Cultural Geography

How cultural differences, ranging from language and religion to sports and music, influence geographical patterns

Anti-Immigrant Violence and Organized Crime in Italy

On January 10, 2009, the front page of the New York Times carried an article entitled “Race Riots Grip Italian Town and Mafia Is Suspect.” In two days of violence, 53 people were injured, including 18 members of the police, 14 local residents, and 21 immigrants. Most of the immigrants involved in the riots were sub-Saharan Africans recruited to pick fruit in the citrus groves of Calabria, the “toe” of Italy. Working conditions in the orchards are reported to be dismal, with immigrants often being cheated out of their meager wages. Many locals resent the migrants, although the local economy has come to depend on their labor. According to the Wikipedia article on the incident, “Attacks against the migrant workers included setting up a roadblock and hunting down stray Africans in the streets of Rosarno. Some of the crop-pickers were shot; others beaten with metal bars or wooden clubs.” As the casualty figure show, however, violence occurred on both sides of the divide; migrants burned cars, smashed windows, and threw stones at townspeople. As the fighting subsided, more than 1,000 African workers were shipped off to detention centers elsewhere in southern Italy. On January 12, the United Nations expressed deep concern about racism in Italy, while the Italian government began investigating the incident.

Immigration tension is common through much of Europe, but the situation in Calabria seems to be especially severe due to the role of organized crime. Crime syndicates control much of the region’s economy, including the fruit industry, and they have engaged in particularly brutal and deceitful “labor management” practices. The Times headline errs, however, in pointing its finger at the “Mafia.” Strictly speaking, the Mafia is a Sicilian group; the crime syndicate that runs much of Calabria is the ‘Ndrangheta. As the map shows, one finds distinctive criminal organizations in different regions of southern Italy.

Organized crime is of much greater geographical significance than this one example would indicate, both in Italy and in the world as a whole. According to an October 23, 2007 New York Times article, organized crime is now the largest sector of the Italian economy, accounting for some seven percent of the country’s total economic production. The prevalence of such activity in the south is one of the reasons why the Italian political party called the Lega Nord (“Northern League”) wants autonomy if not actual independence for northern Italy, a region that it calls Padania (see map). (The Lega Nord is also known for its stridently anti-immigrant views. One prominent party spokesman argued that the recent rioting in Calabria resulted from “too much tolerance” of migrant populations.)

Organized crime, of course, is hardly limited to southern Italy. As Misha Glenny shows in his powerful book McMafia: A Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld (Knopf 2008), its presence is nearly ubiquitous. An essential website on the topic, Havocscope Black Markets (http://www.havocscope.com/) values the global illicit market at over one trillion dollars. Yet such figures are routinely excluded from our economic calculations. When we measure a given country’s GDP, we usually look not at the “total value of goods and services produced ” — despite what we tell ourselves we are doing — but rather at the total valuation that is accessible to that country’s government. We tend to think of “crime” as one category and “economy” as another, downplaying the substantial overlap. Such myopia stems in part from our tendency to exaggerate the power of the state, seeing those aspects of life that escape state control as somehow aberrant and temporary.

The disconnection between licit and illicit economic activities is abundantly demonstrated in the CIA World Factbook. Consider its listing of Colombia’s main exports: “petroleum, coffee, coal, nickel, emeralds, apparel, bananas, cut flowers.” There is no mention here, or anywhere else in the CIA’s “Colombia economy” report, of cocaine or of any other illegal products. Can one actually understand Colombia’s economy without delving into such matters?I don’t think so.

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Burma Takes on the United Wa State Army

United Wa State in Purple

As recently mentioned in this blog, James C. Scott’s new book The Art of Not Being Governed is essential reading on the history of state-level sovereignty. As Scott brilliantly shows, pre-colonial states in Southeast Asia, and much of the rest of the world, actually governed relatively small areas. Our conventional historical maps are thus highly misleading, as they tend to show traditional kingdoms ruling over vast areas that remained well outside of their actual spheres of power.

Scott may occasionally err, however, in attributing too much power to contemporary states. “[U]nambiguous, unitary sovereignty,” he contends, “is normative for the twentieth century nation-state…(p.61).” Is this really true? Even in the United States, “unambiguous, unitary sovereignty” is compromised, if slightly, by the existence of Native American tribal sovereignty, as the U.S. government recognizes certain groups as forming “domestic, dependent nations.” Even in France, “unambiguous, unitary sovereignty” is compromised by the existence of urban “no-go zones” (Zones Urbaines Sensibles), which are rarely penetrated by the police and other governmental agents. (Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to end this policy, but it is not yet clear whether he has succeeded.)

