Geopolitics

The reflection of political conflict and concord on world and regional maps

Sakha: World Capital of Cold

The attention of the global media usually remains focused on a limited portion of the earth’s surface. Wealthy countries and regions are covered in depth, as are places considered threatening to the developed world, but most parts of the earth are more often ignored.

Consider, for example, Sakha (Yakutia), a vast internal Russian republic spanning three time zones that is roughly the size of India. Sakha has the interesting distinction of being the world’s largest “statoid” (statoids being the highest-order territorial subdivisions of sovereign states [see http://www.statoids.com/]). Sakha is rather lightly populated, but it has more inhabitants than 42 internationally recognized countries. Considering as well its sizable mineral deposits, Sakha is a significant place.

The few news reports from Sakha that reach the global media usually focus on diamond mining. On January 7, 2010, however, the BBC devoted much of a story to simply recounting living conditions in the republic (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8445831.stm). This unusual article was prompted by bitterly cold conditions in Europe, leading reporters to ask what life is like in truly cold places. In Sakha’s capital of Yakutsk, a city of 210,000 people, the average January high temperature is -36 degrees Celsius (-33 F): farther north, much colder conditions are encountered. Compared to Sakha, central Alaska has a balmy winter climate.

Sakha’s population of almost one million is roughly split between Russians and the indigenous Sakha (or Yakut) nationality, although other indigenous ethnic groups are also present. The Sakha are a Turkic people who were largely converted from their original shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1800s. Their traditional way of life was based was based mostly on raising cattle and horses-–quite a challenge, considering the climate of their homeland. Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Sakha have relatively high rates of education and have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of modern life. Some authors have suggested that they benefited from an influx of intellectuals when previous Russian regimes exiled political dissidents to their villages. From the dissidents’ point of view, being sentenced to Yakutia was considered especially onerous, due to both the climate and the local dietary staple: “milk tar,” a frozen mash of fish, berries, bones, and the inner bark of pine trees conveniently dissolved in sour milk.

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The Heterodox Zone

Yesterday’s post included a map of religious communities in northern Iraq, based on a larger map by Mehrdad Izady, generated as part of Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 project (http://gulf2000.columbia.edu/). As Izady’s maps show, northern Iraq is part of a larger region of striking religious diversity, highlighted on the map above. This area has no established name, and appears (to my knowledge) on no other maps, yet its delineation is essential for making sense of Middle Eastern politics, cultural dynamics, and history. In an attempt to bring this area to broader attention, I dub it “the Heterodox Zone,” a term that I picked up years ago in a casual conversation with the Turkish scholar Hakan Altinay.

The most distinctive faiths of the Heterodox Zone are three, grouped together by Mehrdad Izady under the rubric of Yazdanism or “the cults of angels.” These include the Yazidi religion, the faith of the Shabaks (who number some 60,000 in northern Iraq), and the religion of Yarsan (or Ahl-e Haqq), which counts up to one million adherents in Iranian Kurdistan. Izady considers all three to be survivals of the pre-Islamic Kurdish religion.

Less distinctive but far more prevalent is Alevism, a faith concentrated in eastern Turkey. Adherents of Alevism may number as many as 20 million. Although their religion is conventionally considered an offshoot of Shiite Islam, Alevis do not worship in mosques. They interpret the Quran on a strictly allegorical basis, and have no problem with alcohol. Alevism is also associated with the Kurds, but it is followed more extensively by the almost invisible Zaza people (speakers of the Zazaki language), who live to the north of the Kurdish language zone in eastern Turkey.

Distinctive religious communities extend through the highlands of the eastern Mediterranean. As many as three million people are ‘Alawis (or Alawites), a minority group that has the distinction of essentially running Syria. Another Shiite offshoot, the Alawite faith traditionally includes such non-Muslims beliefs as the transmigration of souls. (Some reports, however, claim that Alawite ideas and practices are gradually approaching those of orthodox Islam.) In the Druze religion, which has somewhere between 750,000 and two million followers, ideas and practices have diverged so far from the Islamic faith that the Druze are almost never considered Muslims. What exactly those beliefs are is difficult say, however, as the Druze keep their core beliefs secret not only from outsiders, but even from their own rank-and-file; only a select group is allowed access to the faith’s esoteric teachings.

