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DR Congo’s Geographical Challenges


Yesterday’s post outlined the troubled history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today I would like to briefly examine a few of the geographical issues that make it a challenge for DR Congo to function as a country.

The first issue is transportation. To say that overland transportation is difficult in DR Congo is a laughable understatement, as is clear if one carefully examines the Wikipedia map included above. Note how the country’s meager road system fails to link many areas; note also how many roads are classified as “earth tracks,” meaning that they become impassible mud-pits after heavy rains, which occur frequently. As brief exercise, try figuring out how to travel from Goma in the east to Mbuji-Mayi in the south-center without using an “earth track.” Eastern DR Congo is much better connected to neighboring countries in east Africa than it is to the western DR Congo. It is noteworthy, however, that China recently (2007) agreed to lend DR Congo US $5 billion to improve its transportation system, in particular by upgrading the linkages between the major mining area around Lubumbashi and the ocean port at Matadi.

The second map overlays the distribution of DR Congo’s four major regional languages on a 1970 interpretation of its population density patterns. (Several hundred languages are spoken in the country, but these four are used as common, “transethnic” tongues.) Here we can clearly see how the country is divided into several distinctive “core” areas. Three of these linguistic groupings, moreover, extend deeply into neighboring countries. Eastern DR Congo thus has profound cultural ties to Kenya and Tanzania, where Swahili is also used as a common language. Voting patterns in the final round of the 2006 election closely followed language lines, with Joseph Kabila taking the Swahili-speaking areas, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, now imprisoned in the Hague for war crimes, winning in the rest of the country.

Does DR Congo make sense as a country? I wonder whether its recent history would have been less dismal if it had been allowed to break into four separate states after independence in 1960s.

DR Congo’s Geographical Challenges Read More »

DR Congo: A Potemkin State?

The ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo is reputed to be the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II. Most observers estimate the death toll at around 5.4 million deaths; some figures put the toll as high as 6.9 million. One controversial 2009 report—from the Human Security Report Project of Simon Fraser University—claims that the actual death count was less than a million. Such wild discrepancies suggest how difficult it is to collect accurate information in a place as anarchic as DR Congo.

The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t much of a democratic republic, but that’s not its major problem. More serious is that it doesn’t really function as a country at all. The government hardly governs even in the portion of its territory that it actually controls. Our reference works mislead us when they classify the DRC is a “developing nation-state,” as they habitually do. It certainly isn’t developing (see the chart above), and its governmental apparatus remains miniscule; the DRC takes in less revenue annually than Haiti ($700 million as opposed to $961 million), a deeply impoverished country a fraction of its size. National identity is weak at best. Those Congolese who went to school learned that they constitute a Congolese nation, a lesson that many have apparently taken to heart, but when push comes to shove regional and ethnic cleavages deeply divide. To put it bluntly, since independence in 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been a de-developing, non-national Potemkin state: a façade of a country with scant substance.

The DRC owes its existence to the wild greed of Leopold II, king of the contrived state of Belgium. Desperate to put his mark on the globe, Leopold unleashed his agents, starting with Henry Stanley, to cut a swath of terror across central Africa. Local people were forced to collect vast amounts of wild rubber; if they failed to meet quotas, hands were chopped, and often heads as well. At the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885, Bismarck and the other European leaders simply awarded Leopold the bulk of central Africa as his personal domain, calling it the Congo Free State (ironies run deep here). After word of the carnage in the Congo reached global attention, Leopold lost his African estate to his own government, and in 1908 the Belgium Congo was born. When Belgium abruptly withdrew from Africa in 1960, the Congo almost immediately split in four (see map). It convulsed with violence through the first half of the 1960s, as regional leaders turned to either the Soviet Union or the United States for support. Che Guevara came to mentor Laurent Kabila, founder of the DR Congo, in the arts of revolutionary war.

