Nationalism

The Black Sea Region as a Historical Focus of “Ethnic Cleansing” and Genocide

The Black Sea region is not noted for its history of genocide and forced population transfers (or “ethnic cleansing”). Internet searches on several different engines, for example, returned very little linked to these key terms. But there is probably no other area in the world that has experienced more instances of these forms of atrocity, at least in the 20th century. The map posted below shows key episodes in the region, starting with the Circassian genocide of the mid 19th century. As is immediately apparent, the Black Sea region has been the focus of many such events.

There are several important reasons why the Black Sea has seen so much ethnic cleansing and genocide. In the 1930s and early 40s, one genocidal dictator, Joseph Stalin, controlled much of the region, whereas another, Adolf Hitler, coveted and invaded the same area. Stalin’s mass killing in the Black Sea zone began in the 1930s with the Holodomor, or the mass extermination by starvation of the kulaks (peasants owning more than 3.2 hectares of land) of Ukraine and environs and of Cossacks in the Kuban region. After Nazi Germany invaded, Hitler ordered the genocide of vast numbers of Jews living in the northern Black Sea region. As German forces drove toward the oil fields of Baku, Stalin ordered the mass removal of several ethnic groups in the region who were suspected of not being adequately loyal to the Bolshevik regime. This process was itself genocidal, as vast numbers of people perished in the process. Something similar had happened to the Armenians of the greater southeastern Black Sea region during and before World War I: Ottoman authorities were worried about Armenian loyalty, and therefore expelled vast numbers to the deserts of the Middle East. The mortality rate was extraordinarily high, leading most scholars to classify this as an episode of genocide.

But there are other reasons for the processes of ethnic removal that have occurred in the Black Sea region. Much of the coastal zone had long been characterized by profound ethnolinguistic diversity, as is common in maritime areas characterized by extensive interregional trade. Such diversity ran afoul of the modern political model of the ethnically based nation-state. As a result, many ethnic communities were kicked out to create more ethnically homogeneous countries. Sometimes this involved mutual expulsions, as occurred when the new Turkish Republic expelled its ethnic Greeks to Greece while Greece expelled most its ethnic Turks to Turkey. Romania and Bulgaria did something similar in the 1940s. Such episodes continued throughout the 20th century. In the 1980s, for example, Bulgaria undertook mass expulsions of ethnic Turks. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and Georgia became independent, Abkhazia declared its independence from Georgia; in the conflict that followed, most ethnic Georgians and Greeks either voluntarily left Abkhazia or were expelled from it.

One Black Sea coastal region, Budjak in Ukraine, was subjected to less “ethnic cleansing” than many other littoral areas, although its Jews and Germans were mostly lost in the early 1940s. A current language map of Budjak reveals a much more complicated ethnic mixture than is found in most other Black Sea coastal regions.

In investigating the Black Sea region, I have been repeatedly struck by how central it is to understanding and interpreting key historical events and processes, dating back to the neolithic. Yet the Black Sea region occupies a very modest position in the conventional geo-historical imagination. This paradox deserves further scrutiny.

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Orthodox Christianity, Nationalism, and Islam in the Republic of Georgia

A large 2017 Pew Research study found a relatively close connection between religious beliefs and national identity in the Republic of Georgia. According to the Pew data, 89 percent of Georgians identify themselves as Orthodox Christians. By some measures, the level of religiosity in Georgia is also high, with 99 percent of respondents reporting that they believe in God (as opposed to 49 percent in Estonia and 29 percent in Czechia). Religious belief in Georgia has strengthened markedly since independence and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. According to Pew, 87 percent of Georgians think that their country is “very or somewhat religious today,” with only 25 percent stating that it was equally religious in the 1970s and 1980s. But at the same time, only 38 percent reported daily prayer and only 17 percent said that they attend church weekly. Information on fasting and other important Orthodox religious practices was not reported. (The teachings of the Orthodox Church on fasting are quite strict.)

The same Pew polling also found a strong sense of Georgia national identity. 78 percent of Georgians surveyed reported that they are “very proud to be a citizen of their country,” the highest figure among all central and eastern European countries covered, with 85 percent agreeing with the statement “our people are not perfect, but our culture is superior to others.” Georgian culture, moreover, was explicitly linked by most respondents to Orthodox Christianity, with 81 percent agreeing with the statement “being Orthodox is very or somewhat important to truly be a national of your country.”

Such religiously inflected ethnonationalism confronts a challenge in Georgia’s sizable Muslim community, which includes roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. As can be seen on the map posted below, Muslim Georgians are concentrated in two areas, the southwest and the south-center-east. As most Muslims live in rural areas, their presence is exaggerated by this map; of Georgia’s major cities, only Batumi has a sizable Muslim population (25 percent). In Tbilisi, the figure is only 1.5 percent.

Georgia’s two main Muslim areas are demographically distinct. Most Muslims of the southwest follow Sunni Islam and speak Georgian; those of the south-center-east mostly follow Twelver Shia Islam and speak Azerbaijani. Before the 1944, a sizable population of Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims lived south-west-central Georgia; in Adigeni municipality they constituted approximately 75 percent of the population. These so-called Meskhetian Turks were genocidally deported by Joseph Stalin near the end of WWII. Today, only some 1,500 live in Georgia.

But despite the close association of Orthodox Christianity and nationalism in a country with a sizable Muslim presence, there seems to be relatively little overt religious tension in Georgia. One would expect any such tensions as does exist to be most pronounced in the east, where the local Muslim population speaks a language identified with a neighboring country (Azerbaijan) and is largely monolingual. According to the 2014 Georgian census, only 18.7 percent of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia speak Georgian fluently. Not surprisingly young Azerbaijani-speaking Georgians often pursue higher education in Azerbaijan. Yet even so, most members of their community nationally identify with Georgia. As reported in the Wikipedia article on Azerbaijanis in Georgia, “According to the 2008 UN Association of Georgia report, 98% of Azerbaijanis surveyed in Kvemo Kartli considered Georgia their homeland, 96% acknowledged that the problems they face are common to citizens countrywide and around 90% linked their futures with Georgia.”

It is also notable that the ethnic Azerbaijani population in Georgia has increased since independence, rising from 5.7 percent of the national population in 1989 to 6.3 percent in 2014. In contrast, the county’s main non-Georgian-speaking historically Christian peoples – Russians, Greeks, and Armenians – has seen major population decreases in the same period, as will be explored in a later post.

The lack of religious/ethnic tensions in the Azerbaijani-speaking part of Georgia is linked to the generally cordial relations found between the Republic of Georgia and Azerbaijan, which are of long standing. The two countries trade extensively and have cooperated on several major projects, most notably the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. Tensions between them have occasionally emerged, however, generally over such issues as football (soccer) rivalries and historical sites. Even the border demarcation remains contentious, due primarily to the presence of a historically important monastery complex that straddles the existing boundary.

The lack of religious/ethnic tension in the Azerbaijani-speaking region of Georgia might also be associated with the general low level of religiosity among the Azerbaijani people. Both Pew and Gallup polling find that Azerbaijan is a largely secular country, with most people reporting that religion is not particularly important in their lives. As the detail of a Pew map of religiosity that is posted below indicates, Azerbaijan groups with Europe rather than the Middle East in regard to intensity of religious belief. Georgia, in contrast, is in an intermediate position.

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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

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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.

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Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2)

[Part 1 can be read here. Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

In 2014, the Russian Federation acquired another Muslim group that may prove troublesome both within Russia and globally: the Crimean Tatars. According to the 2002 Russian census, there were only 4,131 Crimean Tatars living in the country, concentrated in Krasnodar Krai in southern Russia; the March 2014 annexation of Crimea, however, brought with it some 245,000 Crimean Tatars. The referendum, which allegedly showed an overwhelming desire of the people of Crimea to join Russia, was boycotted by Crimean Tatars (various Ukrainian and international media sources reported at the time that 95-99% of Crimean Tatars did not take part in the referendum; see here, here, and here; while Russian media stated that the proposed boycott did not take place). Also, reports surfaced in the social media and Ukrainian news outlets that Russian (para)military personnel were confiscating and tearing up passports of potential voters of Crimean Tatar background (see here, here, here, and here).

Crimean Tatar MapCrimean Tatars have good reasons for viewing the Russian annexation of their homeland with suspicion and worse: since the Crimean Peninsula was first made part of the Russian Empire in 1783, Crimean Tatars have been subjected to massacres, exiles, discrimination, and deportations. By 1897, they constituted only 34% of the peninsula’s population. After the Bolshevik Revolution, persecutions of Crimean Tatars continued throughout the 1920s and 1930s, marked by widespread imprisonment and execution. The confiscation of food to supply central Russia resulted in widespread starvation. According to some sources, half of the Crimean Tatar population was killed or deported between 1917 and 1933. Persecution reached its culmination on May 18, 1944, when the Soviet government deported the entire remaining Crimean Tatar population to Central Asia as a form of collective punishment for alleged collaboration with the Nazis during their occupation of Crimea in 1941-1944 (the reality of this purported collaboration is discussed in my earlier post). The deportation process, as described by the victims in their memoirs, was horrific. More than 32,000 NKVD troops participated in this action. The deportees were given only 30 minutes to gather personal belongings, after which they were loaded onto cattle trains and moved out of Crimea. The expulsion was poorly planned and executed; the lack of accommodation and food, the harsh climatic conditions of the destination areas, and the rapid spread of diseases generated a high mortality rate during the first years of exile. It is estimated than nearly half of the deportees died of diseases and malnutrition, causing Crimean activists to call it an instance of genocide. Even after Crimean Tatars were officially “rehabilitated” in 1967, they were not allowed to return to their homeland until after the fall of the USSR because, as some scholars explain, Crimea was seen by Soviet leaders as too geopolitically and economically crucial. Although many Crimean Tatars have returned to the peninsula since 1991, few managed to move into the areas of their historical settlement. Prior to the deportations, the majority of Crimean Tatars—members of the Tat and Yalıboyu subgroups—lived in the mountainous central and southern parts of Crimea and on the southern coast. These areas, and particularly the coastal region, are climatically favorable, protected by the east-west running mountains from frigid northern winds. But upon their return, most Crimean Tatars had to settle in the less desirable central and eastern parts of the peninsula.

The resentment is further fueled by a new wave of repressions since the 2014 annexation. Many Crimean Tatar activists have been prosecuted by Russian authorities: some face criminal charges in Russia and hence cannot go back to Crimea, others have been subjected to unjustified searches and seizures of their property. As noted in Lily Hide’s article in Foreign Policy,

“The new regime has banned leading Crimean Tatars from the peninsula, and instigated politically motivated court cases against others. It promised to make Crimean Tatar one of three state languages, then reduced hours of Crimean Tatar instruction in schools, closed down ATR, the Crimean Tatar television network owned by Islyamov, and has regularly raided Tatar households and religious institutions in search of ‘extremist’ material. Until a January 2016 visit by a Council of Europe envoy, the new authorities refused to grant access to Crimea to international monitoring organizations and the U.N., though human rights violations have been extensively documented.”

The initial reaction from Crimean Tatars has been “to resist through peaceful means”, says Hide. For example, a long-term media campaign led by Serhii Kostynskyi of Ukraine’s National TV and Radio Committee aimed to “expose human rights abuses and win back Crimea with ‘soft power’”. However, such attempts to draw the attention of international and domestic media to Crimea have been a limited success. The continuing fighting in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has deflected the attention of both politicians and the media, locally and internationally. Moreover, the majority of Crimea’s Russian-speaking population are happy to be part of Russia, even if it brought the peninsula little economic or social development. Thus, Crimean Tatars, who constitute a minority in their historical homeland, have little support within Crimea and have to look for an alliance elsewhere. As noted in Hide’s article, “Crimean Tatar activists and Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary groups” have joined forces in “leading a low-level insurgency against the Russian annexation”. In the fall of 2015, the two groups together imposed a unilateral “trade blockade of the peninsula, stopping traffic, demanding to see travelers’ documents and confiscating goods”; in November 2015, “unknown saboteurs cut four nearby power lines providing electricity to Crimea, leaving the entire peninsula in the dark”. Many Crimean Tatar activists realize that joining forces with the paramilitaries and adopting their tactics “meant giving up the moral high ground”. But Hide cites Evelina Arifova, one of Crimean Tatar activists pushing for a trade and electricity embargo on the peninsula, as saying: “Without their radicalism, we wouldn’t have achieved anything”.

This conclusion in favor of radicalism can be based not only on Kostynskyi’s less-than-successful media campaign in Ukraine on behalf of Crimean Tatars, but also on the contrasting experiences of Muslim groups in the North Caucasus, particularly the Chechens and the Circassians. When I mention the two groups in my classes, I typically get many nods of recognition for the first group and mostly blank stares for the second. As mentioned above, the Circassians, like the Chechens, were subjected to a prolonged war with the Russian Empire and ultimately the majority of them were expelled from their ancestral homeland. The exiled Circassians—those who survived the brutal expulsion—found new homes throughout the Ottoman Empire, especially in present-day Turkey, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. Yet unlike the Chechens, today’s Circassian activists chose to follow a peaceful, non-violent path for maintaining their ethnic identity and culture, seeking recognition of the genocide committed against them, and campaigning for Russia to allow some of them to return to their homeland in the Northwest Caucasus (the latter issue is particularly relevant for the Circassians in war-torn Syria). The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, where the Circassians’ ancestors were boarding the Ottoman ships, offered them an excellent opportunity to draw international media’s attention to their cause. And yet, most mainstream media organizations downplayed or ignored the Circassian issue, as discussed in detail in Martin Lewis’ earlier GeoCurrents post. The Chechens, in contrast, have gained much more media attention. “They got their PR campaign together”, a student in one of my adult education classes once joked. “By blowing stuff up”, I replied. Here, I agree with Martin Lewis that the media is to some extent complicit in driving nationalist movements to become more radicalized and more violent. As Lewis puts it, “if news source chose to highlight violent responses while ignoring non-violent ones, a perverse message is seemingly sent: ‘If you want our attention, kill someone!’”. While Crimean Tatars have not yet been involved in violence against persons, they are evidently prepared to blow up power lines and destroy goods. It is, however, a step in the radical direction.