Such groups by no means account for all of the religious diversity of the Heterodox Zone. Christianity is present as well, represented by many distinctive sects. Lebanon alone counts 10 politically recognized Christian groups. (Lebanese politics are organized on a confessional basis around the following religious communities: Sunni Muslim, Twelver Shiite Muslim, Isma’ili Shiite Muslim, Alawite, Druze, Maronite [Catholic], Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Chaldean Catholic, Coptic Christian, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant Christian, and Jewish). The Heterodox zone also extends into northern Israel, where one finds not only Druze and Christian communities, but also the ancient Jewish offshoot sect of the Samaritans (who today number only 712).

The Heterodox Zone is associated with mountains and rugged terrain. That is to be expected; rough topography has often provided niches for minor languages as well as religions – social phenomena whose survival historically required a degree of shelter from the authority of states and their dominant societies. In the modern world, such zones of refuge are coming under pressure from larger and more intrusive politico-cultural formations. That is certainly true of the Heterodox Zone. In Iraq, Sunni extremists are now targeting the minority faiths, attacking their followers and forcing them to flee. Will autonomous Kurdistan offer adequate refuge? That remains to be seen.

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Ethnic Issues in Iraq’s New Census

The government of Iraq recently announced that it is preparing to conduct its first census since 1987. Merely holding a census is controversial, especially in the ethnically mixed areas of northern Iraq. The main issue concerns the eventual size — and share of governmental revenues — of the Kurdish Autonomous Region. The Kurds lay claim to the city of Kirkuk, deemed their “Jerusalem,” which lies outside their autonomous region. If the census shows that they form the local majority, Kirkuk could more easily become part of autonomous Kurdistan. Not coincidentally, the contested zone sits over some of Iraq’s largest oil deposits. Local Sunni Arabs and Turkmens contest Kurdish claims, resisting anything that might be used to expand the autonomous region.

The most deadly and destabilizing division in Iraq is that between Sunni and Shiite Arabs, but their relative numbers will not be addressed in the census; sectarian divisions within Islam are too sensitive. Religious identity at a higher level, however, will be assessed, with the census attempting to determine how many Muslims, Christians, Mandaeans (Sabians), and Yazidis live in Iraq. It would be difficult to argue that these religious distinctions are somehow “less sensitive” than those found within Islam. So many Christians and Mandaeans have been driven out of Iraq, or simply killed, that some authorities regard the situation as almost genocidal. (It is estimated that only some 7,000 Mandaeans, who revere John the Baptist as their main prophet, currently live in Iraq; as recently as 2003, they numbered 70,000).

The relatively secure Kurdish Autonomous Region of northern Iraq is often regarded as a refuge for Iraq’s persecuted minority faiths and ethnic groups. According to a fact sheet posted on the important website Kurdistan: The Other Iraq, “The current [Autonomous Region’s] government consists of several political parties. The coalition reflects the diversity of the Region’s people, who are Chaldeans, Assyrians, Turkmen, Yazidis and Kurds living together in harmony and tolerance” (http://www.theotheriraq.com/).

The relationship between the Kurdish Autonomous government and minority religious groups is actually more complicated. In November 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report accusing the Kurdistan Regional Government of “imposing Kurdish identity” on Shabaks, Yazidis and other non-Muslim groups. Kurdish official denied the allegations (see the January 10, 2010 UPI article “KRG Defends Position on Minorities”), pointing out that most minority groups have consistently supported the “Kurdistan lists.” But minority activists often claim that they are tolerated in Kurdistan to the extant that they ethnically classify themselves as Kurds. By linguistic criteria the Yazidis certainly are, but many in the community feel that their religion differentiates them. Kurdish officials disagree, in part because the larger the number of Kurds counted in the next census, the more money will flow from the central government to the autonomous regional government.

