Ethnicity

South Africa’s Western Cape Exceptionalism and the Coloured Vote

Western Cape is South Africa’s most politically distinctive region by a wide margin. It is the only province that has never given majority support to the African National Congress (ANC). In 2024, it gave less than 20 percent of its vote to the ANC, awarding 53.4 percent to the centrist, non-racialist Democratic Alliance, which has long dominated the province. As the second map posted below shows, every municipality in Western Cape gave majority or plurality support to the DA in the 2024 national election, whereas only three municipalities in other provinces did the same. Western Cape’s political differentiation is so pronounced that it supports an active independence movement that sometimes polls above 50 percent.

Map of the Democratic Alliance vote by province in South Africa 2024
South Africa 2024 DA Vote by Province Map

Map of the 2024 South African Election Vote by Municipality
2024 South Africa Election Vote by Municipality Map

South Africa’s White community heavily supports the Democratic Alliance, favoring its non-racialist stance. Not surprisingly, Western Cape has South Africa’s largest percentage of White population by a significant margin. But at 16.4 percent, it is still relatively low and as such cannot account for the DA’s success in the province. Instead, most DA voters in Western Cape are members of the mixed-race, Afrikaans-speaking Coloured community. At 42 percent, the Coloured community forms a strong plurality of the population of Western Cape. But the figure is identical in neighboring Northern Cape (see the second map posted below), which gave only 20.9 percent of its vote to the Democratic Alliance and awarded plurality support to the ANC. As it turns out, the two provinces are quite distinctive in other regards. Western Cape has a more productive economy and a higher level of social development. Northern Cape also has a much smaller White population percentage than Western Cape (7.3, as opposed to 16.4) and a significantly larger Black population percentage (50, as opposed to 39).

Map of South Africa's White Population by Province
South Africa White Population by Province Map

Map of South Africa's Coloured, or mixed-race, population by province
South Africa Coloured Population map

But racial identity is not the only factor in determining voting patterns, and none of South Africa’s racial communities votes monolithically. In the 2024 election, many Coloured voters swung to Patriotic Alliance, which was formed in 2013 to favor the interests of their community. As can be seen in the map posted below, Patriotic Alliance took a healthy 7.8 percent of the vote in Western Cape and 8.6 percent in Northern Cape. As its support comes mostly from the Coloured community, its vote-count elsewhere in the country ranged from small to negligible. Nationwide, it took 330,425 votes, a huge increase from the 6,660 votes it received in 2019.

Map of the vote share of South Africa's Patriotic Alliance in the 2024 Election by province
South Africa 2024 Election Patriotic Alliance Vote Map

Wikipedia describes Patriotic Alliance (PA) as a rightwing party, as its name might suggest. But the same article notes that PA’s economic stance is generally centrist. Some of its social policies, moreover, including those on housing and healthcare, tilt to the left. It also aims to reduce South Africa’s wide wealth and income disparities, which is generally viewed as a left-leaning position. But Patriotic Alliance is skeptical of immigration, takes a hardline stance on corruption, wants to reinstate the death penalty, and favors more socially conservative policies. It has also expressed solidarity with Israel in its struggle with Hamas, which is not a popular stance in South Africa’s Black community. Critics of Patriotic Alliance accuse the party of “gangsterism,” noting that its two founders are convicted criminals and contending that party leaders have worked with criminal organizations in an effort to reduce violent crime. Patriotic Alliance leaders have also advocated using veterans of the former Cape Corps, which had been a Coloured military organization, to help control gang violence.

Overall, it is difficult to classify the political position of Patriotic Alliance. It is not alone in this regard. Over much of the world, parties that defy the traditional left/right division are gaining support. A good example is Germany’s new political party Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht (BSW), which emerged from the far-left but now takes an anti-immigration, populist, and nationalist stance. In the 2024 European Parliamentary election in Germany, BSW took 6.2 percent of the vote, whereas Die Linke (The Left), the party from which it emerged, took only 2.7 percent. Political realignment seems to be rapidly gaining strength in many countries.

South Africa’s Western Cape Exceptionalism and the Coloured Vote Read More »

Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in the 2024 Vote for the African National Congress in South Africa

As noted in the previous GeoCurrents post, South Africa’s leading political party, the African National Congress (ANC), suffered major losses in the 2024 general election, although it still significantly outperformed all other parties. Today’s post briefly examines the geographical patterns of the ANC’s 2024 showing, looking for correlations with socio-economic and demographic variables.

ANC vote share 2024 South Africa Election

As comparing the map posted above with the  first map posted below shows, at the provincial level the ANC won higher-than-average levels of support in regions with lower-than-average per capita GDP. It did best in Limpopo and Eastern Cape, the two provinces with the country’s lowest levels of economic output per person. Intriguingly, this pattern is not found with South Africa’s most leftist major party, the communist-oriented Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). EFF’s vote-share was relatively evenly distributed across the country, although it fared poorly in the country’s two most electorally aberrant provinces, Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Intriguingly, EFF had its highest vote share in North West Province, which has a relatively high level of per capita economic output.

Map of South Africa 'sPer Capita GDP in 2022
South Africa Per Capita GDP 2022 Map

Map showing the vote share of the Economic Freedom Fighters in South Africa's General Election of 2024
Vote of EEF South African General Election 2024 map

Per capita GDP, however, can be a misleading indicator, as it does not necessarily capture differences in basic economic wellbeing. The somewhat elevated GDP figure of South Africa’s North West province, for example, largely reflects its productive mining operations rather than its basic economy. In the more revealing Human Development Index (HDI), North West province falls into South Africa’s lowest category, along with Eastern Cape. In contrast, Western Cape has South Africa’s highest HDI figure – and also had the second lowest level of support for the ANC. At the local level as well, the more prosperous parts of the country tended to vote against the ANC and for its most important rival, the Democratic Alliance. This pattern also has a strong racial component, as we will see in a forthcoming post on the Democratic Alliance party.

Map showing the Human Development Index of South Africa's provinces in  2021
South Africa HDI by Province 2021 Map

The African National Congress is closely associated with South Africa’s majority Black population, and unsurprisingly performed relatively poorly in the two provinces that are not demographically dominated by Blacks, Western Cape and Northern Cape. But the ANC’s performance was middling or poor in several provinces with large Black majorities, as can be seen by comparing the map posted below with the first map posted above. As was noted in the previous GeoCurrents article, ethnic politics help explain the ANC’s low level of support in KwaZulu-Natal.

Map showing the percentage of the Black population in South Africa's provinces
South Africa Black Population by Province Map

By delving down below the province level, we can find an interesting correlation between the ANC’s 2024 vote strength and South Africa’s ethno-linguistic divisions. As the paired maps posted below show, the ANC did very well among two ethnic groups: the Xhosa of the south-central region and the Venda (Tshivenda speakers) of the far northeast. The Xhosa – the country’s second-largest ethnic group, after the Zulu – have long been closely aligned with the ANC. The high level of support among the Venda is linked to the fact that the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, is of Venda ethnicity, although he has born and reared in Soweto, Johannesburg.

Paired maps showing South Africa's ethnolinguistic geography and the results of its 2024 election
South Africa 2024 Election and Language Maps

Socio-Economic and Demographic Factors in the 2024 Vote for the African National Congress in South Africa Read More »

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election

In South Africa’s general election of May 29, 2024, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party received only 40 percent of the vote. This election marked a stunning reversal of the party’s fortune; in 2019 it took 57 percent of the vote, while in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009, and 2014 it took over 60 percent. Economic problems, persistently high levels of crime, allegations of corruption, and growing opposition to immigration have turned many South Africans against the once-dominant party that brought an end to apartheid and successfully democratized the country.

Despite its relatively poor showing, the ANC still did much better than any other party. The centrist Democratic Alliance (DA) came in a distant second place, with only 21.8 percent of the vote. The previously third-ranking party, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), took less than 10 percent, losing five seats in the National Assembly. Several new parties gained seats, particularly the left-populist uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party, founded by the disgraced former president and previous ANC leader, Jacob Zuma. Zuma’s MK party took a healthy 14.6 percent of the vote, gaining 58 of the 400 seats in the National Assembly.

The strong showing of the new leftwing MK party coupled with the losses experienced by the African National Congress seem to indicate a profound level of dissatisfaction with the relatively moderate economic policies of the ANC’s current leader, Cyril Ramaphosa. But a geographical analysis of the election reveals a more complicated situation. As the map posted below indicates, MK did not emerge as a new party with national appeal, but rather one whose support is largely limited to the Zulu population. It received 45 percent of the vote in the Zulu heartland (KwaZulu-Natal), 16.8 percent in Mpumalanga, which is 24 percent Zulu-speaking, and 9.8 percent in Gauteng (the country’s core province, containing Johannesburg), which is 23 percent Zulu-speaking. Otherwise, MK’s level of support ranged from small to negligible. Its poor showing among the country’s other ethnic groups is not surprising, as its ideology is based – according to Wikipedia – on “Zulu nationalism” and “Zulu interests.”

