cyprus has just discovered great gas reserves that both Greece and Turkey desperately want to exploit?

On Saint Martin, over time the majority of the island’s population essentially became European, identifying closely with France and the Netherlands, but on Cyprus the colonial power, Britain, had “nothing to do” with the local population of Greeks and Turks and hence was never able to achieve such results. With the initial annexation of the island by the British Empire, the “Cyprus dispute” corresponded to the conflict between the people of Cyprus and the British Crown regarding the Cypriots’ demand for self-determination. The dispute was however soon shifted from a colonial to an ethnic register between the Turkish and the Greek islanders. The international complications of the dispute stretch far beyond the boundaries of the island of Cyprus itself, also involving the guarantor powers (Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom alike), and eventually the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. To what extent has the presence and interference of several international organization complicated the conflict rather than helping smooth it over?

With the 1974 Cypriot coup d’état’s installment of a pro-Enosis (the union of Cyprus and Greece) president and the responding Turkish invasion that same year (formally condemned by UN Security Council Resolution 1974/360), Turkey occupied the northern part of the internationally recognized Republic of Cyprus. As the Greek and Turkish Cypriots had been interspersed across much of the island a significant amount of “ethnic cleansing” and relocation  subsequently occurred. Northern Cyprus soon unilaterally declared independence as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), a sovereign entity that lacks international recognition—with the exception of Turkey, with which the TRNC enjoys full diplomatic relations. The United Nations has since created and maintained a buffer zone (the “Green Line”) to avoid any further inter-communal tensions and hostilities. This zone separates the Greek Cypriot-controlled south from the Turkish Cypriot-controlled north, passing directly through Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital since the fall of the Berlin Wall, though many also view Jerusalem as a divided city as well (a poll conducted in June 2013 found that 74% of Israeli Jews reject the idea of a Palestinian capital in any portion of Jerusalem, although 72% of the public regarded it as a divided city).

Ethnographic_distribution_in_Cyprus_1960 (1)

I visited Nicosia and walked by the wall and along the divide in 2003, which was the first year it was open to the public: it seemed to me like an odd vestige of the Cold War, frozen in time, absurd in the twenty-first century with the graffiti, the barbed-wire, and the sand bags at its foot, yet standing there still.

Another crucial factor is the intense cultural difference between the Greek and the Turkish populations. This split looms large in my memory as well. As a ten-year old child, I walked past the checkpoint from the Turkish to the Greek parts of Cyprus, and as soon as I reached Greek territory I was handed a small bottle of traditional Greek liquor, Ouzo. The two sides of the island seemed like a microcosm that revealed patterns of a much larger, global scale. Caught between the Western World and realm of Islam, at a crossroads of civilizations, Cyprus is split between the autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus, and Sunni Islam.


According to a Eurobarometer report, Cyprus is one of the most religious states in the European Union, alongside Malta, Romania, Greece, and Poland. What is more, it is linguistically divided between its two official languages, Greek and Turkish, which do not even share the same alphabet. (English is, however, well spread across the island).  This deep cultural divide makes the situation much more difficult for Cyprus than in the case of Saint Martin, where the two sovereign powers, France and the Netherlands, share many cultural similarities and have a long history of mutual understanding, unlike the two countries which ‘share’ the island of Cyprus. Walking between the Dutch and French sides of the island of Saint Martin, the biggest difference is scale: while the Dutch side boasts very large hotels, nightclubs, casinos, and cruise-ship tourist populations, the French side is home to smaller-scale hotels, restaurants, and in true French form, a few topless beaches. As I remember it, walking between the Greek and the Turkish sides of Cyprus was more like changing worlds: while the Greek side boasted a variety of international brands and had the lively feel of a capital city, the side-streets in the Turkish part of Nicosia were dominated by variety of repair shops selling hardware, pipes, and steel. There were more little stores, with a less touristy and more industrious ambiance, and the crux of the energy was concentrated around the very lively Souk. We visited a Turkish hammam, or public bath, located in a converted Catholic church, where the women and the men were sent to different parts of the edifice. We also enjoyed a honey-filled Turkish variation on a crepe in a  lovely courtyard. It was pleasant, but all the time I remember feeling a distinct sense of unease, my ten-year old, pale and blonde self, walking around in these streets, feeling quite out of place. While the Greek side seemed open for leisure and tourism, the Turkish side seemed made for the local inhabitants.