In much of the world, as this blog seeks to demonstrate, state sovereignty is far more limited. Consider Burma (Myanmar), which has never fully controlled the area that is depicted as forming its territory on our political maps. In the 1990s and early 2000s, Burma did indeed defeat its major “domestic” adversaries, the main ethnic armies associated with the Shan and Karen peoples. It was able to defeat the Shan, however, largely by allying itself with the ethnic group known as the Wa. Since that time, the Wa have formed a virtually sovereign state within Burma (“Special Region 2”), which they have defended with their own militia, the powerful United Wa State Army. The Wa state has hardly been a tribal paradise, as it has supported itself largely through the narcotics trade, gambling, and human trafficking, but that is beside the point. Whatever its merits or lack thereof, the Wa state has remained outside the grasp of Burma, contrary to what our maps and our general model of the world tell us.

In mid-2009, Burma figured that it had grown strong enough to take on the Wa and other ethnic militias and thus extend its power to its internationally recognized boundaries. It ordered militia commanders to fold their forces into the Burmese Army or face the consequences. In August it routed the Kokang, an ethnic Chinese militia allied with the Wa. Thus far, however, it has done little more than threaten the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army. On December 25, 2009, however, the Shan Herald reported that “The United Wa State Army (UWSA) and [its allies forces] the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) are purchasing thousands of protective suits against possible chemical warfare by the Burma Army, according to sources close to the said ceasefire groups. The buying spree was prompted by intelligence reports that the Burma Army was planning to destroy Wa and Mongla’s defenses ‘by using airpower, firepower and chemical weapons.’”

(http://www.shanland.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=2869:wa-mongla-seek-protection-against-cw&catid=86:war&Itemid=284)

Perhaps the defeat of the Wa state and the incorporation of its territory into Burma is inevitable. I would not, however, be willing to bet on it.

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Where is Zomia?

Conventional geographical units of any kind often lead the imagination along set pathways. Originality of thought can therefore be be enhanced by the creation of novel regionalization schemes. One of the more intriguing new regions to be proposed in recent years is Zomia, a term coined by historian Willem van Schendel in 2002, and expanded upon by James C. Scott in his recent book The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. As Scott’s title indicates, Zomia denotes the mountainous areas of mainland Southeast Asia, along with adjacent parts of India and China, that have historically resisted incorporation into the states centered in the lowland basins of the larger region.

In one sense, injustice is done to the very concept of Zomia by delineating it on a map with precise boundaries. Premodern Southeast Asian states themselves were not spatially bounded, let alone this anarchic hill country. Still, it can be useful to map the general area of Zomia, which I have done above.

My map is a little different from that of James Scott, on which it is based. I include a bit less of northern Thailand, and substantially less of upper Burma and of Assam, as these areas were important centers of state formation in the pre-colonial era. (I probably should also have excluded the Indian state of Manipur, as it too was the site of a significant, if usually ignored, indigenous state.)

One of the advantages of the concept of Zomia is the fact that it cuts across the boundaries of South, East, and Southeast Asia. While these world regions have their utility, they can also restrict the scholarly imagination. One cannot do justice to the societies of Zomia if one examines them only from the perspective of Southeast Asian studies.

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Belize Vs. Guatemala

Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala
Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala

A major controversy engulfed the small Central American country of Belize in early January 2010 after its foreign minister, Wilifred Erlington, described the border between his country and Guatemala as “artificial.” Enraged Belizean nationalists denounced Erlington as a “sell-out,” while opposition leaders demanded his resignation.

As the border between Belize-Guatemala mostly follows a straight line, “artificial” might seem an appropriate word. Erlington defended himself along similar lines: “The first meaning of the word artificial in the dictionary is manmade but nobody seems to want to even read the dictionary these days.” Outraged nationalists were not mollified. Opposition leader Mark Espat replied that “Belizeans are frustrated and tired of disloyal double speak. We are tired of splitting hairs and litigating matters that should be straight forward. The issue is very simple: our border is real, the Foreign Minister should not be saying that our borders are artificial, he has shown a clear lack of political maturity in not accepting that he misspoke…” (http://7newsbelize.com/sstory.php?nid=15905)

The controversy involves far more than semantics. Erlington’s opponents fear that his statement could play into Guatemala’s hands as the two countries remain embroiled in a territorial dispute. The Government of Guatemala has been reluctant even to accept Belize’s existence, arguing that area was rightfully Guatemalan territory before it was wrested away by Britain to form the colony of British Honduras. Although Guatemala recognized Belizean independence in 1991 (ten years after the British left), it has continued to put forth territorial claims. Maps of Guatemala (see above) occasionally depict Belize as if it were part of Guatemalan (see above).