Regardless of the current contretemps, the religious minorities of Iraq are plenty interesting in their own right. Consider the Yazidis, who may number as many as 500,000. Yazidism is an old and profoundly non-dualistic religion that regards God as a remote figure. Yazidis focus on Melek Tawus (the “Peacock Angel”), viewed as chief among the seven holy beings who have dominion over the earth. As Melek Tawus is identified with the fallen angel Shaitan (Satan), Yezidis have often been labeled “devil worshippers.” Yazidis, not surprisingly, deny the charge. According to their beliefs, Melek Tawus is a benign angel who “fell” but later repented and was forgiven by God.

Historically, the Yazidis have suffered occasional persecution, and today their situation is dire. But imagine what their plight would have been had they lived in Europe in the late medieval or early modern periods? Could they have possibly survived? Today, Europe enjoys vastly higher levels of religious freedom than do most parts of the Middle East, but it is important to remember that 500 years ago the situation was reversed.

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Declining Violence In Northeastern India

On January 19, 2010, a grenade attack near the Manipur Police Chief’s residence in northeastern India critically injured three people. No one has yet claimed responsibility, and it would be risky to venture a guess, since for sheer diversity of insurgent groups it is hard to beat northeastern India. This remote and little-known area is divided into seven states. According to the website South Asian Terrorism Portal, the state of Manipur has 15 active or proscribed “terrorist/insurgent groups” (as well as 25 inactive organizations), while nearby Assam has 11, Meghalaya four, Nagaland and Tripura three each, and Mizoram two. No such groups are listed for Arunachal Pradesh, but it too has seen insurgent violence in recent years – and it is claimed in its entirety by China, greatly complicating Indo-Chinese relations. Insurgent groups in northeastern India have a strong tendency to divide and proliferate. The Kuki people of Manipur, for example, are “represented” by the Kuki Liberation Army, the Kuki National Army, the Kuki Liberation Front, and the United Kuki Liberation Front – with another nine Kuki insurgent groups currently listed as inactive.

Historically speaking, the uplands of northeastern India have closer cultural affiliations with Southeast Asia than with South Asia. They belong to India only because British imperial agents were determined to secure the vulnerable borderlands of their Indian empire. Local peoples tend to resent Indian authority, as well as the authority of the larger local ethnic groups that dominate the region’s seven states.

In most parts of the region violence has receded in recent years. Whereas Nagaland saw 154 insurgency-related deaths in 2007, the 2009 total was only 17; in Meghalaya, the death count dropped from 79 in 2003 to just 4 in 2009. Only in Manipur and Assam have body counts remained high (369 and 371, respectively, last year). Due to the lessened violence, India has recently opened parts of the northeast to tourism. For those interested in visiting the area, Northeast India Diary (http://www.northeastindiadiary.com/meghalaya-travel/wildlife-in-meghalaya.html) provides information on local attractions. On a trip to Meghalaya’s Balpakram National Park, it claims, one might see “elephants, wild buffaloes, gaur (Indian bison), sambar, barking deer, wild boar, slow loris, capped langur as well as predators such as tigers, leopards, clouded leopards and the rare golden cat.”

In Nagaland and Mizoram, some observers attribute the recent decline in fighting to peacemaking efforts by local church organizations. Owing to successful missionary activities during the colonial period, both states are now strongly Christian: more than 75 percent of the population of Nagaland is Baptist, whereas Mizoram is more than 90 percent Christian (mostly Presbyterian). Missionary schooling has led to high levels of education. Mizoram boasts India’s second highest literacy rate (91%), trailing only Kerala. Education, however, has not led to economic prosperity. Lack of infrastructure and insecurity are the major problems, but so too are the famines that occur every few decades after the synchronous flowering and then death of the state’s massive bamboo groves. When the bamboo flowers and seeds, rodent and insect populations explode; when the plants subsequently perish, rats and bugs invade fields and granaries. The most recent such famines occurred in 2006-2007.

The decline in violence in northeastern India is quite in contrast to the situation in east-central India, where a Maoist insurgency is gaining in strength. But that is a topic for a later post.