This cultural rift lay at the heart of many debates after Turkey posted its candidacy to the European Union. Indeed, while Greece and Cyprus are members of the European Union, Turkey was and is still seen as a much more controversial candidate, due in part to fear of interethnic and inter-religious conflict between Christian Europeans and immigrant Muslim Turks, as well as concerns that Turkey would not integrate harmoniously into the European political system, as perhaps evidenced by the situation in Cyprus. The lack of resolution of the Cypriot conflict has long burdened Turkey’s candidacy, and if Turkey is serious about its integration of the union, it will most likely need to come to a better settlement with its Greek counterpart on the island. Equally problematic is Greek Cypriot recalcitrance on reunion. A 2004 UN-organized referendum on reunification was rejected overwhelmingly on the Greek half of the island but was supported on the Turkish side.

Any possible settlement of the Cyprus issue seems unlikely given the history of fear and mistrust between the two sides. The unrecognized Turkish Northern Cyprus territory covers only 36% of the island’s overall territory, thus starting Turkey out with weaker hand and giving the conflict an unequal feel. This 36% of land is, however, crucial to Turkey due to its proximity to its own ports. Indeed, Cyprus is only 65 kilometers from Turkey, and the island is close to Turkey’s southern harbors, such as Mersin. As such, all Turkey’s southwestern ports are under the cover of Cyprus and whoever controls the island is able to exert pressure on them. It should be of no surprise, then, that it has been a prime and long-standing Turkish objective that the island does not succumb to any potentially hostile power, especially its traditional enemy, Greece. Common membership of Greece and Turkey in NATO has never diminished Turkish concerns about these geo-strategic issues, nor will Turkey’s possible accession to the EU.

As such, reasons for the different fates of Saint Martin and Cyprus extend from historical to geographic, demographic, geopolitical, and cultural factors. The easy coexistence of two states on the former island and the on-going conflict on the latter, however, result from processes that are as multi-faceted as these islands are diverse, and truly pinpointing what could be learned from one situation to apply to the other is difficult at best. From an island in the Caribbean with significant self-determination and hundreds of years of colonial history, to an island in the Mediterranean split between its two native populations, significant situational differences which may not allow for comparison at all. However, as history tends to repeat itself, with a little bit of imagination and a little bit of creativity, there may be some lessons that each can learn from the other’s situation.

Regardless of such comparisons, the geopolitical situation on Cyprus remains extraordinarily complex. According to the diplomatic establishments of most countries, the Republic of Cyprus has de jure sovereignty across the island, yet in de facto terms Cyprus is of course split, with Northern Cyprus forming a separate state.  But this is just the start of the complexity, as the United Kingdom still controls two military bases on the island over which it exercises sovereign power. These sovereign military bases, moreover, encompass several exclaves of the Republic of Cyprus, while Northern Cyprus has its own exclave on the northwestern coast.


And the U.N. Buffer Zone itself makes up yet another unit, as it is not a mere “line” but rather a territory in its own right that cover 346 square kilometers (134 sq mi) and is home to some 10,000 people. Parts of this buffer zone are essentially off-limits to people, and have thus become a haven for wildlife, much like Korea’s so-called demilitarized zone. Another complication of geopolitics on Cyprus is that the island has been as a tax haven for many international investors, especially the Russians, which has a significant effect on the Cyprus-Russia relations. Many Russian investors withdrew their funds when the Cypriot government forced bank depositors to pay their share of an international bailout in the spring of 2013, but now Russian investors are returning. There is also a fairly sizeable Russian community on the island, with its own online forum .

Finally, it is important to note that Cyprus plays an unusual international role in regard to Israel, as Israelis who want to be married in civil rather religious ceremonies generally do so on Cyprus. But recent discoveries of off-shore gas deposits in Israel’s waters may change the hereto peaceful relations between Israel and Greek Cyprus. Both Greek Cyprus and Turkey desperately want to import Israeli off-shore gas. According to one plan, Israeli gas would be exported directly to a facility to be set up in Vassilikos, in southern Greek Cyprus. Alternately, the gas could be delivered via an underground pipeline to the port of Jihan in southern Turkey, but en route the pipeline would have to cross under the territorial waters of Greek Cyprus to avoid crossing Lebanese and Syrian territory. Unsurprisingly, Turkey and Greek Cyprus cannot agree on this issue. All in all, it is difficult to find more geopolitical complexity and ambiguity than on Cyprus.



