Russia, Ukraine, and Caucasus

Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1

(Note to Readers: As I have been invited to give a talk at an academic conference on the Black Sea region to be held in Batumi, Georgia in early June, I will be blogging extensively on this part of the world over the next two months. I begin today by posting several simple economic maps of the Republic of Georgia.)

The Republic of Georgia is a middle-middle-income country; according to the IMF, in 2022 its per capita Gross Domestic Product (in Purchasing Power Parity) was just below the global average (19,789 current international dollars for Georgia as compared to 20,886 for the world.) As country-level economic figures obscure regional variation, I looked for a map of “per capita GDP in Georgia by region” but did not find one. After some searching, I did locate an English-language version of a site called “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” that provides the data that can be used to make such a map. (Unfortunately, there are some minor informational discrepancies on this site; I used the “comparison of regions” feature rather than the map-based information portal, but I do not know which one has more accurate or up-to-date information.)

My main reason for making this map was to see if there is a significant economic distinction between eastern and western Georgia. As will be explored in later posts, these two halves of the country have very distinctive histories and geographies. I expected to find the highest levels of economic development in and around Tbilisi, located in the central part of eastern Georgia, which is by far the largest city in the country. I also expected to find a relatively high per capita GDP figure for the Adjara region in the southwest, where the tourist-oriented city of Batumi is located. Otherwise, I had no expectations.

The GDP map that I made, posted below, does show Tbilisi as having a significantly higher level of economic development than the rest of the country. Adjara also has a higher level of per capita GDP than the national average, although not by much. Overall, the map reveals Georgia as having relatively minor economic differentiation by region. Overall, the western part of the country has slightly higher per capita GDP figures than the eastern half, with the exceptions of Tbilisi and the region just to its north (Mtskheta-Mtianeti).

Regional per capita GDP figures can be misleading, however, as they do not necessarily reflect average income levels. Fortunately, the “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” website also has data on the “Average Monthly Remuneration of Employed Persons.” Mapping this information also shows relatively low levels of differentiation across the country, but in this case eastern Georgia comes out slightly ahead of western Georgia.

In both maps, the western region of Guria is shown as having Georgia’s lowest economic figures. Guria’s relatively low level of economic production might seem to defy the stereotype of the region in Georgian popular culture, which emphasizes the ability of its inhabitants to accomplish tasks very quickly. As noted by Bedisa Dumbadze in an article in Georgian Journal:

The explanation of the region’s name “the land of restless” is absolutely suitable for Gurians. Their smart and comical character is well-known throughout Georgia. The inhabitants of the area are thought to be relatively fast in contrast to the inhabitants of other regions. They have special habit of doing everything in a very fast manner. Sometimes it is really difficult to understand what Gurian person is talking about because they speak really fast. There are many jokes about Gurians always being in a hurry. As a result, they manage to do everything in a very short period of time.

Finally, I use the same data source to make a map of unemployment rates by region. As can be seen, Georgia as a whole has a high level of unemployment, with figures varying widely from region to region. I was surprised to see that Tbilisi has a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Even more unexpected was the relatively low unemployment rate it the eastern region of Kakheti, which is shown as having relatively low economic indicators on the other two maps.

I hope to reach a better understanding of these patterns as I continue to learn about the Republic of Georgia. I also want to see if clearer economic patterns might emerge through more fine-scale mapping. The data source that I used today also has information at the municipal level. As Georgia is entirely divided into 76 separate municipalities, such a map can be constructed for the entire country. Making this map will take some time, but I hope to be able to post it within the next week or two.

Turkey’s Dependence on Russian Energy, and Its Recent Natural Gas Discoveries

Turkey (officially, Türkiye) is an energy-poor country. Roughly 85% of its energy supply comes from fossil fuels, roughly equally divided among coal, oil, and natural gas. Coal is mined domestically and imported, but almost all of Turkey’s natural gas and oil comes from other countries. Russia supplies roughly half of its natural gas. Unlike most NATO countries, Turkey has not placed sanctions on Russia, and as a result its natural gas imports continue unabated.

Turkey also figures prominently in Russia’s global energy strategy. Two major pipelines transport Russian natural gas to Turkey, one of which (TurkStream) was recently completed (2020). Moscow and Ankara have hoped to turn Turkey into a major natural gas hub, allowing Russia to export gas to southern Europe without having to move it across Ukraine. The Ukraine War has complicated but not undermined such plans. As recently reported by Natural Gas Intelligence, “Russia is turning to Turkey as a potential natural gas hub partner with a new sense of urgency to find new export outlets for volumes left stranded by damages to the Nord Stream pipelines in September.” The Russian-Turkish energy partnership extends beyond natural gas. In 2021, Russia was Turkey’s second largest supplier of coal, following Colombia. Turkey’s first nuclear power plant (Akkuyu), has been jointly built by the Russian firm Atomstroexport and the Turkish construction company Özdoğu; it is expected to come online in 2023.  Financing has been almost entirely provided by Russian investors.

Political tensions between Russia and Turkey have periodically intruded on their energy collaboration. Most recently, Ankara irritated Moscow by asking for a 25 percent discount on natural gas payments and requesting that all payments be delayed until 2024 due to domestic economic problems. Building a Turkish hub for Russian gas exports also faces external economic and geopolitical obstacles, particularly from other NATO countries. As recently noted by Natural Gas Intelligence:

A Russia/Turkey gas hub would have to secure financing for the billions of dollars needed to construct new subsea pipelines under the Black Sea, which is currently in a war zone. Without access to Western technology and financing, a new pipeline project could take years to build.

Turkey’s energy prospects, however, have recently been transformed by substantial natural gas discoveries in its Black Sea Exclusive Economic Zone. In the final week of 2022, an estimated 170 billion-cubic-meter gas reserve was found at the Çaycuma-1 field. Combined with previous recent discoveries in the Sakarya field, Turkey’s natural gas reserves have been elevated to 710 billion cubic meters. Gas from these fields should become available sometime in 2023, alleviating Turkey’s energy crunch. Discoveries to date, however, are not adequate to meet long-term needs, as the country consumes 50 to 60 billion cubic meters of gas every year. To put recent Turkish discoveries in global context, Russia has proven natural gas reserves of some 50,000 cubic kilometers.

Coal remains one of Turkey’s major energy sources, thwarting its ability to decrease its carbon emissions. Turkey’s domestic coal industry is highly subsidized in order to reduce natural gas imports. Lignite, the least energy-dense and most polluting form of coal, predominates. Coal production surged from 2015 to 2019 but has declined since then. To meet the country’s growing demand, imports have surged in recent years. The war in Ukraine, however, has disrupted supplies and increased costs, generating economic hardship. Particularly hard hit is Turkey’s large and energy-intensive cement industry. CemNet reported in March 2022 that the Turkish cement industry was facing an “imminent crisis.”  In 2014, Turkey was the world’s fifth largest cement producer, following only China, India, the United States, and Iran.

Turkey has made relatively modest investments in renewable energy. Hydropower has long provided roughly 20 percent of its electricity, but recent droughts have reduced the supply. Turkey’s has good climatological potential for solar and wind, and wind power is now growing, providing about 10 percent of the country’s electricity. In 2021 the energy think tank Ember reported that “it is now cheaper to build new wind or solar for power generation in Turkey than running even the most efficient hard coal power plant that relies on coal imports.” Ember’s analysts thus foresee an accelerating transition to renewable power, with a “win-win-win situation” resulting in “lower import bills, lower emissions, [and a] lower carbon levy by the EU.” Such hopes may be overstated. Energy intermittency and the lack of economically feasible storage still poses a major obstacle to solar and wind energy development in Turkey – as in the rest of the world.

Seduced by the Map, Chapter 2 (Part 3)

De Facto States and their Contested Boundaries

            Thus far we have looked at cases where the official U.S. government map has persisted in showcasing lapsed, divided, or phantom nation-states. Another way that is misleads is by not representing a class of functional states: those whose existence is officially denied by the international community.[1] Such polities have been called “de facto states” by Scott Pegg, who deems them the “flip side of the quasi-state coin.”[2]

Perhaps the clearest example of a de facto state that is consistently left off the map is Somaliland, a breakaway polity that proclaimed its independence from a disintegrating Somalia in 1991. In the decades since then, Somaliland has attained all the essential attributes of sovereignty except international recognition.[3] Remarkably, it has been described as the most stable and best-governed country in the Horn of Africa.[4] Nor has this gone unnoticed. Israel, Ethiopia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) come close to treating Somaliland as a sovereign state, while Djibouti, Turkey, and Denmark maintain consulates or their equivalent in the country. Wales has even awarded it full acknowledgement.[5] The UAE, in return for being allowed to establish a naval base, has gone so far as to promise to “protect the Republic of Somaliland from all external threats and protect Somaliland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” [6] wording that echoes many declarations of formal recognition. The African Union, by contrast, vociferously rejects Somaliland’s claims. The resistance is understandable. Acknowledging any breakaway polity could encourage similar developments elsewhere in the volatile region.

While Somaliland may be a particularly clear example of the cartographically invisible states, it is by no means the only one. The most important of these, Taiwan, is also the most complicated and will be examined below. The others have powerful patrons, whom they effectively serve as clients. An extreme example is the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a self-ruling entity that enjoys the recognition of exactly one UN member: Turkey. (Not surprisingly, it is often regarded as a Turkish puppet, especially in Greece.[7]) But several autonomous zones of the former Soviet Union operate in a similar gray area, enjoying some diplomatic recognition while arguably lacking full independence. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, for example, are militarily and diplomatically supported by Russia and officially recognized by Venezuela, Nicaragua, Syria, and Nauru. Transnistria—a self-declared sliver of a state sandwiched between Ukraine and Moldova —has a more shadowy existence. With an economy based heavily on smuggling and weapons manufacturing, it is sometimes regarded as little more than gangster turf.[8] Transnistria relies on Moscow to maintain its autonomy. Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Caucasus, is comparably dependent on Armenia. Despite having proclaimed independence as the Republic of Artsakh (an entity recognized by nine U.S. states, if not by Washington DC),[9] it is essentially administered as part of Armenia, with its citizens using Armenian passports.[10]

Rebuffed by the global community, these four post-Soviet breakaways responded by creating their own “international” organization, the ambitiously named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations (a.k.a. the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States).[11] Diplomats from Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh have met periodically under its auspices, as if in pantomime of the United Nations. They have not been joined by representatives from the two newest self-declared states in the region, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics, whose leaders have discussed merging their statelets to form something they call the Federation of Novorossiya (“New Russia”). Regarded as terrorist organizations by Kiev,[12] both of these “republics” were hived off of eastern Ukraine in 2014 by Russia-oriented separatists, aided by the Russian military.