Several other factors suggest that we might see a rise in violence perpetrated by Crimean Tatars and an internationalization of their more militant activists. Unlike the Chechens and the Volga Tatars, the Crimean Tatars do not constitute the majority or even a plurality in their region. It is therefore hardly likely that they will be able to gain much cultural or economic autonomy, regardless of whether Crimea remains under Russian control or is transferred back to Ukraine—and independence is entirely out of the question. In fact, the vector of Russian policy with respect to Crimean Tatars is clear from the recent persecutions of the Crimean Tatar activists, including the exile of their leader, 72-year old Mustafa Jemilev, a veteran of the dissident movement. Jemilev is now banned from Crimea by Russian authorities, while his wife remains in Crimea and his son is in prison in Russia. While for now Crimean Tatars align themselves with Ukrainian paramilitaries, it would not be surprising if the more militant wing of their movement begins to look for alliances in the larger Muslim world.

krimea3The comparison between Tatarstan and Chechnya above also suggests that stunted economic and social development facilitates radicalization of Muslim groups. While the authors of a recent article in Foreign Affairs William McCants and Christopher Meserole focus on “political culture”, they too admit that economic factors play a role, particularly the high degree of unemployment. As many other authors have suggested, high unemployment among young males creates a demographic base for jihadi recruiters to draw upon. By all accounts, Crimea was economically underdeveloped already on the eve of the Russian annexation in March 2014, even according to Russian sources such as Russia Today, a media outlet that peddles pro-Putin state-sanctioned propaganda in English. According to their article “Crimea’s economy in numbers and pictures”, published on March 15, 2014, Crimea’s budget deficit at the time constituted $1 billion, while the republic’s annual GDP was only $4.3 billion (see image on the left, reproduced from the Russia Today article). By 2018, Crimea expected Russian investment of about $5 billion. Yet Crimea also had a lot to lose by severing its ties with Ukraine: on the eve of the annexation, 90% of water, 80% of electricity, 60% of primary goods, and 70% of tourism came from Ukraine. The Russia Today article hypothesized that “if Crimea becomes a part of Russia it’ll become a more attractive holiday destination for Russia’s population of 142 million, whose per capita income is more than three times that of Ukrainians”. However, in reality, the hostilities turned off tourists and the logistical difficulties in getting to and from the peninsula with a ferry caused a further drop in Russian tourism. As reported by Segodnya.ua, “almost 60% of tourists from Russia do not consider the resorts of the annexed Crimea … to be a decent replacement for Turkey and Egypt”. Thus, although Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s prime minister and an advocate of joining Russia, had hoped that breaking away from Ukraine would transform the economy for the better and would turn the peninsula into another Singapore, this has not happened. The economic sanctions imposed by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia, and several other countries directly against Crimea and Crimean individuals have further inhibited tourism and infrastructure development.

eng_ukraine_mapThe political and economic problems, as well as direct persecutions, have caused many Crimean Tatars to leave the peninsula; according to BBC.com, 10,000 Crimean Tatars have been forced out of Crimea and moved to Kherson, Lviv, Zaporizhye, and Kiyiv districts of Ukraine (see map on the left from travel-tour.com.ua). This mass displacement parallels what had happened in Chechnya in the wake of the two Chechen wars. Thus, the destruction of family and community ties as a result of this relocation may bring Crimean Tatars to the point where religious identity would matter more than ethno-linguistic identity. As is, only a small minority of Crimean Tatars speak their indigenous language, which is considered to be endangered: although it is taught in several schools, it is mostly spoken by older people, according to the Ethnologue. Islam, on the other hand, has always been an important part of Crimean Tatar identity. Historically, Crimean Tatars were described as “diligent Muslims”, but while some important Muslim traditions—charity, fasts (including that of Ramadan), and pilgrimage to Mecca—were strictly observed, others were downplayed or ignored. For example, the German geographer Gustav Radde, who visited Crimea in the mid-1850s and wrote an ethnographic treatise about Crimean Tatars, informed his readers that Crimean Tatars drank vodka and a low-alcohol homebrew, though not wine. Another Islamic proscription that was generally ignored by Crimean Tatars is the ban on gambling, playing cards and dice, which were considered acceptable and indulged in widely, Radde wrote. Yet the treatment of women and the family law in traditional Crimean Tatar society, as described by Radde, is reminiscent of what is practiced in the most strictly Islamic countries. Thus, although Crimean Tatars today have certainly not seen the de facto implementation of Sharia law that has been experienced in Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov, including polygamy and enforced veiling, they could move in the more radical Islamist direction, especially as dislocation, persecutions by Russian authorities, and the continuing loss of their indigenous language make Islam the linchpin of their identity.

All in all, Chechnya has experienced significant radicalization and internationalization of its rebels, Tatarstan seems to be experiencing the same phenomena in a milder form, and the Crimean Tatars may be beginning to move in the same direction. Such developments may be driven as much by Russia’s repressive policies and the international media’s silence on non-violent protests as by internal causes such as economic and social underdevelopment. I think the conclusion of the authors of the Chatham House summary about the North Caucasus applies as well to Crimea:

“The causes of radicalization in the North Caucasus mean the situation is unlikely to change until Russia itself changes and Moscow is able to offer an alternative vision to the people in the region. If religious repression continues, so will the insurgency.”

“Russian political culture” may yet prove to be as deadly as the French one, albeit not by banning the veil but by allowing it—and by leaving little room for moderate Muslim identity based on history, culture, traditions, and language rather than jihad.

 

 

 

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 2) Read More »

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1)

[Thanks to Iryna Novosyolova for a helpful discussion of some of the issues discussed in this post.]

 

A recent article in Foreign Affairs listed the use of the French language as the best predictor of a country’s rate of Sunni radicalization and violence, and particularly of the percentage of a country’s Muslim population that joins in the international Jihad. According to ICSR estimate, of all Western European countries France has supplied the largest number of foreign fighters to ISIS in absolute terms, whereas Belgium leads in per capita terms (40 per million population). The authors of the Foreign Affairs article, William McCants and Christopher Meserole, claim that Francophone status is a better predictor of foreign fighter radicalization than wealth, education or health levels, or even Internet access. The French language itself, the authors state, is obviously not to blame, but is rather a mere proxy for the “French political culture”. Policies such as the French ban on face covering (adopted in September 2010), which prohibits wearing niqābs, burqas, and other veils covering the face in public places, are said to create a fertile ground for drafting recruits into the militant Islamist movement.

religion in russiaBut France and Belgium may not be the only countries where the assimilatory or discriminatory policies adopted by the state encourage the radicalization of the Muslim population. In fact, Russia has been experiencing the same phenomena: a growth of violence perpetrated by Muslim extremists at home and an increasing recruitment for Jihad outside Russia. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post by Evan Lewis, Russia has been one of the top recruiting grounds for ISIS. According to ICSR estimate, some 800-1,500 foreign ISIS fighters came from Russia. In absolute numbers, this estimate surpasses the corresponding numbers for United Kingdom (500-600), Germany (500-600), Belgium (440), and possibly even France (1,200). Another recent source cites Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs official Vladimir Makarov as saying that 3,417 Russians have been recruited by ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Middle East, a major increase from the 1,800 Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in September 2015. According to Makarov, some 200 of these Russian ISIS fighters are new converts to Islam who “do not come from the regions where this religion is traditional”. Cases such as that of Varvara Kraulova, a student who attempted to cross into Syria to join ISIS in the summer of 2015, are widely publicized in the media (see, for example, here and here), but they constitute a minor fraction of Russian citizen who have pledged themselves to the so-called Islamic State. As noted in the report on foreign fighters compiled by the New York-based Soufan Group in December 2015, the overwhelming majority of the Russian ISIS fighters come from traditionally Muslim areas of Russia, especially from the Northeast Caucasus (Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan). Other areas with large and historically rooted Muslim populations, such as Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Middle Volga region, have also provided substantial contingents of ISIS fighters, as did the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. According to Voice of America, Russian-speaking jihadists from the former Soviet republics have formed their own community within ISIS, located in Al-Raqqah (the de facto capital of ISIS), with schools and even prayers in Russian.

Russian authorities primarily adopt a punitive approach to the problem, conducting criminal prosecution of ISIS fighters upon their return to Russia. According to Russia’s Chief Prosecutor Yury Chayka, 650 criminal cases were open against Russian citizens fighting for ISIS in November 2015; by March 2016, this number was up to over 1,000. Attempts are also made to drive recruitment down by publicly humiliating those who join in the form of “shame boards” that feature “photos of those traitors [who] dishonor” their names, their families, and their clans by joining ISIS. The anti-terrorism forces also work with the religious authorities in the North Caucasus to certify imams based on their attitudes towards terrorism, reports the Kavkaz-uzel.ru (“Caucasian knot”) website. Yet such anti-terrorism measures seem to be less than consistent, according to the September 2015 Roundtable Summary by Chatham House, as “the Russian security services mostly appear to be looking the other way when North Caucasian fighters travel to Syria, possibly because these potential troublemakers are at much greater risk in the Middle East than at home”.

Moreover, wittingly or unwittingly, Russian state policies also exacerbate the problem by creating a fertile ground for radicalization and jihad recruitment, especially among the youth, as reported by Kavkaz-uzel.ru. The Soufa Group report cited above also points out,

“the North Caucasus has a long history of Islamist extremism, and the increased flow of  fighters from this region is in many ways unsurprising. Local grievances have long been drivers of radicalization in the Caucasus, and as the strong centralized security apparatus of the  Russian government limits the scope for operations at home, the Islamic State has offered an attractive alternative”.

Russia has had a long history of exclusionary and discriminatory policies towards—and even wholesale deportations of—its Muslim populations. As noted in the Wikipedia article on Islam in Russia,

“the period from the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 to the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762 featured systematic Russian repression of Muslims [in the Middle Volga region] through policies of exclusion and discrimination – as well as the destruction of Muslim culture by the elimination of outward manifestations of Islam such as mosques.”

Map of Circassian RepublicsWith the ascension of Catherine the Great in 1762, the focus of these policies shifted to the North Caucasus. Here  war was waged by the Russian state against the indigenous Muslim groups for a hundred years, until Chechnya was finally incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1859, and most of the Circassians in the Northwest Caucasus were exiled to the Ottoman Empire in 1864. During the Soviet period, Islam, like other religions, was suppressed. During World War II, several Muslim ethnic groups, including Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars were deported by Stalin’s security forces from their homelands to Siberia and Central Asia. According to Stanford historian Norman M. Naimark, up to 40% of the Chechen nation perished in the process; comparable numbers in other deported ethnic groups died as well. In 1956, during Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization program, members of the deported ethnic groups who had not perished during their harsh exile were “rehabilitated” and some of the groups (for example, Chechens but not Crimean Tatars) were permitted to return to their homeland. Nonetheless, the survivors of the exile lost economic resources and civil rights, and continued to suffer from discrimination, both official and unofficial.

At the time of the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, several Muslim-majority republics within Russia, such as Tatarstan and Chechnya, asked for independence, yet the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation declared such attempts to gain sovereignty to be illegal. (Crimea, which had been part of the Ukrainian Union Republic within USSR, remained part of newly independent Ukraine.) In February 1994, Russia offered an autonomy agreement to Tatarstan and Chechnya, promising a broad range of rights and policy-making abilities, but stopping short of full independence. Tatarstan accepted the agreement but Chechnya did not, and the paths of their subsequent histories took different directions, as discussed in detail in my earlier posts on Tatarstan and Chechnya.

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

“the end of Moscow’s authority meant that the Chechen people, well-equipped with historical grievances to drive their discontent, found themselves in the Russian Federation due to the accidents of history and map, but badly wanted out.”

Over the course of the First (1994-1996) and Second (1999-2000) Chechen Wars, Chechnya was increasingly driven in the radical separatist direction. But the wars also resulted in the installation of a new puppet Chechen administration under the cleric Akhmad Kadyrov, who broke with the anti-Russian resistance movement, in part over its increasing religious radicalism, and began working with Russian authorities. His son, Ramzan Kadyrov, who took over after his father’s assassination in February 2007, continued the policy of apparent cooperation with Moscow, which pleased neither the Chechen separatists nor the Russian loyalists. But he has never been a “Kremlin puppet”, as some pundits have depicted him. Some observers, such as Viktor Shenderovich, even suggest that the younger Kadyrov may be to some extent the puppet-master, pulling the strings in Kremlin. His recent speech on February 23, 2016 (the 72nd anniversary of the Chechen deportation), in which Kadyrov laid a curse on Joseph Stalin and the chief of the Soviet security apparatus Lavrentiy Berya, certainly indicates that Kadyrov has his own agenda and does not always dance to Putin’s tune. Some pundits claim that the speech aimed to further fuel the popular campaign for Kadyrov to remain in power after his term ends later this year.