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North Kalimantan: Indonesia’s Newest Province and Southeast Asian Geopolitical Tensions

Indonesia provinces North Kalimantan MapIndonesia and Malaysia have a long history of mutual distrust, despite—or perhaps because of—their similar historical and cultural backgrounds. Indonesia objected so strongly to the creation of an independent Malaysian state out of several British colonies in the early 1960s that it instigated a four-year undeclared war, the so-called Indonesian–Malaysian Confrontation (1962–1966). But with the fall of the Sukarno government in Indonesia and the creation of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in 1967, such tensions receded into the background. In recent years, arguments between the two countries sometimes seemed more comedic than threatening. A prime example would be the 2007 Rasa Sayang controversy, generated when prominent Indonesians accused Malaysia of “cultural theft” over its use of a popular folk song that originated in what is now part of Indonesia in a tourism campaign.

But latent mistrust between the two countries persists and sometimes surfaces more directly. Deep Indonesian concerns about Malaysia were clearly apparent earlier this year when the country’s 34rd province, North Kalimantan, was inaugurated along the Malaysian border despite Indonesia’s stated moratorium on the creation of new provinces. Although the official justification for the elevation of North Kalimantan to provincial status focused on development issues, an article in the Jakarta Post made it appear that geopolitical concerns were prominent. As the article noted:

Lawmaker Agun Gunandjar Sudarsa, who sits on House Commission II on regional autonomy, said that the endorsement of North Kalimantan would secure the loyalties of Indonesians living on the Malaysian border. 

“North Kalimantan will be an open gate to enter Malaysia, the southern Philippines and Brunei Darussalam. Therefore, the province is a strategic location to counter threats against the unity of the nation from neighboring countries,” Agun said. 

According to the Golkar Party lawmaker, the establishment of the new province would also prevent Malaysia from making territorial claims on Sebatik Island, which is divided between the nations, and in nearby Krayan subdistrict.

Sebatik Island Google EarthAlthough it hardly seems likely that Malaysia has designs on the Indonesian half of Sebatik, Indonesian concerns about the area are understandable. Population density and infrastructural development are much higher on the Malaysian side of the border. The third largest city in the Malaysian state of Sabah, Tawau (population 382,000), lies just across an ocean inlet from Sebatik, whereas the entire area that now constitutes the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan counted only 525,000 inhabitants in the 2010 census. Indonesian authorities have also identified the town of Nunukan, located just south Sebatik, as a human trafficking “hotspot,” from which poor Javanese women are sent to Malaysia under false pretenses. As a recent article in the Jakarta Globe notes, “Women from the provinces are often promised jobs with good salaries in Malaysia but are then forced to work at nightclubs or similar places.”

Geopolitical tussles have also recently broken out in the area. In March 2013, Malaysia forced Indonesian nationals living in its part of Sebatik to return to Indonesian territory. Its ostensible reason for doing so was its inability to protect the Indonesians from possible attacks by militants from the Philippines. The precipitating incident here was the so-called 2013 Lahad Datu Standoff, generated when 235 fighters professing loyalty to the long-defunct Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines, and with links to radical Islamists groups, landed in a nearby town to assert dormant Philippine claims to the entire Malaysian state of Sabah. Malaysian troops eventually defeated and expelled the militants, killing 56 and capturing 79. Although the event seemed to some observers to be an odd mix of farce and tragedy, it revealed deep nationalistic tensions persisting between the Philippines and Malaysia, notwithstanding either ASEAN-engendered amity or the fact that the Philippine government had nothing to do with the Lahad Datu adventure. As reported in the Wikipedia:

On 3 March 2013, the website of Globe Telecom [a major Philippine company] was defaced by hackers claiming to be from the “MALAYSIA Cyb3r 4rmy”. The group left the message, “Do not invade our country or you will suffer the consequences.” Global Telecom confirmed its own website had been hacked but assured the public that no sensitive information was stolen. The website was restored at around noon the same day.

In apparent retaliation, hackers identifying themselves as from Anonymous Philippines, attacked several Malaysian websites. They warned Malaysia to “Stop attacking our cyber space! Or else we will attack your cyber world!” The website of Stamford College in Malaysia was also hacked with its front page replaced by a note that said: “The time has come to reclaim what is truly ours. Sabah is owned by the Philippines, you illegally [sic] claiming it.”

