Europe

The Paradoxes of Basque Politics

On September 5, 2010, the Basque separatist group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) announced a cease-fire, hinting that it might lay down its weapons and embrace a non-violent path to independence. Spanish authorities were not impressed; ETA did not permanently renounce terrorist tactics.

Of Spain’s ethnic groups, the Basques are by far the most distinctive. All other Iberian languages are closely related, but Basque is a linguistic isolate, not related to anything else. The Basques have a little more autonomy than the other groups, running their own police force for example, and they have pushed harder for independence. The violence of Basque nationalism, however, has weakened it; today, Catalonia presents a more credible threat to the Spanish state than does the prospect of Basque secession.

Basque nationalists face a challenge in their region’s geopolitical fragmentation. Informally, the term “Basque Country” refers to seven territories of Basque heritage: four provinces of Spain and three former provinces of France. Formally, the same term means the autonomous community that emerged through the union of three of the Spanish provinces in 1978. The fourth historically Basque province of Spain, Navarre, became a de facto autonomous region in its own right, with the proviso that it could join the Basque political union should its voters ever choose to do so. If that were to happen, its capital – Pamplona – would automatically become the seat of the expanded autonomous unit. The current capital, Vitoria-Gasteiz, is not ideally situated. It lies in largely non-Basque-speaking Álava province, which is territorially compromised by a large exclave of Castile and Leon, Treviño. Basque nationalists, not surprisingly, demand Treviño for their own region.

Basque nationalism is also challenged by the limited distribution of the Basque language, known as Euskara. Across the historical Basque country, most people speak Spanish as their first language; for many in the north, French is the mother tongue. Some Spanish-speakers in the Basque region consider themselves of Spanish ethnicity, others as Basques who no longer speak their native language. Euskara has been retreating for some time, a process that accelerated in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as centralizing regimes in Spain and especially France sought standardization. The Basque hold on the land was also lessened by the arrival of immigrants from other parts of Spain, who were attracted by the high wages of Iberia’s first and foremost industrial zone. Today, Basque nationalism is generally opposed in southern Navarre, and even in Álava enthusiasm for it is limited.

Efforts to revitalize Euskara are currently underway. Many young Spanish-speakers of Basque ancestry are eager to learn it. As the map above indicates, most students in northern Navarre and throughout the autonomous region – even in Álava – are registered in Basque-language schools. The situation across the border in the Basque area of southern France is markedly different, with little Euskara education. France has long pushed political and cultural centralization, and it makes few accommodations for regional languages. Intriguingly, such policies generate little resistance in the Basque-speaking region, where support for the nationalist movement remains marginal.

Basque identity in Spain makes for interesting political coalitions. In predominantly non-Basque Navarre, right-wing and left-wing Basque parties have combined to form Navarre Yes or, in Euskara, Nafarroa Bai. In 2007, this coalition became the second largest party in Navarre’s parliament. In the Basque autonomous region, the center-right Basque Nationalist Party (EAJ-PNV) has been politically dominant for decades. The EAJ-PNV aims for independence through the democratic process; its conservative heritage is reflected in its Basque name, Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (EAJ): “Basque Party of Friends of God and Old Laws.” Leftist Basque nationalists have taken a more uncompromising path. ETA, a Marxist-Leninist organization, is classified across Europe and North America as a terrorist group. In 2003, the supposedly democratic socialist Basque party Batasuna was outlawed by Spain after evidence emerged of it funneling public money to ETA. Batasuna still operates openly in the French Basque country, but neither it nor the center-right Basque National Party receives much support.

In 2009, the Basque Nationalist Party suffered an epochal defeat, losing control of the autonomous region’s parliament to the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party. But as the socialists did not win a majority of seats, they had to forge a coalition with the local branch of the main Spanish center-right party, the People’s Party. Although the Socialist Party and the People’s Party are bitter rivals nationally, they agree on opposing Basque separatism.

The new president of the Autonomous Community, Patxi López, has thus far successfully pulled off a difficult balancing act. The fact that he has been able to work across the aisles with conservative members of the local parliament appeals to many Spaniards worried about their country’s economic crisis. As he result, López is being discussed as a possible candidate for the position of Prime Minister of Spain. At home, however, he is still working on his regionalist credentials; at age 50 he is only now learning how to speak Euskara.

Lopez’s popularity both in the Basque Country and in Spain at large stems mostly from his unyielding opposition to ETA, a group that even most Basque partisans have come to detest. As Helene Zuber writing for Der Spiegel reports:

Since coming to office, López has adopted a zero tolerance attitude to the terrorists. Photographs of members of ETA, which has killed approximately 850 people since 1968, have disappeared from taverns popular with its sympathizers and from town halls, even in Guipúzcoa province, the terrorists’ stronghold up to now…. Never before have so many ETA leaders been arrested in such quick succession, and never before have its members had such difficulty reorganizing their activities. They have not been able to perpetrate a deadly attack for over a year now. The Basque people – even ETA’s political wing – seem to have accepted that they cannot achieve their aims by violent means.

The reduced threat of terrorism in the Basque Country has also led to an uptick in tourism in the region, helping the local economy. Although the Basque Country has suffered in the recent Spanish economic meltdown, it has weathered the crisis better than other parts of the country. If the threat of political violence were to vanish, north-central Spain would likely do very well indeed.

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Contested Regionalism in Andalusia, León, and Asturias

Controversies over identity and territory in Spain are not limited to the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Calls for regional autonomy, nationality recognition, and even national status are being voiced elsewhere, too.

Andalusia in southern Spain is one such place. Some seek to enhance the autonomy of Andalusia as a whole, while others seek to divide it into two separate communities. Andalusia’s distinctive speech is classified as a dialect of Spanish — sometimes even as Castilian (see map above). As a result, it was not initially identified as one of Spain’s historical nationalities, much to the consternation of its people. Andalusia’s statute of autonomy was finally amended in 2006 to proclaim its historical nationality, but some Andalusians go further, demanding recognition as a nation. Their main political vehicle is the Andalusian Party; the smaller Nación Andaluza seeks outright independence.