Relative stability, but little else, came to Congo in 1965 with the dictatorship of Western-backed Joseph Mobutu, who renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko just as he rechristened his country Zaire. Reportedly the third highest grossing kleptocrat (thief-ruler) in world history, Mobuto made off with an estimated $5 billion in his 32 years of rule; only Indonesia’s Suharto and the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos stole more. But when one considers the vastly greater resources of Indonesia and the Philippines, Mobutu must take first place. While Indonesia prospered and the Philippines merely stagnated under kleptocratic rule, Mobutu’s realm steadily declined. When the Cold War ended, its economy collapsed. In the mid-1990s, Zaire collapsed as well. Its demise came in 1997 when Rwanda-backed Joseph Kabila, no longer a Marxist, seized control. A year later, his disappointed Rwandan backers sent another army to replace him. As Rwandan forces were closing in on Kinshasa, Angola, Namibia, and Zimbabwe (with a little help from Chad and Libya) stepped in to defend the Kabila regime. By the beginning of the millennium, DR Congo had fractured into a complex welter of militia-run territories – the geography of which no map adequately conveys. Increasingly, these militias came to fight, with extreme brutality, over access to resources, particularly coltan (a rare mineral used in the manufacture of electronics).

It is quite telling that Rwanda – a country a fraction the size of DR Congo that had just endured its own genocidal hell – could treat the vast DR Congo as its pawn. This is not something that would have happened to a genuine nation-state. (To be continued.)

DR Congo: A Potemkin State? Read More »

National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas


Despite its poverty, lack of infrastructure, and interminable wars, the Democratic Republic of Congo has admirably tried to salvage its national park system and preserve its wildlife. It has not been easy. Since 1994, an estimated 120 rangers have died trying to protect Virunga National Park alone. The existence of large wild areas in eastern DR Congo, moreover, generates its own problems. Guerilla leaders now use the parks as refuges for their own fighters, putting wildlife at increased risk and undermining the security of the region.

Virunga National Park in eastern DR Congo, established in 1925, was Africa’s first national park. Slightly smaller than Yellowstone, it is – or was – noted for its forest elephants, okapis, hippos, and especially its gorillas. The seemingly endless war has taken its toll: 95 percent of Virunga’s hippos have supposedly been slaughtered since 2006. Dauntless efforts by rangers kept the park’s gorillas relatively secure until the Hutu militia, called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), began hiding in the park. In 2007, forces of the Tutsi-oriented, anti-FDLR militia led by Laurent Nkunda invaded the park, seized its headquarters, and expelled its rangers. In 2008, however, Nkunda allowed the rangers to return, and even began talking about protecting Virunga and developing a tourist destination. Rwanda’s arrest of Nkunda in early 2009, part of a complex deal between Rwanda and DR Congo aimed at uprooting the FDLR, put Virunga’s wildlife in renewed jeopardy.

The situation in Garamba National Park in northeastern DR Congo is more dire still. Garamba, established in 1938, was best known as the last remaining holdout of the northern white rhino. In January 2009, the park headquarters were attacked by the brutal Ugandan rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA bizarrely combines Acholi nationalism (focused on an ethnic group in northern Uganda) with a religious hybrid of indigenous beliefs and Christianity. The LRA, as infamous for its use of child soldiers as for having displaced some 1.6 million persons, uses the park as a sanctuary, from which it terrorizes a broad swath of land extending across several countries. Uganda, Sudan, and DR Congo tried to dislodge the LRA from the park later in 2009. The resulting “Operation Lightning Thunder” was not successful; rebel reader Joseph Kony eluded capture, and the LRA retaliated by mutilating and killing over a thousand local civilians.

Optimistic reports have recently been coming out of eastern DRC, claiming that mediation is working and violence is on the wane. “Normalcy Returns to Eastern DR Congo: Mediators,” reads a January 25, 2010 headline in China’s People’s Daily Online. One week later, the UN News Centre reported that the LRA had just slaughtered 100 civilians in the Congolese village of Magamba. Optimism may be comforting, but in the DR Congo it is generally misplaced.

National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas Read More »

54-40 or Fight, Canadian Bacon, and Vancouver: Land of the Olympics and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh

We’re going to run with the Olympic torch here at Geocurrents, and fill you in on the history and geography of Vancouver, beefed up with 3D Google Earth imagery.