Belize objects not only to its neighbor’s claims, but also to the fact that Guatemalans continue to illegally cross over into the much wealthier much less densely populated country of Belize. Due in part to such migration, the demography of multi-ethnic country of Belize is being transformed. According to the 2000 census, the Afro-Belizean (or Creole) community now accounts for only one quarter of the population, whereas mestizos form almost half. Another 10 percent are Mayan Indians, while over 6 percent are Garifuna (a people of mostly African descent who speak a Native American language).

The most interesting aspect of Belizean demography, however, concerns contemporary birthrates; the ethnic group with the highest fertility rate appears to be the Euro-Belizeans. The White population of Belize is not large; one Wikipedia article puts it at a full zero (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethnic_groups_in_Central_America). Contrary to this figure, Belize does have a small population of European extraction, including almost 10,000 Mennonite settlers. The Mennonite birthrate is reportedly 42.5 per thousand, as against 31 per thousand for the country as a whole. These religiously conservative farmers are classified as “Russian Mennonites,” even though their ancestors came originally from the Netherlands and they still speak a Low German dialect. The migration history of the Mennonites is a fascinating story in itself, put that is a topic for a later post.

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Language and Voting In Romania

As the previous post indicated, many Hungarian-populated areas lie outside of Hungary’s national borders. More than half of Hungary’s territory was stripped away in the post-WWI settlement, although most of the areas lost had non-Hungarian majorities. Hard-core Magyar (or Hungarian) nationalists who dream of reclaiming these lands often advertise their views by displaying maps of pre-Trianon Hungary (the 1920 Treaty of Trianon having reduced Hungary to its current rump status). Extreme nationalist candidates, however, typically receive fewer than 10 percent of the vote in Hungarian national elections.

In neighboring countries, ethnic Hungarians usually support their own political parties that call for language and cultural rights as well as local autonomy for Magyar-populated areas. In the Romanian presidential election of 2009, the correlation between ethnicity and voting was exceptionally strong; the map on the upper left shows Magyar populated areas in green, while the map on the right shows districts that voted for the Magyar-based political party in green as well. Political integration in Romania obviously has some way to go.

The map on the right was taken from an invaluable website called Electoral Geography 2.0 (http://www.electoralgeography.com/new/en/). Visit it to find a treasure trove of electoral maps.

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Vojvodina: Europe’s Newest Old Autonomous Region

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

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

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

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

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

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The Northern Areas Become Gilgit-Baltistan

Divided Kashmir

The former princely state of Kashmir is one of the world’s most contested territories (see map). During the British colonial period, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja (under British “advisement”) even though its population was (and is) mostly Muslim. The political partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw the partitioning of Kashmir as well, with India gaining control over the core areas and Pakistan gaining power over the north and far west. In 1962, China grabbed parts of the far north after defeating India in a short war.

Pakistan divided its portion of Kashmir into two zones: Azad Kashmir (“free Kashmir”) in the west, and the Northern Areas. The Northern Areas were originally a non-self-governing area under Pakistani control, and have generally not been regarded by the international community as a part of Pakistan proper. India, for its part, has maintained that all of the former princely state of Kashmir is rightfully Indian territory.

This situation changed somewhat in August 2009, when Pakistan renamed the Northern Areas Gilgit-Baltistan and allowed the election of a local legislative assembly. A month later, Pakistan signed an agreement with China for the building of a massive dam and hydro-electrical facility in the area.

Indian authorities were further angered in December 2009 when the region’s newly elected chief minister declared that Gilgit-Baltistan was now Pakistan’s fifth province, and that it had “no connection to Kashmir.” An Indian spokesman retorted that “The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession to India in 1947. Any action to alter the status of any part of the territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan has no legal basis, and is completely unacceptable.” A Pakistani official then replied that Gilgit-Baltistan merely enjoys a “special status,” as its legislative assembly cannot pass laws. Gilgit-Baltistan is now best regarded as a de facto but not a de jure province of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently witnessed an upsurge of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunni stalwarts, who wanted the area to merge with Azad Kashmir, were not happy when the Shia-majority region was awarded a province-like status. According to journalist B. Raman, Pakistan’s powerful “Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had over the past years encouraged and helped Sunni extremists organizations … to set up a presence in the Gilgit area.” (http://www.srilankaguardian.org/2009/12/sectarian-terrorism-in-pakistan-during.html).