Indonesia GDP by Province MapRegardless of possible underlying geopolitical issues, the creation of the Indonesian province of North Kalimantan did have an economic rationale. The new province was hived out of East Kalimantan, a resource-rich and rapidly growing part of Indonesia. Owing mostly to oil, natural gas, coal, and gold, East Kalimantan is by far the most economically productive part of Indonesia on a per person basis.* According to the most recent available statistics, the per capita GRP (Gross Regional Product) of the province was US$ 11,300, whereas those of second-place Jakarta and third-place Riau were US$ 8,200 and US $5,900 respectively. Although East Kalimantan is still lightly inhabited, with only about three million people in an area roughly the size of the United Kingdom, its population had been only 733,000 as recently as 1971. Most of the explosive growth in the area occurred in the southern coastal portion of the old province, especially in and near the capital city of Samarinda. By creating the new province, with a new capital city, Indonesian authorities are hoping to even out the developmental process. More rapid growth in the area may already be occurring; if the figures cited in the Wikipedia are correct, North Kalimantan gained more than 200,000 people between 2010 and 2013.**

North Kalimantan Google EarthEnvironmentalists are concerned that the creation of a new project will accelerate deforestation in the region. In the rump province of East Kalimantan, little primary forest remains, covering only some fifteen percent of its territory. But in North Kalimantan, a land of few paved roads and minimal infrastructure of any kind, primary forests still cover 69 percent of the land. Such a situation is unlikely to persist for long.

* Such figures, it is essential to note, do not reflect average living standards, as the distribution of wealth is not considered and as much of the economic gains in resource-rich areas are taken by outsiders. On the map, such Indonesian provinces as Papua and West Papua appear to be relatively prosperous, but such prosperity reaches relatively few of their residents.

** The article on the province states that its population was 525,000 in 2010 according to the census, but it places its current population at 738,163.


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Malawi and Tanzania Spar over Lake Malawi (Nyasa)

International boundaries in oceanic space are often complex and disputed, especially in areas that abound in hydrocarbons. Boundaries that extend across lakes are usually less contentious and convoluted, but that is not always the case. Consider, for example, Lake Malawi (also known as Lake Nyasa) in southern Africa, widely considered to be the world’s eighth largest lake. As can be seen on the map, the central portion of this lake is evenly divided between Malawi and Mozambique, yet Malawi controls two islands that are well within the territorial waters of its neighbor, Chizumulu and Likoma, which together constitute a Malawian exclave district, with a population of some 13,000. As the Wikipedia explains, this situation “came about because the islands were colonised by Anglican missionaries spreading east from Malawi, rather than by the Portuguese who colonised Mozambique.”

The boundaries extending across southern Lake Malawi not particularly contentious, but the same cannot be said for those in the north. As can again be seen on the map, the international community has in general accepted Malawi’s claim to the entire northern portion of the lake, right up to the Tanzanian shore. Tanzania, not surprisingly, objects, claiming that the border should run down the center of the lake, arguing that “most international law supports sharing common bodies of water by bordering nations.” Tanzania regards the Malawian claim as illegitimately rooted in the colonial dispensation.  As again explained by Wikipedia, “The foundations of this dispute were laid when the British colonial government, which had recently captured Tanganyika from Germany, placed all of the water under the jurisdiction of the territory of Nyasaland [which later became Malawi], without a separate administration for the Tanganyikan portion of the surface.”

This territorial dispute between the two countries has long simmered, but it has recently intensified due to the decision by the Malawian government to award an oil- and gas-exploration contract in the lake to the British company Surestream Petroleum. Then company is currently undertaking environmental impact assessments. The Tanzanian government has demanded a halt to all activities until the dispute is settled. Talks are currently underway, but tensions remain high.  Earlier today, according to the Nyasa Times, Malawian police “arrested two freelance journalists who went to cover the ongoing diplomatic border talks between Malawi and Tanzania at the Mzuzu Hotel accusing them of publishing false news.”


Malawi and Tanzania Spar over Lake Malawi (Nyasa) Read More »

Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India


The seven states of Northeastern India make up a diverse, historic, and (as GeoCurrents has previously noted) unstable region. Recent flooding and landslides have claimed at least 81 lives around the Brahmaputra River (map at left from Wikipedia), forced hundreds of thousands to evacuate, and garnered worldwide attention. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has gone to Assam, perhaps the worst hit state, and promised at least Rs 500 crore (~$90 million) in aid. The floods are a major humanitarian crisis, and they may help to deflect attention from recent escalations in the long-simmering border dispute between Assam and its neighboring state, Meghalaya.