South Africa 2024 election MK vote map

uMkhonto weSizwe is not the only South African political party that represents Zulu interest. The long-established Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) did relatively well in the 2024 election, taking over 18 percent of the vote in KwaZulu-Natal and gaining three additional National Assembly seats, for a total of 17. A socially conservative, anti-communist organization, the Inkatha Freedom Party finds most of its support in the more traditional north-central region of KwaZulu-Natal, as the paired Wikipedia map posted below show. It performed particularly well in the municipality of Ulundi. The town of Ulundi was once the capital of the Zulu kingdom and later became the seat of the Bantustan (apartheid-era pseudo-country) of KwaZulu. In no other province did the Inkatha Freedom Party exceed one percent of the vote; in the western third of the country it received less than one tenth of one percent.

2024 South African Election IFP vote map

2024 South African Election KwaZulu-Natal Vote Map

The 2024 election results show that KwaZulu-Natal stands apart from the rest of South Africa, its voters more inclined to support parties that favor Zulu interest than those who focus on national issues. As the paired maps posted below show, the only municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal that did not give plurality support to one the two Zulu nationalist parties are demographically dominated by Xhosa speakers rather than Zulu speakers.

South Africa 2024 election KwaZulu-Natal vote map

But KwaZulu-Natal is not the only South African province that stands politically apart from the rest of the country. As the first map posted below shows, the African National Congress received a relatively low percentage of the vote in three provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape, and Gauteng.  Elsewhere, it took a majority or near-majority of the votes cast. As a result, I have divided South Africa into four electorally distinctive regions (see the final map below). Coming Geo-Currents posts will explore these patterns in greater detail.

South Africa 2024 election ANC vote map

South Africa electoral regions map

The Zulu Exception in South Africa’s 2024 General Election Read More »

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People

The civil war raging in Burma (Myanmar) is one of the world’s longest running conflicts, stretching back to 1948, the year of Burma’s independence from Britain. But as hostilities ebb and flow in both time and place, the current war is dated by some as only having begun in 2021, the year of the country’s most recent military coup and crackdown on civil society. But no matter how one measures it, this struggle is bloody and grim. According to the Wikipedia article on “ongoing armed conflicts,” the Burmese Civil War currently has the third highest death toll of 2023, following only the war in Ukraine and the insurgency in western Africa that stretches across more than a dozen countries. Almost 11,000 people have lost their lives this year alone, with a casualty count of perhaps more than 20,000* in 2022. But despite the ongoing and persistent carnage, this conflict rarely makes the news in the United States.

To follow the Burmese civil war, one can consult Burmese sources, available online in both Burmese and English. I especially recommend The Irrawaddy, produced by Burmese journalists in exile in Thailand. One of its most interesting recent articles highlights the importance of the country’s smallest state, Kayah (formerly Karenni), in successfully taking on the Tatmadaw, the brutal Burmese military. The article claims that resistance fighters in Kayah have killed 2,065 junta soldiers while losing only 153 of their own in the past two years. Leading the charge is the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF), which was formed shortly after the February 2021 coup. Some of its fighters had previously been affiliated with the Burmese military as border guards but switched sides after the military take-over. As The Irrawaddy notes, the “KNDF supports federalism, or power-sharing between the Union and state governments with self-determination and self-administration for ethnic states.” According to one recent report, the Burmese government currently controls only some ten percent of Kayah state (including its capital, Loikaw), with the rest of it either contested (20 percent) or under the control of insurgents (65 percent). If this report and others like it are true, the Wikipedia map posted below is highly inaccurate, or at least out of date, as it significantly exaggerates the extent of governmental control.

Despite the success of their military resistance, the people of Kayah (Karenni) State have experienced intense suffering over the past two and a half years. (For those interested, the assaults on their state are regularly tabulated and mapped in detail by the Karenni Civil Society Network; see the map below). According to one recent report from a different agency:

At least 180,000 Karenni people have been forcibly displaced, which is more than 40 percent of the estimated total Karenni population. …. Some families have been displaced multiple times, as IDP sites come under attack by junta forces. Based on legal analysis of the data collected, the report finds that members of the Burmese military have committed the war crimes of attacking civilians, attacking protected objects, pillaging, murder, torture, cruel treatment, and displacing civilians in Karenni State.

As is often tragically the case in Burma, extremist Buddhist monks have been encouraging military assaults and worse. According to a recent United States Institute of Peace report:

Under the hot sun, a Pa-O monk spoke to the rally and characterized the Karenni people as a lower race, describing the KNDF and the Peoples’ Defense Forces broadly as worse than the Islamic State. Another Pa-O monk called for the burning of Karenni villages if the KNDF did not stop the alleged violence, declaring: “They say it is not a religious war. But our three monks have died.” … These alarming speeches carried themes of ethnic hierarchy, Buddhist nationalism and zealous hatred.

Surprisingly, the “ethnic hierarchy” and “Buddhist nationalism” evident in this monk’s speech do not come in their usual form, which is associated with the majority Burman (Burmese-speaking) population and directed against Muslims and members of the so-called hill tribes. In this case, both the Karenni and their Po-O antagonists are historically regarded as “tribal peoples,” both belonging to the larger Karen ethno-linguistic group, at least as it is sometimes reckoned. But the Pa-O people are almost entirely Buddhist and have aligned closely with the Burmese military, which has pursued a “divide and rule” strategy among the country’s minority populations. The strategy had been largely successful before 2021 but is currently failing. The Karenni, in contrast, are religiously divided, with some following Buddhism, others Christianity (of several sects), and others traditional animism/shamanism. They are also, needless to say, firm opponent of the Burmese military.

The success of little Kayah State in resisting the Burmese military probably has roots in colonial history. Kayah was never integrated in British Burma and largely escaped British rule. In the 1870s, the Kingdom of Burma, having been reduced to a rump state after losing two wars against the British, was trying to expand into upland regions. Threatened by this policy, the tiny principalities of the Karenni people sought help from Britain, leading to an 1875 treaty between the United Kingdom and Burma that recognized their independence. In 1892, however, Karenni leaders agreed to accept a stipend from the British government in return for allowing it some local oversight. But domestic policies remained under the control of local leaders. As a result, the Karenni lands were usually mapped as not falling under direct British rule, the only part of Burma generally given that distinction (see the map below). A fascinating 1931 map, however, classified Karenni State as one of four regions in Burma that were “loosely” administered by the British Raj, with two others depicted as “unadministered” (see below). (Intriguingly, Karenni state was reportedly the world’s largest producer of tungsten in the 1930s; geologists affiliated with the Oxford Burma Project currently hope that political stabilization will eventually allow the reestablishment of extensive commercial mining there and elsewhere in mineral-rich Burma.)

As Burma was preparing for independence after World-War II, it sought to incorporate the Karenni states into its coming union. Its 1947 constitution insisted on the amalgamation of these small indigenous realms into one Burmese state, but also allowed the possibility of secession after a ten-year period. But with independence the following year, as tersely noted by the Wikipedia article on the state, “the Karenni leader U Bee Htu Re was assassinated by central government militia for his opposition to the inclusion of the Karenni in the Union of Burma. An armed uprising swept the state that has continued to the present day.”

Despite its formidable power, the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) does not seem to be doing well in the current conflict. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations claims that it has lost half or more of its troops since the 2021 coup, due to death, desertion, or defection, and that it has retreated on several fronts. The Tatmadaw is also evidently having difficulty filling the classes at its military academy. According to one report, the government now has stable control over only around twenty percent of the country’s townships. Due to recent military reversals, the Tatmadaw is now engaging in extensive air attacks, often directed against civilian targets. Such a strategy is of little military significance and greatly intensifies animosity against the regime.

The Council on Foreign Relations report mentioned above also contends that the Burmese government is facing growing international problems:

Even China, which has backed the junta and sees Myanmar as a strategically critical investment destination, is playing both sides of the fence. Beijing has continued to plow money into the country and supplied the military with weapons, despite its pariah status, and it has provided the junta with diplomatic cover at international forums. Yet it has also maintained links with the ethnic militias and their political wings, and its backing of Naypyidaw has grown more tepid as the army continues to lose ground. As for Russia, though it too has supplied the junta with arms, Moscow is facing its own obvious problems right now and may not be able to ship weapons abroad for long.