Vancouver is North America’s fourth largest seaport, by tonnage. This owes largely to the geography of the region. The port is nestled away the pacific, by Vancouver Island, and the straits of Georgia, making it the most suitable harbor in the region.

Vancouver was originally home to the Squamish (alternately spelled Sḵwx̱wú7mesh), Tsleil-Waututh, and Xwméthkwyiem peoples of the Coast Salish Language Family. In the late 18th century, Englishman George Vancouver, and Spaniard José Maria Naravez, begun the first wave of European exploration, smallpox, slaughter and indigenous displacement.

The Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and Klondike Gold Rush brought large waves of immigrants and prospectors into the city in the 19th century. Opportunities in mining, timber and furs, and manufacturing and attracted a constant flow of immigrants. By virtue of these factor endowments, Vancouver to displaced British Columbia’s provincial capital, Victoria, as the economic powerhouse of the region.

Vancouver’s proximity to the United States also bolstered its Olympic candidacy. Historically, Vancouver began the 19th century as a geographical grey area, administered as the Oregon Country by both the United States and Great Britain up to the border with Russia at the 54th Parallel. US president James Polk, appealed to expansionists with the campaign 1844 slogan 54’ 40 or Fight, but instead settled on the 49th parallel, and brought the fight to Mexico.

Vancouver was part of the extreme US claim for the Northwest, but the US lost its chance at Vancouver with the Oregon Treaty of 1846, which set today’s border at the 49th parallel. Still, expansionists were not pleased, and territorial grey area remained between the US and Canada until the resolution of history’s funniest bloodless, ‘The Pig War.

The Pig War begun in 1859 on the island of San Juan, which with the Canadian city of Victoria to the West, and the American city of Bellingham, to the East, the Strait of Georgia to the North, and the Strait of Juan de Faca to the South. The boar of a Canadian farmer wandered on to the potato patch of an American farmer, so the American farmer shot the pig. The situation escalated to the point where over 2000 British troops, and 500 American troops squared off, but hurled nothing more than insults.

Peace was resolved under President Buchanan, but the territorial disputes between the US and Canada were not finalized until 1871 and, with the Treaty of Washington, and 1872, when an international arbiter under the guidance of Kaiser Wilhelm set the US-Canadian Marine Boundaries near Vancouver Island.

With the most active harbor in the Pacific Northwest, a few gold rushes worth of immigration, and British and American technological innovation, Vancouver had the pieces in place to blossom in to a Olympic host city, nearly a century ago.

Here’s where the fun comes in. For those of you who cannot afford a private blimp ride over the games, I’ve put together a floating satellite image tour of Vancouver in Google Earth.

Start on the tour by downloading Google Earth.

Now download this file.

Happy flying!

The mountain that you’ll see in the tour is Whistler Mountain, 70 miles north of Vancouver. It is a part of the Coastal Mountain Range, which runs up from California to Alaska. The kind folks at Google Earth went so far as to do a 3D panoramic street view for the mountain’s trails, inan update earlier this week.

(Note: Geocurrents is not responsible for any injury incurred during virtual Bobsledding tours)

This Geocurrents tour was largely built around the groundwork done here andherein the Google earth blog and forums, respectively.

54-40 or Fight, Canadian Bacon, and Vancouver: Land of the Olympics and Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Read More »

The Republic of Hau Pakumoto?


The globe-spanning European empires of the 1800s were essentially dismantled in the decades following World War II, with one important exception. In the maritime realm, empire lingers in the form of continuing colonial control over small oceanic islands, some inhabited, others not. If one includes the 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zones that sovereign states control around their island holdings, such oceanic “empires” cover a substantial portion of the earth’s surface. As the map reproduced above shows, France’s maritime sphere is vast and far-flung, giving France a truly global reach.

France governs its various insular and oceanic territories in different ways. Some of its islands (Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique) are integral units of the country, as much parts of France as Hawaii is part of the United States. Most others are organized as “overseas collectivities,” ruled in a more colonial manner. The sizable and resource-rich island of New Caledonia, however, is classified as a “sui generis collectivity”; its ties to France are structured in a unique and particularly complex manner.