Whatever one makes of these splinter polities,[13] their existence makes one thing clear: not all of the internationally recognized states that emerged out of the Soviet Union fully control the territories ascribed to them by the standard map. Unable to prevent the break-out of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transnistria, and Nagorno-Karabakh (Artsakh), the “parent” republics of Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan have never exercised authority across their own full official expanses. Immediately on gaining independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, all these fledgling countries saw border-altering struggles. While commonly deemed frozen conflicts,[14] they occasionally burst into bloodshed. Azerbaijan engaged in an inconclusive four-day struggle against Armenia and its client state of Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh) in 2016, and triumphed against them in a much more deadly war in 2020. After the latter struggle, Azerbaijan reclaimed more than half of the territory that it had lost to Armenia when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Yet all of these territorial changes go unmarked on the CIA map, which references instead the old internal political boundaries of the USSR, which in these instances have never served as de facto international divides. Like the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, such border changes are judged illegitimate and therefore ignored. What is frozen would seem to be the map, not the conflicts.

While the moral logic behind this refusal of diplomatic recognition is understandable, the public still needs some way to keep track of whose boots are on the ground. Some of these unrecognized states have endured for decades and may well persist for decades or more to come.[15] For the CIA map to be truthful, it should come with the caveat that it represents an idea of the world: a vision rooted in the world-order from the last century.

[1] Some political theorists regard formal recognition by the international community as a necessary condition for statehood. Thomas Grant (1999, p. 4), for example, differentiates “constitutivists,” “who argued that recognition is necessary to make a state,” from “declaratists” who claimed that recognition is “an acknowledgement of statehood already achieved.”

[2] Pegg 1998, p. 4. Other authors have used different terminology. Deon Geldenhuys (2009), for example, deems these non-recognized polities “contested states,” which he contrasts with “confirmed states.”

[3] See Somaliland’s official website:

[4] See “Somaliland: A Stable and Independent State, But Not Recognition,” by Nimo Ismail, World Policy Blog,  Feb. 21, 2017:

Somaliland is also somewhat democratic and moderately free, besting on this score several of Africa’s recent stars of economic development, such as Rwanda and Ethiopia. Freedom House rates Somaliland only as “partly free,” but it is the only country in the northeastern quadrant of Africa to receive that designation, the other being rated as “not free.” (See Freedom House, Somaliland, Freedom of the World in 2020: Nina Casperson, however, notes that in Somaliland, “the need for unity and the avoidance of internal strife has undermined what are otherwise significant democratic achievements (2012, p. 93).

[5] “Somaliland: Wales Strikes Out on Its Own in Its Recognition of Somaliland,” Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, March 6, 2016:

But as Wales is a non-sovereign polity, such recognition is merely symbolic.

[6] The quotation is from “Somaliland, UAE Sign Historic Economic and Military Pact,” The National, March 21, 2017:

[7] See, for example, “Opinion: Turkey’s New Invasion of Cyprus,” by  Andreas C. Chrysafis, Greek Reporter, February 28, 2018:

[8] This view of  Transnistria (formally called the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic) is articulated by Glenny (2008, p. 91). Nina Caspersen argues that such a depiction is unduly “alarmist”; Caspersen (2012, p. 46).

[9] See the Wikipedia article, “Political status of Nagorno-Karabakh”:  Intriguingly, two U.S. states have passed opposing bills recognizing the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

[10] But if Armenia exerts a significant measure of control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Nagorno-Karabakh also influences Armenia; see Caspersen (2012, p. 58).

[11] As little is available on this organization in English, I recommend the Wikipedia article:

[12] See “Ukraine Parliament Votes to Call Donetsk And Luhansk People’s Republics Terrorist Groups,” by Christopher Harress, IBT, Jan. 27, 2017:

[13] On unrecognized states more generally, see Caspersen 2012.

[14] See, for example, “Putin’s Frozen Conflicts,” by Robert Orttung and Christopher Walker, Foreign Policy, Feb. 13, 2015:

[15] On the assumption of impermanence, see Caspersen (2012, p. 103). As Pegg notes, “there is little incentive to devote much attention to de facto states because their ultimate defeat and reincorporation into existing states is both assumed and sought” (1998, p. 8).


Why Mapping Sovereignty Matters: IR Theory, Realism, John Mearsheimer, and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Policy

(Note: today’s post is an edited version of a talk that I recently gave at a conference called Re-Mapping Sovereignty: Representing Geopolitical Complexity, held at Stanford University’s David Rumsey map on May 26 and 27, 2022.  I am categorizing it as an editorial essay, as it has more opinion content that standard GeoCurrents posts. At the conference, the talk was illustrated with 88 sides; I have included only the most important ones here. All the conference talks are available on YouTube at:


It would be an understatement to say that U.S. foreign policy over the past few decades has fallen short of its aim. Failures of both prediction and program have been recurrent. Most recently, the consensus was that Russia would crush Ukraine in 48 to 96 hours.[1] Vanishingly few anticipated a successful defense of Kiev, let alone a prolonged conflict. A few months earlier, experts erred in the opposite direction, confident that Kabul would withstand the Taliban for a prolonged period. No one anticipated the rapid collapse of the Afghan army and government, and no one prepared for the evacuation of American personnel before the military withdrew.

Much more damaging was a string of U.S. led or aided regime-change gambits and other military ventures in the early 2000s. These efforts backfired spectacularly. After two decades of bloodletting and institution-building in Afghanistan, the Taliban emerged much stronger than it had been before 9/11, able now to easily overrun the previously impregnable Panjshir Valley. Iraq was turned into a militia-riven country partially aligned with Iran. Libya was shattered for years, becoming a hub of weapons smuggling, and human trafficking, and worse. U.S.-supported efforts to overthrow Syria’s Assad regime fostered a resurgence of radical Islamism and allowed Russia to gain officially permanent control of a major airbase and port facility. U.S.-backed military intervention by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen resulted in a deadly stalemate and a human-rights catastrophe.

Over the same period, the rise of authoritarian China, globally ambitious and increasingly unfriendly toward the United States, likewise defied confident predictions. The Washington consensus was that an enriching China would steadily veer into liberalism and democracy, its participation in global trade networks tightening the bonds of an increasingly peaceable post-Cold War order. Many foreign policy experts welcomed the growing entanglement of the American and Chinese economies, seeing “Chimerica”[2] as an economically stabilizing force that guaranteed cheap, inflation-busting imports. Warnings of a possible totalitarian resurgence in the one-party People’s Republic were given little credence.

It is all too easy, to be sure, to use hindsight to castigate policy decisions and intelligence omissions, or to assume that different paths would have necessarily led to better outcomes. Given the complexities and contingencies of geopolitics, miscues are unavoidable. It is also easy to overlook foreign-policy successes, as the human mind foregrounds the negative over the positive.[3] That said, there is a disconcerting pattern of error. When costly choices repeatedly yield the opposite of what had been intended, inquiry into the deeper roots of the problem would seem to be in order.

The Realist Critique – and Limits

Despite widespread concurrence in Washington, many critics warned against the regime-change gambit. Although the most concerted opposition came from the political left, in academic foreign-policy circles it was most closely associated with the anti-liberal “realist” school of International Relations (IR). Although realists tend to uphold liberal principles in the domestic sphere, they hotly oppose trying to impose them elsewhere. According to John Mearsheimer, dean of this informal school, the post-Cold War effort of the United States to “remake the world in its own image” was based on a “great delusion” of liberal hegemony.[4] In his view, self-interested nationalism is far more potent than either humanitarianism or the desire for liberty. Accordingly, sovereign states are expected to doggedly pursue their interests regardless of whatever laudable schemes are embraced by progressive intellectuals or advanced by the international community. “Realists,” in this view, are those who acknowledge this reality and act accordingly, upholding balance-of-power rivalries even where they run roughshod over human rights and responsibilities.

After both the overwhelming failures of intervention in the Middle East and the authoritarian surge in China, many observers have inclined more in a “realist” direction, although it is a grotesque exaggeration to say, as some do, that “we are all realists now.”[5] Liberal internationalism is still the dominant establishment position, but it is now a chastened version of what had been a more muscular creed. Mearsheimer and his fellow realists have been proven prescient and thus deserve credit for their warnings.

But if realism illuminates some key problems in U.S. foreign policy, its own shortcomings are equally apparent. Fundamental failures to comprehend the geopolitical order are evident in Mearsheimer’s influential 2014 essay, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin.”[6] Here he argued that Moscow was the aggrieved party in the 2014 war, owing to NATO’s push into its legitimate sphere of influence. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hiving-off of the two Donbass “People’s Republics,” in other words, were defensive acts. Mearsheimer insisted that Putin is a conventional geopolitical figure – a realist himself[7] – who acts like almost any leader of a great power would if faced with similar threats. He thus confidently predicted that Russia’s aims would remain strictly limited: “Putin surely understands that trying to subdue Ukraine would be like swallowing a porcupine.”[8]

In early 2022, Russia did indeed try to subdue Ukraine, invalidating Mearsheimer’s prediction and calling into question his ability to discern Putin’s motivations based on realist assumptions. But as the massive invasion commenced, Mearsheimer doubled down, employing the same porcupine simile and giving the same assurances of limited aims.[9] “It does seem apparent that [Putin is] not touching western Ukraine,”[10] he opined just a few days before Moscow launched a missile attack on Lviv in far western Ukraine, the first of many such strikes.  A few months later, he forcefully reiterated his position,[11] arguing that the United States was principally responsible for the war by leading Ukraine “down the primrose path.” He further claimed that Putin recognized the legitimacy of Ukrainian statehood before the war began and was “not interested in making Ukraine part of Russia.”

In Mearsheimer’s understanding at the time of the invasion, Putin would never attempt to subdue Ukraine because doing so would be too expensive and destructive, weakening Russia. Following a clear-cut theory, he expected Putin to coldly calculate his maneuvers, acting in a manner deemed rational by the tenets of realism. As Jan Smoleńskiand Jan Dutkiewicz aptly framed it, “John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures [were] treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk.”[12] Realist analysis paid little heed to Putin’s own justifications, which he spelled out before the invasion.[13] Given Putin’s craving to extend Russian hegemony over its “Near Abroad,” compounded with the widespread Russian belief in the redemptive power of mass suffering, it is not surprising that he would pursue a self-damaging course. Contrary to realist theorizing, geopolitical myths and ideologies can be tremendously important, and they not infrequently lead in destructive directions. If one imbibes enough hyper-nationalist fables, even the world’s largest porcupine can be a tempting target, as the world learned in June 1941.

It is difficult to make sense of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine war in Mearsheimer’s framework. If it reflected reality, Russia would have continued bullying Kyiv and jockeying for geopolitical advantage rather than launching an outright invasion. Ukraine, for its part, should have complied with Russian demands. As a minor power on a flat landscape, it supposedly had no chance of withstanding its great-power neighbor, fated instead to be a defanged buffer country at best or a Russian puppet state at worst.