The differentiation of the Andalusian people from other Spaniards is based in part on historical class identity. Andalusia was a land of large estates worked by hired labor, with few of the small-scale peasant proprietors common in northern Spain. Long noted for its flourishing anarchist and socialist movements, today it still votes solidly left. But both large estates and Andalusian nationalism characterize the western lowlands much more than the rugged lands to the east. An organization calling itself The Platform for Eastern Andalusia regards the lowland-based regional government as overly centralized, accusing the political elite in Seville of exploiting the eastern uplands. This group calls for the creation of a new autonomous community to be constructed out of the provinces of Jaén, Granada, and Almería.

Elsewhere, linguistic differences reinforce historically based claims for new autonomous units. In northern Spain, advocates of “Leonesism” seek to build a self-governing community in the provinces of León, Zamora, and Salamanca, which currently belong to Castile and León. This area, they point out, had been the core of the independent kingdom of León, once the strongest Christian state in Iberia. León was annexed by Castile in 1301, but it persisted as a subordinate territorial unit until 1833. Autonomy advocates also stress the distinction of the Leonese language. Although Leonese is given some encouragement and protection by the existing autonomous community, it does not have the official status that its proponents desire. A few hard-core Leonese nationalists call for independence, but such a view is not popular.

Leonese national identity confronts a problem in the distribution of the Leonese language. Most residents of both León and Zamora, and almost all of Salamanca, speak Spanish rather than Leonese as their first language; others grow up speaking Galician, which is sometimes viewed as a dialect of Portuguese. Linguists also debate the status of Leonese. The most common view is that it is merely a local form of speech in a continuum of dialects known as “Astur-Leonese,” whose center is located to the north in the Autonomous Community of Asturias.

It should come as no surprise that local partisans in Asturias proclaim the distinction of their own tongue, alternatively called Asturian or (yes!) Bable. Since 1980, the “Academy of the Asturian Language” has sought to codify and standardize this form of speech, and to stop its gradual replacement by Spanish. Even though Asturias is an autonomous community, Bable has no official standing, although it is sometimes used by the local civil service. The local government is also gradually changing official place names from their Spanish to their Asturian variants. But even if one excludes Spanish-speaking areas, not all of Asturias is Asturian-speaking. In the western part of the province, one finds dialects of Galician so distinctive that they are sometimes classified as forming their own language, Eonavian.

The Astur-Leonese group of dialects extends to the east of Asturias through much of the autonomous community of Cantabria. But again, debates over linguistic status abound. Some authorities view Cantabrian as a language in its own right, others as a dialect of Asturian, and others as an “ancient dialect of Castilian.” Due to the spread of modern Spanish, UNESCO has classified Cantabrian as a “language in danger of extinction.” As is true in neighboring regions, the diversity of speech forms here is notable; the Wikipedia map of linguistic map of Cantabria, reproduced above, locates seven distinct dialects.

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Catalonia: Nationality or Nation?

The Spanish policy of preserving national unity by devolving power to the regions faces three main challenges. First, some groups remain unsatisfied, pressing for enhanced self-rule or even outright independence. Second, members of several smaller unrecognized groups seek to hive off their own autonomous communities. Third, the borders of the existing autonomous communities poorly correspond with those of the cultural groups on which they are ostensibly based, as discussed yesterday in Languages of the World.

The big problem is the call for outright secession in the Catalan- and Basque-speaking areas. Most Basques and Catalans want more autonomy, and many would be content with nothing less than full sovereignty. Independence-seekers in these two regions have adopted divergent strategies. Hard-core Basque nationalists have long embraced militancy, attacking the Spanish state and its institutions with bombs and guns. Catalan nationalists, on the other hand, have almost entirely eschewed violence in favor of public demonstrations and electoral politics. In an important recent article in Foreign Policy, Paddy Woodworth argues that the former policy has been a dismal failure and the latter a marked success. Not just Spaniards at large, he contends, but the majority of Basques themselves have been so disgusted with the terrorism of the separatist ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) that the movement for Basque nationhood has lost its impetus. Catalan nationalism, by contrast, is gaining ground.

Catalan stalwarts have long insisted on recognition as a nation and not a mere nationality, generating untold tensions with the central government. Where Catalonia leads, other regions tend to follow. The current Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, strongly backs regional autonomy, encouraging the Catalan parliament to press its demands. With Zapatero’s support, the Spanish parliament recently accepted Catalonia’s status as a nation. In July 2010, however, the Spanish Constitutional Court overruled the maneuver, arguing that there can only be one nation in Spain. The decision prompted outrage in Barcelona, inciting an estimated one million people to take to the streets. As Woodworth observed,

[The protests] were led by José Montilla, leader of the PSC, the Catalan chapter of Zapatero’s party, who described the decision of Spain’s highest court as “offensive.” The tone of the march suggests that many Catalans who would have been content with even the watered-down statute are now shifting towards demands for complete independence. Montilla was repeatedly abused by pro-independence demonstrators, who appear increasingly to reflect the popular mood.

Other sources have ascribed an economic rationale to Catalonia’s surging independence movement. Catalonia is one of the wealthiest parts of Spain, its tax receipts subsidizing the poorer parts of the country. With Spain’s current economic crisis, many of the region’s residents feel that they can no longer afford to support Extremadura and other poor neighbors. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, this is one issue that binds indigenous Catalans with migrants from other parts of Spain: “Newcomers from Andalusia or Aragon may shrug at warm-hearted appeals to protect Catalan culture, but they respond to hardheaded arguments about their tax money being spent on schools or hospitals far from Catalonia.” But as the map posted above shows, economic considerations cannot explain the different trajectories of Basque and Catalan nationalism, as the Basque region is even more productive than Catalonia.

Whatever the reasons for Catalonian separatism, it will be interesting to see whether Woodworth’s assessment of surging support will be confirmed in upcoming elections. In the 2008 Spanish General Election, the independence-seeking Republican Left of Catalonia lost five parliamentary seats, taking only three. But as the Electoral Geography map posted above shows, most Catalonian districts rejected the nationally dominant center-left and center-right parties to support the local coalition called Convergence and Union, which supports augmented autonomy while remaining ambiguous on independence.