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What’s In A (Place) Name? The Gulf Controversy

In mid-January 2010, the Islamic Solidarity Games—scheduled to take place in Tehran in April—were cancelled over a toponymic dispute. The Iranian organizers of the athletic competition insisted on labeling the body of water located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula the “Persian Gulf” in their promotional materials. The event’s organizing committee, based in Saudi Arabia, refused to tolerate such effrontery, and called off the competition. Officials in Saudi Arabia, like those in many other Arabic-speaking countries, regard the term “Persian Gulf” as a form of Iranian cartographic imperialism. They prefer Arabian Gulf, and if that name cannot be used, they insist on a neutral term such as The “Arabo-Persian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.”

This controversy reveals the deep cultural cleavage between Iran and the Arabic speaking realm. Most other bodies of water named for particular places do not inspire much animosity. The United States lodges no protests over the Gulf of Mexico; India does not object to the Arabian Sea; Malaysia has no problem with the South China Sea; Taiwan and Japan do not worry about the Philippine Sea; Madagascar and Australia are fine with the Indian Ocean. The only other water body to generate a similar quarrel is the one marked on our maps as the Sea of Japan, which the Koreans insist on labeling the East Sea. Like the Arabs and the Persians, Japanese and Koreans have a long history of conflict, which lends vehemence to seemingly arcane debates over geographical nomenclature.

The term Persian Gulf has been widely used by European geographers since the time of the ancient Greeks. Substituting the term “Arabian Gulf” would generate its own problems, not least by infuriating the Iranian people. It could also lead to confusion with the adjacent body of water known as the Arabian Sea, or even with the nearby Red Sea (which Europeans sometimes historically called the Arabian Gulf). Partly for these reasons, the International Hydrographic Organizations maintains that the Persian Gulf is the Gulf’s only proper name. The United States government, however, is no longer sure. Although the State Department’s Board of Geographical Names settled on Persian Gulf in 1917, the U.S. military now asks its personnel to avoid the term, preferring either “The Arabian Gulf” or simply “The Gulf.” U.S.-based universities operating branch campuses on the Arabic-speaking side of the gulf do likewise. In the United Arab Emirates, the term Persian Gulf is simply banned.

What’s in a name? In a politically charged context, evidently quite a lot.

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Violence In Nuristan, Formerly Kafiristan

The province of Nuristan in eastern Afghanistan has recently emerged as one of the most insecure regions of the world. On January 13, 2010, a fourth delegation sent to negotiate the return of kidnapped Greek social worker Athanasios Lerounis returned home empty-handed. In October 2009, the United States abandoned its four key outposts in the province after attacks by hundreds of insurgents killed eight soldiers. As U.S. forces withdrew, so did aid officials, including American agriculture and forestry experts. The usual winter lull in fighting has not been pronounced in Nuristan this year.

Winter fighting in Nuristan is no easy matter.The extremely rugged province often receives heavy snowfall, unlike most of Afghanistan. The combination of fierce storms and on-going fighting has brought desperate conditions to the civilian population. So far, somehow, the World Food Program and World Health Organization have been able to deliver emergency supplies to parts of the region. But with the U.S. pullback, Nuristan essentially came under the rule of the Taliban, and now seems to form something of a haven for al Qaeda and the violent Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Toiba.

From a historical perspective, Nuristan would seem an unlikely refuge for radical Islamists insurgents. Until the 1890s, the region was known by a different name: Kafiristan, or “land of the infidels.” Up to that time, the people of Nuristan practiced a polytheistic animism, as recounted in Rudyard Kipling’s short story, The Man Who Would Be King (later made into a movie starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine). Religious practices varied considerably from valley to valley, as Nuristan is noted for its extreme linguistic and ethnic complexity. In fact, what we call Nuristani is not a single language but rather a linguistic subfamily of its own, encompassing at least five separate tongues.