Ukraine, Nationalism, and the Failure of Realism

As Mearsheimer rightly emphasizes, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is embedded in national sentiments. Understanding how nationalism functions, however, requires making distinctions between different forms of the phenomenon. Following Hans Kohn, many scholars have differentiated ethnic from civic nationalism.[14] The former is premised on the emotionally charged belief in descent from a locally rooted ancestral population that remains bound together by a common language and cultural practices; the latter is based on allegiance to political ideals. Mearsheimer scoffs at this distinction.[15] In his view, civic ties are too vague and cerebral to be meaningful. Instead, nationalism needs to be cemented by an emotional belief in the “sacred” nature of the national territory if people are “to fight and die for it.”[16] This interpretation accords with those of ethnonational theorist Yoram Hazony and pundit Rich Lowry, who argue that genuine national solidarity must rest on ethnic pillars.[17] These influential authors reject the traditional bipartisan civic nationalism of the United States, which is lodged in loyalty to a liberal republican political creed.

While there are problems with the ethnic/civic distinction,[18] it is nonetheless essential for understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The ideology underwriting Putin’s invasion is one of ethnic essentialism, fixated on the world historical destiny of the Russian people, spiritually entwined with the Russian Orthodox Church. It deviates from garden-variety ethnonationalism by its imperial pretensions. Although Russia is a highly centralized country, Putin’s Eurasianist[19] perspective frames it not as a singular nation-state but rather as the core of a multinational domain; one structured around internal ethnic republics, external unrecognized client states, buffer countries, and an expansive sphere of influence. Russia is constitutionally designated as a multinational federation, with sovereignty officially vested in its various ethno-nationally distinct peoples.[20] While there is no doubt that the Russian ethno-nation forms its core, many others are recognized and granted cultural space; the very existence of the Ukrainian nation, by contrast, is denied, as Ukrainians are said to be a mere local variant of the greater Russian ethnos.[21]

Mearsheimer’s realism overlooks both the pathologies of ethnonationalism and the potentialities of civic nationalism. These pathologies are sadly familiar: national stories tend to be mythologized, leading to damaging historical falsification. Imperial versions, such as Russia’s, foster delusions of destiny that often end in violent imperial overreach. When false narratives are enshrined, moreover, truth-telling becomes subversive and repression follows. Minority groups are typically excluded from the national core and often from the nation itself. Should they become disgruntled enough to rebel, the state is weakened.

The dismissal of civic nationalism by both Mearsheimer and rightwing populists is also unsupportable, as again demonstrated by recent events in Ukraine. Although a sense of common belonging and desire for independence have long been evident across Ukraine, national identity was poorly consolidated before the Russian assault of 2014. To be sure, ethnonational bonds were firm across the north and west, often taking an extreme form in the far west. In and around Lviv, the Svoboda Party – intensely anti-Russian, anti-Communist, and anti-Semitic – routinely gained up to 30 percent of the vote. Eastern and Southern Ukraine, however, strongly favored candidates like Victor Yanukovych who downplayed language and ethnicity, sought closer relations with Russia, and advocated decentralization.[22] Election after election revealed a sharp bifurcation, with candidates who received more than 90 percent of the vote on one end of the country getting less than 10 percent on the other. Such an electoral disjunction, seen most starkly in Nigeria, signals a poorly gelled nation.

Ukraine’s national rift, however, began to heal over after the Russian assaults of 2014. The most pro-Russia areas, Crimea and the eastern Donbass, were excised from the country, while Putin’s brutal actions undermined the pro-Moscow position. More important, a new version of Ukrainian solidarity was put forward by the most unlikely candidate, the comedian Volodymyr Zelensky. As a Russian-speaking Jew who defended the public use of his mother tongue, Zelensky does not even count as Ukrainian in the more hidebound versions of his country’s ethnonational creed. By urging respect for Russian-language institutions, he provoked hostility from extremists.[23] Zelensky’s brand of nationalism had little room for emotional zealotry, religious inflection, or mythologizing the greatness of the Ukrainian past. Instead, he grounded his electoral campaign on a quintessentially civic issue: an anti-corruption drive.

Zelensky first gained traction in Ukraine’s formerly Russia-friendly east and south. In the final voting round, however, he triumphed handily almost everywhere. The only exception was the far west, but even there support for the semi-fascist Svoboda Party had essentially evaporated.[24] Zelensky’s civic nationalism had apparently consolidated the nation, at least temporarily. And when push came to shove, Ukrainians stunned the world with their willingness to fight and die for their land and state. Civically fortified and militarily tested, Ukrainian national consolidation now looks secure.


The Standard World Model

Although Mearsheimer blames the ill-fated regime-change maneuvers undertaken or supported by the United States on a naïve liberal drive to refashion the world, the failure of his own theorizing to make sense of the Russia-Ukraine conflict shows that the underlying problem runs deeper. Again and again, realists and interventionists alike fail to anticipate the consequences of their policies. Why? I argue that their common flaw is to accept without question a simplistic world model and map. According to this all-but universal schema, the world is cleanly divided into a set number of sovereign states. These entities are regarded as fundamental, vastly more important than either their own subdivisions or any supranational entities, cross-cutting political organizations, or intersecting networks. Their significance is all-encompassing, extending well beyond geopolitics. They literally form the base map on which almost all global spatial information in inscribed. In the process, they are inevitably naturalized. As Bill Rankin has written, borders separating countries “become part of a neutral landscape with an almost timeless presence, and they’re conspicuously disconnected from the dynamic,  contingent, human knowledge layered on top. It’s a deceptively simple trick, and its simplicity is what makes it so powerful.”[25]

While not all-important, states certainly are of enormous significance. To comprehend them, one needs to understand their geohistory, asking where, when, and how they originated and in what manner this form of political organization spread across globe. Although no consensus has been reached in the vast literature on the topic, most IR scholars agree that the modern state arose in western Europe in the early modern period.[26] In the larger IR narrative, European states gained the key attributes of full sovereignty and complete territorialization with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. The sovereign territorial state then gradually spread, through imposition and emulation, across the world. Tribal and nomadic peoples, such as those of Inner Asia, were among the last to be encompassed within its bounds. By the late twentieth century, the system was globalized, with sovereign states forming the puzzle pieces of the master jigsaw map of the planet.[27]

According to the standard world model, these fundamental units are not just fully sovereign polities governing cleanly demarcated territories. They are also seen as nation-states, implying that the state is fully congruent with the nation – the people – falling under its rule. This equation is encoded in the very term “International Relations.” The correspondence is assumed to be so strong that “state,” “nation,” and “country” have become interchangeable. According to Mearsheimer, nations themselves “tend to be tightly integrated permanent entities separated by clear boundaries.”[28] These platonic entities,[29] as they are called by Nassim Taleb, are presumed to be the world’s essential actors. In international law, they are reduced to singular “persons” who, in concert, constitute a cozy international community.

Real World Dis/Order

The standard world model is concise and convenient, but it is also largely wrong. Reducing the past to a few key events, it is essentially ahistorical; locating all crucial developments on Eurasia’s western fringe, it is inherently Eurocentric. As Munkh-Erdene has demonstrated,[30] pastoral peoples of Central Asia built powerful states with key territorial aspects many centuries ago. State emergence was a prolonged process, with the fully modern form – Charles Maier’s “Leviathan 2.0”not appearing until the second half of the nineteenth century. Jordan Branch more daringly yet convincingly argues that “the state” per se has no time or place of origin, as it is a composite institution whose various components all have their own histories and geographies.[31]

Geopolitical reality is and has always been vastly more complex and chaotic than the world model allows. Across the globe, sovereignty has always been fractionated, nesting, diffuse, and disputed. Borders are often contested and are not infrequently more notional than real. Effectively stateless areas abound, as do counter-states and militarily potent “states within states.” National identity is often questioned and never uniform; states and nations rarely line up with any exactitude. And contemporary sovereign states are certainly not polities of the same sort. For starters, it matters that they differ in size by orders of magnitude. But even countries with comparable populations vary so much in their capacity and infrastructure as to be different kinds of entities. Composite constructions that exist simultaneously in the realms of ideas, infrastructures, and representations, as Jordan Branch argues, states are nothing like persons.

What this means is that we have misconstrued the map. The standard world political map does not depict the world as-it-is; it represents the ideals of the diplomatic community. In the rarified realm of diplomacy, resorting to simplification is reasonable and even desirable. But when the goal is understanding the world and the motives of its actors, the model does more harm than good. If we are to devise effective policies, we need to grapple with the world in its full complexity. Relying on such an idealized image to guide policies and generate forecasts will only lead to more dismay and disappointment.

As Franck Bille[32] emphasizes, mainstream geopolitical scholarship frames deviation as exception, dismissing any challenge to the underlying scheme. In the contemporary world, nation-state uniformity is assumed to have overridden the premodern order of parcelized sovereignty and layered and overlapping political identity, bringing about, in Mearsheimer’s word,[33]  “an extraordinary change from a heterogenous world system to a homogenous one.” But in actuality, divergence from the geopolitical norm is less the exception than the substance of the global political architecture. The more one looks, the more one finds. As Bruno Latour insisted in a different context, “we have never been modern.”[34] We fool ourselves in thinking otherwise.

Moving beyond the game-board view to grapple with the actual configurations of political power can be extraordinarily difficult. Trying to map something as spatially amorphous as the millet system of confessional legal autonomy in the Ottoman Empire challenges the cartographic imagination. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on visualization altogether. If anything, it makes the mapping of political authority more crucial, if only because the effort to get it right exposes just how slippery and intricate sovereignty can be. Grappling with these intricacies has pushed cartographers to further hone their craft, as Luca Scholz[35] and others here have demonstrated.

Nation-States, Regime Removal, and Country Collapse

The failed regime-change gambits of the early 21st century with which I began this essay are substantially rooted in the standard world model. Having naturalized the state, we can’t help expecting it to be more secure than it often is. We thus imagined that the imagined communities that we call Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya would withstand the shock of imposed new regimes, even if done so though foreign aggression. Japan, after all, had no problem staying in one piece after its devasting defeat and occupation in 1945.

Yet the regime-change gambits of the early century saw instead the crumpling of the targeted states and the breaking of their nations followed by prolonged conflict. Libya and Afghanistan may have been tentatively reconstituted, but they remain precarious. Iraq persists as something of a sham state, surviving only at the insistence of the international community; its self-governing and self-defended Kurdish Regional Government would opt out in a heartbeat if it could.[36] In Yemen, the nation was revealed to have been largely a figment. Prior to the regime-toppling operations, it was less national solidarity than the raw power of their governments that held any of these countries together. All, moreover, have been challenged by powerful countervailing ideologies, ranging from radical Islamism, to Arab nationalism and associated ideologies, to conflicted Kurdish nationalism, to anarcho-libertarian socialism, to Pashtun ethno-imperialism.