Due to these reversals, Burma’s military government may be reconsidering its strategy. Or perhaps not. Another article from the United States Institute of Peace nicely summarizes the current situation:

Are conciliatory winds stirring among the leaders of Myanmar’s coup regime, or is the junta engaging in deception and distraction as it struggles on the battlefield against a broad range of resistance forces? The answer is almost certainly the latter. It would not be the first time the ruling generals have sought to stimulate international interest in promoting dialogue solely to enhance their legitimacy abroad.

Successful Resistance Against the Regime of Burma (Myanmar) by the Karenni People Read More »

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey

The Republic of Türkiye (Turkey) is characterized by stark discrepancies in regional economic productivity. In 2021, nominal per capita GDP figures ranged from 153,479 Turkish Lira (17,089 US$) in Kocaeli Province, located east of Istanbul, to 26,837 Turkish Lira (2,988 US$) in Ağrı Province, located along Turkey’s eastern border. Although maps of Turkish per capita GDP by province are readily available, I made my own to highlight these regional disparities, accomplished mainly by using a two-color scheme.

The correlation between economic productivity and ethnicity in Turkey is close, at least on the low end of the spectrum. As can be seen by comparing the two posted above with that posted below, Turkey’s least economically productive provinces are all located in the primarily Kurdish southeast. The most economically productive provinces are concentrated on the other side of the country, in the northwest. This latter region includes both coastal provinces and provinces located in the northwestern quarter of the central Anatolian Plateau.

Historically, Turkey’s western coastal strip was much more productive than most of the rest of the country. Over the past several decades, however, a number of cities on the Anatolian Plateau have seen significant industrialization and rapid economic growth. Several have been deemed “Anatolian Tigers,” defined by Wikipedia as cities that “have displayed impressive growth records since the 1980s, as well as a defined breed of entrepreneurs rising in prominence and who can often be traced back to the cities in question and who generally rose from the status of small and medium enterprises.” Some of these “Tiger cities,” however, are located closer to the coast than the plateau. (The locations of the “Anatolian Tigers,” as defined by Wikipedia, are shown on one of the maps below.)

A comparison of the map of Turkish economic productivity with that of the 2023 presidential election (see the previous post) reveals some interesting connections. To illustrate these patterns more clearly, I have outlined in red the provinces that supported challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, superimposing them on the per capita GDP map.

As can be seen, a majority of the Turkey’s richer and poorer provinces supported Kılıçdaroğlu, whereas most of its mid-level provinces supported Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Closer analysis, however, reveals that other factors are more important than per capita GDP for understanding the election results. For example, Kocaeli, Turkey’s most economically productive province, supported Erdoğan, as did most of its prosperous northwestern neighboring provinces. Support for Kılıçdaroğlu in the poor southeast, moreover, is less a reflection of economic standing than of Kurdish ethnicity, as most Kurds reject Erdoğan’s pronounced and ethnically inflected Turkish nationalism.

An interesting exception to the general patterns of anti-Erdoğan sentiments in the southeast is Şanlıurfa, which is one of Turkey’s poorest provinces; it also has, according to Wikipedia, a Kurdish majority. Yet Şanlıurfa decisively supported Erdoğan, as it had in the past several elections. But Şanlıurfa is more ethnically mixed than the Wikipedia article on it indicates; a 1996 study found that it had a Kurdish plurality but not a majority. Şanlıurfa is home to a substantial Arab community, as well as a very large refugee population. As the paired set of maps post below shows, the Arabic-speaking part of Şanlıurfa voted overwhelmingly for Erdoğan. (The pattern is markedly different, however, in Turkey’s most heavily Arabic-speaking province, Hatay, as will be examined in a later post.)

Kılıçdaroğlu’s other main region of support was the far west and southwest, covering the European portion of Turkey and the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Historically, this was the wealthiest part of Turkey, and it has long been the most liberal and Western-oriented part of the country. It is not surprising, therefore, that it supported the more liberal and Western-oriented candidate.

As the upper map posted above shows, Erdoğan’s main bastions of support are located in the core Anatolian Plateau, with the important exception of those areas dominated by the Alevi religious minority, and the Black Sea coast. Much of this region has seen substantial economic growth and infrastructural investment under Erdoğan’s leadership, has long been noted for its more conservative interpretations of Turkish nationalism. Many of the districts along the eastern half of the Black Sea coast had been heavily populated by ethnic Greeks before the early 1920s; when the local Greeks were expelled, Turks moved in, many of whom had themselves been expelled from Greece at the same time. It is not surprising that the descendants of such people are noted for their pronounced Turkish nationalism.

Two important provinces in the western portion of the Anatolian plateau supported Kılıçdaroğlu the 2023 election. One is Ankara, where the national capital (of the same name) is located, and the other is Eskişehir, which is noted for its large and strong universities. It is not surprising that these more cosmopolitan provinces voted against Erdoğan. Yet both provinces, and that of Istanbul as well, supported Erdoğan in the 2018 election, when his opposition was divided (see the maps below). From 2018 to 2023, Erdoğa lost ground in major urban areas, along the southern Mediterranean coast, and in the far northeast (another area with large ethnic minorities). Yet his overall vote stayed roughly the same, indicating a solidification of support over the core Anatolian region. Kılıçdaroğlu’s Alevi faith may have played a significant role here.

Economic Disparities and Election Results in Turkey Read More »

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia

The current ethnographic map of the northern Caucasus mountains shows scattered groups of Circassian people, now numbering roughly 750,000 in Russia. In 1850, however, the Circassians occupied the entire northwestern quadrant of the Greater Caucasus range. But as the Circassians refused to submit to imperial Russian rule, the Russian military engaged in a campaign of displacement and extermination. As reported by Wikipedia, “The Circassian genocide, or Tsitsekun, was the Russian Empire’s systematic mass murder, ethnic cleansing, and expulsion of 80–97% of the Circassian population.”  Most of the few Circassians who managed to remain in their homeland were Kabardians, members of the easternmost of the twelve Circassian groups (or “tribes”). The western groups were essentially eliminated. As noted in a different Wikipedia article:

The Zhaney were a very powerful Circassian tribe in the past. They lived the north of the Natukhai tribe’s land on the coast of the Black Sea and Azov Sea in Eastern Europe. … As a result of the bloody Russian-Circassian War,  Zhaney tribe was almost wholly destroyed, as only 3 families survived.

After their genocide and expulsion, the Circassian people largely vanished from the historical memory of the West, just as “Circassia” disappeared from its maps. In earlier times, Circassia had been well-know and well-represented, appearing prominently on many maps. On a 1744 map of Asia by George Willdey, for example, “Circassia” is depicted as one of the primary divisions of the Asian continent. As it is difficult to see this representation on the map as it can be reproduced here, I have re-outlined and re-labeled Willdey’s divisions on the second map posted below.

Willdey’s map seems to be an outlier, as no others that I have seen give Circassia such a prominent position. But Circassia was often mapped as covering a large area – much larger, in fact, than the area occupied by Circassian people circa 1850. In a Latin-labeled map of 1716 by Johann Baptist Homann, for example, Circassia is shown as extending along the eastern shore of the Sea of Azov, covering much of the steppe zone north of the Caucasus Mountains. Intriguingly, Homann labels the area as a kingdom: “Circassia, seu Regio Circassiorum.” Similar patterns are seen on French-language maps of the same period. An uncolored Nicholas Guedeville map of 1718, for example, shows “Circassie” as extending from the Sea of Azov to the Caspian Sea. It excludes, however, part of the Circassian homeland along the Black Sea coast, labeling it instead as belonging to Abkazia (“Abcassie”).

Nineteenth-century depictions of Circassia typically exclude some of the northern lowland areas included on Homann’s and Guedeville’s maps, but cover most of the northern Caucasus and its lowland fringe, often extending to the Caspian Sea (see Woodbridge map of 1828 posted below). In an unusual French map of 1863, the coloring scheme depicts “Circassie” as a two-part region, interrupted by the lands of the Ossetian (“Ossetes”) people of the central Caucasus  Range. Maps published in the United States at the time often depicted an expanded Circassia, shown as extending from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea (see the detail from a Jacob Monk map of the world, published in Baltimore in 1859, that is posted below).

The geographical category of “Circassia” could even extend into the Black Sea itself. In a 1693 map by Vincenzo Coronelli, for example, the waters of the northwestern portion of the sea are labeled “Mare de Circassia Caucaseum”

By the late 1800s, however, the label “Circassia” had essentially disappears from maps made in Western Europe and the United States. Genocide, in other worlds, was followed by cartographic erasure, as will be explored in more detail in the next GeoCurrents post.