While France undoubtedly exploited its colonial domains, today its vestiges of empire are more consistently subsidized. Such revenue flows, however, do not prevent chafing against the existing regime. Independence movements and other organized forms of resistance are found in most of the inhabited islands ruled by France, even Corsica. In February 2009, protests in Guadeloupe and Martinique turned deadly, forcing Paris to send in police reinforcements. Focused mostly at the high cost of living, the protests also targeted the domination of local economies by metropolitan elements.

French Polynesia, a vast oceanic expanse containing some 264,000 inhabitants, has also given France major headaches in recent years. Since 2004, this “overseas collectivity” has experienced nine changes in government, prompting Nicholas Sarkozy to describe the situation as “comical.” Pro-independence and pro-France local politicians struggle against each other, but then often join forces to direct subsidies to their own islands. Denunciations of Chinese merchants, followed by denunciations of such denunciations, are another stable feature of French Polynesian politics. As instability has increased, Paris has looked for possible reforms. In January 2010, Sarkozy proposed revamping the colony’s electoral system, but received little local support.

As is true in the French Caribbean, much of the popular discontent in French Polynesia stems from the high cost of living. Such tensions reached a climax on January 19, 2010, when opposition leaders on the island of Moorea – a favored tourist destination – publically seceded from France and French Polynesia, declaring that henceforth Moorea should be regarded as the independent republic of Hau Pakumoto. Although the announcement appears to have been largely a publicity stunt, French officials took it seriously, seizing funds and illegally issued identity cards. According to the Vancouver Sun, the minister of international affairs of the new “republic” claimed that more then 50,000 people support independence, a suspiciously high number considering the fact that Moorea’s population is only about 16,000.

 

The Republic of Hau Pakumoto? Read More »

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.

Peace Between Sudan and Chad? Read More »

And the Capital of Sri Lanka Is?

Perceptive Geocurrents reader Gnesileah noted that the Mo Rocca/Claire Calzonetti “capital-off” contest (posted on January 30) contained a few minor errors. The capital of Sri Lanka is not Colombo, as Mo Rocca had responded, apparently correctly, but rather Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte (usually simply called “Kotte”). Kotte is not far from Colombo, but it is a distinctive city in its own right. As Gnesileah went on to explain, the issue is complicated, as many governmental ministries remain in Colombo. Since 1982, however, Sri Lanka’s parliament has been situated in the middle of a small lake in the bucolic suburb of Kotte, as can be seen in the Google Earth image posted above. Officially, Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte is indeed the capital city.

Reference works have been reluctant to note the change. WikiAnswers, for example, responds to the question “what is the capital of Sri Lanka with: “Colombo (Economical), Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte (Political), Colombo, Colombo and Sri Jayewardenepura Katte,” rather hedging its bets. The CIA World Factbook lists Colombo as Sri Lanka’s capital, but adds, “note: Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte (legislative capital).” A Google search of “Sri Lanka Capital City” yields mostly Colombo entries, and seems to include as many listing of the ancient capital of Anuradhapura as of Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte.

Insisting that Colombo is Sri Lanka’s “economical” capital is an odd maneuver. One would never see the capital of the United States, for example, listed as “New York (Economical), Washington, D.C. (Political), San Jose (Technological).” But since few non-Sri Lankans have ever hear of Sri Jayawadenapura Kotte, this kind of geographical slight–of-hand seems unexceptional.

Claire and Mo had agreed that their contest was a standoff, but in light of Gnesileah perceptive comments, Geocurrents regards Claire Calzonetti as the reigning champion. Perhaps what is needed now is a rematch.

And the Capital of Sri Lanka Is? Read More »

Russia’s Changing Demography

In August 2009, Russia recorded 1,000 more births than deaths, the first month of natural population increase in more than 15 years. Russian officials, worried about their country’s declining population, were pleased that their efforts to encourage childbearing were showing signs of success. Overall, however, demography is still a major concern for Russian nationalists.