Still, Kadyrov has largely remained, in the words of journalist Yulia Latynina, “an all-powerful barbarian warlord at the court of a once-powerful but now rotten empire”, and a peculiar symbiosis of Russian and Chechen leadership has emerged in the wake of the two Chechen wars. The current Chechen government accepts that full independence from Russia may never happen, while Putin’s administration continues to use Chechen insurgents as the much-needed enemy figure. Since this situation does not please Chechen separatists, they continue their struggle by resorting to violence, both at home and in other Russian regions, even in Moscow itself. Chechen terrorists perpetrated several horrific terrorist attacks, most notably the October 2002 seizure of the Nord-Ost musical theater in Moscow, where over 800 spectators—many of them children—were taken hostage, and the seizure of an elementary school in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia on September 1, 2004. These terrorist attacks—and the botched rescue attempts by the Russian security forces—claimed the lives of some 130 hostages in the Nord-Ost theater, and 385 children and teachers in Beslan. These horrific terrorist attacks ended whatever hope might have still existed of winning broad international support for the cause of Chechen independence.

The death of the old-style Chechen nationalism during the rule of the Kadyrovs, father and son, the economic devastation of the republic that forced many residents to flee into neighboring regions of Ingushetia and Dagestan, and the rise of criminal gangs engaging in lucrative trade in people, weapons, oil, and drugs have all helped push Chechnya in a more radical direction. Historically, Islam in the North Caucasus was Sufi-oriented, tolerant in its practice, and not especially strict, but the pressure of war resulted in a surge of fundamentalism, as noted in a recent report on the North Caucasus by Konstantin Kazenin and Irina Starodubrovskaya, who claim that the Chechen wars not only gave some younger people in the region military training and battlefield experience, but also contributed to the inclusion of the North Caucasus in the global jihadist networks. Moreover, David R. Stone points out that “the traditional family and clan links that tied Chechen society together frayed and broke as a result of death and displacement”. Chechens who fled into other areas of the Caucasus found themselves in environments where ethnic and clan identity mattered less, and religious identity mattered more. As a result, many Chechen refugees were turned to radical Islam, “a vision that goes far beyond a concrete local struggle for specific, attainable goals to see instead a worldwide struggle between good and evil”. While refugees flowed out of Chechnya, foreign Islamist fighters flowed in to aid what they saw as a Muslim fight against the infidels, be they Russians, Americans, or even relatively secular Chechens. In the words of an Islamist militant leader Said Buryatsky, an ethnic Buryat and an ex-Buddhist convert to Islam,

“gone are the times when we fought for the freedom of Chechnya, for this pagan notion. Now we fight for Allah. Gone are the times when every Chechen was our brother. Now a Russian is our brother if he is a mujahideen, and a Chechen if he’s a kafir is our bitter enemy.”

Framed now mostly as an international radical Islamist movement, Chechen terrorism continues to hold its grip on Russia, perpetrating attacks such as the Domodedovo International Airport bombing in 2011, which killed 37 people, and supplying numerous foreign fighters for ISIS.

Tatarstan_locationTatarstan, which accepted the autonomy agreement with Russia in 1994, has been given many of the institutions of a full-fledged sovereign state, including a constitution, a legislature, a tax code, a national bank, and a citizenship system. At least in theory, it can conduct its own relations with foreign states and can set its own foreign economic policy and trade relations. But when push came to shove in the wake of Russia’s current confrontation with Turkey, which began in November 2015, central Russian government began to dictate to Tatarstan what it can do in relation to Turkey. For example, 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). It remains to be seen how long Tatarstan can manage to maintain its current “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds” position in relation to Russia and Turkey. Because of its ambivalent situation, Tatarstan has also experienced some radicalization of its Muslim population, similar to what has been happening in Chechnya, albeit in a milder form. According to various sources, including the FSB, a substantial number of ISIS recruits—perhaps as many as 200 or more—came from Tatarstan and the other Middle Volga republics. Ironically, ISIS recruitment for the war in Iraq and Syria resulted in a sharp decrease in terrorist attacks within Tatarstan since the early 2014.

Also as in Chechnya, the focus of the militant movement shifted from ethnic to religious identity. Historically, Volga Tatars have been fairly moderate Muslims, yet they have succeeded in retaining their ethno-linguistic identity despite almost half a millennium of Russian rule: according to the 2002 population census, 96.3% of Tatars still speak their ancestral language, compared to only less than half of the Khanty people, a quarter of the Mansi, and 12% of the Itelmen. But in recent decades this situation has been changing, as more extreme forms of Islam have been gradually gaining ground in Tatarstan. The internationalization of Tatarstan’s Muslim culture has been studied in detail by Rais Suleimanov, an expert on influences of foreign Muslim groups within Russia, particularly in the Middle Volga region; his multi-part article on how “Turkish emissaries for decades influenced the minds and hearts of our [Tatar] compatriots” can be read here and a shorter version of it is found here. According to Suleimanov, religious ties between Tatarstan and Turkey, which began on the basis of the ethno-linguistic and cultural connections between the two peoples, have allowed a more internationalist form of Islamist ideology to penetrate Tatarstan.

Several factors, however, mitigate Islamist radicalization in Tatarstan. Compared to Chechnya, Tatarstan has both more de jure and de facto rights (for instance, only Tatarstan retained the right to call its head a President; Kadyrov is known simply as “the head of Chechnya”, not its president). Also, in sharp contrast to the war-torn Chechnya, whose economic and social development has been stunted by the armed conflict, Tatarstan ranks relatively high in terms of economic and social development indicators. For example, Tatarstan’s GDP per capita is more than 4.5 times higher than that of Chechnya. According to Rosstat data, average per capita income in Tatarstan in 2013 was 26,161 rubles per month, whereas in Chechnya it was only 17,188 rubles per month; moreover, nearly half of Tatarstan’s residents’ personal income comes from salary and business profits, whereas in Chechnya only about a third of personal income comes from those sources, with a bigger chunk (38.1%) deriving from “other sources of income”, including currency operations and “hidden” money streams. In Tatarstan more than three quarters of the population live in towns and cities, whereas in Chechnya only about a third  do. Unemployment is nearly 7 times lower in Tatarstan than in Chechnya (4% vs. 26.9%). An average Tatarstan resident enjoys 6 extra square feet of living space compared to Chechnya. The availability of physicians and nurses per capita is 1.5 times greater in Tatarstan than in Chechnya, and the percentage of students in higher education institutions in Tatarstan is twice that in Chechnya. It may be for those reasons that Tatarstan has supplied 5 times less foreign fighters for ISIS in absolute terms, and 15 times less in per capita terms than Chechnya.

(To be continued…)

Radicalization of Russia’s Muslims—Are Crimean Tatars Next? (Part 1) Read More »

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland

(Note: GeoCurrents is a non-partisan blog devoted to providing geographical information, particularly in reference to current global events. On rare occasions, however, opinion pieces are posted on the site. This is one of those occasions. As I regard this issue as extremely important, this post will remain at the top of the GeoCurrents page for at least the next week.)

Now that Joe Biden is a possible candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, attention is again falling on a 2006 editorial in which he and Leslie Gelb advocated dividing Iraq into three ethnically based regions. At the time of its publication, the Biden-Gelb essay was widely misinterpreted as a call for dismantling Iraq altogether and replacing it with independent Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, and Kurdish states. But Biden, Gelb and their defenders were quick to insist that their intention was actually that of saving Iraq by restructuring it as a federation, giving substantial autonomy but not outright independence to these three regions.

 

As this controversy made clear, any proposal for the actual dismemberment of Iraq was essentially unthinkable at the time for the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The existing geopolitical order had to be maintained, such thinking had it, in order to preserve stability. If the Kurds of Iraq were to acquire their own country, what would prevent countless other disgruntled ethnic groups from demanding the same? If the international community were to consent to Kurdish desires and recognize their independence, anarchy could spread across the region and eventually, perhaps, the entire world. As a result, the mere mention of partition was generally dismissed out if hand.

Kurdistan Independence InevitableMore recently, this inflexible consensus seems to be yielding, although in an understated manner, with little discussion of underlying principles. Major media sources are now wondering whether the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is not inevitable, regardless of the warnings of international-relations experts. Some writers have taken a step further, advocating the immediate recognition of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq. Consider for example, Andrew Stuttaford’s offhand remark in a recent National Review essay on the ISIS threat: “The Kurds (independence and enhanced military support for them already, please) are the only benign, and reasonably effective, fighting forces in the region, but they are unlikely to want to stray too far from Kurdish territory.”

But despite such rumblings, most foreign-policy analysts still shudder at the thought of breaking up Iraq. Certainly the current U.S. administration remains committed to the country’s unity. As the indispensable Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported on August 1, 2015: “The White House has reconfirmed its position on maintaining a unified Iraq in a firm rebuttal to a 100,000-strong petition asking the United States to support Kurdish independence Tuesday.”

http://rudaw.net/english/world/01082015

geopolitical anomalies map 10Fusing Iraq back together would require considerable force and would probably result in massive bloodshed, as well as the suspension of the dream of democratic governance. Can we reasonably imagine that the Peshmerga would be willingly folded into the Iraqi military, as would be demanded if a truly unified state were to reemerge? Does anyone who understands the actual situation think that the Iraqi Kurds would voluntarily submit to Baghdad and allow the dismantling of the essentially sovereign state that they have struggled so hard to create? By the same token, is it reasonable to assume that the Sunni Arabs of the northwest would acquiesce to a united, democratic Iraq in which the Shia majority holds electoral sway? The events of the past 12 years certainly indicate otherwise. I, for one, would be willing to bet a considerable amount of money, and at unfavorable odds, that Iraqi unification will not occur within the next 10 years — or any other time period that one might specify.

The Bosnia & Herzegovina Option

Bosnia and Herzegovina MapThe best hope for rebuilding some kind of state within Iraqi’s recognized boundaries would be something on the order of the Biden-Gelb plan, allowing the three main regions to enjoy de facto but not de jure sovereignty, sharing little more than membership in international organizations. The result would be a largely fictional country, similar to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which the main groups maintain largely peaceful relations mostly by limiting their interactions. But any such arrangement would be viewed by most Iraqi Kurds as a temporary expedient, a mere a way-station on the route to actual independence.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, moreover, does not make a good exemplar, as it is more a sliced-up protectorate than a real country. As GeoCurrents reader Vatroslav Herceg writes, “In Bosnia and Herzegovina you have coffee bars that are for Croats, coffee bars that are for Bosnians, and coffee bars that are for Serbs in the same city.” Given this situation, Herceg foresees the return of political violence:

I am not a nationalist, but if Bosnia and Herzegovina is left like this there will be another war in the Balkans. I don’t want another war, my family already suffered in the 1990s war. Just look at the artificial flag* of Bosnia and Herzegovina, [which] shows that this entity is a EU and USA protectorate.

 

Put differently, the diplomatic charade embodied in the creation of an artificial federation that forces mutually hostile groups into the same “country” might buy time, but it will not solve the underlying issues. This is not to argue, it is essential to note, that there was anything historically inevitable about the mutual antipathy found among Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks in Bosnia and Herzegovina (or, for that matter, among Iraq’s Sunnis Arabs, Shia Arabs, and Kurds.) Given different historical circumstances, a sense of Yugoslav identity might have prevailed, leading to the perpetuation of Yugoslavia. But that did not happen, and the events of the past quarter-century cannot be wished away. Yugoslavia is gone for good, and Bosnia and Herzegovina appears to be headed in the same direction. A curiously vegetative state, Bosnia and Herzegovina is kept alive only by the artificial life-support system of the international community. Should we wish the same for Iraq?

The Delusion of Reunification

Iraq and Syria Political Situation MapThe insistence on maintaining the superficially existing geopolitical framework flows from an exhausted doctrine that has itself become a major obstacle to peace. Recent events have made a mockery of the idea that the partition of Iraq could be dangerously destabilizing, as complete destabilization—and far worse—has already occurred. The terror state of ISIS that has spread its tentacles over a vast swath of Syria and Iraq draws much of its strength from the international community’s insistence that these imperially imposed entities remain inviolate regardless of the desires of their residents or the realities on the ground. The break-away state of Iraqi Kurdistan, on the other hand, is a refuge of stability and effective governance, not the font of insecurity imagined by those who sanctify preexisting borders. The idea that rewarding such success with diplomatic recognition would somehow prove disruptive to some imaginary Iraqi peace process is laughable.

Somalia Political Situation MapNor is Iraq the only country in the larger region that has collapsed beyond the point of reconstitution. Yemen and Libya might remerge as coherent states, as their fall was recent, but I would not count on it. Syrian reunification is even more of a long shot, as its national unity is too weak and its mutual antipathies too entrenched. And what of Somalia? Like Iraq, Somalia ceased functioning as real country nearly a quarter-century ago. Since then, its geopolitical contours have remained in flux, with territories passing among its weak provisional government, Islamist forces, and autonomous warlords. But Somalia also contains, like Iraq, one relatively well-run, stable government that acts as a sovereign power despite its lack of international recognition: Somaliland. The reunification of Somalia, difficult as that is to imagine, would probably require the crushing of Somaliland, as Hargeisa (Somaliland’s capital) would be no more willing to submit to Mogadishu than Erbil (Hewler, in Kurdish) would be willing to give in to Baghdad. Attempting to revive the moribund states of Iraq and Somalia would, in all likelihood, prove far more disruptive than acknowledging the functioning states of Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland.

World Political Map ProblemsIn the end, I cannot avoid the conclusion that the dream of reunifying Iraq and Somalia is deadly delusion, a mirage generated by viewing global political geography not as it actually is, but rather as the diplomatic establishment thinks it should be. Such a blinkered worldview is unfortunately ubiquitous, encoded in our basic world-political maps. In the United States, these ideologically laden documents not only show a country that collapsed decades ago (Somalia), but even depict a country that has never existed, other than in the imaginations of diplomats and insurgents (Western Sahara). How many years—how many decades—have to pass before we can acknowledge reality and drop our geopolitical illusions? Abandoning pretense and facing the truth is a necessary precondition for achieving peace and stability.

The Matter of Precedent

Those who fear the recognition of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan usually invoke precedent. If a precedent is set by the division of officially recognized countries, they ask, where will the process end? As dozens of countries are plagued by secession movements, they dread the opening of a veritable Pandora’s box of anarchy and rebellion.