The Circassian Genocide and the Cartographic Erasure of Circassia Read More »

Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia is a clear example of an ethno-national state. According to its 2014 census, 86.8% of its people are ethnic Georgians. Ethnic Georgians are generally reckoned as those people who speak either Georgian or one of its sister Kartvelian languages (Mingrelian and Svan) as their mother tongue. Most ethnic Georgians identify with the Georgian Orthodox Church, although the Georgian-speaking Sunni Muslims of Adjara in the southwest are also included in the ethnic group. As the map posted below indicates, western Georgia (excluding the break-away state of Abkhazia) is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Georgians, whereas eastern and especially central Georgia are more diverse.

Of Georgia’s de facto lands, the south-central area has the largest non-ethnic-Georgian population. Most language maps of the country show four linguistically marked non-Georgian ethnic groups in this region: Azerbaijanis (or Azeris), Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. The latter three groups are of Christian heritage and the first is of Shia Muslim heritage. As was explored in a previous post, Georgia’s Azerbaijani population is essentially stable. It is a different story, however, for the country’s ethnic Russian, Greek, and Armenian communities. As a result of their decline, Georgia has become more ethnically Georgian than it was under Soviet rule, a process also propelled by the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ethnolinguistic mapping, however, has generally not kept pace with these changes.

As can be seen in the table posted below, Armenians and Russians together accounted for more than 20% of Georgia’s population in 1959. By 1989, however, their joint total had declined to a little over 14%. After independence, the Russian (and Ukrainian) population declined precipitously, dropping to less than 1% in 2014. The population of the Armenian community was roughly cut in half in the same period. The Greek population increased slightly between 1959 and 1989, but it too collapsed after independence in 1991. Most Greek communities in both Abkhazia and south-central Georgia migrated at this time to Greece.

Georgia’s Armenian population is concentrated in the south-central part of the country, although Tbilisi still has a substantial community. As can be seen on the map below, two municipalities in the south-center have large Armenian majorities, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, which are partly located on the sparsely populated Javakheti Plateau. The reduction of Georgia’s Armenian population is related both to local ethnic tensions and to strains between Georgia and Armenia, which are of relatively long-standing. In 1918, the two countries fought an inconclusive border war when they enjoyed a brief period of independence after the fall of Russian Empire. At that time, the large Armenian community in Tbilisi was subjected to various forms of persecution. (In the nineteenth century, Tbilisi had an Armenian plurality.) Since independence in 1991, relations between the two countries have been reasonably good. They are complicated, however, by both Armenia’s military alliance with Russia, which supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by Georgia’s close ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main adversaries.

A Wikipedia article outline some of the more specific sources of ethnic tensions in south-central Georgia:

Tensions in Samtskhe–Javakheti have run high at times. One reason is based in the official Georgian language policy that does, officially, not allow the Armenian Language to be used in public or administrative offices, even if citizen and officer speak better Armenian than Georgian.

Some Armenian political groupings of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, among them most notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), claim that Javakhk (the Armenian name for Javakheti) should belong to Armenia,United Armenia shall include all territories designated as Armenia by the Treaty of Sevres as well as the regions of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabkh), Javakhk (Armenian name for Javakheti), and Nakhchivan. However, Javakhk (Javakheti) is not officially claimed by the government of Armenia.

Ethnic Russians in Georgia have historically been concentrated in urban areas, and therefore have a minor presence on language maps of the country. The Russian-speaking area that does appear on maps is found in the now overwhelmingly Armenian-speaking municipality of Ninotsminda. Most of the Russians in this area were Doukhobours, members of a pacifist and long-persecuted religious sect that rejects the Russian Orthodox priesthood and its rituals. The Doukhobours initially settled in the region in the 1840s. Many subsequently moved to Canada, but others remained. In Ninotsminda, they enjoyed relatively “favorable conditions” according to the Wikipedia article on the municipality. After the independence of Georgia, however, most of them abandoned their homes and moved to Russia.

Over the past decade, the population flow between Georgia and Russia has reversed as ethnic Russian now move to Georgia to escape the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Vladimir Putin. According to the official BusinessSetupGeorgia website, “in 2015, the highest number of immigrants in Georgia came from Russia, with a total of 92,937.” This movement accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Over the next year, more than 100,000 Russians relocated to Ukraine, mostly young men seeking to avoid military service. It remains to be seen whether most of them will remain in Georgia. It is also unclear what effects they are having on the country. According to a VOA article, their presence, along with the money that they carried in, have resulted in an unexpected economic boom, while also driving up rents into Tbilisi. Many Georgians welcome these refugees, sympathizing with their plight and appreciating their technical and economic talents. An article in France 24, however, claims that Russian emigres have found a “bleak new home,” arguing that they have not always been welcomed by local residents.

Many of the former ethnic Greeks of Georgia lived in cities and towns in the Black Sea region, particularly in Abkhazia. Another sizable population, visible on the maps posted above, resided in Tsalka municipality in the south-central region. In 1991, ethnic Greeks constituted roughly three-quarters of the population of the town of Tsalka and its environs. Most of their ancestors had fled the Ottoman Empire and were given refuge by the Russian Empire in semi-depopulated areas. Although identifying as Greek due to their heritage and faith, many if most of these people, known as Urums, actually spoke Turkish (see this 2012 GeoCurrents post on the Urum people). After independence, most members of this Greek community relocated to northern Greece. Some, however, attempted to returned to Tsalka, but found their houses reoccupied, generating another round of ethnic tension.

Religion often trumps language in the generation and maintenance of ethnic identity, as the case of the Turkish-speaking Greek Urums  demonstrates. But in Georgia, ethnic tensions seem to have been more intense among communities divided by language and national origin but united by faith.* Why this should be so deserves further investigation.

*The people in question do not, however, all belong to the same religious branch. The Georgian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches are in in communion with each other. That is not the case, however, with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the so-called Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity. Many Armenians in Georgia, moreover, belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which is under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia Read More »

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection?

The Kurdish national myth links the origin of the ethnic group to the ancient Medes, an Iranian people who supposedly carved out a large empire that was quickly supplanted by that of the much better-known (and closely related) Persians in the 6th century BCE. As the Wikipedia article on the Kurds notes:

Many Kurds consider themselves descended from the Medes, an ancient Iranian people, and even use a calendar dating from 612 BC, when the Assyrian capital of Nineveh was conquered by the Medes. The claimed Median descent is reflected in the words of the Kurdish national anthem: “We are the children of the Medes and Kai Khosrow.”

Few if any scholars give credence to this theory. The poorly documented language of the ancient Medes does seem to have been closely related to Kurdish, with both languages placed on the Northwestern side-branch of the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language tree. But the Median language does not seem to be any more closely related to Kurdish that it is to any of the other modern languages on the same branch. More to the point, historians increasingly doubt whether the Medes ever created a coherent state, let alone a vast empire. What little is known about their political organization comes from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, with Assyrian cuneiform archives providing a little additional information. Herodotus certainly assigned a prominent position to the Medes, but otherwise evidence about their geopolitical role is essentially lacking.

The Kurdish emphasis on their supposed Median progenitors is not surprising. In ethno-nationalist discourse, powerful and illustrious peoples from bygone eras are often enshrined in an ancestral position to bolster feelings of national pride. Such self-serving stories usually have little historical support and are therefore regarded with suspicion or outright contempt by most impartial scholars.

But if there is no solid evidence that the Kurds are the descendants of the ancient Meads, that does not necessarily mean that they have no cultural, historical, or genetic roots in ancient ethnic formations. Scholarship on such topics is often precarious, however, as the evidence is generally murky and national ideologies tend to intrude. But as long as they are based on some reasonable evidence, such “primordialist” ideas should not be rejected out of hand. Many of them warrant further inquiry, regardless of whether they seem farfetched.

To my mind, the most intriguing thesis on ancient Kurdish roots is found in the early works of Michael Mehrdad Izadi, one of the world’s most preeminent historical and cultural cartographers (his map collection, found at Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, is a cartographic treasure trove). Born to a Kurdish father and Belgian mother, Izadi has deep and abiding interests in the Kurdish people. Some of his early writings on this topic can be found at Kurdistanica.com. Here he expounds his thesis of partial Kurdish descent from the ancient Hurrians, a Bronze-Age people who were associated with a powerful state (or empire) called Mitanni. Although the Hurrians, unlike the Kurds, were not an Indo-European people, some of their leaders, experts in chariot warfare, evidently were; their personal names, and even some of their deities, link them to the Indic (or Indo-Aryan) branch of Indo-European language family.