The Wikipedia map of the Russian Federation’s natural population growth (excluding, in other words, immigration and emigration) shows some intriguing patterns. Most striking is the fact that areas of relatively rapid growth (dark green on the map) have large non-Russian populations. Russians constitute roughly 4 percent of Chechnya’s population, 7 percent of Dagestan’s, 20 percent of Tuva’s, and 41 percent of Sakha’s. Russians are more prevalent in the demographically expanding areas of western Siberia (Tyumen, Khantia-Mansia, and Yamalia), but Tyumen is still one of Russia’s most ethnically diverse oblasts, and Khantia-Mansia and Yamalia both have large non-Russian minorities (34 percent and 41 percent respectively). The Russian heartland of western European Russia, on the other hand, shows the largest excess of deaths over births. The proportion of Russians in the federation, currently at 80 percent, is thus declining – much to the consternation of the Russian nationalists.

Patterns of natural population growth and decline also correlate with patterns of economic production, but in a more complicated pattern. Higher fertility rates are evident in both the richest and poorest parts of the country. Dagestan, Chechnya, and Tuva, with low levels of per capita gross regional product, show positive population growth rates largely because their fertility levels are high; the average woman in Chechnya, for example, can be expected to give birth to 3.4 children. Russia’s richest areas, such as the oil and natural gas producing Khantia-Mansia and Yamalia, and mineral-rich Sakha, are also demographically expanding. This pattern is most clearly evident in Tyumen Oblast, the richest region of Russia, with a level of per capita economic production seven times the national average. In 2007, Tyumen’s birth rate of 14.2 per 1,000 people comfortably exceeded its death rate of 9 per 1,000. Contributing to its population growth was its relatively low mortality rate; in 2008 in Russia as a whole, the death rate was 14.6 per 1,000 people.

Russia’s Changing Demography Read More »

Kaliningrad, Russia’s Restive Exclave

In the last weekend of January, 2010, massive protests erupted in the Russian city of Kaliningrad, unnerving the country’s political establishment. Despite bitter weather, an estimated 10,000 people took to the streets to denounce both the local governor and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, ostensibly for raising utility prices and transport taxes during a time of economic crisis. They also demanded the direct election of regional governors, who have been appointed by the central government since 2004. Unlike most Russian protests, riot police did not intervene to shut things down.

The significance of the event stemmed not just from its size but from the coalition of forces that banded together. Organized by a local non-partisan rights groups, the protest was supported not only by liberal activists associated with Russia’s new Solidarity movement, but also by unreconstructed communists and hard-core nationalists. The latter were represented primarily by members of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. Despite its name, the LDPR is an anti-liberal party that supports the extension of capital punishment, the abolition of “non-traditional religious sects,” and state ownership of strategic economic sectors. Nonetheless, these disparate groups agreed on one thing: United Russia, the country’s dominant party, was exploiting their differences to retain its grip on power.

The size and scope of Kaliningrad’s protest movement is linked to the region’s unique geographical position. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave, separated from the rest of the country by several hundred miles, its territory bracketed by Poland and Lithuania – both members of NATO and the European Union. Such isolation hindered efforts by the Russian security apparatus to to control the demonstration once it had been ignited. Kaliningrad’s proximity to central Europe also enhanced the spread of anti-establishment political views. People here can easily visit Poland and Lithuania, democratic and relatively prosperous countries. Protest organizer Maksim Doroshok highlighted the Polish connection: “We see that in neighbouring Poland, where they brought in reforms, where there is democracy, it’s cheaper, people earn more, civic bodies function better. Why should we be any worse? Our region is the most European in the whole [Russian] federation because we know Europe and we know how to fight for our rights… There is a different spirit at rule here. There is a wind blowing from … Gdansk.” (Gdansk was the birthplace of the Polish Solidarity movement that helped bring down the communist system; see “Russian Protest Inspired by EU Neighbours,” by Andrew Rettman, http://euobserver.com/9/29378 .)