The precedent argument, however, fails from the outset. It greatly exaggerates the power of the international order while ignoring key events of the past thirty years. In that period, newly independent countries have sprouted over much of the world, while a number of states dissolved completely when their constituent divisions all gained independence. The USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia no longer exist; Eritrea, East Timor, Kosovo, and South Sudan have successfully detached themselves from the countries to which they formerly belonged. Other new states could easily emerge in the near future; as has been made clear, both Scotland and Quebec will be allowed to gain sovereignty if a majority of their voters so decide. If these occurrences somehow inspired militant secession movements, resulting in an uptick of violence and anarchy across the globe, it somehow escaped notice.

Yet as it so happens, a precedent has been established: the partition of countries is perfectly acceptable provided that it occurs in a certain manner. The general conditions are that the government of the country slated for losing a particular territory must agree to it, while the people of the seceding region must voice their support, preferably through the ballot box.** But as South Sudan clearly shows, violent resistance to the existing geopolitical framework can be the precipitating process. South Sudan gained independence largely though warfare, grinding down resistance in both Khartoum and the international community through decades of struggle. Gaining sovereignty in such a manner may have set a bad precedent, but set it was, with no way of being erased. That precedent, moreover, was largely created by the same foreign-policy establishment of the United States that vigorously opposes the independence of Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. As The New York Times reported in 2014, “South Sudan is in many ways an American creation, carved out of war-torn Sudan in a referendum largely orchestrated by the United States, its fragile institutions nurtured with billions of dollars in American aid.”

 

But South Sudan makes a fraught example, as its independence has hardly been successful. Indeed, the Fund for Peace currently ranks South Sudan as the world’s most “fragile state,” considerably more fragile than even Syria. Although this particular claim is difficult to take seriously, given that Syria has been shattered beyond recognition, it does indicate the severity of South Sudan’s challenges. One might therefore conclude that independence was a major mistake, and perhaps even extrapolate this insight to the rest of the world, reckoning that it is best to maintain the world political map exactly as it is, discounting any possible benefits that might result from the partition of failed states.

Many solid reasons, however, can be found for dismissing any conclusions drawn from the debacle of South Sudan. I retain some hope that the “world’s youngest country” can repair its cleavages and begin to heal and develop. I am also relieved that its unfortunate people are no longer under the thumb of the Khartoum government, unlike those of Darfur and South Kordofan (the Nuba Hills), who still suffer attacks of almost genocidal intensity. But regardless of its dire predicament, South Sudan makes a poor comparison with either Somaliland or Iraqi Kurdistan. The people of South Sudan made their case for independence on the basis of the oppression that they had long endured along with their tenacious military resistance. They had no experience, however, in running an effective government, holding elections, establishing an independent judiciary, and so on, all of which have been accomplished with some success by both Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan. Both of these entities have successfully built their own states over the past several decades, doing so in a chaotic regional environment and with little help from international developmental agencies. In the case of Somaliland, Peter J. Schraeder, persuasively argued years ago that such accomplishments merited the recognition of sovereignty. In the intervening years, little has changed.

Problems Behind, Problems Ahead

1995 Divided Iraqi Kurdistan MapIn constructing their own unrecognized state, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan have had to overcome deep divisions within their own society. In the mid-1990s, the region’s two main political groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), mostly representing the Kurmanji-speaking north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), mostly representing the Sorani-speaking south, fought a brief war. But although regional tensions in Iraqi Kurdistan persist, civil strife is no longer a threat. On both sides of the linguistic/political divide, most people have concluded that Kurdish identity and secular governance trump more parochial considerations. In the intervening years, the Kurdish Regional Government has managed to construct a reasonably united, secure, and democratic order. Much the same, moreover, can be said of the government of Somaliland. Such achievements deserve acknowledgment, ideally by the recognition of full independence.

The recognition Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan would, of course, generate its own diplomatic complications. The African Union would take quick offense at any country offering formal ties with Somaliland, while Turkey would be furious at any state proposing to do the same with Iraqi Kurdistan. If such a newly independent country were to include any of the Kurdish territories of northern Syria (Rojava), Turkey might even threaten war. But no major foreign-policy initiatives are ever risk free, and all necessarily generate irritation and anger among some interested parties. Considering the horrific and seemingly interminable conflict that has chewed up Iraq, Syria, and much of the Horn of Africa—generating a refugee crisis of global scope—a new approach is required, even if it carries risks of its own. I would suggest that such a new policy begin by abandoning the fantasy map of the foreign-policy establishment and instead recognize the global geopolitical framework as it actually is. Unlike the internationally recognized but non-functional country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Somaliland and Iraqi Kurdistan are genuine states, taking orders from no other power and running their own affairs as they see fit — and doing so with more capability and liberality than most of their neighbors. As such, they deserve immediate recognition.

Flag of Bosnia*As noted in the Wikipedia article on the flag: “The three points of the triangle are understood to stand for the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs.[2] It is also seen to represent the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina which is shaped like a triangle. The stars, representing Europe, are meant to be infinite in number and thus they continue from top to bottom. The flag features colors often associated with neutrality and peace – white, blue, and yellow. The colors yellow and blue are also seen to be taken from the flag of Europe; the color blue was originally based on the flag of the United Nations. The present scheme is being used by both the Council of Europe which owns the flag and the European Union which adopted the Council of Europe’s flag in 1985.”

** Exceptions exist, as the first condition was not met in the case of Kosovo. As a result, many countries do not recognize the Kosovo’s independence.

 

 

GeoCurrents Editorial: Recognition for Iraqi Kurdistan and Somaliland Read More »

Kurdistan and Balochistan: Is National Self-Determination a Left/Right Issue?

I have been wondering for some time how the issue of self-determination for so-called stateless nations fits into the standard, one-dimensional political spectrum. Historically, those on the left have been more favorably disposed to “national liberation struggles” than those on the right, who have more often advocated stability and the maintenance of the geopolitical status quo. By the same token, most of the best-known groups of the late 20th century that sought the independence of their homelands staked out positions on the left, and often on the far left. Prominent examples here include the Kurdish separatists in Turkey, Catalan and Basque separatists in Spain, and Quebecois separatists in Canada. Even support for Scottish independence tilts left, and I suspect that most international advocates of a “Free Tibet” lean in the same direction.

Recently, however, several opinion pieces have made me wonder whether the poles might be shifting on this matter. Is the left becoming suspicious of the idea of self-determination for stateless ethnic groups, just as the right warms up to it? Two problematic and utterly opposed articles command my attention in this regard. From the left comes Max Fisher’s “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” published in Vox on August 5, 2015. From the right comes Josh Gelernter’s “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” published in The National Review on September 4, 2015. One should, of course, be wary of reading too much into such a limited selection of idiosyncratic writings. As such, the current post should be read as merely exploratory rather than as conclusive in any way.

Before examining these two articles, it is necessary to consider the political spectrum itself. I am intrigued by the uncertain position of the self-determination question in part because it unsettles the very idea of a one-dimensional continuum of political belief, a notion that remains omnipresent no matter how often and how effectively it is challenged. As has often been noted, the extreme left and the extreme right often bear more resemblance to each other than they do to either the moderate left or the moderate right respectively. Equally significant, there are no logical reasons why many of the various beliefs that constitute the current mainstream “left” and “right” viewpoints necessarily belong together. A number of specific positions that were once counted as firmly “left” are now more often deemed “right,” and vice versa. To be sure, the political beliefs of most people can readily be placed on such a spectrum, but there are millions who simply don’t fit—as well as entire political movements premised on thwarting the very notion of a right-left continuum (that of the libertarians being the most prominent example).

Max Fisher’s Vox article, “Why DC Loves Biden’s Terrible Plan to Divide Iraq,” takes a rather extreme position against the self-determination of ethnic groups, or at least those that happen to be found in Iraq. Joe Biden’s “terrible plan” in question, proposed with Leslie Gelb in 2006, was designed to preserve rather than eliminate Iraq as a country. But Biden and Gelb argued that ethnic animosity had had reached such a level that it had become difficult if not impossible for Iraq to function as a unitary state. Instead, they argued, a federal system should be contemplated, one that would accord a significant degree of autonomy to Iraq’s three main group, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs, and the Kurds. The model that they proposed was that of Bosnia & Herzegovina, a country whose highly decentralized, ethnically based system of government had brought effective peace to what had been a war-shattered region.

 

 

Fisher pours contempt on the idea of such a decentralized, federally constituted Iraq. He argues that it would “enshrine sectarianism,” Iraq’s actual font of discord, into law. As such, its regional governments would only “give … citizens full rights and security if those citizens have the correct sectarian identity.” The solution, as Fisher sees it, is simply to eliminate sectarian impulses:

The only real way to solve sectarianism is by solving sectarianism, to overcome it by getting people to abandon the idea that they exist in a zero-sum contest for security with other sectarian groups that can only be regarded as innately hostile. It means building a new social contract in which security and rights are guaranteed irrespective of ethnicity or religion, signing everyone on to that new contract, and then proving it can actually work.

Division of Iraq MapAlthough the idea of overcoming ethnic divisions is laudable, making it happen is another matter altogether. Here, Fisher has virtually nothing to say beyond blaming the United States for Iraq’s turmoil and asking a number of rhetorical questions that he admits have “no real answers.” As a result, Fisher’s proposals are almost laughable naive. In actuality, Iraq is at present effectively divided into three regions, with the officially recognized “national” government controlling the south, the largely autonomous Kurdish regional government the northeast, and ISIS the northwest. As can be seen from the paired maps posted here, the current fit between ethnic groups and political control is close indeed. The idea of the intrinsic nationhood of Iraq as a whole has lost most of the power that it once held, and will likely prove almost impossible to revive to any significant degree. And even in its heyday, Iraqi national solidarity remained precarious, as it was not easy to generate feelings of common identity around a country that had been largely created by Winston Churchill and Gertrude Bell, two  British imperial agents widely despised in the region. The leaders of ISIS are well aware of this conundrum, and they benefit from it tremendously.

Fisher also errs in assuming that any regional governments in an ethnically divided of Iraq, be they fully independent or merely autonomous, would necessarily deny basic rights to members of minority faiths and linguistic groups. To see the falsity of this assertion, all one has to do is examine the actual situation in the territory under the authority of the Kurdish Regional Government. Although Iraqi Kurdistan faces a number of ethnic problems, it is still a refuge for minority groups that are deeply persecuted elsewhere in the region. In other parts of the world as well, many states founded on the national identity of a particular group afford a full array of rights and protections to their minority populations.

Josh Gelernter’s article, “Balochistan: Captive Nation,” takes the opposite perspective. It argues not merely for political autonomy for the Balochs of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but rather for their full independence. As he puts it:

Nonetheless, what’s right is right; the Balochs deserve self-determination. We should at least start by saying so. And at least one congressman has said so: In 2012, California Republican Dana Rohrabacher introduced a resolution calling for the House to recognize that “the people of Baluchistan [sic], currently divided between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan, have the right to self-determination and to their own sovereign country” and that “they should be afforded the opportunity to choose their own status among the community of nations, living in peace and harmony, without external coercion.”

Elsewhere in the article, however, Gelernter indicates that his support for Baloch sovereignty is also based on U.S. strategic interests. As he puts it:

Like the Kurds, the Balochs are Muslims who, reportedly, have a strong pro-West and pro-democracy bent. According to the president of the Baloch Society of North America, the “Balochs are secular, pro-peace and democratic people. We believe that every nation, including the Jewish people, has the right to defend itself.”

Balochistan MapBut as Gelernter admits, open support for the independence of Balochistan would generate huge diplomatic headaches for the United States. Although he welcomes the prospect of “balkanizing Iran” in order to “distract Iran’s extra-territorial trouble-making,” he allows that “Pakistan is — at least nominally — our ally in the war on terror, and Balochistan accounts for more than 40 percent of Pakistan’s total territory.” Gelernter is also concerned about China’s possible response to such a U.S. foreign-policy initiative, especially in regard to the major port facilities that it has constructed in Gwadar. But his conclusion is nonetheless quite simple: “The United States should, as a rule, support the democratic aspirations of oppressed peoples.”

 

I find it astounding that the National Review, the leading voice of intellectual conservatism in the United States, would publish an article that calls for such a wholesale reorientation of U.S. foreign policy, openly challenging the entire post-WWII global geopolitical order. The consequences of U.S. support for the partition of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan would be nothing less than earthshaking. Although I admire Gelernter’s audacity and willingness to think independently, this particular proposal seems to be a non-starter.

Not surprisingly, most of the few comments that Gelernter’s article received are highly skeptical. The most informed remarks, those of “AxelHeyst,” are scathingly critical. As this anonymous commentator writes:

Writing as someone who knows a lot more about this issue than the author, I can attest that this piece is utter nonsense.

The Baloch have never once in their history been a united nation. They are a rag-bag of tribes, none of which feels any loyalty to the others. Their chieftains lead lives of extraordinary privilege and are heavily implicated in the opium trade from Afghanistan, through Iran and into Turkey and Europe. Those chiefs have no desire whatsoever to see economic development, because it would threaten their feudal rights and drug trade.

Pakistan does NOT treat Balochistan like a colonial possession. Just ask the Canadian and Chilean companies who tried to mine there…a provincial court tore up their concession. Pakistan’s supreme court said it couldn’t intervene.

Various foreign intelligence agencies have tried to stir up the Baloch against Iran and Pakistan, notably Israel’s Mossad and India’s R&AW. The CIA were particularly critical of Mossad’s effort, given that the CIA got the blame for the decapitation of a number of Iranian border guards who were actually murdered by a Mossad-backed group. (See the article ‘False Flag’ in Foreign Policy magazine, 2012).