On June 30, over six-hundred Khasi[1], members of a tribal group located primarily in Meghalaya but also in parts of Assam and Bangladesh, began a hunger strike aimed at encouraging the two Indian states to resolve the quarrel over the status of twelve disputed areas that has kindled years of violence. The unresolved issue has also kept rural villages along the Meghalaya-Assam border from receiving the benefits of government electrification programs. Since a January, 21, 2010 GeoCurrents post cautiously observed the “declining violence in Northeast India”, violence has continued to stay at a relatively low level compared to the 2000s. However, most of the underlying issues remain unresolved, and the potential remains for future clashes.

Map of Northeastern India

Entailing much more than the border dispute between Meghalaya and Assam, strife in Northeast India has been a function of ethnic and tribal rivalries playing themselves out against a background of nationalist and antinationalist agitation. For example, the militant Hynniewtrep National Liberation Council (HNLC), based in Meghalaya, continues to vociferously oppose what it sees as attempts by India’s national government to “Indianise or else to Hindunise the Hynniewtrep race”. The HNLC also sets itself up in opposition to the Garo, a largely Christian group that is the second largest ethnic formation in Meghalaya after the aforementioned Khasi.

The people of Northeast India also face many wrenching challenges as both a globalized economy and outside social norms gain a foothold hold in their land. The Khasi and the Garo remain, for the most part, matrilineal societies where property and clan membership is passed down through female descendants. This certainly adds a measure of stability to womens’ lives, and female defenders of the system are able to point to the plight of women in other nearby groups and remark favorably on the status and safety of women in societies adhering to matrilineal traditions. Men who oppose the system claim that it “breeds a culture of men who feel useless”, feeds social problems like alcoholism, and denies men the inheritance they need to build their lives. The debate has been going on for years, and seems unlikely to end soon.

With flooding now the dominant issue in the Brahmaputra watershed, it remains to be seen whether the chaos and disruption that follows will bring more violence in its wake. Most of the Indian outposts along the border with Bangladesh have flooded as local officials express concerns about national security. Living near some of the rainiest places on earth, as the people who make their homes along the Brahmaputra do, can be a dangerous proposition.

Readers interested in a fantastic satellite image of the Brahmaputra flooding should see this one from the NASA Earth Observatory.

[1] GeoCurrents readers would be interested to note that the Khasi are the northernmost speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language.

Flood and Political Conflicts in Northeastern India Read More »

Divided Islands, Large and Small

The recent GeoCurrents news post on electronics factories in Tierra del Fuego brought up the issue of a politically divided island. I did a quick mental count and came up with eight examples of such islands: New Guinea, Borneo, Ireland, Hispaniola, Timor, Cyprus, Saint Martin, and Tierra del Fuego (or, more properly, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, to differentiate it from the archipelago of the same name.). The Wikipedia, however, lists seven other divided “sea islands,” as well as numerous divided lake and river islands.  I had never heard of any of the other divided sea islands, although two are significantly larger than Saint Martin. I have provided maps of all these islands except Embankment No. 4 on the King Fahd Causeway, split between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which I was unable to locate.

Indonesia has territory on more divided islands than any other country: New Guinea, Borneo, Timor, and Sebatik. At first glance, Borneo seems to be the most complexly divided island, as it contains major portions of two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the entire extent of another, Brunei. The division of Cyprus, however, is more intricate. Cyprus contains two de facto countries, Cyprus and the Northern Cypriot Republic, although the international community largely rejects the legitimacy of the latter state. But Cyprus is further split by the existence of two sovereign British military bases, as well as a U.N. “buffer strip” that separates the two independent countries.

The bulk of the territory of several internationally recognized countries is situated on divided islands: Papua New Guinea, Republic of Ireland, Brunei, Timor Leste, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cyprus. The Dutch half of Saint Martin (Sint Maarten) is also counted as a country, but not an independent one; rather, is forms a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” The only island that is divided into two countries both of whose territories are largely limited to that island is Hispaniola, split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Divided Islands, Large and Small Read More »

Stalled Negotiations in Western Sahara

Yet again, talks on Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara collapsed without agreement. Representatives from Morocco, the independence-seeking Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania recently met for three days in a suburb of New York; in the end, “‘Each party continued to reject the proposal of the other as the sole basis for future negotiations, while reiterating their willingness to work together to reach a solution.” Representatives from same groups will convene again in Europe in June. As the conflict has essentially been stalled since the Moroccan annexation of the former Spanish colony in 1975, little is expected.