If Izady’s thesis is correct, the Kurds would have originated from an amalgamation of the ancient Hurrians and more powerful, mostly male, Indo-European-speaking intruders (initially speaking an Indo-Aryan language and later speaking one or more Iranian language). In global historical terms, this scenario fits into a common pattern. The languages of more military powerful peoples often supplant those of less powerful peoples, but other cultural aspects of the original group often survive with relatively little change. This is what Izady sees when he peers into the distant Kurdish past:

The legacy of the Hurrians to the present culture of the Kurds is fundamental. It is manifest in the realm of Kurdish religion, mythology, material and martial arts, and even the genetics. Nearly three-quarters of Kurdish clan names and roughly half of topographical and urban names are also of Hurrian origins, ….  Mythological and religious symbols present in the art of the later Hurrian dynasties, such as the Mannaeans and Kassites of eastern Kurdistan, and the Lullus of the southeast, present in part what can still be observed in the Kurdish ancient religion of Yazdanism, better-known today by its various denominations as Alevism, Yezidism,and Yarisanism (Ahl-i Haqq).

Izady’s interpretation of Kurdish origins and religious beliefs, it must be noted, has been rejected by many experts in the field. The Wikipedia article on Izady includes some crudely dismissive comments, albeit made by some equally controversial scholars. In the long run, it is usually best to neither embrace nor dismiss evidence-based but non-mainstream interpretations of deep historical processes. Most of our key theories in both the natural and human sciences, after all, were once roundly rejected for contravening the established consensus.

When the language of an elite population replaces the language of a subordinated group, traces of the older language often persist in the form of vocabulary elements, sounds, and even grammatical structures. If Izady’s thesis is correct, one might expect to find such a Hurrian “substratatum” in the modern Kurdish language(s) (or, more precisely, a Hurro-Urartian substratum, as Hurrian’s only known relative was the language of the Iron Age Kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey and Armenia). As it turns out, evidence does exist for such linguistic traces. Several years ago, the blogsite Within the Lands of Kurda ran a three-part series on this topic, entitled “The Hurro-Urartian Substratum in Kurdish.” Each of these posts is worth quoting:

It has long been shown by scholars that significant portion of Kurdish toponymy originates from Hurro-Urartian; examples are ”Barzani” which was name of a Hurrian god …

Indeed, there are hardly any cases where there is not a ”native” [i.e. Hurro-Urartian] Kurdish equivalent for the superimposed Irano-Kurdish words.

As can be seen, Kurdish language appears to be a creole language formed after an amalgamation of Hurro-Urartian and Iranic languages. The Hurro-Urartian layer, showing itself as an older substratum in which Urartian is stronger, while the Iranic layer, which began undoubtedly with the Scytho-Cimmerian invasion of Urartu emerges as a superstratum. The Iranic layer was further intensified with a wave of clearly identifiable Middle Persian loanwords under the Sassanid period, during which, Iranic aristocrats played a prominent role in local affairs

The author received some harsh criticism, however, in the comments section of the blog, particularly regarding the idea that Kurdish is a creole language. Linguists have very strict rules for determining such matters, and the author probably took a step too far. All that I can conclude from my own cursory investigation is that a major Hurrian-Urartian substratum in Kurdish as an intriguing possibility that deserves further inquiry.

Perhaps the most interesting line of evidence for the Hurrian roots of the Kurdish people comes from the realm of tattooing. Tattoos are haram, or forbidden under Islamic law, but Muslim Kurds – particularly women – have nonetheless maintained this ancient practice to this day, although it does seem to be slowly disappearing. Traditional Kurdish tattoos, primarily placed on the hands and face, are called deq. They are based on an elaborate symbolic system, sometimes deemed a “secret language.” Izady sees a clear Hurrian linkage here as well:

It is fascinating to recognize the origin of many tattooing motifs still used by the traditional Kurds on their bodies as replicas of those which appear on the Hurrian figurines. One such is the combination that incorporates serpent, sun disc, dog and comb/rain motifs. In fact, some of these Hurrian tattoo motifs are also present in the religious decorative arts of the Yezidi Kurds, as found prominently engraved to the wall at the great shrine at Lalish.

Regardless of any connections to the ancient Hurrians, deq tattooing is a fascinating topic in its own right. Several recent articles have focused on this endangered cultural tradition. I will  conclude this post with quotations from two of these publications. First, from The Bajer:

DEQ is a secret language, mainly among women. … In some cultures, tattoos stand for religion, power, and joy; others believe the practice of DEQ has therapeutic power. According to some women I have interviewed, DEQ is a reminder of loss, a way to immortalize their loved ones. They keep essential memories constantly in mind with powerful symbols on apparent parts of the body, such as the face, feet, arms, hands, and chest.

DEQ differs from the modern tattoo with its unique ingredients and recipe, which varies across different ethnic groups. DEQ tattoo ingredients include sheet metal soot or ash, coal dust, milk from a lactating mother who has weaned a female baby, which is believed to make the tattoo stick permanently, and liquid from an animal’s gallbladder. The application of DEQ includes embroidering the mixture into the skin through one to three needles.

Second, from Daily Sabah:

Deq symbols have different connotations but most of them are believed to protect women from evil forces. They are said to bring good health, cure illnesses and be associated with fertility and tribal affiliations. The figure of an eye is said to divert the evil eye, while an image of a gazelle brings luck. The figure of the sun or the moon refers to an endless and healthy life and an illustration of a millipede is associated with good housekeeping. For beautification, the figure of the moon or a star is preferred. The common “V” symbol is a tribal identifier. Certain geometrical figures or animal images refer to fertility. “Deq” is seen as an accessory, something that elderly women in Turkey’s southeast proudly show. Jodi Hilton, an American photojournalist, visited Syrians who have been displaced by the DAESH [ISIS] siege and now live at refugee camps in Turkey. There, she documented some of the last-remaining tattooed women from the Syrian town of Kobani.

Are the Kurds Linked to the Bronze-Age Hurrians? Is Tattooing Evidence of This Connection? Read More »

The Precocious Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Tragic Love Story of Mem and Zin

In the massive scholarly literature on nationalism, a distinction is made between “modernist” and “primordialism” interpretations of the phenomenon. Scholars adhering to the former camp, who constitute the majority, generally argue that nationalism did not emerge until the late 18th century (with the French Revolution) or the early 19th century (with the rise of nationalistic romanticism). Some writers in the latter group, in contrast, argue that nationalistic sentiments can be dated as far back as ancient times, when they were supposedly found among such peoples as the Egyptians and the Israelites. (I have always found this debate somewhat sterile: some aspects of nationalism are indeed of long standing, but nationalism as a coherent discourse emerged more recently.) Almost all scholars agree that modern nationalism emerged in the West. Most trace its origin to Europe, although Benedict Anderson, arguably the most influential scholar on the topic, located its genesis primarily in Latin America. Despite the celebration that his work received, Anderson remained frustrated that other scholars tended to bypass his thesis on Latin America.

One particular form of nationalism, which we might call “state-seeking ethnonationalism,” is almost always traced to Central and Eastern Europe. In this formation, a stateless group of people with a common language and culture seeks to create its own country, either by uniting small states into a much larger ethnic union or by seceding from one or more multilingual empires to establish a new ethnonational state. In Europe, the Germans and Italians are commonly viewed as having pioneered this approach to nation-state formation. After Germany and Italy emerged as states circa 1870, and handful of ethnic groups located further to the east struggled for decades to create their own ethnonational countries. This process began to reach fruition after WW I, with the dismantling of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, and was finally completed (in Europe at least) after the Cold War, which saw the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.

The national history of the Kurdish people, however, tells a different story, as ethnonational consciousness in some form seems to date back at least to the late 17th century. The Kurds at the time were divided between the multicultural Ottoman and Persian empires. Both empires were decentralized by modern standards, and several hereditary Kurdish statelets (emirates, or principalities) enjoyed considerable autonomy, especially in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But despite such local self-rule, the Kurds lacked anything like a state of their own, and some Kurdish intellectuals chafed under their subordination to the imperial rule of other peoples. As a result, an inchoate form of state-seeking Kurdish ethno-nationalism does seem to be traceable to the early modern period.

The key figure in early Kurdish nationalism was Ehmedê Xanî‎ (or Ahmad Khani), a poet, Sufi mystic, and intellectual, who lived from 1650 to 1707. His tragic love story, Mem and Zin (Mem û Zîn) is often regarded as the key work of classical Kurdish literature, and has even been deemed a “consecrated Kurdish national epic.” Based on a true story from the fifteenth century, Mem and Zin centers on two ill-fated lovers from rival clans, and thus bears superficial resemblance to Romeo and Juliet. The inability of the two protagonists to unite in life is usually interpreted as an allegory of the inability of the Kurds to unite and thus gain freedom from their imperial overlords.  One verse from Mem and Zin has been singled out as the quintessential statement of thwarted Kurdish national longings: If we had unity among ourselves, if we all, together, obeyed one another, the Turks, the Arabs, and the Persians would one and all be in our servitude.”