Even if Catalonia were to become an independent country, the aspirations of hard-core Catalonian nationalists would not be satisfied. Such people seek sovereignty not merely for their existing autonomous community, but for all Catalan-speaking areas: the Països Catalans. In addition to Catalonia proper, this region includes the Balearic Islands, most of Valencia, and parts of both Murcia and Aragon in Spain; it also potentially encompasses the entire micro-country of Andorra, most of the French department of the Pyrénées-Orientales, and even the Italian city of Alghero on the island of Sardinia. Sentiments in favor of such a greater Catalonia, however, do not run strong outside of the autonomous region itself. In the early 1980s, the possibility that much of Valencia might be incorporated in an expanded Catalonia prompted an anti-Catalan reaction and even a few physical attacks. Inhabitants of Valencia opposed to the Països Catalans idea insist that Valencian is a language in its own right, not a dialect of Catalan.

Even within the autonomous community of Catalonia, a common national identity is far from universal. Many residents hail from other parts of Spain, and feel put upon by the constant cultural demands of local nationalists. And in the far northern Catalonian comarca (county) of Val d’Aran, the indigenous inhabitants have their own speech, Aranese, considered a dialect of the southern French language of Occitan. The commentator “Ninja,” writing in response to the Foreign Policy article cited above, argues that, “There is also a nascent movement for the independence of Val d’Aran as they speak a different language, Occitan, and have an unique identity.” With a population of 7,130, Val d’Aran would make Andorra seem like a populous country.

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The Nation, Nationalities, and Autonomous Regions in Spain

In everyday speech, “nation” and “nationality” are largely synonymous terms. “Nationality,” my desktop dictionary informs me, is “the status of belonging to a particular nation.” In Spain, however, the Spanish equivalents of the two terms have come to convey distinct meanings through political fiat. The official differentiation of the Spanish nation from several distinct Spanish nationalities is bitterly contentious, potentially threatening the Spanish state.

When Spain began to democratize after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 it faced an existential crisis. Franco had presided over a centralized state that suppressed regional languages and identities – in turn intensifying secessionist sentiments. Basque- and Catalan-speakers especially tended to insist on their nationhood, seeking political autonomy if not outright independence. To maintain the integrity of Spain yet satisfy regional aspirations, the country’s new leaders crafted an intricate terminological and geopolitical compromise, which they institutionalized in the new constitution. Spain, they declared, was an indivisible nation that joined together several territorially defined nationalities. “Nationality,” in the process, was redefined to refer not to a group of people possessing or aspiring to political sovereignty, but rather to a region whose inhabitants have a strong, historically constituted sense of identity.

The changes pushed forward were not merely rhetorical. Initially, the three most linguistically distinct regions were offered substantial autonomy as historical nationalities: Catalonia in the northeast, the Basque County in the north-center, and Galicia in the northwest. Autonomy was promised to Spain’s other regions as well, but at a reduced level; it also had to be gained through a more involved process. Such unequal treatment proved unpopular in several areas. In Andalusia, a million-and-half-person protest broke out as residents clambered for similar consideration. As a result, Andalusia joined the “fast track” to regional autonomy as its own nationality. Elsewhere, provinces were allowed to establish their own foundations for self-rule, either by themselves or in conjunction with neighboring provinces of similar background. Through this process, the internal political geography of Spain rearranged itself between 1979 and 1983, with seventeen “autonomous communities” coming into existence. The process reached completion in 1996, when Ceuta and Melilla in North Africa were reconstituted as “autonomous cities.” Spain is now a highly decentralized state in which most tax revenues are spent not by the central government put by the first-order political subdivisions, the autonomous communities. Spain’s fifty provinces still exist, but they serve more as geographical referents than as administrative units.

As the reorganization of Spain proceeded, different regions based their self-government claims on different grounds. Aragon, Valencia, and the Canary Islands, each of which emerged through the union of two or more provinces, declared in their statutes of autonomy that they too formed nationalities. So did the Balearic Islands as a single province. Extremadura and Castile-La Mancha emerged from provinces banding together as “regions of historical identity,” as did Murcia as a single province. The new multi-province aggregation of Castile and León selected the term “historical community,” as did the provinces of Asturias and Cantabria. La Rioja claimed autonomy as a “province with historical identity.”

Only one Spanish province did not officially become “autonomous,” whether in its own right or as part of a larger region: Navarre. Instead, Navarre reemerged as a “chartered community,” updating and expanding on the historical autonomy that it had long maintained. In practice, however, it functions as if it were an autonomous community. Navarre’s official name is Comunidad Foral de Navarra (or, in Basque, Nafarroako Foru Erkidegoa). “Foral” is usually translated into English as “chartered”: it stems from “fuero,” the traditional rights (or privileges, depending on one’s perspective) that were historically granted to certain regions of the Spanish kingdom, especially those in the Basque-speaking north-center (see the map showing “Foral Spain”). In the case of Navarre, such rights were bestowed when the formerly independent kingdom of Navarre was divided between Spain and France in the 1550s; to ensure the loyalty of its new subjects, the Spanish monarchy allowed them to retain their traditional customs and laws. Navarre’s fueros were subsequently whittled back and contested, but the basic idea has persisted.

Madrid presented a conundrum for Spain’s geographical reorganization. Historical linkages called for its inclusion into either Castile-La Mancha or Castile and Leon, but the other Castilian communities were wary of being overshadowed by the capital and its environs. In the end, the province of Madrid was granted autonomous status in its own right, supposedly to uphold the “national interest” of Spain.

Spain’s reconstruction as a decentralized nation of regions and nationalities has been at best a partial success. Its basic structure is compromised by the geographical mismatch between ethnicity and autonomy; the autonomous communities were built out of preexisting provinces, several of which are themselves divided by language and identity. Navarre, for example, is Basque-speaking in the north and Spanish-speaking in the south, resulting in a considerable dissatisfaction. More pressing is the demand for greater autonomy – and recognition – among certain groups. Many Catalans, as we shall see tomorrow, are adamant that they constitute not a nationality but a full-fledged nation, thus roiling Spanish politics. When it comes to matters of political identity, terminology matters.