I don’t know what the hell Rohrabacher’s doing with this issue, or whether he fancies himself a new Charlie Wilson, but persuading people to start killing each other for some trumped-up national identity is about as irresponsible as it gets. Vote him out.

My own position is roughly halfway between those of Gelernter and “AxelHeyst.” The Baloch have often been very poorly treated in both Iran and Pakistan, and many of their grievances are quite real. Equally important, denying their political aspirations merely because “never once in their history [have they] been a united nation” is simply nonsensical. By the same reasoning, one would have been forced to reject the Declaration of Independence of the United States in 1776. The majority of the word’s sovereign states, moreover, fall into the same category, never having been “united nations” before they gained sovereignty. But such arguments do not mean that advocating independence is the best way of addressing the plight of the Baloch. If a major foreign power such as the United States were to seriously push for the full sovereignty of Balochistan, gargantuan problems would almost certainly arise.

The issues addressed in this post are extraordinarily complex. As such, they defy simply political classification. Whether or not one supports a particular bid for national self-determination, moreover, often comes down to political expedience rather than principle. Writers on the left are more inclined to champion national liberation struggles that are based on leftist principles and that seek independence from non-leftist states than they are to favor similar struggles with different political coloration. By the same token, conservatives in the United States generally look more favorably on peoples seeking independence from anti-American governments than on those hoping to partition U.S. allies.

Can one take a principled or at least consistent stand on such matters? That will be the topic of the next GeoCurrents post.

Kurdistan and Balochistan: Is National Self-Determination a Left/Right Issue? Read More »

My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions

Ukraine Political Regions 1Several months ago, I posted an article and a map on GeoCurrents in which I divided Ukraine into a “nationalist” region and a “Russian-oriented” region. In retrospect, it seems that most of the area that I had designated as “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” does not actually fit that category. Despite the fact that a few pro-Russian demonstrations have occurred in a number of cities in this region, the bulk of it has remained calm and shows no signs of giving substantial to support pro-Russian separatists. A recent Harvard study indicates as much:

A new study conducted at Harvard University suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians may be significantly more supportive of Kyiv’s standoff against Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists than has previously been reported. …

What was surprising, “very surprising” [Bruce] Etling said, was the portion of Russian-language content coming specifically from within Ukraine that was backing the Euromaidan protests. “In Ukraine, among Russian-speakers, 74 percent were supportive of the protests, and only a quarter were opposed,” he said.

Ukraine 2004 election mapI had based my idea of a “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” not so much on linguistic geography as on electoral geography. The area that I had so designated had consistently supported candidates oriented more to Russia than to Europe and more in favor of decentralization than of a strong, unitary state. But evidently it was one thing to vote for a Ukrainian party that leaned toward Moscow and eschewed strong Ukrainian nationalism and quite another to want to see the break-up Ukraine Political Regions 2of Ukraine and the establishment of pro-Russian “statelets”. As a consequence, I have redrafted the map. In its new form, only Lugansk and Donetsk—much of whose territories now form two unrecognized, pro-Moscow “People’s Republics”—are deemed “Russian-Oriented.” (Crimea is still designated as “Russian-Occupied.”) The rest of southeastern Ukraine has been relabeled as “ambivalent,” which is probably not the best term.

New Novorossiya mapI am hardly the only one to have made this error. Many Russian nationalists, for example, openly refer to the entire expanse of southeastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” (As this term Novorossiya Map 2dates back to the conquest of this region from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1700s, “Novorossiya” now seems to connote to such people something on the order of “New Old New Russia.”)

Major threats to Ukraine’s national integrity, of course, still exist—and not just in the far east and Crimea. Last night’s ultranationalist protests in Kiev (Kyiv) were discussed in a blog-post today by Walter Russell Mead under the heading “Prelude to Dismemberment?” Such an assessment, however, seems rather extreme to me.

Ukraine Language MapLanguage maps showing the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country are themselves fascinating, as they tend to vary greatly in their depictions. I have posted here two extremes. The first is a recent Wikipedia map, derived from 2001 census data, that shows almost the entire country as strongly Ukrainian-speaking. The second, which also relies on information from the 2001 census (albeit aggregated in a different manner), shows the Ukrainian language as limited Ukraine Language Map 2to the far west; it also indicates that the entire southeast, and much more of the country as well, is actually Russian speaking. Most intriguingly, it depicts the core north-central region of the country as “Surzhyk speaking,” Surzhyk being an informal Russian-Ukrainian hybrid, described by the Wikipedia as:

a range of mixed (macaronic) sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine and adjacent lands. There is no unifying set of characteristics; the term is used for ‘norm-breaking, non-obedience to or nonawareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages.’

 

The linguistic situation here is obviously highly complex. Rather than wade into these murky waters myself, I would refer readers to an excellent recent post on this issue by Asya Pereltsvaig in her website Language of the World.

 

 

My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions Read More »

Ukrainian Regionalism and the Federal Option

Ukraine2004ElectionMapLike many other pundits, David Frum fears that Vladimir Putin is plotting to transform Ukraine into a weak federation and then transform some of its federal units into de facto Russian dependencies. As he argues in a recent Atlantic article:

In the weeks since Russian forces seized Crimea, Vladimir Putin’s plan for mainland Ukraine has become increasingly clear: partition. Putin’s ambassadors and ministers don’t use that word, of course. In talks with their U.S. and NATO counterparts, they prefer the word “federalism.” They want to organize manipulated referendums to create Russian-aligned governments in the eastern regions of Ukraine. These governments would be endowed with broad powers, including authority over trade, investment, and security. Russia would then reach deals with these governments in an arrangement that would amount to annexation in all but name.

Frum goes on to make some interesting observations about the ambiguities in the idea of a federation. As he notes, although Russia proclaims itself to be a federation rather than a national state, it is actually governed from the center, allowing little autonomy for its so-called federal subjects. As Frum explains:

Russia, of course, is itself one of the most centralized nations on earth. The president appoints regional governors, who in turn handpick the Federation Council, Russia’s Senate. The central government controls most state revenue, the police— really, almost everything.

Ukraine2006ElectionMapMy main complaint with Frum’s formulation is his use of the term “nation” in the first sentence. Russia may be a centralized state, but that does not make it a nation state, much less a nation, as its constituent nationalities are categorized as separate entities. In Russia, even passports make it clear that Tatars, Chechens, Jews, and others do not belong to the Russian nation, as explained in a previous GeoCurrents post.

The kind of federation that Putin seems to envisage for Ukraine, however, is not the superficial variety epitomized by Russia, but rather the fully decentralized type in which the federal government has scant power, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ukrainian nationalists loathe the idea of transforming their country into a loose amalgamation, seeing, like Frum, a pretext for de facto partition and Russian domination. But regardless of Russian designs, Ukraine will probably continue to have trouble cohering as tightly unified state, as its split between the generally Russian-oriented southeast and the nationalistic and Western-oriented northwest is too profound. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, the Russian-inclined candidate Victor Yanukovych won over 90 percent of the vote in two far east eastern oblasts (Luhansk and Donetsk), whereas his rival Victor Yushchenko took over 95 percent of the vote in two regions of the far west (Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil). Such deep polarization does not bode well for Ukraine’s political future.

As is evident (and as was explained in earlier GeoCurrents posts), Ukraine is thus divided into two political units by a line running from the southwest to the northeast. But both of the resulting “macroregions” are in turn politically subdivided. The remainder of this post will examine the divisions of the northwest, the heartland of Ukrainian nationalism.

UkrainePoliticalRegonsMapOn the map to the left, I have labeled the northwestern half of the country “Nationalist Ukraine,” as distinguished from the southeastern “Russia-Oriented Ukraine.” Based on recent voting patterns, I have divided the former unit into three subregions. The first, labeled here “Core Ukraine,” is marked by pronounced but not overwhelming support for Ukrainian nationalists and Western-oriented politicians. To the west of the core is a smaller region composed of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil oblasts, which is characterized by overwhelming support for Ukrainian nationalism along with Ukraine2012ElectionSvobodaMapa strong measure of extreme nationalism. In this region, called here Far Western Ukraine, the Orange-Revolution hero Victor Yushchenko took more than 93 percent of the vote in 2004. In the 2006 election, the Far West, unlike neighboring oblasts to the east, generally rejected the Yulia Tymoshenko Block, supporting instead Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine. In the most recent election (2012), the extremist neo-fascist party Svoboda polled well only in this region, where it took more than 30 percent of the vote – and a plurality in Lviv.

Ukraine2012ElectionMapWhile the Far West is the most ardent part of Ukraine’s nationalistic greater northwest, the extreme western oblast of Zakarpattia barely fits the pattern. In 2012, the Russian-oriented Party of Region took a plurality of its votes. The extreme nationalist party Svoboda, moreover, is relatively weak here. Zakarpattia also distinguishes itself in its variable voting Ukraine2012ElectionOudarMappatterns, which separate district from district, as can be seen in the map of the 2006 election. Zakarpattia is also notable for having given a substantial percentage of its votes in 2012 to Vitali Klitschko, a former highly successful professional boxer dubbed “Dr. Ironfist” in reference both to his physically prowess and his educational attainment (he holds a doctorate in “sports science” and is an avid chess player).  Klitschko pushes for European integration, reduced corruption, and enhanced transparency, as well as lower taxes, but does not advocate cultural nationalism, viewing the language issues as relatively unimportant.

Ruthenia MapZakarpattia’s distinctiveness is rooted in part in its physical geography. Located on the far side of the formidable Carpathian Mountains from the rest of the country, it is located in and on the outskirts of the Danubian Basin, also known as the Pannonian Plain. As such, it is much more easily accessible from Budapest, Bratislava, and even Vienna than it is from Kyiv (Kiev), let alone Moscow.

Historical-geographical patterns also help explain the political regionalization of “Nationalist Ukraine.” The main part of this region, which I dubbed “Core Ukraine” on the map above, was long under Polish-Lithuanian domination, but came under Russian rule with the partition of Poland in the late 1700s. Far Western Ukraine, on the other hand, passed from Polish rule to the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire, forming the Ukraine1700PoliticalMapeastern portion of its region of Galicia. It was returned to Poland after World War I, and did not become part of the Soviet Union until the end of World War II. The Austrian period seems to have been crucial in nurturing the far West’s devotion to Ukrainian nationalism as well as identification with the West. The key factor here was the continued survival and indeed florescence of the Uniate Church, which had emerged in the late 1500s under Polish-Lithuanian rule, when the Roman Catholic Church successfully brought part of the local religious establishment under its umbrella as one of the so-called Eastern Catholic churches (such self-governing Catholic divisions were allowed to keep their own liturgies, as well as married priests). As explained in an excellent Wikipedia article on the history of Christianity in Ukraine:

Ukraine1900PoliticalMapThe Austrians granted equal legal privileges to the Uniate Church and removed Polish influence. They also mandated that Uniate seminarians receive a formal higher education (previously, priests had been educated informally by other priests, usually their fathers, as the vocation was passed on within families), and organized institutions in Vienna and Lviv that would serve this function. This led to the appearance, for the first time, of a large educated social class within the Ukrainian population in Galicia. As a result, within Austrian Galicia over the next century the Uniate Church ceased being a puppet of foreign interests and became the primary cultural force within the Ukrainian community. Most independent native Ukrainian cultural trends … emerged from within the ranks of the Uniate Church. The participation of Uniate priests or their children in western Ukrainian cultural and political life was so great that western Ukrainians were accused of wanting to create a theocracy in western Ukraine by their Polish rivals

Zakarpattia, or trans-Carpathian Ukraine, experienced a markedly different political history, as it was long part of Hungary, even during the period when Hungary was subordinated to Austrian power under the Hapsburg dynasty. It passed to Czechoslovakia in the inter-war period, and did not Austria-HungaryRutheniaMapbecome part of Ukraine, and hence the Soviet Union, until the end of World War II. This region’s local “Uniate” Church, the Ruthenian Catholic Church, was mostly eradicated, or at least forced underground, by Soviet-era persecution. As a result, it maintained its structures most successfully among emigrant populations in the United States. Incidentally, the best-known American member of this community is the pop-artist Andy Warhol (1928-1987), born Andrej Varhola, Jr. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Ruthenian Church’s main body in the United States, not coincidently, is the Byzantine Catholic Archeparchy of Pittsburgh.

(Note: the base maps used for the historical maps here is the Euratlas, an excellent source. )

 

 

 

Ukrainian Regionalism and the Federal Option Read More »

Casamance – harmonious name, discordant reality

“Je viens de la Casamance” (I am from The Casamance): on a recent trip to Senegal, this was the answer that I received roughly three quarters of the time when I asked staff members at hotels, guides, and people who approached me on the beach where they were from in Senegal. Throughout my ten days in the country, the word built up on aura of notoriety and awe in my mind – like something beautiful and dangerous, inaccessible yet desirable. The next words would usually inform me that the Casamance is the true heart of the country, where the luscious beauty of Senegal lies, and where people know how to have real fun. But the actual history of the Casamance region paints a different image from the one that I had built up in my mind based on local accounts.

The Casamance has long been a region in limbo, caught between worlds: today trapped between Senegal and The Gambia, it was subject to both French and Portuguese colonial efforts before the border was negotiated in 1888 between the French colony of Senegal and Portuguese Guinea (now Guinea-Bissau) to the south. The settlement resulted in Portugal losing possession of the Casamance, which was at the time the commercial hub of its colony. To this day, the region has preserved its local variant of West African Portuguese-based Creole, known as Ziguinchor, and the members of its deeply rooted Creole community carry Portuguese last names like Da Silva, Carvalho, and Fonseca. Ironically, interest in the Portuguese colonial heritage has been revived of late in order to solidify a distinct identity, particularly in Baixa (“lower”) Casamança. Such an identity is also aided by the presence of people from Bissau-Guinean, who have entered Senegal as expatriates, immigrants, and refugees fleeing the poverty and political instability that has affected Guinea-Buissau.