In an insightful analysis of the poem, Michiel Leezenberg argues that its nationalistic aspects were not enshrined and the Kurdish political imagination until the late 19th century, thus giving it a somewhat modernist gloss. Previously, Mem and Zin had been valued mostly for its expression of mystical love. But regardless of how the poem was interpreted in early periods, it does seem clear that Xanî himself was a devoted (proto?) nationalist. Considering the current division of Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, as well as the lack of unity among the Kurdish people, Xanî‎’s vision seems more relevant today than ever.

In 1992, Mem and Zin was made into a motion picture in Turkey, although it had to be filmed in Turkish because the Kurdish language was at the time illegal in the country’s public’s sphere. In 2002, it finally came to the screen in the Kurdish (Kurmanji) language, filmed as a miniseries by Kurdistan TV (based in Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan). According to director Nasir Hassan, it was “the most substantial and the most sophisticated artistic work ever done in Kurdistan, … using a crew of more than 1000 people and 250 actors.”

Despite Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish nationalism, it allowed and indeed supported the restoration of the mausoleum of the two historical lovers. According to one source, a staggering 1 trillion Turkish lira (650 million US dollars) was devoted to this Mem and Zin project. As reported by a local mayor who helped guide the restoration, “By restoring a historical piece that has become a ruin, we hope to contribute to tourism and pass it on to the next generations.”

The hope that the restored mausoleum would attract international as well as domestic tourists has apparently not been in vain. In August 2022, a Turkish newspaper reported with some excitement that a Chinese couple had recently paid their respects. The Chinese man, a Muslim convert named Nurettin Dong, has pledged to bring the story of Mem and Zin to China. As he put it, “I translated 2,500 couplets to Chinese. I am excited this will lead to greater recognition of this work.”

The mausoleum of Mem and Zin is located near the Turkish city of Cizre, just north of the Syrian border and not far from that of Iraq. A one-time center of Kurdish culture, as the capital of the autonomous emirate of Bohtan (see the second map below), Cizre has seen its share of tragedy. As summarized by the Wikipedia article on the city:

Under Ottoman control, Cizre stagnated and was left as a small district centre dominated by ruins by the end of the 19th century. The city’s decline continued, exacerbated by the state-orchestrated destruction of its Christian population in the Armenian and Assyrian genocides in 1915, and exodus of its Jewish population to Israel in 1951. It began to recover in the second half of the 20th century through urban redevelopment, and its population saw a massive increase as a place of refuge from 1984 onwards as many fled the Kurdish-Turkish conflict. At the close of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century, Cizre has emerged as a battleground between Kurdish militants and the Turkish state, which inflicted significant devastation on the city to retain control.

If Kurdish nationalism can be said to date back to the 17th century, the Kurdish nation itself –stateless though it still is – may have far deeper roots. We will look at this intriguing primordialist interpretation in the next GeoCurrents post

The Precocious Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Tragic Love Story of Mem and Zin Read More »

Grim News from Kurdistan

Recent news from Kurdistan – often regarded as forming the world’s largest “nation without a state” – has been bleak. Protesting Iranian Kurds have been under attack from their own government, as have many other Iranians. Iran has also launched assaults on the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, which it accuses of harboring Iranian Kurdish insurgents in the rugged borderlands between the two countries. The Turkish government has been attacking its own Kurdish insurgents in the same mountains. These strikes are not precisely targeted and have killed a number of civilians. Turkey (Türkiye, officially) has also been launching attacks against Kurdish forces in the Kurdish-led autonomous region of Rojava in northeastern Syria, and has been indicating for some time that an outright invasion might be forthcoming.

The situation in Rojava is becoming precarious. Rojava, an autonomous region that is nominally part of Syria, is a unique experiment in political organization. It first emerged in 2012, just after the “Arab Spring” uprisings, and gained control over substantial territories a few years later as its militias drove out the forces of ISIS (ISIL/Daesh), with help from the U.S. military. Although largely Kurdish-led, Rojava is an explicitly multi-cultural and multi-linguistic polity, with Kurmanji Kurdish, Arabic, Syriac, Turkish, and Adyghe (or West Circassian) all serving in an official capacity in all or part of the region. Rojava is highly decentralized, divided into seven semi-autonomous regions, or cantons. Its governance is based of what might be called “bottom-up libertarian socialism.” As the Wikipedia article on the region notes in one breathless sentence:

The supporters of the region’s administration state that it is an officially secular polity with direct democratic ambitions based on an anarchist, feminist, and libertarian socialist ideology promoting decentralization, gender equity, equality, environmental sustainability, social ecology and pluralistic tolerance for religious cultural and political diversity, and that these values are mirrored in its constitution, society, and politics, stating it to be a model for a federalize Syria  as a whole, rather than outright independence.

This unparalleled political system is based on the ideas of Murray Bookchin, an American environmental writer and political theorist who died in 2006. Bookchin’s theories were adopted and reinterpreted in the early 2000s by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant organization of Kurds in Turkey, officially classified as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the EU, and the United States.) During the Cold War, Öcalan and his followers adhered to Marxism-Leninism and sought to create an independent Kurdish state. After abandoning authoritarian leftism, Öcalan turned instead to the equally left-wing but decidedly libertarian vision of Bookchin, melding it with several reformulated traditional Kurdish socio-cultural practices. At the same time, the PKK abandoned its goal of outright independence, seeking instead mere Kurdish political autonomy. Many experts think that it has also rejected the tactics of terrorism, and hence no longer deserves the “terrorist” designation.

Whether Rojava’s idealistic system of governance can work in practice is an open question. I was certainly skeptical when I first learned of its existence. But the leaders of Rojava have been employing it for a decade, and evidently with some success. To be sure, they have been subjected to harsh criticism, with some writers claiming that they have authoritarian tendencies of their own and favor Kurds over members of other ethnic groups. The “Libertarian Communist” website libcom.org goes so far as to condemn Rojava as a fraudulent revolutionary organization that has allied itself with the Syrian Assad regime, Russia, and the United States – viscously attacking it, in effect, for doing what has been necessary for its own survival. Overall, what I find remarkable is how little actual reporting has been done on this intriguing political experiment. Considering Rojava’s de facto alliance with the United States, the possibility of an ISIS resurgence in the region, and the existential threat to region’s autonomy posed by the Turkish military, one might expect Western journalists to be keenly interested in what is happening there. But this is not the case. The world at large seems oddly unconcerned about Rojava and its travails.

Rojava’s leaders are worried that their regional autonomy and security might be sacrificed by the United States in the interest of maintaining its own alliance with Turkey, a fellow NATO member. As they point out, Rojava already lost a large strip of land after the Trump Administration acquiesced to the Turkish military occupation of part of northeastern Syria in 2019. A weakened Rojava was also forced into a power-sharing arrangement with the official Syrian regime over most of its northern lands (see the map below). This could hardly have been an easy compromise: in earlier years, Syria’s Assad regime had denied citizenship to many if not most of the country’s Kurdish residents, based on its ideology of Arab nationalism and supremacy.

Although the United States has condemned recent Turkish incursions into Rojava, many residents of the region feel betrayed by the U.S. and the West more generally. As Nadine Maenza recently tweeted, “Turkey is targeting the very people that destroyed the ISIS caliphate, losing 11,000 lives so the United States did not have to put boots on the ground.” This sense of betrayal is a common motif in Kurdish historical thought – and for good reason. As early as 1919, U.S. diplomats offered some support for Kurdistan, including a proposal for an autonomous and eventually independent Kurdish state in what is now southeastern Turkey (see the map below), but they have never followed through. Since 1991, the Kurds of Iraq have generally upheld American political interests in the region, sacrificing many lives in the process. Although a few U.S. politicians, including New York Senator Chuck Schumer, have offered some support for Kurdish independence, the State Department remains deeply hostile to the idea, and the U.S. government more generally prioritizes its alliance with Turkey.

One of the biggest problems confronting Kurdish political aspirations has been their own lack of unity. Although the Kurds of northern Iraq have their own autonomous region that verges on independence, it remains geographically divided along the lines of political party, clan leadership, and dialect/language. In the mid 1990s, the Talabani-led, Sorani Kurdish-speaking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan fought a civil war against the Barzani-led, Kurmanji Kurdish-speaking Kurdish Democratic Party (see the maps below). Although this division was soon patched up, with U.S. help, the two sub-regions of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish polity often find themselves at loggerheads. In 2017, the Kurdish peshmerga military had to retreat from Kirkuk, a city commonly deemed the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” and allow the Baghdad government to regain control. This humiliating withdrawal reportedly occurred after the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan covertly pulled out from the operation, reportedly in connivance with Iran. In the process, the Iranian position in Iraq was strengthened, harming U.S. interests. As the Institute for the Study of War reported at the time,

The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk.