The Western Sahara conflict generates diplomatic complications for the United States. Although the U.S. seeks good relations with Morocco, it is concerned about Western Sahara. A pending Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act (S.1601), would have the U.S. withhold some scheduled military assistance for Morocco until the Secretary of State “submits a report on steps taken by the government of Morocco to respect the rights of individuals to peacefully express their opinions regarding the status and future of the Western Sahara, and to provide unimpeded access to human-rights organizations, journalists and representatives of foreign governments to the Western Sahara.” The Moroccan foreign minister Saad Eddine Othmani reportedly views the bill as “an unfair judgment about his country — and a simplistic approach to a highly complicated issue.”, however, claims that this complex bill has only an eight percent chance of being signed into law.

Meanwhile, NGOs and humans rights organizations have criticized the recent decision of the German company Siemens to build and maintain a number of electricity-producing windmills in Western Sahara. The wind farm is scheduled to become commercially operational in the summer of 2013. According to a March 21 article in Newstime Africa, “The problem is that, according to international law, it is illegal to trade or dispose of resources in occupied Western Sahara without the consent of Western Sahara’s indigenous population, the Saharawis, who also have to benefit from any such dealings.”

Kidnappings have recently turned up the pressure in Western Sahara. Two Spanish and one Italian aid workers were recently kidnapped in Tindouf, the Algerian refugee camp that also serves as the seat of the government-in-exile of the dispossessed Saharawi people.  The abduction was evidently carried out by an al-Qaeda splinter group that calls itself the “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” which is demanding $37 million (30 million Euros) to free the three aid workers.


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Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel

Sovereignty issues have recently been appearing in Alaskan newspapers. On February 22, the Alaska Dispatch noted that former U.S. senate candidate Joe Miller was lambasting Barak Obama for relinquishing control of several sizable “oil-rich” Alaskan islands, ostensibly because of the Obama administration’s hostility to the petroleum industry. The accusation immediately began to ricochet around the right-wing blogosphere. Gateway Pundit’s headline ran, “Report: Obama Administration Is Giving Away 7 Strategic Islands to Russia.” On many blogs, hyperbole ran wild. One claimed that “the presidents and our elite have given away part of the US,” which it adduced as proof that the United States is “now a dictatorship”; another argued that this maneuver represented nothing less than “the destruction of a nation.”

On some of the larger conservative sites, however, cooler heads urged caution.  Although the comments on Free Republic included such opinion as “TREASON,” and “Is it to appease the Russians or to spite Sarah Palin?,” commentator JSDude 1 provided much needed context, informing readers that the islands in question have never been claimed by the United States and in fact have long been occupied by Russia. Another voice of moderation weighed in with the observation that the islands “don’t exactly look strategic to me unless strategic means cold.”

The lands in question are Wrangel Islands and parts of the DeLong Archipelago, located to the north of Siberia. Every few years someone proclaims that these islands rightfully belong to the United States, but such claims rest on a thin foundation, to say the least. Admittedly, in 1881 an American naval commander planted a U.S. flag, but that is about it. The Russian government officially extended sovereignty over the island in 1911, although it was challenged by a Canadian expedition in 1921. Since 1926, however, Wrangel has been under Soviet and then Russian rule. The United States recognizes Russian control, although a formal treaty specifying as much has never been ratified.  The extreme nationalist group State Department Watch thus claims that the US has a legitimate claim to Wrangel and their other islands, and should thus challenge Russian sovereignty.

Wrangel Island is well known in paleontological circles as the last redoubt of the wooly mammoth. Whereas mammoths went extinct elsewhere at the end of the Pleistocene roughly 10,000 years ago, they survived on Wrangel until about 1,700 BCE. The fact that wooly mammoths held out until the bleak island was first reached by humans is considered by some to be prime evidence that Pleistocene megafauna died out because of human hunting rather than climatic change (more on this when GeoCurrents turns to Siberia next month).