Unfortunately, the Casamance region has seldom been stable, its instability stemming from Senegal’s very independence. Indeed, Senegal’s first president, Leopold Sedar Senghor, allegedly promised the region’s leaders that if they joined Senegal for 20 years they could subsequently have their own state if they wanted it. When the government failed to follow through on the promise in 1980, street demonstrations in the Casamance capital, Zinguichor, turned violent. The main impetus behind the separatist drive is the Movement of Democratic Forces of Casamance (MFDC), created in 1947 as a political party, before turning to outright separatism in the 1980s. The MFDC gained widespread local popularity following brutal repression against demonstrators who were calling on officials to make good on Senghor’s promise.

Casamance1

Beyond these historical factors, the separatist movement also has economic and geographic origins. First, the Casamance region is the richest in the country by virtue of its lush vegetation and vast natural resources, which has earned it the title of national granary. Peanuts, Senegal’s main cash crop, are particularly important in the region. The exploitation of these riches, which often bypasses the local population, has fostered a sense of victimization among the Southerners, many of whom grieve the systematic plundering of their region for the benefit of other regions, particularly Dakar. Religious differences exacerbate such tensions. Whereas the vast majority of the Senegalese people are Muslims, many residents of the Casamance are Christians or animists. The prevailing sentiment in the region and among the locally dominant Diola (Jola) ethnic group is that they do not benefit sufficiently from their region’s wealth and that Dakar, the capital, reaps most of the profit that is rightfully theirs.

Casamance2

Another factor is the Casamance region’s geographical isolation from Senegal due to the existence of The Gambia. Indeed, the region is poorly connected to the rest of the country by a long, and often nearly impassable road that passes through the eastern Tambacounda region. It is possible, however, to travel from central Senegal to the Casamance by way of the sea or though the territory of the Gambia, but neither option is easy. As a result of such isolation, the Casamance sometimes seems cut off from the rest of the country, and the frustration caused by this alienation fuels a fierce desire among some of its inhabitants to free themselves from the rule of Dakar.

When I visited Senegal this past December, I was told how most Senegalese convoys get across The Gambia. The only way to go to the Casamance without taking a detour all around the Gambia, which would take days, is to cross the River Gambia itself. However, there is no bridge that would make this traversal easy. Indeed, the only current way to get across is a ferry, whose ownership was shifted from the Gambia Public Transport Corporation to the Port Authority in 2001. The authority is eager to maintain its monopoly, and reluctant to allow the construction of a competing bridge. As a result, trucks line up for up to 5 days to get across the river, generating a huge loss of efficiency and profitability, especially for trucks carrying perishables.

Casamance3 Although the Senegalese government has made some efforts at a bridge initiative, the Gambian ferry company has done everything within its power to prevent the implementation of this project. Recently however, The Gambia has paired with the Taiwanese government to enhance the ferry service, which has been highly hazardous. Taiwan is not the only East Asian country interested in Senegal and the Gambia. According to our guides, the Chinese are building soccer stadiums in all major Senegalese towns and cities, ostensibly ‘for free’ but actualy in exchange for fishing rights in the bountiful waters off the coast.

 Casamance4On top of the lack of accessibility, the Casamance faces a major problem in drug trafficking. Drug traffickers take advantage of the local isolation and instability to expand their business, turning the border that the Casamance shares with Guinea Bissau into a hub for the illicit trade. The rebel leaders therefore have a very profitable business in hand and are unlikely to accept anything less than a very favorable settlement. Unfortunately, the Senegalese government is seemingly unwilling to seek a resolution to this issue. While hundreds of Senegalese soldiers are present throughout the Casamance, they have made little headway against the rebellion, and there are growing concerns about human rights violations and the disabling of local economic development. Concrete negotiations with the separatists have not happened for many years. It now seems clear that neither party in really seeking to bring the other to the table for open discussion. Finally, there has been an unfortunate lack of media attention on this conflict. The Senegalese government has also failed to provide information. Indeed, since the inception of the conflcit, no concrete or official figures have been released regarding the number of victims. Some sources, however, claim that up to 5,000 people have lost their lives over the past several decades of fighting.

To add insult to injury, the death toll has been severely exacerbated by the lingering presence of landmines scattered across the region, which has also lead to the abandonment of many villages by former inhabitants. A reported 800 people have lost their lives due to mines since 1988, and the lack of action from the Senegalese government has meant that the demining work has largely been left up to a select group of NGOs. Although a few initiatives have been launched, such as the DDP “disarmament, demining, and ‘projects’” put forward by former President Wade, these peace initiatives have been largely unsuccessful. However, with a recent acceleration of violence, support for the separatist rebels has been dwindling among many locals. In an interview with the IRIN, Moussa Sagna, a trader and resident of Zinguinchor, explains: “The rebels must stop creating violence in the region; they must understand that it is their parents who have suffered now, for 30 years. They shouldn’t fight for the independence of Casamance and at the same time make people suffer in Casamance.”

 Casamance6

 If Senegal wants to experience genuine economic development in a near future, it will need to monbilize all the assets that are in its possession. However, it is doubtful this will happen in the absence of its potentially richest region. The Casamance not only has substantial natural resources, but also has great potential for tourism. There can be no question of the urgency for Senegal of the Casamance problem. Economic opportunities remain unrealized, the drug trafficking virus keeps spreading, and the death toll seems to have maintained a steady pace since the early 1980s. With Senegal’s newly instilled biometric visa regime and entry fee for tourists, as well as the discontinuation of the famous Paris-Dakar rally, tourism has experienced a serious hit over the past few years. The government will thus need to find another means to revive its economy, which has not had the same impressive growth rates that many African countries have experienced over the past few years.

 

Casamance – harmonious name, discordant reality Read More »

Seek and Thou Shall Fiend: French Satirical Maps

(Note to Readers: Asya Pereltsvaig and I were both quite intrigued by a series of satirical maps of France found on the website Carte de France. Rather than write about them ourselves, however, we decided to turn the project over to Claire Negiar, a Stanford student and a native of Paris. Claire may be writing some additional GeoCurrents posts in the coming months as well. — Martin W. Lewis)

As any tourist who has traveled to France knows, the French are master critics. But they tend to spare nobody in the line of fire—not even their own compatriots. In the series entitled “La carte de France vue par ses habitants,” the French website CartesFrances.fr offers a variety of satirical mappings of the divisions of France as seen by inhabitants of some of its main geopolitical and cultural hubs: Paris, Marseilles, Toulouse, Brittany, and Normandy.

The choice of viewpoints used in the maps is itself of interest. The perception of France by its own people is conveyed through the vantage point of 3 cities (Paris, Marseilles, and Toulouse) and 2 regions (Brittany as representing the West of France, Normandy as representing the North). Although Lyon is typically thought of as the second or third city of France, Toulouse stands in for the South of France in general, separate from the city of Marseille. We will see how, together, these various maps give the impression of an overly centralized yet at the same time extremely diverse nation.

carte-de-france-vue-par-les-marseillais The reported perception of France from the perspective of Marseille is particularly simplistic: amusingly, the map features two latitudinal lines and one oval to create a total of four regions: “North Pole” for the far North of France, “North” for everything poleward of the region the French call “Sud” (which itself usually corresponds to the regions of Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur, Languedoc-Roussillon, Midi Pyrennées and Aquitaine, but is here even more constrained) and, finally, the shining label “cons,” (“assholes”), assigned to the oval encompassing Paris. Of notice, too, is the ironic “Capitale” label on top of Marseille. The map perfectly showcases the deep-seated rivalry between Paris and Marseille, which, as far as most French people are concerned, mostly involves an intense soccer rivalry in which the members of each respective team are taunted with the term “enculé” (loosely meaning fucker) by the hordes of fans from the opposing team as they step onto their opponents’ home field.

Interestingly, the comments at the top of the map reveal some other truths about France: its plethora of local traditions and its cultural diversity. A Parisian myself, I find many of the expressions and jokes listed above the map as seen by Marseilles inexplicable: ‘Tu dis “sers moi un jaune” au lieu de sers moi un Pastis’ (‘You say “serve me a yellow” instead of “serve me some Pastis” ‘). In a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, Marseille is described as “a glorious melting pot of sun and seediness” (“Marseille, the Secret Capital of France?”), a view that has come to be the more or less accepted view throughout the country. In a caricatured world, Parisians would be the stuck up bourgeoisie and Marseille the gang of hooligans. This  perception is reinforced by the comments atop the map of Paris: “Tu trouves ça normal de payer 2000€ de loyer pour un 3 pièces” (‘You find it normal to pay 2000€ in rent for 3 a 3-room apartment’) or “Tu payes 12€  pour deux cocas en terrace” (‘You pay 12€  for two cokes on a café terrace’). In contrast, the comments atop the Marseille map are focused around the slang of the city’s inhabitants: ‘ Tu dis PEUCHEEERRE pour dire “le pauvre”’ (You say ‘PEUCHEEEERE’ to say ‘poor guy’), where ‘peuchère’ is a French archaism expressing compassion, which can therefore be read ironically, especially given the exaggeration placed on the word). Others include ‘Tu dis “je me suis ruiné” pour dire “je me suis fais mal”’(You say ‘I ruined myself’ to mean ‘I hurt myself’) and even ‘Tu dis “putain”, “con” et “enculer” dans toutes tes phrases’ (you say ‘shit’ and ‘asshole’ and ‘fuck’ in all your sentences) . The Marseillais, far from refusing the stereotypes, seem to vindicate their image as the “bad boys” of France.

However, as simplistic andimmigration light-hearted as the map may seem, it nevertheless reveals some deep-seated truths about French geopolitics, in particular the intense centralization of the country—to the point that a map of France can essentially be reduced to Paris and Marseille. In terms of economy, at least, the picture is unequivocal, with the Paris region representing up to 30% of France’s GDP and 5% of the European Union’s GDP in 2013, despite France’s recent economic troubles.  The picture in Marseille is however more glum, as the city is beset with rampant unemployment and increasingly high homicide rates. Although Lyon was left out of these maps, it is in fact the second largest city in France in terms of GDP, ahead of Marseilles. The omission of Lyon therefore signals that Marseilles has always been one of the “têtes fortes” (strong heads) of France, the second arm of the country, with its own true character and culture, despite the fact that it is weaker economically than Lyon (with a GDP figure of roughly $59B, as opposed to Lyon’s $65B and Paris’ gargantuan $565B). Somewhat unsurprisingly, these three dynamic regions have also experienced the greatest influx for immigrants born outside of the European Union.

carte-de-france-vue-par-les-parisiensThe map of France as seen by the Parisians seems more complex at first glance, though this does not mean that the Parisians are more discriminating than the Marseillais. The labels for the different regions here could be taken as offhanded proofs from inside the minds of Parisians, justifying France’s centralized political model. Alsace is perceived as the home of the “dépressifs” (depressed), the Bretagne region (Brittany), summed up for most Parisians by crepes and hard cider, are “alcooliques,”(alcoholics), and the Northerners are “pauvres” (poor).  The wildly successful 2008 French movie “Bienvenue Chez Les Chtis” (‘Welcome to the Sticks’) captured these dichotomies and prejudices perfectly. It is centered around a postal manager from the region of Lyon who is sent to the Northern region (Nord-Pas-de-Calais) as a punishment for having faked a disability in the hope of being sent to an office … on the Mediterranean. The movie was seen by a third of the French population in 23 weeks, thus showing the extent to which the regional question remains a running joke in France. The fact that this film came out in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis, is a tribute to the particular French vein of humor that seems to say: “on est tous dans la merde” (literally, we’re all ‘in the shit’).

The labels “branleurs” (‘wvacation_spotsankers’) and “menteurs” (‘liars’) for the southern regions show the extent to which Paris sees itself as pulling the country on its own—whether that is a role it has given to itself or the product of actual laziness from the other regions. The “terrorist” label both for the Basque Country and Corsica humorously point out the existence of occasionally violent separatist groups in both regions, though both places are also extremely popular vacation destinations for the Parisians, who seldom let geopolitics in the way of their summer migration.  Finally, the map reveals the idea that Parisians tend to see many regions of France as their playground. The “plages” (beaches) label along the Western and the Mediterranean coasts and the “ski” label along the Pyrenees and the Alps may seem amusing and reductive, but they are in fact indicative of the huge ebb and flow that occurs in the winter and summer (with all those weeks off work!), when a massive exodus heads out of Paris and into these regions. The French, although a generally well-traveled bunch, mostly stay in France for their vacations. As a matter of fact, 90% of all vacations taken by the population are within France, and the French are themselves responsible for 60% of the income generated by tourism in their country.  In this same vein, the map as seen by the Normands labels the Parisians as “envahisseurs du weekend” (weekend invaders), as many Parisians take weekend trips to Normandy, causing infamously nightmarish traffic jams on the road back to Paris every Sunday evening.

These maps, although playing on stereotypes and prejudices, as is usually the practice in satirical mapping, are less exaggerated than one may expect—which is perhaps why they are as funny and as successful as they are. They hit a lot of the main current political questions and trends that have been resurfacing as a result of current economic crisis in France and the rather lackluster presidency of Monsieur Hollande. Such concerns include: over-centralization, immigration, and increasing diversity, along with their counterparts of racism and xenophobia, a pointing of fingers between the regions, a lack of real integration and coherence, and perhaps more importantly, a lack of true understanding or empowerment of the regions. Most of these aspects go completely unmentioned in these maps—Paris may be loved and Marseille may be feared, but worse than these two extremes is the indifference accorded to a large part of the country’s culture and diversity.