The deeper problems in Iraqi Kurdistan these days seem to stem more from political corruption and mismanagement than from internal conflict. A hard-hitting article from Kurdistan Source focuses on the recent surge of migrants out of Iraqi Kurdistan, blaming it largely on misgovernance. As the author writes

The new model [of governance] is premised on high taxation, aggressive privatisation, authoritarian governance, and eliminating nearly all social welfare. Since 2019, while household income and industrial output have stagnated, the government has increased taxes and service bills by 400% to over 1000%. This has led to nearly 70% of the region’s factories closing within just two years. While on paper, the new model is supposed to encourage private-sector driven growth, in reality, most entrepreneurs and private enterprises are driven out of business by the creation of hurdles. The majority of businesses I have talked to believe the government wants to drive them out of business to help certain companies monopolise each sector. These potential monopolies are often owned by members of the two ruling families* or people close to them.

The Kurdish tragedy will be explored in more detail in coming posts.

 

* Meaning the Barzani and Talabani clans.

Grim News from Kurdistan Read More »

The Paradoxical Position of Bahia in the Brazilian National Imagination

Northeast Brazil has the highest percentage of people with African ancestry in the country. But due to the way that race is classified in Brazil (see the previous post), most of the region’s inhabitants are classified as Pardo, “brown,” or of mixed race. According to official statistics, the northeast’s Black population is relatively small and is significantly outnumbered by its white population (see the second map below). Of Brazil’s northeastern states, Bahia has the highest percentage of Blacks and the lowest percentage whites. Most enslaved Africans brought to Brazil arrived in Bahia, and as a result the state has long had a disproportionately African population. But even in Bahia, whites outnumber Blacks, at least according to official statistics. On the detailed map of racial distribution posted below, only one municipality in Bahia is depicted as having a Black plurality.

Bahia occupies a distinctive and in many ways paradoxical position in the Brazilian national consciousness. It has long been celebrated as Brazil’s site of origin, with its main city, Salvador, having served as the capital of colonial Brazil until 1763. Salvador is famed today for its colonial architecture and is an important tourist destination. But Bahia has also long been disparaged by Euro-Brazilians for its African cultural practices and its large Black population. On a map of Brazilian regional stereotypes (below), Bahia is marked as a land of “Black Witchcraft.” The Urban Dictionary defines the word “Baiano” first as “a person from the state of Bahia” and second as “a derogatory term for a poor, colored, or poorly educated Brazilian (used analogous to the English word n****r*).” According to my Brazilian friends, the second definition is most often used in São Paulo, where many poor Baianos work in construction and in other difficult and dirty jobs.

But the position of Bahia in Brazil’s national imagination is more complicated still. The state is also celebrated for many of its cultural practices that have spread to the rest of the country, centered on music, dance, religion, and cuisine. Such Afro-Brazilian cultural features as samba, candomblé, and capoeira are associated with Bahia but are now often viewed as essential aspects of Brazil itself. On the map of Brazilian regional stereotypes, Bahia is also noted as the land of samba. Many writers have remarked on Bahia’s paradoxical position. According to Anadelia Romo, Bahia is “alternately romanticized and denigrated, it has served both as a cradle of Brazilian national identity and as an embarrassing symbol of Brazilian backwardness.” Similarly, Livio Sansone writes:

[T]his is just part of the paradox: the counterpole of [Bahia’s] political weakness is the prestige and vivacity of Afro-Bahian culture. This is a culture that at times enjoys plenty of official recognition – mostly as regard to the religious dimension (the Afro-Catholic candomblé religious system) cuisine, and music – but which has a major role in the public image of Brazil and Brazilianess at home and abroad…”

Such contrasting images of Bahia have evidently obscured several important characteristics of the state. Annadelia Romo further argues that Bahia has often been misleadingly depicted as a “living museum.” As she writes, “to see Bahia as inherently, essentially rooted in Africa ignores a creative and important process of cultural grafting that has been at work over the course of the 20th century. To see Bahia as a cultural preserve is to see it as static whereas Bahian culture has been anything but.” Scott Ickes focuses instead on the socio-economic aspects the Bahian paradox. As he argues, “Newfound acceptance of these [Bahian Afro-Brazilian] customs was a democratic move forward, but it also perpetuated the political and economic marginalization of the black majority.”

The common stereotypes of Bahia, both positive and negative, pertain most closely to the state’s more densely populated eastern coastal region. Bahia’s deep interior is distinctive in many ways. Far western Bahia, for example, is part of the Brazilian boom zone of highly mechanized agriculture. The city of Barreiras, at the heart of this farming frontier, is rarely discussed either in or outside of Brazil. But as the Wikipedia article on the municipality notes:

In recent years [Barreiras] has experienced an economic boom and is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state of Bahia if not in Brazil. … From the decade of the 1970s to the present, the municipality has gone from 20,864 inhabitants to 120,000 and undergone important transformations. It has received public and private investments that have modified the social and economic profile. After 1990, the intense agricultural activity has caused changes in practically all the economic and social sectors. … Irrigation, the level terrain, and the dry climate with well-defined dry and rainy seasons have made Barreiras a leader in agriculture. … Going along with the development of agriculture, traditional cattle raising gave way in the 1990s to the use of high technology …

Needless to say, this depiction has little connection with the ways in which Bahia is commonly imagined in Brazil. But Bahia is a huge state, significantly larger than California. And as is the case in Bahia, most parts of California also fail to match the stereotypical vision of the state.

*Astoundingly, this slur word is spelled out in the Urban Dictionary.

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Amazonian Deforestation, Support for Bolsonaro, and the Roraima Mystery

In the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, the Amazonian region was strikingly divided, as is clearly visible on the Globo map posted below. (I have added an oval and two terms on the map to mark Roraima and the Amazonian region.) Most municipalities (similar to U.S. counties) here strongly supported one candidate or the other. Bolsonaro’s zone of support lies to the south of the Amazon River, but has a distinct northern outlier in the state of Roraima. In contrast, in the large state of Amazonas in the northwest, Lula da Silva received more than 60 percent of the vote in almost every municipality. The main exception was the capital city of Manaus (population 2.2 million), where Bolsonaro took 61 percent of the vote.

The electoral divide in the Amazonian region is easily explained by economic and demographic factors. As noted in a recent Mongabay headline, “Bolsonaro loses election but finds big support in Amazon Arc of Deforestation.” The Amazonian areas won by Bolsonaro have seen extensive forest clearance and now have economies based on agriculture, grazing, and artisanal (and often illegal) mining. As people stream into these areas from other parts of Brazil, pressure for further deforestation grows. As Bolsonaro, unlike Lula, is a champion of forest clearance and mining, his high level of support in these areas is not surprising. As noted by Mongabay writer André Schröder:

Experts don’t see the result as surprising since a large part of the population in this part of the territory doesn’t consider deforestation to be illegal. “Land invaders, loggers, ranchers and gold miners want a full license to occupy the Amazon territory. And Bolsonaro is not against that,” Beto Veríssimo, researcher and co-founder of the Brazilian conservation nonprofit Imazon, told Mongabay by phone. Voters from those municipalities benefit from politicians who promise not to fight illegal activities, according to Veríssimo.

 

 

The partially deforested, Bolsonaro-voting zone of the southern Amazon is also characterized by high rates of violent crime, as can be seen on the homicide map posted below. Force is often used here to seize land and settle disputes. In such an environment, many voters support Bolsonaro’s policies that allowed widespread gun ownership. In Brazil as a whole, however, roughly two-thirds of the people oppose these measures.

In the Amazonian heartland state of Amazonas, in contrast, relatively little deforestation has occurred. Here most rural people derive their livelihoods primarily from the natural environment and small-scale horticulture. Such areas strongly supported Lula, who significantly reduced the pace of deforestation when he was president in the early 2000s. As noted in a Guardian article, Amazonian municipalities with large number of indigenous people also voted heavily for Lula, as would be expected.

The Brazilian state that gave the highest percentage of its votes to Bolsonaro (76 percent) is Roraima, located in the northern Amazonian region on the border with Venezuela and Guyana. The natural vegetation of Roraima is a mixture of savannah and rainforest, both of which have seen extensive agricultural conversion. Illegal mining is also widespread – and environmentally destructive. Roraima, the least populated Brazilian state, has seen explosive growth in recent decades, its population rising from 79,000 in 1980 to 631,000 in 2020. As can be seen on the paired maps below, only one municipality in Roraima supported Lula in 2022; not coincidentally, it has an overwhelmingly indigenous population. But the state’s other northern municipalities also have indigenous majorities or pluralities, yet they voted for Bolsonaro.