Russia acquired its Kaliningrad exclave at the end of World War II. It had previously been the northern half of East Prussia, a German-speaking region for some 800 years. In the post-war settlement, Germany was stripped of its eastern territories and their German residents were expelled westward in a convulsion of ethnic cleansing. Most of these lands were awarded to Poland, in compensation for the Soviet Union’s simultaneous annexation of Poland’s eastern regions. Northern East Prussia, however, with its port facilities well suited for a naval base, was appropriated by the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities awarded the new land directly to Russia, the largest of the so-called Soviet Union Republics. As Germans were driven out, Russians moved in, effecting almost complete ethnic replacement. Today the only real German presence in Kaliningrad derives from tourists, many of them elders eager to catch one last glimpse of their birthplace.

The downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991 caused an economic crisis in the newly cut-off region of Kaliningrad. Russian authorities responded by creating a special economic zone in 1996, turning Kaliningrad into a hub for the assembly and distribution of televisions, electronics, and automobiles for the Russian market. Such policies proved generally successful until the economic crisis of 2008, which resulted in huge job loses in Kaliningrad—and led to increased pubic discontent.

As we have seen in Angola’s Cabinda, exclaves often present particular problems for central governmental control, and government weakness in turn can generate demands for secession. In the 1990s, when Russia was weak, some local leaders called for Kaliningrad’s independence, hoping that it could become a fourth Baltic republic. Such dreams are now infeasible; an increasingly muscular Russia would not contemplate letting such a valuable territory go. But Kaliningrad does continue to generate opposition to the Russian government, giving Putin and company a significant cause for concern.

Kaliningrad, Russia’s Restive Exclave Read More »

Soccer Diplomacy Keeps Armenia, Azeris, Apart

The UEFA , football’s governing body, switched Armenia from its assigned group for a 2012 tournament, as draw would have guaranteed a matchup withneighbor and rival Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a frozen territorial dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, which is territorially part of Azerbaijan, but has remained under Armenian control since the Nagorno-Karabakh War came to an end in 1994.

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The modern region of Nagorno-Karabakh, was once the province of Artsakh, the eastern flank of the centuries old Armenian empire, with a large number of ethnic Armenians.

This decision by UEFA goes much further than football, it is an attempt to avoid a show off between hooligan’s who would attempt to recreate the Karabakh War or a crusade.

In the years since the fall of the Soviet Union, these linguistic identies have made themselves much more known. Armenia has inched closer towards Russia, while Azerbaijan, a country that is close to 90% Islamic, has recently announced an attempt to de-Russify its citizens’ names.

The rivalry expands into the most obvious channels of popular expression, in both countries. For example, this summer an Azeri citizen was questioned by Azeri authorities on why he voted for an Armenian entrant in the Eurovision song contest.

The leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met once again this year in Russia, for the fifteenth straight year, to attempt to clear the Karabakh dispute, and could agree on nothing more than a preamble.

The decision by UEFA to keep Azerbaijan and Armenia from playing each other is childish.If the two countries cannot even be permitted to perform against each other in the football field, what does that say about the prospect of a lasting peace?

If anything, this story does put a new meeting on the term, ‘international friendly match.’

Soccer Diplomacy Keeps Armenia, Azeris, Apart Read More »

Pashtun Shiites

Today’s New York Times includes three important articles pertaining to Sunni/Shiite tensions. Two of these are all-too-typical reports of terrorist attacks on Shia pilgrims by Sunni extremists, one in Karachi, Pakistan, the other in Iraq. The third article, on new leadership emerging among the Pakistani Taliban, is much less conventional (“With Taliban Leader Reported Dead, New Pakistani Figure Emerges”). According to the article, the local Taliban center has been relocated to Orakzai, one of the agencies of Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (which are not “federally administered,” if administered at all). The article mentions the fact that Orakzai has a Shiite minority, and that Taliban militants treat Shiites with particular brutality. What the article does not mention is the fact that in neighboring Kurram Valley Agency, Shiism is much more prevalent, being the dominant faith of the Turi tribe. Not surprisingly, the Turi have been struggling against the Taliban. As the Wikipedia reports, “On August 31, 2008 tribesmen mostly Turis dislodged Taliban from nearly 200 villages … [the] Taliban headquarters at Bagzai fell to the tribesmen killing as many as 95 militants.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurram_Valley#cite_note-6).

The Pashtun Shiites have received little notice in the global media, but they are an important element of a very complex war.