Whatever its geopolitical status and religious tensions, Gilgit-Baltistan has made great educational strides in recent years. This extremely rugged, remote region had negligible levels of literacy thirty years ago. In 1998, adult literacy had reached 38 percent, and by 2006 it had risen to 53 percent. In many areas, most boys and girls now attend school, often learning their lessons in English. Most observers credit the gains largely to the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation. Many residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are Ismaili Muslims, members of a highly cosmopolitan and education-oriented sect of Shia Islam that is headed by the Aga Khan. Also significant are the philanthropic efforts of U.S. author and mountaineer Greg Mortenson, author of the acclaimed book Three Cups of Tea. The region also supports a high-quality English language news site, the Dardistan Times (http://dardistantimes.com/) (“Dardistan” is itself an interesting geographical appellation, but that is a topic for a later post.)

Selected Sources:

http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/in-paper-magazine/education/education-in-gilgit-and-baltistan-809

http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/newdelhi/Gilgit-Baltistan-is-part-of-Kashmir-asserts-India/Article1-492780.aspx

 

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The Plight of the Rohingyas

The standard linguistic map of Burma/Myanmar (below) reveals a significant number of ethnic groups. Unfortunately, it also conceals much of the country’s diversity, as a number of separate peoples are joined together into composite ethnic categories, while others are simply ignored. The most important group in the latter category are the Rohingyas, a distinct people some 700,000 strong who appear on few maps of Burma. In the map on the left, the Rohingyas are marked, but in a manner that effectively erases their identity: the two triangles in far western Burma indicate Rohingya areas, but label them as “Indians and Pakistanis.” This erasure of Rohingya identity is in keeping with official Burmese policy, which has denied almost all of them Burmese citizenship.

The Rohingyas speak an Indo-European language closely related to Bengali. Like most eastern Bengali speakers, they follow Islam – the main reason for their persecution by the resolutely Buddhist Burmese state. According to Rohingya history, their ancestors began moving to their current homeland as early as the 7th century; Burmese historians contend that they did not arrive until after Burma was conquered by the British, and that they came largely through British connivance. As a result, hard-core Burmese nationalists insist that the Rohingyas be regarded as citizens of Bangladesh, not Burma. Bangladesh, not surprisingly, rejects this interpretation.

The persecution of the Rohingya has been going on for some time. In 1942, after Japanese forces expelled the British from Burma, mob violence took an estimated 100,000 Rohingya lives. In the late 1970s, renewed harassment sent another 250,000 to Bangladesh, where many have continued to languish in wretched refugee camps. Rohingyas continue to flee Burma, even though they have no place to go. In early 2009, the Thai military reportedly towed a number of boats crammed with Rohingya refugees into the open sea, where large numbers perished in storms.

Bangladeshi authorities reject Rohingya migration, arguing that all Rohingyas who entered their country after 1991 are simply illegal immigrants. Tensions between Burma and Bangladesh mounted in the fall of 2009, focused both on the Rohingya issue and on the maritime border between the two countries. The offshore area contains significant energy resources that both countries wish to exploit.

In late December 2009, the two countries reached a provisional agreement that involved the “repatriation” of Rohingya refugees. Burma agreed to accept 9,000 out of the estimated 28,000 residing in refugee camps (an additional 300,000 to 400,000 Rohingyas currently live in Bangladesh outside of the camps). But few of the refugees are eager to return. The journalist Nurul Islam, reporting in Media Matters, quotes one Rohingya man as saying, “we don’t have any rights in Myanmar. … If we go back, the armed forces will use us as bonded labour. Many will be sent to jail. There are still curbs on practising our religion or movement from one place to another without the army’s permission” (see http://usa.mediamonitors.net/content/view/full/70036).

All in all, few of the world’s peoples have suffered discrimination as severe as that experienced by the Rohingyas. Yet their plight rarely gains attention in the U.S. media.