Note on sources: The Wikipedia has a number of excellent articles on this issue. Of special note are its competing articles, Nationalisms and Regionalisms of Spain and Nationalities and Regions of Spain.

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The World’s Shortest Border


Fans of geo-trivia may be interested in locating the world’s shortest land border between sovereign states. A Fun Trivia posting on the subject – which begins by ruling out Monaco, Andorra, the Vatican, and Gibraltar – selects the two kilometers separating Botswana and Zambia. But if one counts exclaves, a much shorter border can be found: the 85-meter line separating Morocco from Spain’s outpost of Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera. “Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera” is a long name for a small place. This slender peninsula jutting into the Mediterranean was an island until 1934, when a massive storm deposited a sandy isthmus connecting it to the African mainland. Upon Morocco’s independence in 1956, that thin neck of sand became an international border.

Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera is one of three Spanish garrisoned rock fortresses lying just off the Moroccan coast, formally known as plazas de soberanía, or “places of sovereignty.” The three Islas Chafarinas cover 128 acres (52 hectares), the three islets of Peñón de Alhucemas total 11 acres (4.6 hectares), and Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera covers all of 4.7 acres (1.9 hectares). Such garrisons once served an important function. Peñón de Vélez de la Gomera, for example, was besieged by Morocco in 1680, 1701, 1755, 1781 and 1790. Today, troop strengths at these outposts range from a few dozen to 190.

The most recent military dispute between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s exclaves occurred in 2002. In that year, Moroccan forces occupied Isla Perejil, an unoccupied speck near Ceuta claimed by Spain. Spain’s vehement objection was supported by all members of the EU except France and Portugal; Algeria, which has a long-running dispute with Morocco over the Western Sahara, also offered support. Spain responded with a commando raid, which took the island with no resistance. Mediation by the United States led to a Spanish pullout and subsequent stalemate. Both countries currently claim and monitor the island, but it remains deserted.

The final Spanish land claim in the vicinity is Isla de Alborán, which lies fifty kilometers off the Moroccan coast. Unlike the other islands discussed in this post, Isla de Alborán is not formally claimed by Morocco, and is not officially a “place of sovereignty.” Instead, it is administered by the Spanish city of Almería, specifically – according to the Wikipedia – as part of its fish market district. It does contain a small naval garrison.

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Neutral Zones at the Boundaries Dividing Ceuta and Melilla from Morocco


The Wikipedia maps of Ceuta and Melilla show a double boundary separating Spanish from Moroccan territory, with a neutral zone in between. Such a depiction is unusual: borders between political entities are conventionally conceptualized as one-dimensional lines, with length but no breadth. One can, for example, easily imagine standing with one foot in Canada and one in the United States.

Such a conception of political boundaries is a relatively recent development. In much of the world, borders between states were traditionally treated as transitional zones rather than as stark lines of demarcation. Even in the twentieth century, stalled border negotiations occasionally resulted in the formal delineation of interstitial areas between sovereign states. The world’s last such “neutral zone,” a parallelogram of desert sandwiched between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, was not erased from the world map until 1991. The two countries had agreed to split the region ten years earlier, but as they never informed the United Nations of their accord, the zone retained its international standing. A decade earlier, another neutral zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait had been divided and annexed by the two countries.

Even where they are conceptualized as a razor-thin line, moreover, many boundaries are still constructed in depth, especially those separating hostile countries. The prime example is the four-kilometer-wide “demilitarized zone” dividing North Korea from South Korea – perhaps the world’s most heavily militarized area. The strips of land around Melilla and Ceuta once had military functions too, but today they serve mostly to deter illegal immigration.

As recently as the 1990s, Melilla and Morocco were separated by little more than rolls of barbed wire along an undeveloped ribbon of land. Residents of Morocco and neighboring countries learned that crossing this lightly defended frontier was an easy way to gain entry into the EU. In 1999, with European resistance to immigration mounting, the boundary was strengthened with additional fencing.

The new barrier did not prove adequate to the job. Desperate migrants from sub-Saharan Africa increasingly tried to storm the fence in human waves. Attempts peaked on September 27, 2005, when, as reported by the Associated Press, “some 1,000 men tried to clamber over the fences in twin assaults on Melilla’s crescent-shaped perimeter. About 300 made it in.” (In the previous two weeks, crowds had rushed the frontier five times; some 700 had succeeded in climbing over.) Two days later, a similar action occurred at Ceuta’s border. Spanish troops fired on the would-be immigrants with rubber bullets; Moroccan forces evidently used live ammunition. As many as eighteen people were killed, and more than fifty were injured.

Spain responded to these incursions by again reinforcing the border. As a recent article in The Guardian reported:

The city [of Melilla] erected an intimidating new barrier – two parallel 4m wire fences, topped with razor wire and with a tarmac strip running between patrolled by the Spanish Guardia Civil, all of it monitored by 106 video cameras, infrared surveillance, a microphone cable and helicopters. In Melilla, a man who had worked on the fence told me he would arrive at work in the morning to find his ladder covered in blood, where migrants had tried to use it to climb into the city and had become victims of the razor wire.”

Spanish forces subsequently cleared out camps of sub-Saharan migrants that had been established in the buffer zone between the outer security fence and the town. Both Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières accused Spain of dumping more than 500 of these prospective migrants into an uninhabited portion of the Sahara.

Separation barriers designed primarily to prevent illegal immigration are becoming an increasingly common feature of the world’s borderlands. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, migration-deterring barricades exist now or are being built between Botswana and Zimbabwe, Brunei and Malaysia, China and North Korea, Egypt and Gaza, India and Bangladesh, South Africa and Mozambique, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, United Arab Emirates and Oman, the United States and Mexico, and Uzbekistan and Afghanistan.