Alaska’s other recent sovereignty issue is domestic, pitting the state against the federal government over the jurisdiction of waterways in Yukon-Charlie National Preserve (a national preserve is administered by the National Park Service, but has a lesser degree protection than an actual national park). The dispute was brought to a head when federal authorities ordered a man to quit hunting moose in the park from the seat of his hovercraft. Although hunting is allowed in the preserve, hovercrafts are not. Alaska has challenged the prohibition, and the case is now going to court.


Alaskan Sovereignty Issues: Wrangles Over Wrangel Read More »

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.

Keystone of the Caucasus: Ignored Ossetia and Its Snow Revolution Read More »

Contested French Islands and Sea-Space in the Western Indian Ocean

Map of French Islands and Exclusive Economic Zones in the Western Indian OceanAs was recently discussed in GeoCurrents, France’s incorporation of Mayotte as an overseas department has been attributed by some to the quest for geo-strategic advantage. It is difficult to see, however, exactly what advantage is gained. It is true that the possession of Mayotte gives France an extensive maritime realm by way of the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that is attached to all land holdings. But France already possessed both Mayotte and its attached sea-space before the island was transformed into an integral part of the French republic. France’s hold on this area was perhaps solidified with Mayotte’s political transformation, as the island’s previous quasi-colonial status gave it some vulnerability. Still, it was not exactly as if the people of Mayotte were clamoring for independence. In the end, it seems likely that the French government acted largely out of a sense of fair play; the people of Mayotte clearly wanted union with France, and as a result their wish was granted. Whether France will now provide the island with the economic resources that its people regard as rightfully theirs by virtue of their full membership in the French nation is another matter altogether.

Regardless of the status of Mayotte, France clearly has a strong geopolitical position in the western Indian Ocean. As the maps indicate, the possession of numerous islands in the area gives France several large exclusive economic zones. French sea-space almost encircles Madagascar. Two French holdings here are overseas departments, integral parts of the republic: Réunion, which became an overseas department in 1946, and Mayotte, which joined the republic in March, 2011. France’s other maritime zones in the vicinity derive from its ownership of the so-called Scattered Islands, officially the Îles éparses de l’océan indien.  The terrestrial extent of these islets is not large. The total land area of the Glorioso Islands, Juan de Nova Island, the Bassas da India, Europa Island and Tromelin Island totals 38.6 km², of which 28.0 km² are accounted for by the giant of the group, Europa. The Bassas da India, in contrast, totals all of 0.2 km², yet its EEZ covers 123,700 km² of maritime space.

Map of Contested Islands and Exclusive Economic Zones in the Western Indian OceanFrance’s terrestrial and maritime claims in the area have not gone uncontested. As we have seen, the Comoros continues to claim Mayotte and its EEZ, despite the expressed desires of the people of the island. Madagascar claims the smaller islands in the Mozambique Channel: Europa, Bassas da India, and Juan de Nova. Tromelin, east of Madagascar, is claimed by both Mauritius and the Seychelles. The five square kilometers of the Glorioso Islands, along with the surrounding seas, are claimed by no less than four countries: France (which has control), the Comoros, Madagascar, and the Seychelles. As a result, this speck of an island is one of the world’s most contested zones, although it does not really compare to the Spratly Islands, all of parts of which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. (The Spratly Islands dispute is also much more hotly contested than the obscure Glorioso disagreement.)

Map of Europa IslandOutside of densely populated Mayotte and Réunion, the French islands in the vicinity of Madagascar lack permanent human habitation. All but the Bassas da India, however, boast landing strips, meteorological stations, and small French garrisons. According to the Wikipedia, the total “population” of the Îles Éparses is fifty-six. Of all the Scattered Islands, only Europa is really large enough to potentially support permanent human inhabitation. Several settlement attempts were made in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but all failed. As the last map indicates, the remains of an old sisal plantation are evidently still visible.

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Iran’s Territorial Disputes with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates

Map of the Strait of HormuzAs explained in last Friday’s post, tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia run deep. Iran’s relations with several other Arab countries of the region are also strained, due in part to active and potential territorial disputes in the Gulf region. The small island country of Bahrain, where a Sunni Muslim political establishment rules a Shiite majority population, is a recurrent flashpoint.