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Linguistic Geography and the Nuba Mountains

The Ethnologue (http://www.ethnologue.com/) is one of the best sites on the web for information about languages and linguistic geography. In the Ethnologue map shown above, a red dot is placed at the geographical center of each of the 6,906 languages listed in the organization’s database. One of the more interesting patterns visible in the map is the cluster of languages in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, one of the world’s most linguistically diverse locations. The region is noted in Sudan for its religious diversity as well. Many Nuba people follow traditional animist faiths, but others have converted to either Islam or Christianity

Unfortunately, very little information about the Nuba region reaches the world media. The area has virtually no roads, and access is further limited by the pervasive lack of security. What is known about the Nuba Mountains is not encouraging. During Sudan’s north-south civil war, many Nuba groups sided with the southern rebels; as a result, the region suffered bombing runs and other harsh reprisals by the central government. In the peace accord that ended (temporarily?) the war, no provisions were made for Nuba independence, much less autonomy. As a result, some experts think that the Nuba Mountains could become “the next Darfur.”

In the 1970s, the Nuba people came briefly to the attention of the wider world through Leni Riefenstahl’s bestselling work of photojournalism, The Last of the Nuba (original German title, Die Nuba). Riefenstahl, best known as Hitler’s cinematographer, was fascinated by the beauty of naked Nuba bodies at public ceremonies. According to Susan Sontag, The Last of the Nubawas “certainly the most ravishing book of photographs published anywhere in recent years” (from the Wikipedia article on The Last of the Nuba).

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Ethnic Rioting in Suriname

Suriname, Population Density

In late December 2009, anti-Brazilian rioting broke out in the town of Albina in northeastern Suriname after a Brazilian man allegedly stabbed and killed a local resident. The ethnic violence grew so intensive that the Brazilian Foreign Ministry was forced to send in two aircraft to airlift its citizens from the riot-scarred town.

The recent ethnic violence in Suriname stems in part from the country’s low population density and abundant natural resources, which have attracted numerous migrants from neighboring Brazil.Over the past decade or so, as many as 40,000 Brazilians have moved to Suriname, a country with fewer than half a million citizens. Many if not most Brazilians in Suriname work as small-scale gold miners. Gold mining in the region is typically environmentally destructive and it often results in clashes between miners and indigenous peoples. Mining areas in northern Brazil are also noted for their generally lawless conditions. At the national level, political leaders in both Suriname and neighboring Guyana have long feared that their countries risk becoming economic adjuncts of their vastly larger southern neighbor.

Albina sits near the border of the even more sparsely populated territory of French Guiana, which holds only some 221,000 people in its 32,000 square miles (an area roughly the size of Ireland). French Guiana has also attracted Brazilian immigrants in recent years, but it does not have the same concerns about losing its national identity – largely because it does not have one. French Guiana is not, as its common name might imply, a mere “territory” of France. It is rather a French department, as much a part of France as Hawaii is part of the United States (as such, it is more properly referred to not as “French Guiana” but rather as Guyane, its official name). France is thus, in small part, a South American country, just as the European Union extends well beyond Europe’s boundaries to include this sizable chunk of the Western Hemisphere.France is also a Caribbean country and an Indian Ocean country, but that is a matter for a later posting.

(Wikipedia Map below)

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South Ossetia Gains Recognition

Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia

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

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

North Ossetia and South Ossetia

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

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

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

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

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Troubled Eritrea

Ethiopia/Eritrea Border Dispute

On December 23, 2009, the United Nations voted to impose sanctions on Eritrea for supporting Islamist militants in Somalia. The next day, Eritrea denied the accusations, labeling the UN actions as “shameful.”

Regardless of whether Eritrea arms Somali rebels, it is clear that the country has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. In fact, Reporters Without Borders ranks Eritrea dead last in the world in regard to freedom of the press. As the organization’s website puts it, “Life may appear sweet in the floral streets of the capital Asmara, but is in fact nightmarish, particularly in the dark corridors of the all-powerful ministry of information” (http://www.rsf.org/en-rapport15-Eritrea.html).

Language map of Ethiopia and Eritrea from Muturzkin, border enhanced

Eritrea’s relations with its neighbors are not friendly. Its border with Sudan is not fully demarcated, it fought with Yemen over the Hanish islands in the Red Sea in the 1990s, and it remains locked in a bitter struggle with its main opponent, Ethiopia. The 1998-2000 border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia may have resulted in as many as 200,000 casualties.