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Geopolitical and Religious Conflict in the Spanish Exclave of Melilla


As mentioned in Monday’s post, tensions came to a boil this summer between Spain and Morocco over Spain’s possessions on the North African coast, Ceuta and Melilla. The squabble began in July 2010, when Spanish forces allegedly beat five Moroccan men in Melilla for carrying a Moroccan flag. The government of Morocco subsequently encouraged or at least allowed its citizens to stage two massive border protests, which blocked the delivery of fresh produce into the exclaves. The blockade, in turn, incited political sparring in Spain, as the center-right opposition party accused the government of “failing to defend adequately the Spanish presence in North Africa,” while the government in turn denounced the “disloyal” maneuvering of the opposition, which included an unannounced visit to Melilla by former prime minister José María Aznar.

By August 23, the crisis had apparently abated. Spain claimed a “diplomatic victory” in its negotiations with Morocco after the two countries agreed to “strengthen their security and police cooperation to handle issues ranging from immigration to drug trafficking.…” But whatever agreements were made between Morocco and Spain, it is unlikely they will permanently settle the conflict. Morocco’s demand for the two communities still stands.

It is unclear what prompted Morocco to proceed with the blockade in July; no public statements have been made. But speculations on both the origin of the struggle and its diplomatic consequences are rife. A recent Time Magazine article suggests that the Moroccan government views Spain as severely weakened by its economic crisis, and hence vulnerable to intimidation. Spain stakes a great deal on its role as mediator between Europe and North Africa—a position threatened by any struggle with Morocco. According to another recent article, “Morocco wants to ensure continued Spanish support for its efforts to hold onto the disputed Western Sahara; Morocco’s government has internal problems and raised this fuss as a diversionary tactic; or maybe it wants more European aid money and is badgering Spain as a way to get it.”

What is clear is that relations between the people of Melilla and their Moroccan neighbors are both intimate and troubled. An estimated 30,000 Moroccan citizens cross the border everyday. Many come to sell their labor, as Melilla is vastly more prosperous than Morocco. Others come to shop and smuggle, returning to Morocco with “everything from booze to toilet paper.” Such day-trippers are apparently much abused by Melillans, a people anxious about illegal immigration and concerned about the security of their vulnerable community.

Tensions in Melilla cannot be reduced to a simple struggle between the Spanish inhabitants of the enclave and their North African neighbors. Some thirty to forty-five percent of the city’s 73,000 residents are Muslims of Moroccan origin, mostly of Berber rather than Arabic stock. According to the Wikipedia, Melilla remains deeply divided: “The culture in this little city is thus virtually divided into two halves, one being European and the other Amazigh [i.e., Berber].” Other sources depict greater communal cohesion. According to one recent article, “the vast majority [of Melilla’s Muslims] say they have no interest in joining their poor neighbor. ‘We feel Spanish and we are Spanish,’ said merchant Yusef Kaddur, as he stood under a date palm tree outside the main mosque in Melilla’s bustling Muslim quarter.” The fact that Berbers have little power in Morocco, even though they constitute almost half of the country’s population, no doubt contributes to the lack of pro-Moroccan sentiments among Melilla’s Muslim inhabitants.

Melilla’s Jewish population has a storied history, but is now diminishing rapidly. As Spain’s former prohibition against Jews was not enforced in its North African exclaves, Jewish settlement was continuous. In the mid twentieth century, twenty percent of Melilla’s inhabitants were Jewish; today that figure has been reduced to around five percent due to emigration. According to a 2002 article in Religioscope, Ceuta and Melilla were formerly considered “paragons of interfaith harmony,” but that is no longer the case. Many Muslim youths, the author argues, have been radicalized in recent years, and have thus turned against their Jewish neighbors: “eggs, rocks and bottles have been thrown at Ceuta’s Sephardic synagogue while Jews were at prayer, Palestinian flags and graffiti glorifying Osama bin Laden have been painted on synagogues and churches, and graves in Melilla’s Jewish cemetery have been desecrated.”

Melilla is obviously a troubled and insecure place. Its most serious clashes in recent years, however, have focused not on sovereignty disputes or religious rivalry but on immigration, the subject of tomorrow’s post.

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The Peculiarities of Gibraltar and Other British Overseas Territories


Gibraltar’s position as a British Overseas Territory makes it a geopolitical anomaly. Britain’s scattered overseas colonial remnants are under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom but are not part of it*. Since the passage of the British Overseas Territories Act of 2002 their inhabitants have enjoyed full British citizenship, but they are not under the rule of English law. Perhaps most confusingly, all of the UK’s fourteen overseas territories enjoy “concurrent European Union citizenship, giving them rights of free movement across all EU member states.” But only Gibraltar is in the EU, yet it not within the EU customs union, and it does not possess EU membership in its own right.

Anomalous geopolitical situations often generate both opportunities and disputes. Taxes are generally kept low, partly to maintain local popularity of the foreign regime, but this has the side effect of encouraging both trade and smuggling. Neighboring countries often resent not just the smuggling but the sheer persistence of such foreign bases. As we have seen in previous postings, Spain claims Gibraltar and Argentina demands both the Falkland Islands (Malvinas) and the South Georgia group; in addition, both Mauritius and Seychelles lay claim to the British Indian Ocean Territory, the most important island of which — Diego Garcia — is leased to the United States military.

Isolation from Britain, proximity to other lands, historical openness to migration, and geopolitical distinctiveness have all helped nurture cultural particularities in the UK’s Overseas Territories. Idiosyncratic forms of speech are common, and Gibraltar is no exception. Gibraltarians are called “Llanitos,” a term of uncertain provenance that also refers to the peninsula’s dialect — if indeed the local language merits that designation. From the limited number of sources that I could find, Llanito appears to be a variety of the Spanish dialect of Andalusian that employs a number of English and other foreign expressions. Llanito-speakers often alternate rapidly between English and Spanish, a practice known as “code-switching.” Llanito is seldom written, but it does have its own dictionary, and several BBC programs have been aired in it. Llanito is influenced by Haketia (or Western Ladino), a Hebrew- and Moroccan-Arabic-influenced form of archaic Spanish spoken by Jews whose ancestors fled across the Strait of Gibraltar after being expelled by Spain in 1492. After Britain gained Gibraltar in the early 1700s, a Jewish community reestablished itself, bringing its language and other cultural practices. The Treaty of Utrecht, by which Spain ceded Gibraltar to Britain, expressly forbade the immigration of Jews; the fact that Britain ignored this stipulation forms one of grounds that Spain historically used for demanding the return of the Rock.