After the governments of British India and Afghanistan settled on the Durand Line border in 1893, the Afghan ruler Abdur Rahman Khan (the “Iron Emir”) determined to establish his authority over all areas on his side of the demarcation line. In 1895-96 his forces conquered and subdued Kafiristan. Once Afghan rule was established, the Emir forcibly converted the local people to Islam, despite the fact that compulsive conversion is contrary to the tenets of the faith. As a result, animism in the area survived only on the British side of the Durand Line, in what is now the Chitral region of Pakistan. There the Kalash, a related group who number some 6,000, retain their polytheistic faith and practices.

On the Afghan side of the border, Islam spread quickly despite its violent introduction. The province was renamed “Nuristan,” meaning the “land of light” – the light being that of the Islamic faith. In the 1980s, Nuristan was one of the first parts of Afghanistan to rebel against the Soviet-imposed regime, founding its resistance on strict Islamic ideals. Through much of the 1980s and early 1990s, large areas of Nuristan formed the self-declared fundamentalist Islamic Revolutionary State of Afghanistan. This “state” was recognized as a distinct geopolitically entity by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Incidentally, because the people of Nuristan tend to have light skin, hair, and eyes, the myth has spread that they are descendants of a contingent of Alexander the Great’s army. More likely, such features derive from the much earlier and larger migration streams that brought Indo-European languages to the region. After all, blue eyes and blond hair are hardly unknown among the Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.

For more information, see Richard Strand’s Nuristan Site: http://users.sedona.net/~strand/

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Kalmykia: The Republic of Chess

Certain parts of the world are so closely associated with a specific issue or activity that other matters tend to fade from view, at least as far as the international media are concerned. Consider, for example, Kalmykia, a Russian internal republic located northwest of the Caspian Sea. Larger in area than the Republic of Ireland, Kalmykia is a significant place with a fascinating history. In the international news, however, Kalmykia means one thing: chess. Today’s Google news search on the region yielded 23 articles: three concern inflation in Russia, one examines a local offshore oilfield, another mentions the republic’s improvements in beef processing, and the rest focus on chess.

The prominence of chess in Kalmykia stems from the efforts of the republic’s president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a multi-millionaire who has been president of FIDE (the World Chess Federation) since 1995. A chess fanatic, Ilyumzhinov has made the study of the game compulsory in Kalmykia’s elementary schools. With a reputation for being both charismatic and authoritarian, Ilyumzhinov has bragged about introducing an “economic dictatorship” to the republic.

Kalmykia deserves notice for more than its role in the chess world. The Kalmyks, who constitute a bit more than half of the republic’s roughly 300,000 people, speak a Mongolian language and traditionally follow Tibetan Buddhism. The notion of a Tibetan Buddhist majority republic lying within Europe (as Europe is “continentally” defined) would strike most readers as odd indeed, but the Kalmyk presence in the region dates back to the early 1600s. The current Kalmyk community is actually a remnant group, as “Kalmyk” literally means “those who remained.” The far western Mongols had been important allies of the Russian Empire as it expanded into the Caucasus and Central Asia, but when the Czar’s government started to undermine local autonomy, most of the community undertook a vast – and deadly – exodus back to Mongolia.

Much of Kalmykia’s subsequent history has been painful. Many Kalmyks sided with anti-communist forces during the Russian civil war, provoking harsh retribution after the war ended. In the 1930s, Stalin disastrously collectivized Kalmyk herding, resulting indirectly in some 60,000 deaths. He also attacked the Buddhist establishment, burning libraries and shuttering monasteries. Not surprisingly, many Kalmyks welcomed the German invaders in 1942; some 3,000 local men actually joined the German army, serving in three Kalmyk units. In retaliation, Stalin ordered the entire Kalmyk population deported to Central Asia in 1943. An estimated one in three perished in route. In 1957, Khrushchev allowed the Kalmyks to return, restoring their (supposedly) autonomous republic.

