Struggles Between States

Britain Vs. Spain and Spain Vs. Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar

Maritime chokepoints, where ships must pass through narrow passageways, are sites of geopolitical advantage that have often been contested. Sea-based empires, especially Portugal in the 1500s and Britain in the 1800s, seized and garrisoned towns and fortresses at the entrance to marine chokepoints scattered over vast distances. Today, remnants of earlier imperial projects are evident on the maps of several such passageways. The southern bank of the Strait of Hormuz, for example, remains an exclave of Oman, once a formidable naval power, while Singapore, established as the “Gibraltar of the East” at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, is the world’s premier city-state.

The Strait of Gibraltar itself, joining the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, is arguably the world’s foremost maritime chokepoint. It certainly is the most geopolitically contested. The strait itself is essentially controlled by Spain to the north and Morocco to the south, as one would expect. But its Mediterranean gateway, marked by two promontories once deemed the Pillars of Hercules,* falls under a different sovereign regime. The “Spanish” side is controlled by the U.K., whereas the “Moroccan” side is controlled by Spain. Neither Spain nor Morocco accepts these foreign enclaves. Spain wants to retain Ceuta and reclaim Gibraltar, Morocco seeks to control Ceuta, and Britain is determined to keep Gibraltar.

Spain and Britain gained these possessions during their naval heydays. Ceuta was seized first by Portugal in 1415, an event that some say gave birth to the Portuguese Empire. That empire passed in its entirely to the Spanish crown after a disastrous Portuguese invasion of Morocco in 1580; Portugal regained its independence in 1640, but Spain kept Ceuta. Gibraltar fell to an English-Dutch naval campaign in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession; Spain formally ceded sovereignty to Britain in the Treaty of Utrech in 1713. Spain has periodically sought to regain Gibraltar, just as Morocco has tried on occasion to redeem Ceuta, but neither country has had any success.

According to the Spanish government, Gibraltar is a colonized portion of Spanish territory — an unconscionable geopolitical anachronism. Spanish pressure helps keep the peninsula on the United Nation’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, regarded as colonial remnants. Britain responds that people of Gibraltar actually enjoy democratic self-governance through their own parliament, as well as British citizenship. In the 1990s, Britain and Spain hammered out a proposal for joint sovereignty, but the Gibraltarians rejected it overwhelmingly in a 2002 referendum. The Spanish government maintains that their wishes are of no account, as the dispute is between the sovereign powers of Britain and Spain. But in 2006, Spain agreed to talks with Britain and with the leadership of Gibraltar itself, aimed at facilitating trans-border linkages. Progress has not been easy. In August 2010, the mayor of the adjoining Spanish town of La Linea announced plans for new tolls on traffic between the peninsula and the mainland, citing the need to make up for revenues lost in Spain’s budgetary crisis.

The dispute between Spain and Morocco over Ceuta and other Spanish possessions in the region is much more intense. In early 2010, Morocco called for renewed dialogue on Spain’s cross-straits holdings; Madrid responded by reaffirming its sovereignty over the contested lands, which include not just Ceuta but also the exclave of Melilla and a number of near-shore islands. Morocco subsequently charged Spanish authorities with mistreating Moroccan citizens in and around the territories, heightening the conflict. In August 2010, massive Moroccan protests temporarily blocked overland transit into the two Spanish exclaves, threatening their economies.

It may seem hypocritical for Spain to demand the return of Gibraltar while consistently rebuffing similar Moroccan claims in North Africa. Its government insists, however, that the two situations are not the same. Ceuta and Melilla, it argues, are integral parts of Spain, not colonial holdings. Their residents not only possess Spanish citizenship, but vote in Spanish elections, pay Spanish taxes (albeit at a reduced rate), and have all other rights and responsibilities of membership in the national community, as well as the E.U. The position of Gibraltar, the Spanish government maintains, is colonial. As a British Overseas Territory, the peninsula is under British sovereignty yet is not part of the United Kingdom. Gibraltar even has its own currency, the Gibraltar Pound, which is not legal tender in the United Kingdom. The dispute is further complicated by the fact that Spain never formally ceded the isthmus, which remains under British-Gibraltarian control.

The territorial anomalies in and around the Strait of Gibraltar have a number of interesting cultural features as well as potentially serious geopolitical implications, as will be explored in subsequent Geocurrents this week.

* Although the northern “pillar” is clearly Gibraltar, debates persist on the identity of its southern counterpart. Some scholar favor Monte Hacho on the peninsula of Ceuta; others Jebel Musa, located a few miles away in Morocco.

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The Cold War Between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan

In August 2008, the New York Times described Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as being locked in a “cold war.” Recently, the conflict has warmed up. In early 2010, Uzbekistan imposed a partial blockade on Tajikistan, a much poorer country poorly tied into global transportation networks. Uzbek authorities have been holding freight cars at the border, stifling Tajikistan’s economy. Uzbekistan’s government counters that technical and logistical difficulties have merely slowed traffic over the border. But Tajik authorities are so concerned that they are considering taking the issue to international courts. They are also talking about alternatives for their cargo. Tajik Transportation Minister Olim Boboev has specifically advocated “a 250-kilometer rail link connecting Tajikistan with Turkmenistan via northern Afghanistan,” not an easy project. As anger against Uzbekistan mounts in Tajikistan, anger at Tajikistan rises in Uzbekistan. In March 2010, around 1,000 university students and professors marched in the Uzbek city of Termez to protestTajikistan’s plans to expand a highly polluting aluminum smelter near the Uzbek border.