This is not to say that these countries completely lack unifying sentiments. Like other states without ethnonational or civic foundations, they developed some measure of common identity through other means. Mearsheimer emphasizes the solidarity-boosting struggle for independence from colonial powers.[37] But while significant, anti-colonialism itself was insufficient to generate enduring solidarity. More important have been state-run schools, a nation-focused press,[38] and the simple experience of living under a single government. But although public-opinion polling usually shows widespread acceptance of the nation-state, that does not mean that the message is taken to heart. When crisis hits, regional, ethnic, and clan-based affinity can quickly trump nation-state loyalty. The world’s “youngest nation,” South Sudan (2011), cohered well enough when fighting for independence but collapsed almost immediately upon receiving it, as the highest allegiance of most of its people remained with the Nuer, Dinka, and other ethnic groups.[39]

The world would probably be much more stable and peaceful if it accorded with the nation-state model. But just as confusing “is” for “ought” can lead to mindless conservatism, as David Hume warned long ago, confusing “ought” for “is” can lead to senseless naivete. A truly realist perspective would deal with the world as it is constituted, not as it is imagined. Such genuine realism, however, faces resistance, as it can be construed as threatening the institutions that underwrite what little geopolitical stability actually exists. If we were all to quit pretending, such thinking has it, everything could collapse, as political cohesion ultimate rests on legitimacy in the public imagination. Although rarely expressed overtly, this concern sometime makes its presence felt. I was recently chided by a senior colleague for arguing that the Peace of Westphalia, contrary to IR theory, did not create anything like a system of individuated sovereign states. He did not fault my evidence or arguments; what bothered him was their implications. But if the devastating failures of U.S. foreign policy are any indication, what is more dangerous is devising policies under the guidance of an illusion.

The Experimental Failure of Geopolitical Theory and Expertise

International Relations scholarship is concerned with both theory and practice. But theory comes first. As Mearsheimer specifies, theory “is indispensable for understanding how the world works.”[40] In one profound sense, he is not wrong. Theorizing of some sort is necessary to understand anything. But experimentally unfalsifiable theories are best held as provisional interpretations that can shift or be abandoned as new developments unfold. In the sciences, competing theories are routinely put to the test, and those that fail are winnowed out. That is not the case, however, in geopolitics.

As it turns out, a trove of relevant experimental data has been collected on the conceptualization of geopolitically significant events. A robust IR theory ought to facilitate forecasting near-term developments. The available evidence, however, suggests otherwise. For decades, Philip Tetlock has been running massive tournaments in which individuals and teams compete to see who can best forecast the likelihood of such events as North Korea launching another missile or Argentina defaulting on its bonds. The results are not good PR for IR. In one study, according to Tetlock, experts performed on average at the level of a “dart-throwing chimpanzee.”[41] The scholars and pundits whose predictions fare worst are those who are animated by a single “Big Idea.” Tetlock paints those most susceptible to this bias as “theory-poisoned.”[42]

By contrast, a few people are “superforecasters” who have far better track records. Intriguingly, those with the knack turn out to be generalists, not specialists. They typically follow a modest strategy, gathering as much information as possible and adjusting their predictions as they go along.[43] Superforecasters tend to regard theories as hypotheses. Driven by curiosity, they have high levels of general knowledge.[44] They are the kind of people, Tetlock tells us, who can “find Kazakhstan on a map.”[45]

The Geo-Historical Alternative

Tetlock’s research confirms my doubts about the standard approach to sovereignty that dominates geopolitical analysis. Given as well the dismal recent record of U.S. foreign policy, a new paradigm is surely called for. The most promising alternative, I would argue, is based on learning the spatial complexities of political power on the ground, and analyzing how they are imagined, represented, legitimated, and contested. Doing so reveals a richly variegated, multidimensional landscape that cannot be reduced to a single model, much less reflected on a single map. This alternative approach relies heavily on cartography to depict, interpret, and appreciate that landscape, but it always puts multiple maps in dialogue with each other and with textual accounts.[46] It also sees maps as laden propositions, not mirrors of reality.

Rescuing history from the nation, as Prasenjit Duara framed it a quarter-century ago,[47] is a well-advanced project by now in the humanities. But recognition in one corner of the university does not mean acknowledgement across the disciplines, much less in the public sphere. Much more than the study of history needs to be rescued from the nation – and from the state, from blanket sovereignty, and from all the other trappings of the standard world model. Or, to put it another way, we might say that it is the practice of statecraft that need to be rescued by the study of history – and of geography.


Perhaps John Mearsheimer would be open to some aspects of this assessment. He too has warned of the dangers of geographical illiteracy. In the early twenty-first century, he lamented “The United States was intervening in countries it knew astonishingly little about – few government officials even … knew that Sunni and Shi’a were different branches of Islam … .”[48] If officials had known such things, and if they had understood that “Iraq” is not permanent puzzle-piece on a stable world map but a tenuous construction conjured into existence by Winston Churchill,[49] Gertrude Bell[50] and other imperial functionaries following the United Kingdom’s betrayal its Arab allies during World War I, perhaps a less destructive path would have been taken in 2003.

[1] “We Assumed Small States Were Pushovers. Ukraine Proved Us Wrong,” by Alexander Clarkson. World Political Review, April 13, 2022.

[2] The term “Chimerica” was coined by Niall Ferguson and Moritz Schularick. Ferguson contended that the single Chimerican economy accounted for a third of the world’s gross domestic product in 2009, further arguing that the relationship between the two states was, “for a time,” a “symbiotic relationship that seemed like a marriage made in heaven.” But Ferguson further argued that the economic relationship between the two countries eventually became toxic, as revealed by the financial meltdown of 2008. See “What ‘Chimerica’ Hath Wrought,” by Niall Ferguson, The American Interest Online, January-February 2009 Issue.

[3] For a popular review of the psychological literature on this subject, see The Power of Bad: How the Negativity Effect Rules Us and How We Can Rule It, by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister. Penguin Books, 2019.

[4] John J. Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities. 2018. Yale University Press. Quotation from page viii.

[5] “We Are All Realists Now,” by Curt Mills, The National Interest, February 22, 2019.

[6] Published in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 93, No. 5 (SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2014), pp. 77-84, 85-89.

[7] Mearsheimer explicitly depicted Putin as “thinking and acting like a realist” in The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities (2018) on page 178.

[8] Mearsheimer 2014, page 85.

[9] “John Mearsheimer on why the West is principally responsible for the Ukrainian crisis,” by John Mearsheimer. The Economist, March 19, 2022.

[10] The quotation is from Isaac Chotiner’s interview of Mearsheimer: “Why John Mearsheimer Blames the U.S. for the Crisis in Ukraine.” The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.

March 1, 2022

[11] See “The Causes and Consequences of the Ukraine War,” by John J. Mearsheimer. Russia Matters, June 23, 2021.

[12] “The American Pundits Who Can’t Resist “Westsplaining” Ukraine: John Mearsheimer and other foreign policy figures are treating Russia’s invasion of Ukraine like a game of Risk,” by Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz. The New Republic, March 4, 2022.

[13] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The Print, February 23, 2022.

[14] Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism. 1944. Collier.

[15] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 105-106.

[16] Mearsheimer 2018, Pp. 103.

[17] Yoram Hazony. The Virtue of Nationalism. 2018. New York: Basic Books. Rich Lowry, The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United and Free. 2019. Broadside Books.

[18] The ethnic-civic national distinction is often exaggerated, and it forms less a dichotomy than a continuum. A common history and culture, moreover, can generate firm national bonds without any substantial ethnic or civic foundations; the ethnically diverse nation of Brazil is not exactly united around devotion to “progress and order,” its official civic creed.

[19] See “The Grand Theory Driving Putin to War,” by Jane Burbank, The New York Times, March 22, 2022.

[20] Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation reads: “The bearer of sovereignty and the only source of power in the Russian Federation shall be its multinational people.”

[21] “‘Modern Ukraine entirely created by Russia’ — read full text of Vladimir Putin’s speech.” The, February 23, 2022.

[22] See the superb map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0:

[23] As the Wikipedia article on the president of Ukraine notes, “In August 2014, Zelenskyy spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine. Since 2015, Ukraine has banned Russian artists and other Russian works of culture from entering Ukraine. In 2018, romantic comedy Love in the Big City 2 starring Zelenskyy was banned in Ukraine.”

[24]  See the map collections of Electoral Geography 2.0

[25] William Rankin, Radical Cartography, Forthcoming. Chapter 2, Page 3.

[26] In Mearsheimer’s view, however, the state itself emerged in England, Spain, and France in the early sixteenth century See Mearsheimer, 2018, p. 96

[27] Although all major schools of IR thought rely on the standard model, their understandings of its contours vary. Liberal theorists have a more capacious view than realists, moving beyond the state, for example, to take seriously the roles of international organizations, international law, and global norms. As individuals, moreover, many IR scholars of all orientations escape the model’s fetters to firmly grasp the nuances of the geopolitical order.

[28] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 86; emphasis added. As Mearsheimer frames the standard model in particularly stark form in The Great Delusion, further quotations are useful in outlining his vision. We live, he avers, in “homogenous world system” (p. 145) structured around nation-states, all based on shared sentiments of hard-edged nationalism (p. 84). As nationalism is “in sync with human nature” (8), a person’s “highest loyalty is almost always to his nation (p. 87).” Members of each nation “mostly speak the same language” (p. 94) and “tend to think and act in similar ways” (p. 87).  Mearsheimer depicts nations as having minds collective minds: “each nation-state tends to think that it is superior to others” (p. 201). This is because “nationalism [is] all about privileging one’s own group over others” (p. 111). The states conjoined with these nations have well defined borders (p. 96)) and can “break or discipline the individuals and groups living within those borders.” Their decision-making power is always “concentrated at the center.” Mearsheimer see the highest expression of such power in armed might. Not only is “the military an integral part” of every state (p. 72), but so too is “offensive military capacity” (p. 131). Ideally, each nation-state is also fully sovereign, suffering no interference in domestic matters by other powers. But Mearsheimer argues that while this preferred condition was approached in the late 1980s, it was soon undermined as “the United States took to interfering with the politics of other countries” (p. 160).

None of these assertions can withstand scrutiny. Even the most seemingly commonsensical ones are simply not true. Every country has an offensive military capacity? States as large and successful as Costa Rica manage well enough with no military force whatsoever, and to imagine Nauru, Tuvalu, Monaco, or San Marino launching a campaign of aggression against some other country is rank fantasy.

[29] On the “platonic” nature of the nation-state construct, see Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007, New York: Random House). As Taleb puts it, “What I call Platonicity, after the ideas (and personality) of the philosopher Plato, is our tendency to mistake the map for the territory, to focus on pure and well-defines “forms,” whether objects, like triangles, or social notions, like utopias …, even nationalities. When these ideas and crisp constructs inhabit our minds, we privilege them over other less elegant objects, those with messier and less tractable structures… .”  P. xxv.

[30] Lhamsuren Munkh-Erdene, The Taiji Government and the Rise of the Warrior State The Formation of the Qing Imperial Constitution. 2021. Brill.

[31] Jordan Branch, “Reconceptualizing the State and its Alternatives: Ideas, infrastructures, representations.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[32] Franck Bille, “Scattered, Distorted, Voluminous: On Cartographic Representation in Political Geography.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[33] Mearsheimer 2018, 145.

[34] Bruno Latour. We Have Never Been Modern. 1993. Harvard University Press.

[35] Luca Scholz, “Condominium: Mapping Joint Dominion in the Holy Roman Empire.” Talk given at Stanford University’s Rumsey Map Center, Conference on “Remapping Sovereignty,” May 26-27, 2022.