Bahrain, linked to Saudi Arabia by the King Fahd Causeway, plays an important role in the Saudi political—and moral— economy. In essence, it functions as a playground for well-off residents of the kingdom, a place where people can engage in activities proscribed at home. An acquaintance of mine once described the “Saudi special” served at his favorite restaurant in Bahrain: campaign and spare ribs. Bahrain is also home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, seen as crucial for Saudi security. It is thus hardly surprising that Saudi Arabia supported Bahrain’s harsh crackdown on the massive demonstrations recently waged by the island’s Shiite majority, an uprising that it immediately blamed on Iranian agitation and financial support. More recently, a prominent Saudi writer has claimed that the Iranian agent charged with plotting to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, Gholam Shakuri, was ultimately behind the disturbances in Bahrain.

Map of Bahrain Iran, for its part, has periodically made claims to Bahrain in its entirety, maintaining that the island was unfairly removed from Iranian sovereignty by Britain in the 19th century. Such claims were pushed hard in 1906 and again in 1927, and were temporarily reactivated after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Iran subsequently dropped its official claim to Bahrain, allowing the development of superficially friendly relations between the two countries. Yet as WikiLeaks cables reveal, “Bahrain’s leaders sometimes speak to U.S. officials of their genuine worries that Iranian missiles are sighted on targets such as the NAVCENT headquarters in downtown Manama and the royal palaces.”

Linked to the Bahrain-Iran question is a more active territorial dispute pitting Iran against the United Arab Emirates. This quarrel concerns three islands in the vicinity of the Strait of Hormuz, Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs. The latter two are essentially uninhabited and the former holds only around 2,000 inhabitants, but they lay astride the vital waterway that links the Gulf oilfields to the Indian Ocean, and are thus of some strategic significance. During the days of British naval hegemony, the islands were attached to the U.K.’s client state of Sharjah (and later Ras al-Khaimah) along the “Trucial Coast,” an area that later became the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As the British were withdrawing from the region in 1971, Iran forcibly took the islands; Britain’s objections were dropped when Iran relinquished its claims to Bahrain. The UAE, however, has continued to maintain its rightful ownership of the archipelago, although its position has been complicated by the fact that Iran gained control before the UAE became an internationally recognized sovereign state.

In September 2011, the UAE took its case to the United Nations. According to one news source, an Emirati official informed the General Assembly that, “The occupation by Iran of three small islands in the Persian Gulf is a violation of international law.”* Iran responded by blaming the whole imbroglio on “foreign powers who seek to destabilize the region”—in other words, the US and UK. Iran rejected the UAE’s case out of hand, arguing that Abu Musa and the Tunbs “will remain [ours] forever.” Considering the substantial military investments that it has made on Abu Musa, Iran is indeed unlikely to considered giving up control, much to the consternation of the UAE.

Map of Greater Iran from Iranian DefenseExtreme Iranian nationalists make further territorial claims in the region, well beyond what the Iranian government has been willing to consider. As revealed in commentary on articles pertaining to the Tunbs dispute, some claim that the United Arab Emirates itself lacks international legitimacy and ought to belong to Iran: “Go read history, UAE didn’t exist up to 40 years ago. The entire country was part of Iran.” Such considerations potentially extend to Oman’s exclave on the Musandam Peninsula, which guards the southern entrance to the Strait of Hormuz. A map of “Greater Iran” posted on the independent “Iran Defense” Website, for example, includes Musandam as well as Bahrain. The fact that an Iranian language, Kumzari, is spoken on part of the peninsula bolsters the connection. An area of great tourism potential, Musandam also benefits from smuggling goods into Iran, a trade estimated to be worth some $250,000 to $500,000 a day. But despite this illicit trade, Iran and Oman maintain cordial relations.

Map_of_Musandam_Peninsula If Iranian nationalists sometimes employ extreme rhetoric in advancing cultural and territorial claims to lands in and on the far side of the Gulf, anti-Iranian Arab partisans often respond in kind. As one commentator on an article about the Tunbs dispute put it,

 “Iran’s occupation of territories vacated by Britain, with the blessings of the West, has been compared with Israeli occupation of disputed territory in the Palestine Mandate. UAE Sheikh al-Nahayan noted that, “The occupation of any Arab land is an occupation Iran certainly has no better claim than Israel. Iran has a “Got it, Keep it, No negotiations” policy with their occupied territories. They should shut the **** up about the Palestinian dispute.”

* It is highly unlikely that the quotation is verbatim, as the Emirati official would not have used the term “Persian Gulf,” which is generally rejected with some vehemence in the Arab world.

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