The 30,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar have mixed ethnic origins as well as linguistic practices. Judging from surnames, roughly a quarter of Gibraltar’s population is of British derivation, another quarter Spanish, and about a fifth Italian; others sources include Morocco, Portugal, and India. Such diversity is notable for a territory that encompasses a mere 2.7 square miles (6.8 square kilometers), forty percent of which is a nature reserve focused on the uninhabited Rock of Gibraltar. Over the centuries, the various peoples of the peninsula have largely melded into their own ethnic group. They have found communal cohesion in their desire to maintain the status quo and resist incorporation into Spain. According to the Wikipedia, Gibraltar’s voters rejected joint sovereignty with Spain in 2002 by a margin of 99 percent, an unprecedented figure, to my knowledge, in a free election.

The people of Gibraltar are not the only members of Britain’s Overseas Territories to have been concerned about possible abandonment by London. A recent article from the Turks and Caicos Islands, a British Caribbean territory, relates mounting fears last year that the previous Labor government “would have happily ended Britain’s relationship with its Overseas Territories, leaving them to fend for themselves.” The article went on to express relief that the current administration, and especially deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, believes that Turks and Caicos “matters greatly” to the British government, and that “Britain and its people have a duty to look after the interests of all of its Overseas Territories.”

Although many people would like to see the final dismantling of the British Empire, such a sentiment is shared by scant few of the inhabitants of its remnant possessions. For them, living in an overseas territory means not exploitation and colonization, but security, special tax and passport privileges, and economic subsidies. The endgame of empire is nothing if not ironic.

*As an additional note of complexity, the Overseas Territories are not the only places that are under but not part of the United Kingdom; the same is true of the Crown Dependencies — the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man — which have a particularly convoluted constitutional relationship with the British government. The Channel Islands are also of note for the name of their two subdivisions, focused on the two main islands: the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. A bailiwick was the domain of the bailiff, a legal officer appointed by the king, such as a sheriff.

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Britain Vs. Spain and Spain Vs. Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar

Maritime chokepoints, where ships must pass through narrow passageways, are sites of geopolitical advantage that have often been contested. Sea-based empires, especially Portugal in the 1500s and Britain in the 1800s, seized and garrisoned towns and fortresses at the entrance to marine chokepoints scattered over vast distances. Today, remnants of earlier imperial projects are evident on the maps of several such passageways. The southern bank of the Strait of Hormuz, for example, remains an exclave of Oman, once a formidable naval power, while Singapore, established as the “Gibraltar of the East” at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, is the world’s premier city-state.

The Strait of Gibraltar itself, joining the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, is arguably the world’s foremost maritime chokepoint. It certainly is the most geopolitically contested. The strait itself is essentially controlled by Spain to the north and Morocco to the south, as one would expect. But its Mediterranean gateway, marked by two promontories once deemed the Pillars of Hercules,* falls under a different sovereign regime. The “Spanish” side is controlled by the U.K., whereas the “Moroccan” side is controlled by Spain. Neither Spain nor Morocco accepts these foreign enclaves. Spain wants to retain Ceuta and reclaim Gibraltar, Morocco seeks to control Ceuta, and Britain is determined to keep Gibraltar.

Spain and Britain gained these possessions during their naval heydays. Ceuta was seized first by Portugal in 1415, an event that some say gave birth to the Portuguese Empire. That empire passed in its entirely to the Spanish crown after a disastrous Portuguese invasion of Morocco in 1580; Portugal regained its independence in 1640, but Spain kept Ceuta. Gibraltar fell to an English-Dutch naval campaign in 1704, during the War of Spanish Succession; Spain formally ceded sovereignty to Britain in the Treaty of Utrech in 1713. Spain has periodically sought to regain Gibraltar, just as Morocco has tried on occasion to redeem Ceuta, but neither country has had any success.

According to the Spanish government, Gibraltar is a colonized portion of Spanish territory — an unconscionable geopolitical anachronism. Spanish pressure helps keep the peninsula on the United Nation’s list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, regarded as colonial remnants. Britain responds that people of Gibraltar actually enjoy democratic self-governance through their own parliament, as well as British citizenship. In the 1990s, Britain and Spain hammered out a proposal for joint sovereignty, but the Gibraltarians rejected it overwhelmingly in a 2002 referendum. The Spanish government maintains that their wishes are of no account, as the dispute is between the sovereign powers of Britain and Spain. But in 2006, Spain agreed to talks with Britain and with the leadership of Gibraltar itself, aimed at facilitating trans-border linkages. Progress has not been easy. In August 2010, the mayor of the adjoining Spanish town of La Linea announced plans for new tolls on traffic between the peninsula and the mainland, citing the need to make up for revenues lost in Spain’s budgetary crisis.

The dispute between Spain and Morocco over Ceuta and other Spanish possessions in the region is much more intense. In early 2010, Morocco called for renewed dialogue on Spain’s cross-straits holdings; Madrid responded by reaffirming its sovereignty over the contested lands, which include not just Ceuta but also the exclave of Melilla and a number of near-shore islands. Morocco subsequently charged Spanish authorities with mistreating Moroccan citizens in and around the territories, heightening the conflict. In August 2010, massive Moroccan protests temporarily blocked overland transit into the two Spanish exclaves, threatening their economies.

It may seem hypocritical for Spain to demand the return of Gibraltar while consistently rebuffing similar Moroccan claims in North Africa. Its government insists, however, that the two situations are not the same. Ceuta and Melilla, it argues, are integral parts of Spain, not colonial holdings. Their residents not only possess Spanish citizenship, but vote in Spanish elections, pay Spanish taxes (albeit at a reduced rate), and have all other rights and responsibilities of membership in the national community, as well as the E.U. The position of Gibraltar, the Spanish government maintains, is colonial. As a British Overseas Territory, the peninsula is under British sovereignty yet is not part of the United Kingdom. Gibraltar even has its own currency, the Gibraltar Pound, which is not legal tender in the United Kingdom. The dispute is further complicated by the fact that Spain never formally ceded the isthmus, which remains under British-Gibraltarian control.