[36] As Nicola Degli Espositi explains, “In September 2017, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq held a referendum for independence in which Kurdish voters overwhelmingly – over 93% – chose to secede from Iraq. However, the virtually unanimous opposition of the international community prevented Kurdish president Masoud Barzani from proclaiming independence. The United States, the principal ally of the Iraqi Kurds, refused to back the referendum, prioritising the territorial integrity of Iraq. Baghdad deemed the referendum illegal, and neighbouring Turkey and Iran, worried about the repercussions on their own Kurdish minorities, strongly opposed Kurdish independence. In this context, the prospect of a landlocked Kurdish mini-state looked like a geopolitical nightmare. In the aftermath of the referendum, the KRG was subject to heavy retaliation from Ankara and Tehran, which shut their borders and closed their airspace. The Iraqi army moved towards Kurdish positions and, in a few weeks, took over a vast swathe of territory historically disputed by Baghdad and Erbil, including the oil-rich and highly symbolic city of Kirkuk.” This quotation is from “The 2017 Independence Referendum and the Political Economy of Kurdish Nationalism in Iraq,” by Nicola Degli Espositi. Third World Quarterly, 42(10), 2317-2333, page 2317.

[37] Mearsheimer 2018, p. 99.

[38] Benedict Anderson. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 1983. Verso.

[39] Although South Sudan was tentative patched back together, the future looks dim: “Diplomats Fear a Collapse of South Sudan’s Latest Peace Deal: Even as they publicly support the pact, many privately think it is built on a house of cards and will be pulled down by the country’s bloody past,” by Justin Lynch, Foreign Policy, March 5, 2020.

[40] Mearsheimer 2018, viii.

[41] Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. 2015. Crown Publishers. p. 68.

[42] Tetlock and Gardner p. 244. The authors are opining here on the fictional character Hamlet, who they describe as “The typical academic, theory-poisoned and indecisive…”

This finding may seem counter-intuitive, but understanding it is not difficult. When one commits to any speculative theory, one tends to see the world from its perspective, passing over discordant information. As confirmation bias is intrinsic to the human mind, concerted effort is necessary to avoid its disabling effects. For a popular overview of the psychological literature on human cognitive biases and heuristics, see Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (2013, Farrar. Straus and Giroux).

[43] Tetlock and Gardner 2015.

[44] Tetlock and Gardner 2015, Pp. 106-110.

[45] Tetlock and Gardner 201, p. 92.

[46] As Matthew Edney insists, each cartographic act takes shape “within a web of texts that provide the map with different shades of meaning. See Matthew Edney, Cartography: The Ideal and Its History. 2019, University of Chicago Press. P. 12, 40.

[47] Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China. 1995. University of Chicago Press.

[48] Mearsheimer 2018, P. 169.

[49] Christopher Catherwood, Churchill’s Folly: How Winston Churchill Created Modern Iraq. 2005. Basic Books.

[50] Liora Lukitz. A Quest in the Middle East: Gertrude Bell and the Making of Modern Iraq. 2006. I.B. Tauris.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As HNN’s David R. Stone summarizes,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(To be continued…)

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

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


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


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



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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Expansion of Russia

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

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

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

Kazan Kremlin

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


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

*One source even claims that the entire cleaning staff of the Winter Palace, over 100 people, consisted of Tatars.

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

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


Mapping Crime and Substance Abuse in Russia


In the previous post, I examined regional differences in demographic issues across Russia. As many sources note, alcoholism is one of the biggest factors contributing to low life expectancy and high rate of death from non-natural causes. In fact, Russia ranks at the top in terms of both alcohol consumption (especially by men), as discussed in detail in my earlier post. Russia and the neighboring FSU countries also top the charts in percentage of deaths attributable to alcohol. According to the World Health Organization report, such a high level of alcohol-related deaths results not only from what and how much people drink (e.g. drinking spirits causes more alcoholism and alcohol-related deaths than drinking wine or beer), but also how they drink. The WHO report includes data on what the authors refer to as “Patterns of Drinking Score” (PDS), which is “based on an array of drinking attributes, which are weighted differentially in order to provide the PDS on a scale from 1 to 5”; the attributes include the usual quantity of alcohol consumed per occasion; festive drinking; proportion of drinking events, when drinkers get drunk; proportion of drinkers who drink daily or nearly daily; and drinking with meals and drinking in public places. Some countries with high per capita alcohol consumption have low PDS scores (particularly, countries in southern and western Europe), while Russia has one of the highest PDS scores worldwide.

A combination of what, how much, and how people drink—as well as who is doing the drinking—creates the observed patterns of alcoholism within Russia as well. (The data on alcoholism and drug abuse, discussed below, comes from the Wikipedia.) The prevalence of alcoholism differs from region to region even more than other social indicators considered in previous posts. The range between the highest and lowest alcoholism levels is one of three orders of magnitude, from less than one case reported per 100,000 population in Ingushetia to nearly 590 cases per 100,000 in Chukotka. Overall geographical patterns are quite clear: the highest levels of alcoholism are registered mostly across the Far North (and some of the regions of the Far East, which despite their relatively low latitude qualify legally as the “Far North”), while the lowest levels of alcoholism are found in the Caucasus. According to the website, alcohol consumption is also the lowest in the north Caucasus, especially in Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, and the highest in the harshest areas of the Far North/Far East (particularly in the Jewish Autonomous oblast, Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Magadan, and Kamchatka). However, they do not list the specific figures of alcohol consumption in various regions and I could not find them elsewhere, but I suspect that the quantity of alcohol consumed per capita in the northeast Caucasus and in the Far North does not differ by three orders of magnitude. Much more significant is the type of alcoholic drink being consumed: vodka is the most common choice in the Far North, whereas the Caucasus region has a long history of viniculture going back 8,000 years. Besides viniculture, the Caucasus is well-known for its venerable tradition of wine-drinking with meals, accompanied by elaborate toasts, which slows down the consumption and metabolism of alcohol. Another important factor is genetically based difficulty that people from many indigenous groups have in breaking down alcohol. This genetic propensity causes particularly high levels of alcoholism in such areas of northern Russia as Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Sakha Republic, and Chukotka.


Unlike alcoholism, drug abuse is considerably less common than alcoholism across the Russian Federation: all but four federal subjects register over 50 cases of alcoholism per 100,000, whereas none reports more than 50 cases of drug abuse per 100,000, and fewer than a dozen register over 30 cases. Geographical patterns of drug abuse are less obvious and harder to explain than those of alcoholism. Particularly high levels of drug abuse (over 30 cases per 100,000) are found in Murmansk, Chelyabinsk, Sverdlovsk, Kurgan, Novosibirsk, Kemero, Amur, and Sakhalin oblasts, and in Primorsky Krai. One common denominator is that all of these regions had a high level of industrial urban development during the Soviet period but have experienced significant economic stagnation since the fall of the USSR. One area that does not fit this generalization is Sakhalin, which is still a major area of natural resource extraction and processing. It would be interesting to know if any of our readers can think of another explanation for these patterns of drug abuse.


Interestingly, neither alcoholism nor drug abuse correlate very closely with crime rates, although there is a connection. Of the areas where drug abuse is most prevalent, only Sakhalin and Kemerovo oblasts also exhibit high crime rates (over 2500 cases per 100,000), while several others—Murmansk, Sverdlovsk, and Novosibirsk—have an average level of crime. Alcoholism correlates with crime even less, as only Magadan and Sakhalin oblasts exhibits high levels of both. A number of regions with a high level of alcoholism, particularly Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Sakha Republic, which have a large percentage of indigenous population, exhibit little crime. Other areas with high proportions of indigenous peoples, such as the Caucasus and the Middle Volga, also have particularly low levels of crime. The low level of reported crime in Tula, Ryazan, and Belgorod oblasts is perplexing, however.


When it comes to murder, eastern and especially southern Siberia is clearly more dangerous than European Russia or western Siberia. The “murder capital” of Russia is Tuva, which registered over 35 homicides per 100,000 population. Neighboring Altai Republic has over 25 murders per 100,000 population, as does Zabaikalsky Krai. Curiously, high rates of alcoholism may contribute to the elevated murder rate in such areas as Sakha Republic, Chukotka, and Jewish Autonomous oblast, but other areas where alcoholism is prevalent, such as Karelia and Sakhalin, register only slightly above-average murder rates. Similarly, the prevalence of drug abuse does not correlate with murder rates. Nor do crime rates or murder rates correlate with the level of urbanization, unemployment level, or regional GDP.



Mapping Russia’s Demographic Problems

[Note to readers: customizable maps of Russia are now available in Russian here.]

Much has been written about Russia’s demographic problems, particularly in the 1990s and 2000s. The country as a whole is characterized by low birth rates and high abortion rates; high death rates, especially from non-natural causes; rather low life expectancy, especially for men; and skewed sex ratios. This post examines some of these issues, focusing on regional differences across Russia. The GeoCurrents maps presented below are based primarily on data from the Federal State Statistics Service; some of the indicators, such as the percentage of working age adults and of pensioners as well as sex ratios, have been calculated directly from the FSSS data. Additional data comes from the “Children in Russia” publication by the FSSS, available (in Russian) here.



As maps of Russia’s birth rates, death rates, TFR, and natural population growth by federal subject can be found in Wikipedia, we begin by mapping life expectancy (at birth). According to data from the World Bank, the life expectancy of an average Russian male is a whopping 10 years shorter than that of an average Russian female: the figure for men is 66 years (the same as in Kazakhstan, Iraq, and North Korea), while that for women is 76 years (the same as in Iran, Honduras, and Tonga). But as the FSSS data mapped on the left reveals, there are significant differences in life expectancy among Russia’s federal subjects. For example, life expectancy for an average Ingush woman is almost 15 years longer than that of her Chukotkan counterpart (81.32 years vs. 66.42 years). The contrast is even more striking with respect to men: life expectancy for an average Ingush male it is almost 20 years longer than for his Tuvan counterpart (75.97 years and 56.37 years, respectively). Overall, the highest life expectancy, for both genders, is found in the two federal cities (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) and in the northeastern and north-central Caucasus. For both genders, Ingushetia has the highest life expectancy figures, while Dagestan is in the top four (72.31 years for men, 78.82 years for women). North Ossetia ranks 3rd in life expectancy for women (79.06 years), with above-average life expectancy for men (68.46 years). Curiously, Chechnya ranks 4th in male life expectancy (70.23), the ongoing insurgency notwithstanding, while life expectancy for Chechen women is close to average. Neighboring regions of southern Russia also post fairly high life expectancy figures. Moscow City ranks 2nd and Saint Petersburg 5th in life expectancy, for both men and women. As with many other standard-of-living indicators, some of which are discussed in the previous post, the oblasts surrounding the two federal cities present a sharp contrast to the cities themselves: both Moscow and Leningrad oblast post average figures for female life expectancy and below-average figures for male life expectancy.