Proponents of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis have a difficult time dealing with the Ethiopian/Eritrean conflict. Religion does not play a role, as both countries are roughly half Christian and half Muslim. As can be seen in the map above, linguistic lines as well cut across the political boundary. If anything, Eritrea and Ethiopia together form a single “civilizational” unit. Animosity instead is rooted largely in the two countries’ divergent political histories. In the colonial era, Eritrea was under the rule of Italy, while Ethiopia remained independent through most of the period. A post-colonial union failed as Eritrea resisted Ethiopian rule. As proved true elsewhere in Africa, colonially imposed political boundaries may have been violently and arbitrarily drawn, but they nonetheless remain firmly inscribed.

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Yemen: A Failing State?

Concerns that Yemen could become a failed state have recently mounted. The country has a weak central government, faces separate rebellions in the north and south, and contains a considerable al Qaeda contingent. The northern rebellion attracts most international attention, as it has spilled across the border into Saudi Arabia, provoking harsh Saudi reprisals. On December 25, 2009, Yemeni lawmaker Yahya al-Houthi claimed that Saudi Arabian warplanes were employing internationally banned weapons in attacks on villages in northern Yemen, resulting in massive civilian casualties.

This conflict, usually called the Houthi rebellion or the Sa’ada Emergency, is related to the distinctive form of Shia (or Shi’ite) Islam, Zaidi (or Zaidiyya), practiced in the region. Zaidis (sometimes called Fiver Shia Muslims) constitute over 40 percent of the population of Yemen, and until 1962 the Zaidi Imams actually held political power in northern Yemen. Sunni Islam, however, now holds political sway in the country at large – to the extent that Yemen functions as a unified state.

Zaidi Islam, general area outlined in blue

Saudi hostility stems in part from the fact that the border separating it from Yemen does not correspond with cultural divisions. Up to one million Zaidis reside in the mountainous reaches of the ‘Asir province of southwestern Saudi Arabia, where they face discrimination from the resolutely Sunni government. In ‘Asir, Yemeni Arabic dialects are widely spoken, and farming and other day-to-day practices are much more similar to those found in northern Yemen than to those elsewhere in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government only fully gained control of ‘Asir from the Zaidi Imam in 1934, and some evidence suggests that separatist sentiments remain entrenched.

Saudi Arabia accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebels, which may be true, even though the Zaidi version of Shia Islam is markedly different from the Twelver sect of Shia Islam found in Iran. More problematic for Saudi Arabia in the long run is the fact that most of its people living in its Gulf coastal area – the site of its major oil reserves – are Twelver Shias. But that is a topic for another post.

Yemen: A Failing State? Read More »

Southern Sudan

In its December 19, 2009 issue, The Economist magazine reported a rare bit of “good news” from Sudan: the country’s ruling party and the former rebels of the south had agreed upon provisions for the scheduled 2011 referendum that will supposedly allow the south to secede. According to the agreement, Southern Sudan will indeed become an independent country if a majority of its people so vote, providing that the turnout is at least 60 percent. Although the 2011 independence referendum has been planned ever since a 2005 autonomy accord ended the rebellion of the south, informed observers remain skeptical. Southern Sudan, after all, has huge oil reserves that the Khartoum government covets; independence for the south, moreover, could set a dangerous precedent for other restive Sudanese regions, such as Darfur and potentially even the Nuba Hills and the Red Sea coast.

Oil Concessions

Sure enough, several weeks later the mid-December accord began to fray as the government unilaterally declared that southern Sudanese living in the north (and hence generally assumed to be less supportive of independence) would be able to vote. Southern Sudan has also witnessed a recent surge of ethnic violence that has displaced some 250,000 in 2009 alone, as well as incursions by Uganda’s infamously destructive Lord’s Resistance Army. Some Southern Sudanese think that much of this violence has been instigated by the government in order to undermine the south’s bid for independence.

But regardless of the current troubles, the insistence on a 60 percent turnout in the referendum is problematic by itself, as no one knows how many people, let alone eligible voters, reside in Southern Sudan. A 2008 census pegged the region’s population at 8.26 million, a figure that was rejected as absurdly low by the Southern Sudanese parliament. Some sources place the region’s population as high as 15 million. All that is certain is how little is known about Southern Sudan; in 2007, for example, conservationists were staggered when aerial surveys revealed the existence of vast herds of antelopes and other animals (including some 8,000 elephants) in an area widely thought to be lacking in wildlife.

Regardless of any “good news” coming out of Southern Sudan, the referendum scheduled for 2011 is not likely to be a peaceful affair. Watch for continuing strife in Southern Sudan and elsewhere in the country.

Southern Sudan Read More »