The territorial anomalies in and around the Strait of Gibraltar have a number of interesting cultural features as well as potentially serious geopolitical implications, as will be explored in subsequent Geocurrents this week.

* Although the northern “pillar” is clearly Gibraltar, debates persist on the identity of its southern counterpart. Some scholar favor Monte Hacho on the peninsula of Ceuta; others Jebel Musa, located a few miles away in Morocco.

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The Limits of French Nationalism

France is often regarded as a model nation-state. Its national identity is pronounced, its government has long claimed to represent the national will, and its state structures are strong and centralized. But even in France, the nation-state remains an incompletely realized ideal. France’s colonial holdings and overseas department most clearly challenge the identity of state and nation (see the previous posts on New Caledonia and French Polynesia). Yet even Metropolitan France ­– the republic’s European core – falls well short of forming a complete nation state.

French nationalism emerged more slowly than is often realized, not reaching general consolidation until the late nineteenth century. In the early 1800s, most citizens did not speak French, communicating instead in a variety of local dialects and other languages. As Eugen Weber argued in his influential 1976 book, Peasants into Frenchmen, the French government –and army – gradually melded the inhabitants of the country into a self-conscious nation. Although this process was successful overall, it never reached completion. Small but vocal minorities in outlying regions still reject French nationalism. Claiming that they form their own nations, some citizens demand autonomous areas if not outright states.

In Metropolitan France, anti-French sentiments are strongest in Brittany and Corsica, two areas noted for their distinctive cultural and linguistic traditions. Minor but occasionally violent secessionist movements persist in both areas. In the March 2010 French regional elections, the pro-independence party Corsica Libera won almost ten percent of the local vote, while the regionalist Party of the Corsican Nation received nearly twenty percent. Breton nationalist parties did not do as well, but the secessionist Breton Party took almost five percent of the vote, while Terres de Bretagne received another 2.4 percent.

Regionalist political movements, some seeking independence, can be found wherever languages other than standard French persist. Groups and political parties seeking either autonomy or secession can be found in the Basque Country (Abertzaleen Batasuna [AB], Batasuna, Eusko Alkartasuna [EA], Parti Nationaliste Basque), Burgundy (Mouvement de libération de la Bourgogne), Alsace (Alsace d’Abord, Forum Nationaliste d’Alsace-Lorraine, Union du Peuple Alsacien), Normandy (Le Mouvement Normand), “Northern Catalonia” (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya), Savoy (Savoy Region Movement, Savoyard League), Occitania (Partit de la Nacion Occitana, Partit Occitan, Iniciativa per Occitània, Anaram au Patac, Hartèra), and French Flanders (Le Bloc Représentatif du Nord-France et Flandres Frances). Although few of these groups enjoy widespread support, their very existence challenges French national unity.

Secession movements in France are linked to a variety of political positions. Older secessionist movements are often leftist, whereas newer groups tend to the right. Some are, or at least claim to be, more ideologically ambiguous. A case in point is Alsace d’Abord (Alsace First), a new party that seeks regional governance as well as local bilingualism in French and Alsatian (a Germanic dialect). Alsace d’Abord, which contests immigration and opposes Turkey’s membership in the European Union, is generally regarded as hard right. The organization, however, disputes this classification. In fact, it has called for the annulment of the recent election in Alsace, alleging that it was given the incorrect official designation of “extreme right” instead of its preferred self-designation, “regionalist.” On issues of national identity and regional autonomy, the left-right divide evidently obscures as much as it reveals.

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Is a Country Necessarily a Sovereign State?

In the United States, the most common word used to designate the sovereign entities that make up the world geopolitical order is “countries.” In common parlance, a country is the same thing as a sovereign state, which can also be called a “nation” or a “nation-state.” To be sure, the connotations of these words sometimes differ, with “country” often emphasizing geographical expanse, “nation” often emphasizing people, and “state” often emphasizing government. But in general, the terms are used interchangeably. If one Googles the questions “what is the world’s largest nation?” and “what is the world’s largest country?,” most answers will specify whether they refer to “largest” in terms of area or population.

Academic definitions of these terms, however, remain distinct. As a result, the conceptual slippage between common usage and formal discourse can generate confusion. Strictly speaking, a country is not necessarily the same thing as a sovereign state, as several areas that are defined as countries are actually subdivisions of sovereign “composite kingdoms.” Thus Greenland, the Faroe Islands, and Denmark are the three countries that together constitute the Kingdom of Denmark, just as Aruba, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Netherlands are the three constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (although the Netherlands Antilles is scheduled to be dismantled and reorganized later this year). But while Aruba and the Faroe Islands are classified as countries by their own governments, they are not sovereign states.

In regard to the Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, confusion on this score often leaves Americans scratching their heads about the actual meanings of such terms as England, Great Britain, and the United Kingdom. England remains a country but it has not been a kingdom, or a sovereign state, since it merged with Scotland in 1707. The three constituent countries of England, Scotland, and Wales together formed the kingdom, and sovereign state, of Great Britain from 1701 to 1801, when it merged with Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That kingdom, in turn, yielded to the current sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in 1927, when the Republic of Ireland gained independence. Adding to the confusion is the existence of Crown Dependencies like the Isle of Man (which are not parts of the United Kingdom yet remain under its sovereign umbrella), as well as the fourteen less autonomous British Overseas Territories.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is thus a sovereign state composed of four constituent countries that extends its sovereignty over a number of associated territories. But the situation is actually more complicated than that, as this state’s monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, reigns over a still larger area, serving as the official head of state for no less than sixteen separate states. Most members of this unofficial “Commonwealth Realm” (not to be confused with the larger Commonwealth of Nations) are small independent Caribbean states, but it also includes such sizable countries as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea.