Outside the Caucasus and the federal cities, life expectancy is shorter, with most regions in Siberia posting lower figures than those of European Russia. There are a few exceptions, however, including higher-than-average figures for both genders in Belgorod oblast in south-central Russia, Tatarstan in the Middle-Volga region, and Khanty-Mansiysk, and higher-than-average figure for men in Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. For women, life expectancy is higher than average in a number of regions in south-central Russia (Belgorod, Voronezh, and Tambov oblasts) and Middle-Volga region (Chuvashia and Penza oblast). At the bottom of the ranking, one finds Tuva and Chukotka (and for men, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast): life expectancy in these regions is almost a decade shorter than the country’s average.


A large gap in life expectancy for men and women helps explain the skewed sex ratios. As can be seen from the map of the 2013 FSSS data, most Russian regions have more women than men, with many regions having fewer than 85 males per 100 females (shown in the two darkest shades of red). There are only three regions where there are more men than women (shown in blue): Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, Chukotka, and Kamchatka.

Map of Russia Sex Ratio

The map above can be instructively compared with an earlier map, based on the 2002 census data. The two maps are constructed so that the data is binned in the same way, although the lowest (most female-dominated) category of the older map has been broken down into two categories in the newer map. A comparison of the two maps reveals that the situation did not improve in the decade or so separating the two maps; on the contrary, many regions became even more skewed in the female direction in this period. A good example comes from what is today Krasnoyarsk Krai. In 2002, Krasnoyarsk region consisted of three administrative units: Evenk autonomous district with a ratio of 1.007 (i.e. more men than women), Taimyr (Dolgano-Nenets) autonomous district with a ratio of 0.948, and Krasnoyarsk territory with a ratio of 0.889. In 2013, the entire Krasnoyarsk Krai, amalgamated from these three regions, had a ratio of 0.875, which was more female-biased than the ratio in any of its constituent parts in 2002. Similarly, in most regions in Siberia and the Urals (i.e. Zabaikalsky, Primorsky, Khabarovsk, and Altai Krais; Amur, Irkutsk, Kemerovo, Tyumen, Sverdlovsk, Kurgan, and Chelyabinsk oblasts, Jewish Autonomous Oblast, Khakassia and Sakhalin), sex ratios also became more skewed towards women. The sex ratio of Murmansk oblast followed the Siberian trend in becoming more skewed towards women. Movement towards a more balanced ratio have been registered only in a small number of regions: Novosibirsk (from 0.866 to 0.872), Ulyanovsk (from 0.856 to 0.878), Belgorod (from 0.848 to 0.854), Tambov (from 0.844 to 0.859), Kaluga (from 0.841 to 0.859), and Moscow oblasts (from 0.850 to 0.858), Chuvashia (from 0.863 to 0.872), and Mari El (from 0.869 to 0.872). In the north Caucasus and southern Russia, the overall tendency has also been towards more skewed sex ratios, the most striking case being that of Ingushetia, where the sex ratio dropped from 0.876 to 0.819, the fourth lowest in Russia. The lowest sex ratio is found in Yaroslavl oblast, whereas Ivanovo oblast—whose capital has been known unofficially as “the city of brides”—ranks second from the bottom.



Regional differences in the age structure of the population are also significant—and help explain the demographic and economic situations in the various regions. Let’s begin by examining the youngest segment of the population, children under age 17 (the data comes from the “Children in Russia” publication by the FSSS). Clear geographical patterns can be seen on the map on the left: children constitute a larger proportion of the population (25% or more) in eastern and southern Siberia (but generally not the Russian Far East), northeastern Caucasus, and Nenets Autonomous Okrug. A comparison with the second map posted on the left shows that areas with a higher proportion of children are generally those also with a higher proportion of indigenous peoples (i.e. a lower proportion of ethnic Russians). This correlation is confirmed by the figures listed in the Wikipedia article on the demographics of Russia: ethnic Russians have the country’s second-lowest fertility rate. (Russia’s Jews have the lowest fertility figure of all ethnic groups.) As can be expected from the high birth rates in these three regions, Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Tuva rank at the top in the percentage of children, with about a third or more of their populations under the age of 17. In contrast, in most of European Russia (and a few regions in Siberia) children constitute less than 20% of the population, and in most oblasts in central Russia the figure is below 17%. Unsurprisingly, the lowest percentage of children is found in the two federal cities: 14.3% in Moscow and 14.4% in Saint Petersburg.


At the other end of the age spectrum are the pensioners, a group that is now raising a lot of concerns. Despite Russia’s relatively low life expectancy (especially for men, as discussed above), the percentage of pensioners has been growing for some time. According to a paper by Julie DaVanzo and David Adamson “Russia’s Demographic “Crisis”: How Real Is It?” (published in 1997), “between 1959 and 1990, the number of persons aged 60 and over doubled… [by] the beginning of the 1990s, reach[ing] 16 percent”. Since then, the trend has continued, as noted by the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection. Russia currently has one of the lowest retirement age thresholds: according to the Pension Fund website, “men older than 60 and women older than 55 qualify for [the old age] pension” (people living in the Far North and other harsh regions have an even lower retirement age threshold). However, recently there has been much discussion about the possibility of raising the retirement age to 65, possibly as early as in 2016. One of the main aims of this proposal is to alleviate the shortages of pension funds that resulted from Russia’s current economic woes. These problems may also lead to a potential decrease in pensions paid to current retirees, as reported by

As with other demographic indicators, the percentage of pensioners differs widely from region to region. Only three regions—all of them in the north Caucasus—had fewer than 22% retirees in 2013, and half a dozen others (including Moscow City, the two autonomous okrugs in Western Siberia and three additional regions in the north Caucasus) posted figures below 25%. Conversely, the highest percentages of pensioners are found in northern European Russia (Republic of Karelia, Arkhangelsk oblast, and Komi Republic), four oblasts south of Moscow (Bryansk, Oryol, Tula, and Ryazan), as well as in Kurgan oblast and on Sakhalin. (Curiously, a lower percentage of pensioners does not correlate closely with high GDP: for example, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrugs have relatively few pensioners, whereas Sakhalin ranks 7th highest in the percentage of pensioners.) The two federal cities, especially Moscow, have low percentages of pensioners.


To conclude our discussion of the age structure, let’s consider the map of the percentage of working age adults. As with the other indicators, regional differences are quite pronounced and are due to different factors. For example, Kurgan oblast has the lowest percentage of working age adults (55.3%), and Chechnya ranks 3rd lowest (with 56.3%), but the population structures in those two regions are quite different: Kurgan oblast has a high percentage of pensioners, whereas Chechnya ranks highest in the percentage of children. At the other end of the spectrum, one finds such regions of high GDP as the Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrugs and Chukotka, as well as adjacent Kamchatka and Magadan oblast. However, despite similar percentages of working age adults, the overall population structure of these regions is distinctive: Chukotka, for instance has substantially more children and fewer pensioners than Magadan oblast. The latter region has experienced a significant depopulation trend, which affects the younger adult population more than the older people, resulting in a disproportionately aging population. Moreover, this trend feeds itself: even without taking into account the out-migration, an aging population results over time in lower birth rates.


The shortages of working age adults in regions such as Chechnya and Tuva are further exacerbated by high levels of unemployment, as can be seen from the map on the left: 26.9% and 19.3%, respectively. The highest unemployment figure, 43.7%, comes from Ingushetia. Elevated unemployment rates (over 10%) are found also in several other regions in the North Caucasus (Dagestan, Kalmykia, Karachay-Cherkessia) and southern Siberia (Altai Republic, Zabaikalsk Krai). Unsurprisingly, these regions also have the country’s lowest GDP figures. In the following (and last) post on the regional differences across Russia, we will examine unemployment patterns in the context of substance abuse and crime rates.





Mapping Regional Differences in Economic and Social Development in Russia—A GeoCurrents Mini-Atlas

Generalized indicators of economic and social/human development, such as GDP per capita or HDI, typically place Russia into a medium-high category. However, such ratings overlook regional differences in economic and social development, which are highly pronounced in Russia. To examine these regional patterns, GeoCurrents has created a mini-atlas of Russia, designed using GeoCurrents customizable maps, which are available for free download. These maps examine a wide range of topics, from food consumption to alcoholism, and from crime rate to healthcare; additional maps cover issues that help explain regional patterns in development, such as the age structure and ethnic composition of the population. Unless indicated otherwise, the data comes from the Federal State Statistics Service, and refers to the year 2013. Since the data offered by the FSSS is presented in 83 Word files, one for each federal subject, we have re-organized the data into one Excel file (available for download here: Rosstat_data); some of the measures, such as the percentage of working age adults or of pensioners and sex ratios, have been calculated based on the FSSS data. Additional data comes from the “Children in Russia” publication by the FSSS, available (in Russian) here; this document, published in 2009, contains data from the preceding year. Some other data come from Wikipedia and refer to 2010 or 2013. Unfortunately, we have not been able to obtain data from a more recent date, particularly from after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014; if any of our readers know of such publicly available data, in English or Russian, please let us know.

Russia_Living_space_2013We’ll begin by looking at two rather unusual measures of the standard of living: the availability of living space and food consumption. Although Russia is a large and sparsely populated country, the availability of residential housing has long been a problem. As can be seen from the map on the left, residents of central Russian oblasts have more living space per capita than average, with inhabitants of Tver oblast enjoying an average of 29 sq. meters (312 sq. feet) per person. The only exception here is Moscow City, where an average resident has only 19.2 sq. meters (207 sq. feet) of living space, reminding one of Mikhail Bulgakov’s lament about Moscovites written some 75 years ago: “mercy sometimes knocks at their hearts…ordinary people… only the housing problem has corrupted them…” (Master and Margarita). While residents of Northern European Russia, the Volga region, and the Far East (Chukotka, Kamchatka, Sakhalin) have fairly ample living space, the North Caucasus and most of Siberia offer an average citizen more crowded housing. Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Chechnya have less than 20 sq. meters (215 sq. feet) of living space per capita, while Ingushetia posted the second-lowest figure in all of Russia: 13.5 sq. meters (145 sq. feet). A notable exceptions here is North Ossetia-Alania, with the figure of 26.9 sq. meters (290 sq. feet) of living space.

Similarly, several Siberian regions, such as Khanty-Mansiysk and Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrugs, and Altai Republic (not to be confused with Altai Krai), have less than 20 sq. meters (215 sq. feet) of living space per capita. Particularly striking is the situation in Tuva: 12.9 sq. meters (139 sq. feet) per capita. As we shall see in subsequent posts, Tuva is found at the bottom of many development rankings. As mentioned above, the Far East overall has more residential housing per capita, although differences between, on the one hand, Primorsky Krai and Jewish Autonomous oblast, with less than 22 sq. meters (237 sq. feet) per capita, and Magadan oblast, with its ample 29 sq. meters (312 sq. feet) per person, is striking. However, in the case of Magadan, the higher availability of residential housing may be a symptom not of a higher standard of living, as one might think, but actually of a lower standard of living: since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Magadan oblast has a significant depopulation trend, and as we shall see in subsequent posts, many other indicators of human development there paint a grim picture, which helps explains this trend.