Today the Republic is doing reasonably well, thanks to oil, agriculture, and perhaps chess. The Kalmyks benefit from their relatively high levels of education and their international connections. Overseas communities are found today in many parts of Europe and in the United States. The U.S. center of the Kalmyk diaspora—Monmouth County, New Jersey—supports several Kalmyk Buddhist temples as well as a monastery. The head of the religious establishment in Kalmykia itself is Philadelphia-born Erdne Ombadykow (Telo Tulku Rinpoche), who was recognized by the Dalai Lama as a reincarnation of a Buddhist saint. Ombadykow spends half of each year with his followers in Kalmykia, and the other half with his family in Colorado.

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The Finances of Man

Sometimes the most obscure news article reveals significant processes that have the potential to reshape global geography. A case in point is a January 13, 2010 article from Transfer Pricing Weekly, all of seven sentences long, entitled “MAP Established between the Isle of Man and Australia.” The first sentence, which outlines “the mutual agreement procedures for transfer pricing adjustments,” promises a real snoozer of a story. The meat comes at the end: “ The Isle of Man government has signed a series of tax cooperation agreements which have helped to demonstrate the island’s commitment to international standards and to the global effort to establish a system based on cooperation between countries, transparency, and effective exchange of information.” In other words, one of the world’s first offshore banking centers—site of many monetary shenanigans in the past—is scrambling to reform itself as the crisis-battered global financial system comes under increasing scrutiny.

“Offshore banking” originated in, and indeed acquired its name from, the islands of Guernsey, Jersey, and Man. Banking secrecy, tax evasion, and other dubious practices of the offshore system were made possible by these islands’ anomalous geopolitical status. As “crown dependencies” they ultimately fall under the sovereign umbrella of Britain, yet they are not part of the United Kingdom (or the EU), regardless of what of our maps may indicate (see map). As a result, they have their own legal systems, tax codes, and regulations, which their governments long ago realized could be used to their advantage in international finance. The business is large; according to some experts, up to half of the world’s capital flows through offshore centers. Although pioneered by Guernsey, Jersey, and Man, the practice eventually spread to other British dependencies, such as the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas, and then to sovereign states. Panama, for example, might now be regarded as an onshore-offshore banking center.

The Isle of Man is actually thought to be one of the more secure and reputable of the offshore banking centers. It is not immune to crisis, however.In the financial disaster of 2008, among the few savers who lost their funds entirely were those who had invested in an offshore branch of an Icelandic bank in the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man Compensation Scheme is trying to ensure that such losses are eventually recouped.

Finance aside, the Isle of Man is plenty interesting in its own right. Its Celtic language, Manx, supposedly went extinct in 1974, but is being revived and now boasts around 100 fluent speakers. Its current head of state is officially Elizabeth II, but not as queen: her title here is “Lord of Mann.” (She is toasted as “The Queen, Lord of Mann.”) Also of note is the island’s symbol, the ancient triskelion: bent legs in a pattern of threefold rotational symmetry (more on this in the next posting).

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Violence in Cabinda

On January 8, 2010, a bus carrying Togo’s national soccer team to the Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Angola was attacked as it traveled through Cabinda, an Angolan exclave separated from the rest of the country by territory belonging to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After killing the driver, gunmen continued firing at the bus for 30 minutes while the players sought safety under the seats. The team’s assistant coach and its media officer were killed, and nine others were injured.

Responsibility for the act was claimed by an offshoot of the separatist group known as FLEC (the Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda, or, in Portuguese,Frente para a Libertação do Enclave de Cabinda). FLEC spokesmen claimed that their fighters had intended to kill not the Togolese players but the Angolan security officers who were accompanying their convoy. Another insurgent group, the Armed Forces of Cabinda, also claimed responsibility.

Cabinda boasts massive oil deposits, especially in its near-shore waters (see map). It is believed to be inhabited by 357,000 people, although an estimated one third of the population has fled to other countries; some 20,000 languish in refugee camps in the DRC. Cabindan activists have long claimed that their region is victimized by the authoritarian Angolan state. The secession movement actually dates to the 1960s, well before Angola gained its independence from Portugal. According to Human Rights Watch, the Angolan Army has committed numerous crimes against the people of Cabinda in recent years. As Angola depends heavily on Cabinda’s oil, it has pushed hard to retain control. Until recently, it publicly claimed that FLEC had ceased to be a problem.