Pashtun Shiites Read More »

Coke vs. Pepsi; Venezuela vs. Zulia

Although Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has been able to secure relatively high levels of electoral support, his campaigns have faltered in the northwest. In the Andean highland zone, closely linked to neighboring Colombia, the states of Táchira and Mérida both voted “no” on Chavez’s constitutional referendum in 2009. Anti-Chavez sentiments also run strong in the northwestern lowland state of Zulia, which brackets Lake Maracaibo. The heart of Venezuela’s oil industry, Zulia has deep connections with the United States. But even beyond economics, the culture of the Maracaibo region is at odds with that of the rest of the country.

The differences between the Maracuchos—the people of the Maracaibo lowlands—and other Venezuelans are considerable. Maracaibo speech is distinctive in intonation and especially in its use of “vos” for “you.” The region’s folk music—La Gaita Zuliana—is unique, and its coconut-heavy cuisine is unlike that found elsewhere in the country. Behavior differs as well. As Edward Teveris reports, “A question in the survey my company conducted a few years back asked: “Te consideras un ‘parandero’?” (“Do you consider yourself a ‘showoff’?” Meaning: lots of gold watches, necklaces, and other high machista behaviors.) The ‘Maracuchos’ responded at an alarmingly higher rate than the rest of the country. When we showed that slide to our clients they laughed in agreement.”

The Maracuchos seem to have embraced an oppositional culture so pronounced that it is even reflected in consumer choices. Brands that do well in Caracas and elsewhere in the country often fail in Zulia. While most Venezuelan smokers like Belmont cigarettes, the Astor Azul brand is preferred in Maracaibo; while Polar beer is favored elsewhere, regional brews are more popular in Zulia. Perhaps most tellingly, other Venezuelans drink Coca-Cola, but Maracuchos drink Pepsi. (See “A Psychographic Profiling of Venezuelan Consumers and Society,” by Jacobo Riquelme and Edward Teveris).

The same oppositional sensibility is also encountered in politics. It is thus not surprising that in 2008 leaders in Zulia proposed launching a campaign for autonomy, modeling their proposal on efforts made in Bolivia’s Santa Cruz region. Nor is it surprising that such designs met concerted opposition from pro-Chavez forces. As one local representative responded, “we [pro-Chavez government] legislators categorically reject this separatist, secessionist proposal of the state because it goes against our values and the integral development of the country,” adding that “We, with the law, with the People in the street, and with the armed forces, will put up a fight”(from “Autonomy Proposed in State Legislature of Venezuelan Oil State Zulia,” by James Suggett, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/news/3423).

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Circassia and the 2014 Winter Olympics

Yesterday’s post referred to the Ossetians as a people of “profound world-historical significance,” a phrase that fits their neighbors, the Circassians, even better. That members of the so-called White race are called “Caucasians” stems largely from the widespread nineteenth-century European notion that the Circassians, natives of the northwestern Caucasus, somehow represented the ideal human form. A hundred and fifty years ago, the Circassians were well known in Europe and the United States, celebrated for their bravery and especially their beauty. Mass-marketing advertisement campaigns hawked “Circassian lotion,” “Circassian Hair Dye,” and “Circassian soap”; P.T. Barnum even exhibited fake “Circassian beauties.” Yet in our time, this once-famous group has virtually vanished from view; when I recently asked a class of 160 Stanford undergraduates if anyone had heard of them, not a single hand was raised.

The Circassians’ world-historical significance derives not from their supposed physical attributes, but from the singular niche they occupied in the eastern Mediterranean from late medieval to early modern times. To put it starkly, Circassians served as elite slaves in the major Muslim states of the region. Although the notion of “elite slaves” may seem self-contradictory, unfree individuals could rise to very high positions. Muslim rulers had long staffed their armies in part with enslaved soldiers – Mamluks – and at several times and places such troops essentially took over the state. The Mamluk Burji dynasty that ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 was founded by, and composed largely of, Circassian soldiers of servile background. Circassian women who were exported into servitude could end up as concubines or even wives of Ottoman and Persian sultans. Such women could become powerful in their own right, especially if one of their sons rose to the top position.