 

 

Seek and Thou Shall Fiend: French Satirical Maps Read More »

Explaining the Rapid Rise of the Xenophobic Right in Contemporary Europe

Copyright James Mayfield

The last three decades have witnessed a remarkable rise in xenophobic, deeply conservative, and even extreme right-wing parties across much of Europe.[1] Whereas thirty years ago most xenophobic parties failed to even pass the 5% minimum voter threshold that is typically required to enter government, it can be argued that they now constitute as much as ~28% of the parliament in countries like Austria, and arguably have reached the ~70% level in Hungary.[2] By 1999, the Austrians—who traditionally tout themselves as the “first victims” of the Third Reich—had elected the prominent nationalist and accused Holocaust denier[3] Jörg Haider as the governor of Carinthia and given his Freedom Party more than 26% of the vote in the national elections. Haider proceeded to personally help dismantle multilingual street signs that were erected for the local Slovene minority.[4] The Golden Dawn party, which now has more than ~7% of the national vote in Greece, often marches in the streets of Athens with Rune-emblazoned flags and jackboots that easily remind the older generations of the German occupation of 1941-45. Most recently, the Golden Dawn has distributed free meals to the racially “authentic” Greek public.[5] At the same time, prominent members of Hungary’s powerful Jobbik party have even called for the government to prepare lists of Jews who might “[pose a] threat to Hungarian national security.”[6]

Hoping to understand these surprising changes in the European political climate, this post will briefly analyze the characteristics of the xenophobic right as of 2013, underscore the diversity of xenophobic parties, and try to explain some of the patterns encountered when the far-right takes hold, as well as their exceptions. The rough percentages listed next to the parties refer to their approximate share of national parliaments according to the most recent elections, and are corroborated with each country’s respective government websites. It will become apparent that it is very difficult to locate common patterns that might explain when and why the far-right takes hold in Europe.

The shift across Europe towards the right is perhaps as surprising as it is alarming, considering that the specters of World War II and totalitarianism are still ripe in the historical memory of virtually all European societies. Even more surprising, the xenophobic right has enjoyed some of its greatest successes in countries that are usually associated with liberalism and multiculturalism, including Switzerland, Sweden, Belgium, and the Netherlands. Even in supposedly tolerant Switzerland, the powerful Swiss People’s Party (~26%) has restricted the construction of mosques and minarets and has even campaigned with an ad that depicted three white sheep kicking a black one out of the country.[7] Far-right, racist parties like Vlaams Blok in Belgium were gaining in popularity until they were banned for extremism in 2004. In the 2003 elections, the Vlaams Blok won almost 12% of the seats in the Chamber of Representatives. Observers in the West have especially struggled to comprehend how quickly the extreme right has emerged in Greece, the supposed birthplace of democracy. The growing popularity of the right across the continent is a source of great concern for human rights groups in Brussels, which routinely encourage national courts to ban xenophobic parties on the grounds that they breach international protections against racism.

Copyright James Mayfield
My map charting the spread of elected xenophobic parties in Europe as of 2013. When viewed on a map, the growth of the far-right is striking. Green refers to countries were a xenophobic party is in government, which gray means none is in power. Copyright James Mayfield/GeoCurrents.

However, it is critical to understand that “the right” cannot be homogenized or reduced to the typical imagery of fascism, neo-Nazism, racism, or dictatorship that might emerge in our minds when we think of the right in European history. Xenophobic parties have garnered increasing support from voters of diverse political ideologies, primarily because of growing disaffection with the status quo. As the vulnerabilities of the European Union become more apparent, increasing numbers are calling for reform of pan-European economics, integration, open border immigration, and multiculturalism—principles that have shaped the development of Europe since World War II. With skyrocketing unemployment across most of the continent, massive immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Balkans into Western Europe, and what many feel to be a broken economic and political structure of the European Union, voters of various backgrounds seem to be choosing radically different solutions to the ongoing crises in Europe.

With this in mind, it is important to recognize that political movements of the xenophobic right are just as varied as social democratic and far-left parties. They include traditionalists, pro-Europeanists, Euroskeptics, democrats, nationalists, racialists, neo-Nazis, and even Greens. The vast majority of xenophobic parties calling for restricted immigration are obdurately democratic. Most advocate a traditional, conservative, or even moderate approach to resolving Europe’s problems within the democratic process. These relatively moderate nationalists include the True Finns of Finland (~19%), the Sweden Democrats (~6%), the Danish People’s Party (~12%), and the People’s Party of Portugal (~11%). Even the ruling Fidesz Party of Hungary (~53%) advocates a conservative platform rather than a militant or autocratic agenda, despite being castigated by Western media as far-right or even dictatorial after it amended the constitution to strengthen executive powers.[8] In some countries, such as Serbia and France, far-right parties have little parliamentary strength but still boast very popular public figures. The Front National of France has only two seats in the National Assembly out of 577, but Marine Le Pen came in third in the 2012 presidential election with almost 18% of the vote. The extremist, racialist Serbian Radical Party is not even in the national government, but its former leader Tomislav Nikolić was elected president of Serbia in 2012. In short, we should be wary about placing all xenophobic movements in the same category. They vary as much in regard to their popular support as they do in regard to their ideology, and not all of them embrace anti-democratic, fascist, or authoritarian agendas.

Although all of these parties have their share of supporters who take a more violent approach to tackling immigration, most parties on “the far-right” are better described as conservative and xenophobic. The majority advocate a multi-party democratic system and do not call for any future constitutional changes that might repudiate democratic checks and balances. Most call for a non-violent solution to Europe’s economic and immigration issues. Even such nationalist parties as the New Flemish Alliance (~17%) and the Vlaams Belang (~8%) of Belgium are staunchly ethnic nationalist, but their ideology springs just as much from a desire to strengthen the rights of the Flemish population as it does from their plans to target immigrants. The same tendency applies to the rather moderate National Alliance of Latvia (~14%) and the Order & Justice Party of Lithuania (~13%), which are most concerned with offsetting the historically disproportionate influence of Russian minorities who settled in these states during the Soviet era.

The only major elected parties that take an aggressive, racialist, militant stance are the Jobbik Party of Hungary (~17%), Svoboda of Ukraine (~11%), the Golden Dawn of Greece (~7%), and “Attack!” of Bulgaria (~10%). For example, whereas most Greek parties are at least to some extent cultural nationalists (including the PASOK socialists) who allow immigrants like Albanians to assimilate into Greek culture, only the Golden Dawn often sees “Greek” as an exclusive racial category. The Hungarian, Ukrainian, and Bulgarian far-right often makes similar exclusions. By contrast, “moderate nationalists” like the Sweden Democrats are more interested in curbing unrestricted immigration than they are in racial issues. Quite different are more militant parties like Jobbik, which is often accused of having links to the Hungarian Guard (Magyar Gárda), a quasi-paramilitary organization that has been compared to the brownshirts of the German SA.[9] While Bulgarian nationalists, the Golden Dawn, and Svoboda do not have equivalent organizations, their supporters have been widely linked to vandalism and assaults against immigrants, mosques, and synagogues in Athens, Sofia, and Kiev.[10] It is also widely assumed that the Athens police either cooperates with Golden Dawn or at least looks the other way during the frequent assaults on Albanian, Turkish, and Muslim immigrants in the capital.[11]

Although the economic weaknesses that have swept the EU since 2008 have become increasingly obvious, the chief reason behind the rise of the xenophobic right is not the economic alternatives it offers, but rather its hostility towards unrestricted immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Balkans. But here too, each country and party is very distinct. Xenophobic parties in Europe range from simply wanting tighter border controls, to calling for a “whites-only” immigration policy, to demanding the wholesale deportation of minorities. Although virtually all xenophobic parties are at least “soft Euroskeptic,” some merely call for greater national autonomy within the EU, whereas other are petitioning to quit the EU altogether, primarily in order to resolve the supposed immigration crisis.

Although xenophobic parties challenge immigration policies as a whole, most of their hostility is focused on Muslim immigrants, especially Moroccans, Indonesians, Arabs, Somalis, Afghanis, and Pakistanis, as well as African blacks. Importantly, xenophobia is often equally harsh against other European or “white” immigrants, particularly Albanians, Bosniaks, Greeks, Ukrainians, Bulgarians, Poles, Balts, Romanians, and Russians. In Italy, the center-right Lega Nord is more xenophobic towards Southern Italians than towards Muslims. The Golden Dawn of Greece is viciously hostile towards Albanians. In Switzerland, xenophobia is mostly directed against immigrants from the former Yugoslavia. Whereas most major xenophobic parties are not overtly Anti-Semitic, Hungary’s Jobbik is widely seen as not just Anti-Zionist but anti-Jewish, and deeply anti-Ziganist (anti-Gypsy) as well. Austrian right-wing parties are usually focused against Slavs and Turks, while in the Netherlands the noted provocateur Geert Wilders and his Dutch Party of Freedom (~10%) are particularly hostile towards Muslims, especially Indonesians and Somalis. The militant Svoboda party of Ukraine (~11%) directs most of its xenophobia against ethnic Russians, Jews, Tatars, and Roma, while the aptly named “Attack!” party of Bulgaria (~10%) is vociferously anti-Ziganist, anti-Romanian, and anti-Turkish. The popular Bulgarian nationalist Volen Siderov has gone so far as to claim that Bulgaria still has yet to be liberated from “Turkish [i.e. Ottoman] rule” as long as Turks and other Muslims (presumably the Slavic-speaking Pomaks) “occupy” the country. The various “targets” of xenophobic parties demonstrates that the far-right is often successful in countries with large immigrant populations and where hostility towards newcommers is strongest. So too, the diversity of these targets remind us that we cannot generalize far-right movements as if they share the same enemies, agendas, solutions, or even political principles.

Copyright James Mayfield
My map showing the proportion of Muslim populations in Europe today (including indigenous and immigrant populations). Also included are the ethnic groups that often become the focus of the hostility of xenophobic parties. Stats from government websites and the CIA World Factbook.

It is thus difficult to locate patterns that might explain why and where the far-right has achieved electoral success. Many examples lead to contradictory and surprising results. It is suggestive that this trend is occurring during a time of great economic hardship—just as the far-right gained sway in Europe during the post-WWI slump in the early 1920s. and especially during the Great Depression of the 1930s Considering the historical link between economic instability and the rise of the far-right, it is thus surprising that such countries as Spain and Cyprus have very weak far-right movements despite having suffered skyrocketing unemployment and crippling public debt. Instead, leftist parties such as the Eurocommunist Progressive Party of Cyprus and the left-leaning ethnic separatists of Catalonia have enjoyed remarkable success in the last several years.

As another possible explanation, one might expect immigrant “transit” countries that have recently experienced a surge of immigration, such as Malta, Italy, and Cyprus, to turn towards the right. But this is not generally the case. Indeed, Malta’s powerful Nationalist Party is deeply conservative and pro-Maltese, while Italy has several small neo-fascist parties, such as that of Mussolini’s granddaughter, Alessandra. However, extreme xenophobic parties like Imperu Ewropew of Malta and Forza Nuova of Italy have had very little success. Neither is even in the national government.

Other cases also make it difficult to find consistent patterns behind the rise of the xenophobic right. We might expect ethnically diverse countries with large immigrant populations like the United Kingdom to have strong right-wing movements. However, the British National Party has consistently failed to meet the 5% threshold. (The burgeoning U.K. Independence Party is certainly conservative and EU-skeptical, but it is not truly xenophobic.) However, diverse and immigrant-rich France has seen the rise of powerful xenophobic figures like Marine Le Pen and her father Jean-Marie Le Pen before her. If ethnic diversity itself does not automatically trigger the rise of the far-right, one might conclude that ethnic homogeneity provides a more fertile ground for xenophobia. This is certainly the case in regard to Hungary, which has by far the largest right-wing movement in Europe in terms of its electoral results. So too, relatively homogenous Finland offers substantial support to xenophobic nationalist parties like the True Finns (~19%). However, other relatively homogenous states, like Poland and Norway, have weak xenophobic parties.

We might also be inclined to look for basic cultural characteristics that might explain the rise of the far-right. It is perhaps intriguing that Hungary seems to be the first country to drift towards the far-right, having been the first to pass anti-Jewish legislation in the 1930s when Miklos Horthy installed a right-wing dictatorship . However, cultural xenophobia alone does not seem to lend electoral success to far-right parties. A prime example here is Romania. Although Romanian culture is often described as deeply xenophobic and often viciously racist (particularly against Roma and Jews, and even Hungarian to some extent), the Romanian parliament is almost completely social democratic and socialist. The same might be said about Poland, Serbia, and Croatia. Even countries with genocidal pasts such as Slovakia, Germany, Croatia, and Serbia, lack strong right-wing parties. Another key example is Russia. Although Russia has what many sources consider to be the most virulent subculture of skinheads and neo-Nazis fomenting violence against migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia—marked by such horrors as the filmed beheading of a Tajik boy—extreme right parties like Great Russia and the Russian All-People’s Union have very little electoral success.[12] In short, there does not seem to be anything inherent in European national cultures that puts xenophobic parties in power.

One final explanation adds both perspective and contradiction. We might expect countries facing a difficult, traumatic, or confusing phase of transition to move towards extremist movements. Studies have shown that neo-Nazism, nationalism, and the National Democratic Party are far stronger in the former East Germany than in the rest of the country since the fall of the Berlin Wall. So too, this concept of transition may explain why Bulgarians and Ukrainians tend to support the far-right as they move away from their communist past. However, this explanation falls flat when we look at other former socialist states like Romania, Poland, Russia, and the Czech Republic, where the far-right is rather weak. Transition and cultural insecurity alone do not provide an explanation.