 

 

The electoral victory of Bolsonaro in the indigenous-majority municipalities of northern Roraima is not easily explained. An interesting graphic in The Guardian notes this oddity (posted above) but offers no explanation. A recent Al Jazeera article reports, unsurprisingly, that indigenous leaders in the state see Bolsonaro as a threat and have strongly supported Lula. The article also claims that the indigenous residents of Roraima have not received any benefits from the mining boom. As the author, writing before the election, notes:

If re-elected with enough support in Congress, Bolsonaro could try to push through his long-planned bill to allow mining and other industrial activities on Indigenous lands. As is the case with many Indigenous territories, official requests from companies to mine in Raposa Serra do Sol, including proposals for both gold and diamond mines, have increased since Bolsonaro took office, according to data compiled by the monitoring group Amazonia Minada and seen by Al Jazeera.

“If Bolsonaro is re-elected, we will see a continuation of anti-Indigenous policies,” Antenor Vaz, a former coordinator with Brazil’s Indigenous agency Funai who now works as an independent consultant, told Al Jazeera. “Raposa Serra do Sol would face even more pressure from illegal gold miners, as well as large landowners from outside the reserve.”

 We thus encounter a mystery: why did most voters in heavily indigenous northern Roraima opt for Bolsonaro? Several possibilities come to mind. In Lula’s stronghold of northeastern Brazil, the 2022 election was marked by voter intimidation and suppression. Even the Federal Highway Police, allied with Bolsonaro, tried to delay or prevent people from reaching the polls. Could similar tactics explain the anomalous voting patterns of northern Roraima? I have seen no evidence of this, but my research has been limited. It is also possible that many indigenous people simply did not participate in the election, although Brazil does have compulsory voting.

It does seem that this apparent mystery deserves investigation by someone who knows more about Brazil, and Roraima, than I do.

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The Ethnic Roots of the War in Ethiopia and the Paradox of Tigrayan Ethnic Identity

The horrific and under-reported Tigray War in Ethiopia hinges largely on tensions between ethnolinguistic identity and national solidarity. Under both the Ethiopian monarchy during the Haile Selassie era (1930-1974) and the communist Derg regime (1974-1991), the government foregrounded the minority (30%) Amhara ethnic group and its Amharic language, pushing a harsh “Amharaization” program in many areas. Partly as a result, ethnic militias proliferated and eventually prevailed, toppling the brutal Derg government in 1991. Leading the fight was the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which represented the minority Tigrayan people, constituting only around six percent of Ethiopia’s population. The TPLF had allied with other insurgent groups in an umbrella group called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF). After coming to power in 1991, this formerly Marxist-Leninist organization revised its political stance, dropping communism in favor of center-left ethnic federalism. Ethiopia’s old provinces were soon wiped off the map as the country was re-divided into semi-autonomous regions defined primarily on ethnolinguistic grounds.

Ethiopia’s new government performed well. By the early 2000s the country was booming, posting the world’s third highest gains in per capita GDP between 2000 and 2018. But ethnic problems continued to plague Ethiopia. Smaller ethnolinguistic groups, concentrated in the southwest, were unsettled by being amalgamated with other groups in composite regions. This was a particular problem in the linguistically fractured region called Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples. Owing to such ethnic pressure, the Ethiopian government eventually created several new autonomous regions. Elsewhere, ethnic groups clashed over regional boundaries, and anger was provoked when the government tried to shift internal borders. Critics argued that Ethiopia was undermining itself by insistently politicizing ethnicity.

After coming to power 2018, prime minister Abiy Ahmed sought to reorient Ethiopia away from ethnic federalism and toward civic nationalism. In 2019 he disbanded the ruling multi-ethnic coalition, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Front (EPLF), replacing it with the non-ethnic Prosperity Party, which currently holds 454 out of 547 parliamentary seats. The Tigrayans were not pleased by this maneuver. They were already angered by their loss of prominent positions within the government and they now feared that they would eventually lose their regional political autonomy. As a result, they rebelled against the government in 2020, precipitating the current war.

The Tigrayan rebellion thus shows the continuing power of ethnic identity in multiethnic Ethiopia, as well as the relatively weakness of national bonds in many parts of the country. But the current conflict also ironically shows the limits of ethnolinguistic identity and the potential power of national bonding to unravel ethnic ties. The Tigrinya linguistic community that has historically underpinned Tigrayan ethnicity has long been spilt on geopolitical grounds, divided between Ethiopia and Eritrea ever since Italy successfully colonized the latter region in the late 1800s. Although Tigrinya speakers form a relatively small portion of Ethiopia’s population, they constitute roughly half of that of Eritrea, arguably forming the country’s dominant ethnic group. Most Tigrinya speakers in both countries also follow the same “Oriental” Orthodox Christian religion, although it was split into Ethiopian and Eritrean branches in 1991. Despite such cross-border ethnic ties, in the current conflict Eritrea is closely allied with the Ethiopian government against Ethiopia’s Tigrinya-speaking population. Eritrea has militarily occupied a small slice of Ethiopia’s Tigray Region and has reportedly attacked local people with brutality. No evidence of any pan-Tigrinya-speaking ethnic solidarity is readily available. In this case, it would seem that national identity has easily trumped language-based ethnic identity.

It is perilous to make such a claim, however, precisely because little information is available. Eritrea is one of the world’s most repressive and militarily dominated countries, sometimes put in the same category as North Korea. Its government has worked hard to generate a solid sense of Eritrean national identity and has perhaps succeeded. Its quest to do so was facilitated by its long war of independence against Ethiopia (1961-1991), followed by periodic border conflicts with the same country. But it must also be noted that many Eritreans chafe under their brutal government, prompting vast numbers to flee. As of 2016, an estimated 321,000 Eritrean refugees were living in Europe, with another half million in Ethiopia and Sudan, out of a total national population of roughly six million. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to come to any solid conclusions about ethnic and national identity in Eritrea.

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Iran’s Kurdish Population: Anti-Regime in the Northwest; Pro-Regime in the Northeast

Many maps of the current Iran protest movement have been published and posted, showing both cumulative and daily events. Although such maps are highly useful, the patterns that they indicate are not easily discerned. Protests have been happening in so many places that a map of their occurrences approximates a population density map of the country (see the excellent population density map by Michael Izady posted below). Close analysis, however, shows a distinct concentration of protests in the historically Kurdish region in northwestern Iran (see especially first map posted below). This is no surprise. Mahsa Amini was herself Kurdish, and Iran’s Kurdish population has long been noted for its relatively liberal and anti-regime sentiments.

Protests have been relatively sparse, however, in North Khorasan province in northeastern Iran, which is almost half Kurdish. North Khorasan is not part of historical Kurdistan; Kurds were deported from their homeland to this region in the early modern period by Safavid shahs who wanted their help in protecting their empire against Turkmen and Uzbek pastoral peoples from Central Asia. Evidently, pro-Kurdish and anti-regime sentiments are much less pronounced here than they are in the solidly Kurdish regions of the northwest. Population distribution probably plays a role. Although many of the Kurds in North Khorasan live in Kurdish villages, the province’s cities are ethnically mixed, counting many Farsi-speakers and Turkmens. This mixing has perhaps diminished ethnic identity among the region’s urban Kurds.

Electoral returns, however, indicate that deeper factors are at play. North Khorasan, like most of the rest of northeastern Iran, is a conservative area that gives most of its votes to hardline, pro-regime candidates. Reformist candidates would not do so poorly in this province if they received widespread support from the local Kurdish population. Posted below are three Wikipedia maps of relative fair Iranian presidential elections, all of which show moderate/reformist candidates winning in the historically Kurdish northwest yet doing poorly in heavily Kurdish North Khorasan. The 2001 map, which shows vote percentages at the district level, best illustrates this pattern. As can be seen, the most heavily Kurdish areas of the northwest gave more than 84 percent of their votes to Mohammad Khatami, the incumbent champion of relatively free expression, civil society, and a “dialogue among civilizations.” North Khorasan, however, gave Khatami fewer than 39 percent of its votes. Intriguingly, nearby areas to the south and east, with much smaller Kurdish populations, gave Khatami a significantly larger share of their votes.

The relative conservatism of Iran’s northeastern Kurds is an interesting phenomenon that has received little attention in the English-language literature. I can only wonder whether Iranian scholars, pundits, and political activists have examined it.

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

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

Tatarstan_location

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Tatars

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Expansion of Russia

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

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

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

Kazan Kremlin

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

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

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

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

 

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