The Circassians’ downfall came at the hands of the Russians in the 1860s. The Russia Empire reached across the Caucasus to encompass Christian Georgia in the early 1800s, but – as the map above indicates – it failed to subdue Circassia. (Note that the map incorrectly places Chechnya and adjacent areas within Circassia.) Having fought the Circassians for roughly a century, Russia’s leaders decided to expel the population. Some 80 to 90 percent of the Circassians were forced out; most found refuge in the Ottoman Empire, but nearly half died in the process. Today the Circassian population in Russia has recovered to number some 900,000. In Turkey, roughly two to four million people are of Circassian descent, and the Circassian community in Jordan numbers about 150,000. It is doubtful, however, whether Circassian culture can survive outside of the Caucasian homeland.

Circassian activists are now pushing Russia and the global community to recognize the events of the 1860s as constituting genocide. They hope to use the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia – once a Circassian port – to bring their historical plight to global attention. As Sufian Zhemukhov reported in the Circassian World website in September, 2009, “Most Circassians see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to plead their case, rather than as an offense to be resisted. Still, many Circassians have opposed the Winter Games on the grounds that they will take place on ‘ethnically-cleansed’ land. Some Circassian NGOs have branded the Olympics the “Games on Bones” and opposed construction work [that] could endanger important burial sites. In October 2007, … Circassian activists organized meetings in front of Russian consulates in New York and Istanbul to protest against holding the Winter Games in Sochi. Finally, the Circassian anti-Olympic movement began to seek official Russian recognition of the Circassian genocide and called on the IOC to move the Games.” (http://www.circassianworld.com/new/general/1382-circassian-dimension-2014sochi-szhemukh.html)

More immediately, Circassian activists want Russia to create a single internal republic for the four legally defined ethnic groups (the Adyghe, Cherkesm, Shapsugs, and Kabardin) that together constitute the Circassian people. That complicated issue, however, must be the subject of a later posting.

 

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Caucasus Emirate: A Self-Proclaimed Virtual State Entity

In the global hierarchy of polities, a “self-proclaimed virtual state entity” occupies a lowly position, being little more than a dream. But such dreams must be taken seriously if they are accompanied by violent actions intended to make them come true, as is the case in regard to the Caucasus Emirate. This Islamist “virtual state entity” claims (eventual) dominion over the northern Caucasus Mountains and adjacent lowlands. Currently part of the Russian Federation, the northern Caucasus is divided into handful of internal Russian republics, including Dagestan and Chechnya. Although violence in the region has diminished in recent years, it has hardly vanished. On February 3, 2010, for example, Russian security officials claimed that they killed a top Al Qaeda operative, Mokhmad Mohamad Shabban, in the mountains of Dagestan (see http://www.itar-tass.com/eng/level2.html?NewsID=14783934&PageNum=0).

Any efforts to create an actual Caucasus Emirate will be strenuously resisted by Russia. They also clash against the designs of another “self-proclaimed virtual state entity,” that of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. This Chechen republic was proclaimed in 1991 as Chechnya unsuccessfully tried to secede from Russia. In 2007, its “president” merged the “republic” into the much larger “Emirate,” thereby reducing its status to that of a mere (virtual) province. Many Chechen insurgent leaders rejected this move, preferring to fight for an independent, stand-alone Chechnya.

The so-called Caucasus Emirate aims to unite all of the Muslim areas of the northern Caucasus into a single state. Its proposed territory, however, includes a substantial non-Muslim area, the Russian republic of North Ossetia-Alania. The Ossetians (or Alans) are mostly Christians, although a few are Muslims and many still practice quasi-pagan rituals. Tensions between Christian Ossetians and their Muslim neighbors can be severe. In 2004, for example, Chechen and Ingush insurgents took more than 1,000 people hostage in a school in the Ossetian town of Beslan, an event that resulted in some 385 deaths.

The Ossetians, a surviving remnant of the once-powerful Sarmatians, are a people of profound world-historical significance. It is believed by many scholars that most of the legends of King Arthur can be traced back to the Ossetians’ Nart Sagas — but that is a story for another post.

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