A root cause of the Tajikistan-Uzbekistan feud is water. Former Soviet Central Asia is a dry region that depends on the snow-fed rivers flowing out of the Pamir and Tien Shan mountains. Mountainous Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan contain its major headwaters, thus potentially controlling the water supply. Downstream Uzbekistan is water-short yet highly dependent on irrigated agriculture. It is hardly surprising that its government fears potential upstream water diversions. Energy-poor Tajikistan wants to build dams primarily to generate hydroelectricity. In 2009, Uzbekistan partially cut off natural gas supplies to debt-strapped Tajikistan, almost shutting down its aluminum smelters — one of the Tajikistan’s few competitive industries. Dam-building would not only protect the industry from such threats, but would allow it to expand.

The dam in question is the Rogun on the Vakhsh River, an important tributary of the Amu Darya. If it is ever completed, Rogun will be one of the world’s highest dams. Work began in 1976, but the unfinished project sank with the Soviet Union in 1991. In 2007, Russia partnered with Tajikistan to complete the dam, but the two parties soon fell out. The Tajik government announced in early 2010 that it would try to raise by itself the $1.4 billion needed to finish the dam. Uzbekistan demanded an independent study to prove that its own water supplies would not be adversely affected, and when Tajikistan refused, cross-border traffic came to a crawl. If it is to complete the Rogun Dam, Tajikistan will need to import vast quantities of construction supplies and heavy equipment.

Uzbekistan’s water concerns are understandable. Water shortages not only threaten its agriculture, they have also almost destroyed the Aral Sea. But Uzbekistan’s sclerotic economy wastes vast quantities of water, and its government shows little interest in conservation. Uzbekistan’s portion of the Aral Sea continues to disappear; its entire eastern basin is expected to dry out this summer. Kazakhstan’s northern Aral Sea, on the other hand, is making a significant recovery, as we shall see in tomorrow’s post.

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Peace Between Sudan and Chad?

On February 9, 2010, the leaders of Sudan and Chad agreed to quit supporting rebel movements in the other’s territory, thus promising to end one of Africa’s proxy wars. They also pledged to discuss mutual development projects along the war-ravaged border. Such initiatives could diminish tensions in western Sudan (Darfur) and adjacent areas in eastern Chad. Caution is warranted, however; earlier thaws have not lasted. Chad broke diplomatic relations with Sudan in 2006, then restored ties with fanfare later that year. But in 2007, after defeating a raid by Sudan-based rebels, Chad reportedly sent eight tanks and 100 other military vehicles into Sudanese territory. In 2008, Chadian president Idriss Déby again lashed out against “mercenaries directed by Sudan” who had advanced across the country to the capital city of N’Djamena before being routed. Skeptical observers suspect that the new agreement is based more on the two governments’ desire to firm up local support before scheduled elections than on any deep-seated desire for peaceful relations.

The tensions between Chad and Sudan are linked to their ethnic geographies. Of critical importance are the Zaghawa, an historically powerful linguistic group whose territory spans the border. In Sudan, the Zaghawa — like other non-Arabic-speaking peoples of Darfur — have been victimized by the Sudanese government and its allied Arab militias, the infamous Janjaweed. The Sudanese Zaghawa generally support the insurgent Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a moderately Islamist organization, supplying most of its leadership. In Chad, the Zaghawa politically dominate the entire country, even though they are a relatively small minority living far from the core area of the south- and center-west. Chadian President Déby and most of the country’s other top officials are Zaghawa. It is thus not surprising that they would support Zaghawa rebels on the other side of the border.

Overall, Sudan and Chad are structured along similar ethno-geographical lines. Both have Muslim majorities living in the arid northern and the semi-arid central regions, and substantial Christian and animist minorities inhabiting the humid southern areas. Likewise, their Muslim populations are divided between Arabic speakers and peoples speaking a variety of African languages, mostly in the Nilo-Saharan family. As is apparent in the map above, local Arabs are often classified as “White,” in contrast to the “Black Africans” who speak indigenous languages. In actuality, a long history of intermarriage has reduced color differences, especially among the Shuwa (or Baggara) cattle-herding Arabs, often to the vanishing point.

While the overall ethnic structures of Chad and Sudan are similar, the demographic specifics are markedly different. In Sudan, Arabs constitute a plurality of some 40 percent; living in the core regions of the country, they have long dominated its political and economic structures. The Arabs of Chad, by contrast, form only about 15 percent of the population, and live mostly as migratory pastoralists with little power. They have suffered some persecution in recent years, largely because local villagers and troops often unfairly associate them with the brutal Janjaweed militias of Sudan (see “Arabs Face Discrimination in Chad,” Stephanie Hancock).

Chad has been so rent by ethnic divisions, poverty, and inadequate infrastructure that its government has barely managed to survive. Déby maintains power in the face of numerous insurgencies in good part by relying on the force of the 1,000 or so French troops currently stationed in the country. But oil revenues have been pouring into Chad since 2003, giving the government increasing scope for action. Most of the funds from the oil industry were supposed to be set aside for educational and other human development projects, but in 2006 Chad’s government backed out of the U.N.-brokered agreement. In 2009, Transparency International rated Chad as the word’s sixth most corrupt country. Sudan was ranked even lower, just three slots above last-place Somalia. Under such conditions, a durable peace seems unlikely.

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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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