Two final examples are perhaps the most surprising when trying to explain the rise of the far-right: Norway and Sweden. Right-wing parties have never had much success in either country. Norway’s powerful Progressive Party (~22%) is only mildly xenophobic and is better described as conservative nationalist. The Sweden Democrats are much more virulently xenophobic, but have only recently broken the 5% minimum threshold necessary to enter government. However, throughout the 1990s and even today, Norway and Sweden saw some of the most brutal waves of anti-immigrant violence in Europe. While theses attitudes are by no means widespread in Scandinavia, this seeming contradiction might reinforce our conclusion that cultural xenophobia does not mean xenophobic parties will get elected. In Norway and Sweden, the extreme “black metal” music-oriented subculture that emerged in 1992 perpetrated numerous brutal attacks on immigrants.[13] Over a hundred churches were burned in Norway and Sweden, often with the intent to purge Scandinavia of Christian influences that the arsonists interpreted as an immigrant “Middle Eastern plague” that had to be replaced by the ancient Nordic racial religion.[14] Norway’s supposed immigration problem was met with uncompromising xenophobia and racism by members of this subculture. As late as 2008, prominent black metal musicians like Gaahl insisted that Norwegians had a duty to “remove every trace [of] what…the Semitic roots have to offer this world.”[15] He captured the opinion of much of the growing subculture by asserting that Norway is no place for immigrant “niggers” and “mulattos.”[16] The popular Norwegian drummer Jan Axel Blomberg repeated similarly that “we don’t like black people here.”[17] The Norwegian case tells us that homogenous cultures facing a very difficult adjustment to immigration and diversity often generate extreme reactions, but that such reactions do not necessarily translate into electoral success.

As this post has demonstrated, the xenophobic right has become more pervasive than most observers may have realized. Perhaps this is disconcerting. At the same time as many Europeans are calling for greater integration and cooperation in order to fix Europe’s problems, increasing numbers of people are moving in the opposite direction by advocating greater nationalism, homogeneity, and xenophobia. However, the common gut reaction to interpret this trend as a rebirth of fascism, Nazism, racialism, or dictatorship is as sensationalist as it is oversimplified. The xenophobic right advocates radically different economic, political, and cultural platforms in response to the supposed immigration crisis. So too, as the above cases demonstrate, we cannot explain when and why the far-right takes hold by pointing to any common cultural, demographic, or economic patterns. When we consider the aforementioned conflicting and contradictory cases in Europe, it remains to be found what exactly causes far-right parties to become popular so quickly. Each xenophobic movement must be observed—with understandable trepidation and concern—on a country-by-country basis.

James Mayfield is a historian, researcher, and translator from Stanford University with two Masters Degrees in History. He specializes in genocide, nationalism, post-colonial identity, and cultural traumas. He currently has two books soon to be released, one on the expulsion of 10,000,000 ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe (Memoria del Olvido) and one on an ethnic Slovene survivor of both German and Italian concentration camps during World War II (Peter Starič, My Life under Totalitarianism). Contact him here: mayfent@stanford.edu.


[1] In this article, “xenophobia” refers to any political platform that calls for the strict limitation of immigration, strengthened border controls, the reform or abolition of the Schengen Zone, or even the expulsion of minorities.

[2] This number refers to the combination of the Austrian Freedom Party (roughly 17% of the Nationalrat) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (~11%). For Hungary, this number refers to Fidesz (~53%) and Jobbik (~17%).

[3] Anat Shalev, “Foreign Ministry ‘concerned’ over Austria elections,” Yedioth Ahronoth Newspaper, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3603718,00.html.

[4] “Haider zagrozil Korineku zaradi odločbe ustavnega sodišča,” Dnevnik, http://www.dnevnik.si/svet/158543.

[5] BBC, “Athens police stop food handout by Greek far right,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-22379744.

[6] Marton Dunai, “Anger as Hungary far-right leader demands lists of Jews,” Reuters, www.reuters.com/article/2012/11/27/us-hungary-antisemitism-idUSBRE8AQ0L920121127.

[7] Elaine Sciolino, “Immigration, Black Sheep, and Swiss Rage,” New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2007/10/08/world/europe/08swiss.html?_r=2&pagewanted=all&.

[8] Hungary has even been threatened with suspension or punishment by some European Union MEPs. See Pablo Gorondi, “Hungarian PM Orban rejects criticism of constitutional change, says democracy not threatened,” Fox News, www.foxnews.com/world/2013/03/14/hungarian-pm-orban-rejects-criticism-constitutional-changes-says-democracy-not.

[9] Balazs Penz and Alex Kuli, “Brown shirts march in Budapest as Gyurcsany condemns ‘Fascists,” Bloomberg, www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=avNDeYNJqkUo&refer=europe.

[10] Maria Vidali, “News from Greece: Anti-Jewish attacks,” Central Europe Review, http://www.ce-review.org/00/22/greecenews22.html.

[11] Paul Mason, “Alarm at Greek police ‘collusion’ with far-right Golden Dawn,” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-19976841.

[12] Dan Harris and Karin Weinberg, “Violence ‘in the name of the nation,” ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/storynew?id=3718255&page=1.

[13] See Michael Moynihan, Lords of Chaos: Satanischer Metal: Der blutige Aufstief aus dem Untergrund (Index Verlag, 2004).

[14] See Bård Eithun Faust in Aaron Aites, “Until the Light Takes Us,” Artists Public Domain/Field Pictures, 2009.

[15] Jessica Joy Wise and Sam Dunn, “Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey,” Seville Pictures/Warner, 2005.

[16] See Tomasz Krajewski’s interview with Gorgoroth, scan available here: http://s355.photobucket.com/user/WD37/media/755fc749.jpg.html.

[17] Moynihan, Lords of Chaos, 305.

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Bavarian Separatism and the Franconian Issue

Bavarian separatism, a long-standing if still rather minor political movement, is finally getting some attention in the global media, thanks to the recent publication of Bayern kann es auch allein (or Bavaria Can Also Go It Alone), a book described by Canada’s Maclean’s as a191-page polemic covering a range of standard Bavarian complaints about the present German (and European) political order and a paean to the benefits and glories that await an unfettered Free State of Bavaria.” Framing the issue in Canadian terms, the Maclean’s article notes that Bavaria is a bit like a combination of Quebec and Alberta: culturally distinctive from the rest of the country (like Quebec), and also more prosperous and more conservative (like Alberta). The New York Times claims that “Bavarians, who have an independent streak akin to Texans in the United States, can handle marching orders ‘from Berlin or Brussels, but both together is too much…’” (quoting a local source).

The separatist Bavaria Party (Bayernpartei, BP), however, rarely gets as much as one percent of the vote in local elections in recent decades, although in the 1950s it occasionally scored in the double-digits and in 1949 it received over 20 percent of the vote in the Bundestag election. But the European economic crisis, coupled with the large fiscal equalization payments that Bavaria makes to other regions of Germany, could result in a certain resurgence.

The separatist movement, however, faces a distinct challenge in the fact that not all of Bavaria is culturally Bavarian. The Bavarian dialect (which many linguists regard as a separate language) is mostly limited to Altbayern, or Old Bavaria, composed of the Regierungsbezirks (“government districts”) of Upper Bavaria, Lower Bavaria, and Upper Palatinate. In the Napoleonic period, several historically and culturally non-Bavarian districts were appended to the state. These include the three Franconian districts, where the East Franconian dialect is found, and Bavarian Swabia, whose residents traditionally speak a variety of Alemannic German. Few residents of these areas have much use for Bavarian nationalism (or sub-nationalism) in any of its guises.

The actual geographical situation, however, is rather more complicated. As it turns, a few small areas in both Bavarian Franconia and Swabia do belong to Altbayern, as does the Austrian region of Innviertel.

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The On-Going Japan Sea/East Sea Naming Controversy

The South Korean government was severely disappointed by the April 2012 meeting of the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO), as the global body responsible for standardizing the world’s maritime place-names declined to change the name of the sea sandwiched between Korea and Japan. The IHO will continue to refer to this stretch of the ocean as the “Sea of Japan,” a name regarded by most Koreans as an unjust colonialist construct. The South Korean government does not officially object to the term “Sea of Japan” per se, but it does request that sea in question also be labeled the “East Sea,” the direct English translation of the Korean Dong-hae. (North Korea favors the more nationalistically “East Sea of Korea.”) Koreans are also irritated by the fact that the government of the United States, following its Board on Geographical Names, continues to use “Sea of Japan.” The U.S. military follows suit, resulting in what Stars and Stripes recently called a “rare public disagreement between South Korea and the U.S. military.”

The IHO will not be able to reconsider the Korean request until it meets again in 2017. In the meantime, the South Korean government has been lobbying media outlets—including lowly geography blogs—to use the dual formulation “Sea of Japan/East Sea.” A number of prominent publications now employ both terms, including the National Geographic Society, Rand McNally, The Economist, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and Le Monde. As the booklet entitled The East Sea in Maps, published by South Korea’s Northeast Asia History Foundation, specifies, more than sixty European-language atlases now use both terms. The booklet also outlines the main arguments for the proposed change:

Until the 19th century, various names had been used to designate the sea area in question while “Sea of Japan” had not been widely used even in Japan. Moreover, many maps at that time did not indicate any name for this sea area. With the rise of Japan as a regional power in Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the sea area in question came to be referred to more often as “Sea of Japan.” However, Korea was not able to present its view on the naming of the sea area in question in international fora since it was at that time under Japanese colonial rule.

The Korean position makes historical sense, and the request to use both names seems reasonable enough. As a result, I have decided to use both terms in my own writing. But I am also off-put by the vehemence expressed by some Koreans over this issue. A gorgeous $20,000 globe in Stanford’s main library, for example, has been defaced by a Korean partisan who scratched out “Sea of Japan” and penned in “East Sea.”

Frustrated that international and foreign governmental institutions have not made the requested change, some Koreans have advocated more pointed terms, such as “Sea of Korea,” suggested by South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan. In 2006, the president Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea proposed to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe that both names be dropped in favor of more accommodating alternatives, such as “Sea of Peace” or “Sea of Friendship,” but he was rebuffed. In the meantime, partisans of both “East Sea” and “Sea of Japan” continue to scrutinize old maps, nautical charts, and geography texts, looking for precedents supposedly established by the early use their favored terms.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Korean efforts to effect a name-change have often been frustrated. Most countries, as well as most international organizations, are reluctant to change the names of any large geographical features. Switching long-established terms is a cumbersome exercise, and most people like to employ familiar words. More specific objections have also been raised. Some argue that the term “East Sea” is potentially ambiguous, as a number of water-bodies are so designated in a variety of local languages. Concerns have also been expressed about setting a precedent that could result in the increased politicization of geographical names.

Such politicization does seem to be occurring. The Philippines now officially rejects the term “South China Sea,” and instead insists on “West Philippine Sea.” More contentious is the dispute over the name of the water-body located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula, which is generally called the “Persian Gulf” in international circles, but which most Arabs refer to as the “Arabian Gulf.” As a previous GeoCurrents post noted, the resulting dispute is often heated. Judging from reader’s comments on this and other blogs, it can be difficult for disinterested observers to avoid giving offense in such circumstance: if “Persian Gulf” offends most Arabs, “Arabian Gulf” offends most Iranians, while the compromise “Persian/Arabian Gulf” alternative would likely irritate both groups. As a result, some writers simply call this body of water “the Gulf,” sacrificing geographical precision in favor of innocuous discourse.

However such nomenclatural disputes play out, the quest to find a solution through historical research in cartographic archives seems quixotic. The names of most water-bodies have changed on numerous occasions in the Western geographical tradition alone, as the creation of standardized, internationally recognized names for major geographical features is a relatively recent development. Even the names of the oceans were historically unstable, as were the lines of division separating one ocean and another. In the 1700s, for example, many European cartographers applied the term “Ethiopian Ocean” to the entire expanse of water that wrapped around southern Africa, extending from what we now call the South Atlantic Ocean to the western Indian Ocean. So too the differentiation between seas and oceans was not fixed until the nineteenth century. In the early modern period, even British cartographers commonly labeled the water-body to the east of Britain as the “German Ocean.” Intriguingly, in switching to the modern term “North Sea,” they retained a continental orientation, as from a British perspective the most appropriate label would be—again—“East Sea.” By the same token, the use of the term “Irish Sea” for the waters between Britain and Ireland has never generated much controversy in the United Kingdom.

The British are unperturbed by the term “Irish Sea” for the same reason that few residents of the United States are angered by the term “Gulf of Mexico”: the hostility between the countries in question is largely a thing of the past, while the names of the particular water-bodies are linked to the names of the less powerful states of each pair, and thus cannot be construed as conveying the legacy of imperialism. If the Irish Sea were called the “British Sea” by the IHO, would the Irish object? Perhaps. Admittedly, a much-derided proposal was recently made in the Mississippi state legislature to rename the Gulf of Mexico the “Gulf of America,” but it turns out that the measure was a tongue-in-cheek effort “to mock other bills that would crack down on illegal immigration.”

Besides the examples given above, roughly a dozen major bodies of water share their official, IHO-sanctioned names with those of sovereign states: Argentine Sea, Gulf of Guinea, Gulf of Finland, Gulf of Venezuela, Libyan Sea, Norwegian Sea, Mozambique Channel, East China Sea, Gulf of Thailand, Philippine Sea, and Indian Ocean.* To my knowledge, none of these names is particularly controversial. If memory serves correctly, a few Indonesians have expressed dissatisfaction with the term “Indian Ocean,” arguing instead that this body of water be called the “Indonesian Ocean,” but I have not been able to find confirmation. If such an objection has indeed been made, it is rather ironic, as the name “Indonesia” itself literally means—in Greek—the “Islands of India.”

*Other sea-names close to matching this criterion, such as Timor Sea, but do not quite fulfill it.

 

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