Consumption of different foodstuffs, particularly meat and dairy, which tend to be the pricier components of the Russian diet, is another interesting topic. According to Rosstat data cited in an article in, the type of food consumed in largest per capita quantity is dairy: an average Russian consumes Russia_titular_ethnicity_2010over 200 kg (440 lbs) of it a year. (The most popular type of dairy is 3.2% milk and yoghurts.) Meat, however, takes the third place in the Russian diet: an average Russian citizen consumes 75-80 kg (165-176 lbs) of meat annually, which is less than the average annual consumption of bread and other grain-based foods. Russia_Percentage_ethnic_Russians_2010However, there are significant differences in the amount of meat and dairy consumed in different regions. For example, residents of Kalmykia consumed more than twice as much meat per capita as residents of Dagestan (114 kg vs. 40 kg). As for dairy, per capita consumption in Tatarstan is more than 3.5 times greater than Chukotka.

The geographical patterns of meat and dairy consumption can be explained only in part by economic factors, as they seem to correlate more closely with culinary traditions. For example, higher meat consumption correlates well with the presence of traditionally semi-nomadic, Turkic- and Mongolic-speaking peoples: Kalmyks (Mongolic), Sakha (Turkic), and smaller Turkic-speaking groups in Altai Republic. As can be seen from the map of ethnic composition, these regions have substantial populations of their titular ethnicities and lower percentages of ethnic Russians. But this pattern does not work elsewhere; thus, Chuvashia, Tatarstan, and Tuva also feature a significant Turkic population yet have much lower figures for meat consumption. Economic factors may play a more prominent role here. But economics does not tell the whole story either, as such high GDP areas as the three Autonomous Okrugs (Nenets, Yamalo-Nenets, and Khanty-Mansiysk AOs) and Tyumen oblast have some of the lowest meat consumption figures. I find especially perplexing the low figure in Chukotka—merely 51 kg (112 lbs) per person per year, less than half of the amount of meat consumed by an average Kalmykian—because Chukotka is both economically productive and has a substantial indigenous population, which traditionally lives on reindeer and seal.* It is much easier to explain similarly low meat consumption in Northeastern Caucasus—Dagestan (40 kg), Ingushetia (54 kg), and Chechnya (58 kg)—a region of both low GDP and a culinary tradition of supplementing meat (mostly lamb and goat, as well as poultry) with a lot of fruits and vegetables (for more on the cuisine of different parts of the Caucasus, see here and here).

Russia_Milk_dairy_consumption_2013As for dairy, one finds higher levels of milk consumption in (some of the) steppe regions, including Tatarstan (364 kg per capita per year), Bashkortostan (312 kg), Orenburg oblast (308 kg), parts of southwestern Siberia (esp. Altai Krai, 335 kg, and Omsk oblast, 301 kg), as well as in Sakha Republic (281 kg)—all areas where reliance on milk has been an important feature of traditional cuisine of cattle- and horse-raising semi-nomadic indigenous groups. However, milk has not been a staple for reindeer pastoralist groups: Evens, Evenkis, Nenets, Chukchi—so even today dairy consumption in their traditional areas remains fairly low. Another area which registers higher-than-average dairy consumption is St. Petersburg (315 kg) and the surrounding Leningrad oblast (293 kg), which probably goes back to the high number of dairy-producing sovkhoz (state-owned farms) during the Soviet era.

More perplexing are the relatively low figures of dairy consumption in four neighboring oblasts in north-central Russia: Yaroslavl (246 kg), Tver (243 kg), Vologda (236 kg), and Kostroma (194 kg). These regions are traditionally renowned for their specialty butter (Vologda) and cheeses (Yaroslavl, Tver, and Kostroma), so one might expect higher dairy-consumption figures. Historically, Russians produced and consumed “white” or “farmer’s cheese” but not “yellow” or “hard cheeses”, which first came to Russia from Holland with Peter the Great. According to website, the first cheese-making facility in Russia was opened in 1795 in Tver gubernia (now, oblast) in the estate of Prince Meschersky. The first large-scale cheese-making factory was also opened in Tver gubernia in 1866 by Nikolai Vereschagin (brother of famous artist). Cheese-making then spread to Yaroslavl gubernia, where local specialty cheeses were developed: Yaroslavsky, Uglichsky, Poshekhonsky cheeses (the latter two are named after the towns where they were first made: Uglich and Poshekhonye). In 1878, a first cheese-making facility opened in Kostroma by Vladimir Blandov; according to the Wikipedia, by 1912 Kostroma gubernia boasted 120 cheese-making factories in which a variety of cheeses, including the specialty Kostromskoy cheese, were being produced. Kostroma became an unofficial “cheese-making capital of Russia”, notes What, then, explains the decline in local cheese-making and dairy consumption in this area? The answer seems to be Soviet food policy. During the communist era, regional specialty cheeses were turned into standardized recipes, mass-produced in factories all around the country, undermining the local specialization. Since the 1990s, some local artisanal cheese making has been revived, but most small local producers have not been able to complete with larger domestic factories and foreign imports. Kostromskoy and Poshekhonsky cheeses, for example, gave way to imported brie and camembert. Russia has imposed sanctions on the importation of many foreign foodstuffs, but it remains to be seen what effect these measures would have on local cheese production. (I thank Sonia Melnikova-Raich for a helpful discussion of this topic.)

Russia_Physicians_2013The rest of this post examines figures and maps concerning healthcare infrastructure. Overall, Russia ranks very high in physician density and the number of hospital beds per capita, but quite low in nurse density. Regional differences in these indicators are quite pronounced, however, and some of the geographical patterns are rather baffling. For example, unsurprisingly, Saint Petersburg boasts the highest physician density (81.2 physicians per 10,000 population), whereas Vladimir, Tambov, Tula, and Vologda oblasts in central Russia are served by fewer than 35 physicians per 10,000. One might expect Saint Petersburg to lag behind Moscow in this measure, but the figure in Moscow City is actually much lower (68.6). This contrast is probably related to the rapid population expansion in Moscow in the last two decades, something that did not occur in Saint Petersburg (for illustrative population graphs, see here); Moscow’s health infrastructure simply could not keep up with that demands of the growing population. (Saint Petersburg also has more nurses per capita and substantially more hospital beds per capita than Moscow.) Overall, Siberia’s population is served by more physicians per capita than that of European Russia and the southern Urals, although there are exceptions: Khakassia and Jewish Autonomous oblast have fewer than 40 physicians per 10,000, and Kurgan oblast is served by merely 30.2 physicians per 10,000. Another geographical pattern that stands out is the disparity in the concentration of physicians between major cities and their surrounding oblasts (Saint Petersburg: 81.2; Leningrad oblast: 34.5; Moscow City: 68.6; Moscow oblast: 39). Sharp contrasts between neighboring federal subjects are found elsewhere as well: Vladimir oblast (33.9) and Yaroslavl oblast (58), Vologda oblast (34.7) and Arkhangelsk oblast (54.5), Volgograd oblast (48.2) and Astrakhan oblast (65.8), Jewish Autonomous oblast (37.7) and Amur oblast (60.6), North Ossetia-Alania (71.7) and Ingushetia (37.7). The high physician density in Astrakhan oblast and North Ossetia-Alania is perplexing in and of itself.

Russia_Nurses_2013As for nursing personnel, higher nurse density (over than 130 nurses per 10,000 population) is found across the Russian Far North and in parts of the Altai region, which are generally areas of lower population density. The highest figures are found in Magadan oblast (151.3), Chukotka (151.1), and Komi Republic (146.6). In contrast, lower figures (fewer than 100 nurses per 10,000 population) characterize most of European Russia, the North Caucasus region, southwestern Siberia, and the southern part of the Far East. The shortage of nurses is experienced in federal cities (Moscow City: 97.9; Saint Petersburg: 98.4) and even more acutely in the surrounding oblasts (Moscow oblast: 76.7; Leningrad oblast: 73); Leningrad oblast has the lowest figure in all of Russia. Another area where nurses are in short supply is the North Caucasus economic region (Krasnodar Krai: 88.1; Dagestan: 82.1; Ingushetia: 77.1; Chechnya: 73.2). As with physician density, sharp contrasts are observed in some cases between neighboring federal subjects: Leningrad oblast (73) and Karelia (123.6), Samara oblast (91.7) and Ulyanovsk oblast (127.7), Zabaikalsky Krai (114.4) and Magadan oblast (151.3).

Russia_Hospital_beds_2013Finally, Russia ranks 3rd in the world (after Japan and Korea) with respect to the availability of hospital beds per capita; unsurprisingly, these three countries top the charts in terms of average length of hospital stays (an average Russian patient stays in hospital for 13.6 days; compare to 4.9 days in the United States). But yet again, regional variation in Russia is quite pronounced, with 149 beds per 10,000 population in Chukotka, but only 46 beds per 10,000 population in Ingushetia. The availability of hospital beds correlates somewhat with nurse density, though far from perfectly. There are more hospital beds per capita (over 120 per 10,000 population) in Siberia (especially, in Eastern Siberia and the Far East) and in parts of the European North (especially, in Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Murmansk oblast). Besides Chukotka, the highest figures are found in Magadan oblast and Tuva (both 136), and Kamchatka and Sakhalin (both 129). Lower figures (fewer than 90 hospital beds per 10,000 population) characterize much of European Russia, the Mid-Volga region and southern Urals, parts of Western and Southern Siberia, and the North Caucasus region. As with physician density, federal cities have higher figures than the surrounding oblasts (Moscow City: 85; Moscow oblast: 79; Saint Petersburg: 92; Leningrad oblast: 69); however, even the two cities do not boast particularly high figures. As with the other healthcare indicators, sharp contrasts are found between neighboring regions, such as Lipetsk oblast (79) and Oryol oblast (101), or Altai Republic (80) and Tuva (136).

Overall, it should be noted that the per-capita healthcare infrastructure does not correlate with the region’s GDP.** For example, physician density is expectedly high in richer federal cities and in Chukotka, but it is fairly low in other high GDP areas, especially in Nenets Autonomous Okrug. Similarly, nurse density is predictably high in Chukotka, Sakhalin, Yamalo-Nenets and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrugs, but surprisingly low in other high GDP areas, particularly in the federal cities and in Tyumen oblast. Likewise, the availability of hospital beds per capita is unsurprisingly high in such rich regions as Chukotka, Sakhalin, and Nenets Autonomous Okrug, but low in others, especially in Tyumen oblast and Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug. Nor is there a close correlation between these three indicators. For instance, federal cities are characterized by a high level of physicians per capita but few nurses; conversely, there are few physicians but many nurses in Kurgan oblast. Similarly, there is no correlation between the numbers of nurses and hospital beds per capita: for example, Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous Okrug and Altai Republic have more nurses than hospital beds (1.83 and 1.69 nurses per hospital bed, respectively), whereas in Primorsky Krai and Tomsk oblast there are fewer nurses than hospital beds (0.83 and 0.93 nurses per hospital bed, respectively).



*Figures for meat consumption refer to “meat and meat products, including offal of category II and raw animal fat”. According to the Wikipedia, “offal of category II” includes heads (without tongues), feet, lungs, ears, pigs’ tails, lips, larynxes, thyroid glands, esophagus meat, and stomachs. Tongues, livers, kidneys, brains, hearts, beef udders, diaphragms, and beef and mutton tails are considered “offal of category I”.