The recent massacre in Cabinda brought on several international controversies. Angolan authorities expressed outrage at France, which has reportedly given sanctuary to Cabindan rebels; officials associated with the self-proclaimed Republic of Cabinda are currently based in Paris. In South Africa, anger was directed at the international media for portraying the attack as a typically African incident, implying that all of Africa is insecure – and raising doubts about South Africa’s ability to pull off the 2010 football (soccer) World Cup (http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/Opinion%20&%20Analysis/-/539548/841482/-/svqyk8z/-/). My own criticism of the media is quite different; most American outlets ignored the incident altogether, implying that terrorist attacks in Africa are only significant if they somehow threaten the United States.

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Anti-Immigrant Violence and Organized Crime in Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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Burma Takes on the United Wa State Army

United Wa State in Purple

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

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

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

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

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

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

Burma Takes on the United Wa State Army Read More »

Belize Vs. Guatemala

Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala
Belize Linguistic Map of Guatemala

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

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

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

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

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

Belize Vs. Guatemala Read More »

The Marshall Islands and the U.S.

The Marshall Islands is a sovereign state in the Pacific Ocean, recognized as such by its fellow members of the United Nations. But the Marshall Islands forms an unusual country in several regards. Its population is small (62,000) and its land area meager (70 square miles), yet its tiny atolls spread across a vast swath of the Pacific; if one includes its Exclusive Economic Zone of sea-space, the Marshall Islands is a large country (see map). The sovereignty of the Marshall Islands, however, is less than complete. According to the “Compact of Free Association” signed in 1986 when independence was gained, this former U.S. “Trust Territory” allowed the United States to retain responsibility for its defense. In return, the islands were promised substantial subsidies and other benefits.

Technically speaking, the Marshall Islands is an “associated state,” defined by the Wikipedia as “a minor partner in a formal free relationship” with a larger sovereign country. The United States has two other sovereign associates in the Pacific: Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia. A similar compact of free association links New Zealand to the Cook Islands, but the latter is not considered sovereign and does not belong to the United Nations. It supposedly has the right, however, to declare independence if it so chooses.

One perk provided by the Compact of Free Association is the right to travel and work freely in the United States. The American center of Marshallese culture is Springdale Arkansas, home of Tyson Foods—the world’s largest chicken processor. Some 10,000 of Springdale’s 70,000 residents hail from the Marshall Islands. Originally, Marshallese living in the U.S. were eligible for immediate health care coverage under Medicaid, but that provision expired in 1996. The current House of Representatives health care bill would restore Medicaid coverage, but the Senate bill would not. The issue is important because most Marshall islanders in the States work for low wages in chicken abattoirs, an injury-prone environment, and the community has very high rates of diabetes. (The Marshall Islands also has the world’s highest rate of leprosy.)

The Marshall Islands faces long-term economic challenges as well. U.S. subsidies are declining, and in 2024 the major “compact grants” from the American government are set to expire. As a result, on January 4, 2010, Asian Development Bank officials urged the country to start generating surpluses that it could put into a trust fund.

The Marshall Islands play an important role in U.S. military affairs, however, which may lead to continuing subsidy streams. The islands are the primary home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, which covers no less than 750,000 square miles of sea-space. The Reagan Test Site’s main facilities are on the small islets of Kwajalein Atoll, which ring one of the world’s largest coralline lagoons. The lagoon forms, in essence, the world’s largest target, well suited for testing missile accuracy (see map). Understandably, Kwajalein residents are not very happy with the situation. Almost all of them have been forced onto one island, Ebeye. Refugees from nuclear testing in Bikini Atoll were resettled on the same island in the 1950s. Today some 13,000 to 15,000 residents are crowded onto a mere 80 acres of land. Not for nothing is Ebeye called “the Slum of the Pacific.”

The Marshall Islands and the U.S. Read More »

Language and Voting In Romania

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

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

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

Language and Voting In Romania Read More »