Canada, like the other commonwealth realms, is never classified as anything but a fully independent, sovereign state, and for good reason, as its ties to the British monarchy are purely symbolic. But from a historical perspective, the continuing relationship generates some interesting paradoxes. “When did Canada gain independence?” for example, is essentially an unanswerable question. Canada became self-governing in 1867, but it did not formally gain the right to amend its own constitution without the approval of the British Parliament until 1982.

A kingdom can thus include several countries, but a country can also include several kingdoms, as we shall see next in Monday’s post on Uganda.

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The Knights of Malta: Sovereignty without Territory


The global political system is founded upon the idea of sovereignty, defined by the Wikipedia as “the quality of having supreme, independent authority over a territory.” The independent countries that make up the geopolitical order are all purportedly sovereign entities, exercising complete power over their territorial domains. Such domains need not be large. Luxembourg is sometimes regarded as an almost comically small country (999 square miles), but it is a giant compared with Lichtenstein (62 square miles), which is a giant compared to Monaco (0.76 square miles), which is a giant compared to the Vatican City (0.17 square miles) – a walled-off collection of buildings in Rome. But at least the Vatican has a domain. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has no territory at all, unless one counts the two buildings in Rome in which it enjoys extraterritorial legal privileges. Yet the Knights of Malta, as the organization’s official name denotes, is widely regarded as a sovereign entity, recognized as such by the 104 countries with which it maintains diplomatic ties (see map).

The Order’s international status, simply put, contradicts the standard definition of sovereignty. If the Knights of Malta have sovereignty, sovereignty does not denote the exercise of ultimate power over a place, but rather merely the acceptance into the club of ultimate powers, most of which are territorially based. In that case, I see no reason why an individual could not be regarded as a sovereign entity, as in Neal Stephenson’s novel Snow Crash (one of whose characters backed up his personal sovereignty with nuclear weapons).

Like the sovereign states of Monaco, Lichtenstein, Andorra, and San Marino, the Military Order of Malta is best regarded as a feudal remnant that somehow managed to escape Europe’s geopolitical modernization. Originating from the crusading order of the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, it held the territorial domain of Malta from 1530 to 1798. Expelled from the island by Napoleon, it reestablished itself as a military-medical organization in Rome while holding on to its sovereign status. It has also retained a good measure of its feudal structure; until the 1990s, its officers had to be of noble birth. According to some sources, it has transformed itself over the past few decades from an exclusive, semi-monastic organization obsessed with genealogy to an effective, if idiosyncratic, humanitarian agency.

The Military Order of Malta may not control any territory, but it does have many of the trappings of sovereignty. Besides exchanging embassies with actual countries, it issues its own passports, postage stamps, and currency, although the latter two are largely collectors’ items. It also has its own military corps, which, like the order as a whole, is now largely devoted to international medical service.

The Knights of Malta are occasionally mentioned in the press for their humanitarian endeavors, most recently in Haiti. They have also been working in Lampedusa, a small Italian island between Sicily and Tunisia that serves as a detention center for asylum-seekers and other would-be immigrants to Italy.

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Kaliningrad, Russia’s Restive Exclave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Maps and Stats, Good and Bad

World thematic maps that treat each country as a holistic entity can be highly misleading. Consider, for example, the ubiquitous economic development map based on per capita gross domestic product. Here we see such countries as Brazil, India, and China uniformly colored, as if the goods and services they produced were evenly distributed over their vast expanses. In actuality, per capita GDP varies by roughly an order of magnitude from the wealthier to the poorer regions of each of these countries. More finely subdivided maps are much more revealing, but they can also be hard to find. In the case of the European Union, fortunately, a treasure trove of regionally specific maps is available from the European Commission Eurostat website: http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/statistics_explained/index.php/Category:RegionsEuropean.

On the Eurostat map reproduced above, a number of significant spatial patterns jump to the eye. Notice how Prague stands out from the rest of the Czech Republic, and how Athens is differentiated from the rest of Greece. The north-division in Italy is clearly apparent, as is the gap between the prosperous south of Germany and its poorer northeastern counterpart. This is just one of many detailed maps available at the Eurostat site, which delves into social as well as economic issues. The map of internet usage is especially noteworthy, revealing as it does a substantial cultural divide between what we might call the networked north and the sociable south.

To be sure, maps based on country-level data can also be valuable, especially for those parts of the world divided into relatively small countries. Such maps cease to be useful, however, when dubious data is employed – as happens all too often. The worst single example that I have come across is a NationMaster map of per capita crime rates, reproduced above. A glance at the key reveals that this map identifies Finland and New Zealand as crime-ridden, while Colombia, Yemen, and Papua New Guinea are portrayed as practically crime free. The accompanying table gives Yemen an absurdly low (and surreally precise) rate of 1.16109 crimes per 1,000 people. Finland, we told on the same page, suffers a crime rate roughly two orders of magnitude greater, at 101.526 per 1,000 people

(http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_tot_cri_percap-crime-total-crimes-per-capita). Similar problems are encountered elsewhere on NationMaster, a site that compiles a huge array of official statistics. The figures for rape rates, for instance, listed on the home page as one of the site’s “top stats,” ranks Saudi Arabia as the safest country for women while marking Australia as the third-worst with Canada close behind.

Could anyone serious believe that a woman is 250 times more likely to be raped in Australia than in Saudi Arabia? — or that Finland’s overall crime rate is 100 times that of Yemen? Finland is famous for its relatively crime-free environment; Yemen is a land of anarchic clan-based violence and rampant kidnapping. In Finland, however, most infractions are reported and recorded, whereas in Yemen few crimes reach official attention. If NationMaster labeled its map and chart “rate of reported and recorded crimes,” it would be an accurate and useful index of police efficiency, if not of criminal activity. But it does not. Does anyone at NationMaster scrutinize the data that is displayed on its site? Does anyone care?

Underlying the promulgation of such misleading maps is our tendency to take the sovereign state for granted: to treat all recognized countries as if they were equivalent entities with comparable governmental capacities, including the gathering and compiling of accurate statistics. This is not the case. And as far as statistics themselves are concerned, we should recall Mark Twain’s warning: many stats are lies, some damned, other worse.

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