**Of course, quantitative measures of health infrastructure say nothing about its quality. Much has been written (especially, in Russian-language blogosphere) about the pitiful state of many Russian hospitals. Recently, two lethal incidents that happened in the 2nd city hospital in Belgorod have brought this point home. In the first incident, a doctor pounded a patient to death; a video of the incident caught on security camera is rather difficult to watch. Two weeks later, an 84-year old patient fell from a 4th floor window of the same hospital; whether he committed suicide, or was pushed, or whether it was an unfortunate accident remains to be seen.


Customizable Maps of Russia for Downloading

Russia Per Capita Regional Product MapAs previously noted, GeoCurrents will be giving away a significant number of customizable maps over the next month or so. These maps are constructed with simple presentation software (available in both PowerPoint and Keynote formats), and hence are very easy to use and manipulate. A post later this week will offer some pointers on how to customize these maps. To download these maps, just click on the file names at the bottom of the post. (For this post, Keynote = “Customizable Maps of Russia” and PowerPoint = “Russia Customizable Federal Subjects Map.” It is important to note that all of these customizable maps have been made in an older version of Keynote, which I find superior to the current version.)

Today’s offering is of Russia. The basic GeoCurrents customizable map of Russia has been divided into its 85 constituent units, which are officially known as Russia’s federal subjects. Included here are Russia’s two new federal subjects (as of 2014), Crimea and Sevastopol, which are outlined with a dashed line to indicate that their annexation by Russia from Ukraine is disputed.

One can easily change the color of any of these units in order to make thematic maps. I have included above a map of Russia’s gross regional product by federal subject, which was made by Asya Pereltsvaig, to illustrate what one can do with these base-maps. This map illustrates nicely the high levels of economic production found in the resource-rich regions of northern and central Siberia, the economic disparities between Moscow & St. Petersburg and the rest of European Russia, and the low levels of economic production found in the north Caucasus and across much of southern Siberia. (As the economic map posted above uses 2013 data, Crimea and Sevastopol have been excluded.)

Russia’s 85 federal subjects are divided into different several categories, as specified in the county’s constitution. These are as follows: 46 oblasts; 22 republics; 9 krais; 4 autonomous okrugs; 3 federal cities; and one autonomous oblast. The actual differences among these varied types of federal subjects are not particularly large. Krais, for example, are (according to the Wikipedia) “essentially the same as oblasts. The title “territory” [or krai] is historic, originally given because they were once considered frontier regions.” Russian republics, however, do have somewhat more autonomy than the other federal subjects. As again is noted by the Wikipedia: “[Russian republics are] nominally autonomous, each has its own constitution and legislature; is represented by the federal government in international affairs; [and is meant to be home to a specific ethnic minority.”

The first map in each presentation set (PowerPoint and Keynote) merely gives the unmarked shapes of each Russian federal subject. The other maps provide names and other kinds of groupings as well. In one of these maps, the federal subjects are grouped and colored by type (oblast, republic, etc.). Another map groups and colors them by Russia’s economic regions. The PowerPoint set has an additional map, one in which the federal subjects are grouped and colored by Russia’s federal districts.


Russia Customizable Federal Subjects Map (PowerPoint)

Customizable Maps of Russia (Keynote)


Ukraine Lecture Slides

Dear Readers,

Ukraine mapUnfortunately, regular posting continues to be delayed due to other obligations. I do, however, hope to write a brief post on some of those “other obligations” later this week. Mostly, however, I have simply been busy preparing slides for my weekly lectures this term on the history and geography of current global events. This week’s lecture focused on Ukraine. The 128 slides for this one-hour-and-fifty minute lecture are available below, in pdf format. The first group of slides examine current events, the second turns to geographical patterns, and the last explores historical development.


Next week’s lecture will look at news and controversies surrounding international migration, with a particular focus on South Africa and Mediterranean crossings from North Africa to Europe.


Final Maps on “Geopolitical Anomalies”

This post merely contains some of the additional maps that I prepared for my March 31 lecture on the history and geography of current global events. These maps, like those in the two preceding posts, focus on geopolitical irregularities and anomalies in a region of the world that might be called the “Greater Middle East” (for lack of a better term). The maps in this post, in general, depict anomalies that are less pronounced than those considered in the previous posts.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to prepare explanatory text to accompany these maps. I must be ready to give an hour-and-fifty-minute lecture on Yemen for the same course on Tuesday, April 7, and that will demand most of my time over the next two days.

Divided Territories Map Non-Contiguous States MapOman Exclave MapNew States MapRefugees Map 1Refugees Map 2European Colonial Spheres MapFederations Map

Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part 2

(note: The introduction to this post is found in the post of April 1)

Thus far we have examined a number of geopolitical anomalies in a sizable region of the world centered on Saudi Arabia. We have not yet looked at the most serious challenge to the standard model, however, that of state collapse. Other important issues remain to be considered as well.

Feeble States MapAs mentioned in the introduction to this series, Somalia has not functioned as a coherent state since 1991. Although its internationally recognized federal government controls more territory than it did a few years ago, large areas are still under the power of the radical Islamist group al-Shabaab, while the northwest forms the de facto state of Somaliland. Other areas are essentially run by local clans or other organizations that pledge their ultimate loyalty to the federal government but in actuality have complete or almost complete autonomy. A prominent example is Puntland in the northeast, which covers a third of Somalia and contains roughly a third of its population. Puntland’s constitution reveals its geopolitically ambiguity. It states, for example, that “Puntland is an independent integral part of Somalia”; being “independent” and being an “integral part” of a given country, however, would generally be seen as mutually exclusive propositions.

For many years, Somalia was the only collapsed state in the area covered by the map. That is obviously no longer the case. The official governments of Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Iraq have lost control of vast stretches of their official territory to rival national governments, fully autonomous regions, and Islamist militias. It is now questionable whether any of them can be reconstituted as coherent states, at least any time soon. The authority that several of these states do still possess, moreover, relies heavily on military backing from other countries. The governments of both Iraq and Syria, for example, depend on the armed clout of Iran. The United States and other countries also help prop up Iraq by launching air strikes against ISIS (alternatively, ISIL, Daesh, or Islamic State). Afghanistan is more stable and unified than the other countries highlighted on the map, and is therefore depicted in a lighter shade of red. But if the United States military were to withdraw completely, it is quite possible that it too would unravel — as indeed has previously occurred in the recent past.

Islamist Organizations Greater Middle East MapOne of the main reasons for the collapse or near collapse of the states depicted on this map is the rise of radical Islamist organizations, the more important of which are shown on the next map. The territories under the power of these groups change rapidly, and as a result the map should be regarded as suggestive rather than strictly factual. But the rise of these groups is highly significant, presenting a major challenge to the standard model of global geopolitics. The more extreme groups, such as ISIS, vehemently reject the very notion of the nation-state, which they view as an unholy Western creation and imposition. Although the territories under the control of Islamist armies may well be rolled back in the coming months, these organizations still have the ability to attract militants both locally and from abroad, and thus will likely continue to present an obstacle to state consolidation for many years.

Combat Fatalities MapAlthough actual battle casualties in recent years have not surprisingly been highest in Syria and Iraq, many other countries in the region have experienced a good deal of bloodshed. The map to the left shows total combat fatalities by country for 2014 alone, based on a Wikipedia table. Two states stand out here that have not featured prominently on the other maps in this series: South Sudan and Central African Republic. South Sudan would actually rank second, after Syria, if I had selected the highest estimate given for each country rather than the lowest. South Sudan is noted as the world’s newest sovereign state, having gained independence in 2011. When South Sudanese rebels were fighting against the government of Sudan for independence, they were able to maintain a degree of cohesion, but when that struggle ended the two main ethnic groups of the region, the Dinka and the Nuer, quickly fell apart. Although the fighting has more recently subsided, it is uncertain whether South Sudan will be able to construct cohesive state. Central African Republic has a much longer history of independence than South Sudan, but it also continues to have difficulty in this regard. The vicious fighting between its Muslim and Christian militias in 2014 certainly does not bode well for future stability.

Separatist Movements MapEven many of the countries in this region that have not experienced extensive combat nonetheless contain active separatist movements that seek independence for the people they claim to represent, thereby challenging the legitimacy of the nation-state. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, most of the countries visible on this map are home to such separatist groups, as can be seen in the image posted here. Most of these organizations, however, are not particularly violent or effective, and many consist of little more than a few discontented persons banding together to create a website. But others have the potential to emerge as threats to the states in which they are located. Consider, for example, Ethiopia. According to the Wikipedia article, Ethiopia experienced only 218 combat fatalities in 2014, 172 in the war against Somali OLF Mapinsurgents in the eastern Ogaden region and 46 in the struggle against Oromo rebels in the central part of the country. The same article, however, gives much higher cumulative combat fatalities in these struggles (1,300 in both cases). Another Wikipedia article states that the insurgency of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) ended in 2012, but a low-level conflict nonetheless persists, and as recently as the 1990s the organization boasted 60,000 fighters (current figures run around 5,000). Significantly, the OLF claims roughly half of Ethiopia’s territory, and its website maintains that it represents an Oromo nation some 40 million strong.


Border Disputes MapThe next map in today’s post shows the ubiquity of territorial disputes in this part of the world, based on another Wikipedia table. As can be seen, relatively few countries here have no border disagreements with their neighbors. Most of these disputes are admittedly relatively minor, and thus do not interfere much with international relations. Some are also rather obscure, such as the argument between Egypt and Saudi Arabia over Tiran and Sanafir islands. According to Wikipedia, Egypt controls these islands but Saudi Arabia claims them, but the article goes on to state that “the definite sovereignty over Tiran Island is left unclear by both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, due to geostrategic reasons.”, however, frames the issue quite differently, stating that:

Tiran Island MapBoth of the islands officially belong to Saudi Arabia but are being used by Egypt. Because of strict military regulations, it’s not possible to enter the islands.

The Multinational Force and Observers [MFO] has soldiers stationed at observation points to ensure both parties abide the treaty. The force and observers, totaling 1,900, are under the command of a Norwegian military officer. The military personnel are on loan from 11 nations.

Other border disputes in the region are far more serious. The Durand Line that separates Afghanistan from Pakistan, for example, is absolutely rejected by the government of Afghanistan, which claims that it had been negotiated with the British colonialists in South Asia to separate spheres of influence rather than to fix an international boundary. This perennial border dispute plays into the tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have recently intensified. As noted in a Wikipedia article on Afghanistan–Pakistan skirmishes, “The cross-border shellings intensified in 2011 and 2012 with many reports from different occasions claiming that Pakistani missiles have hit civilian areas inside Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province, Kunar Province and Nangarhar Province.”

Additional geopolitical anomalies found in this region of the world will be explored in the final post in this series. With luck, that post will go up on April 5. We will then turn our attention to the situation in Yemen.


Geopolitical Anomalies in the “Greater Middle East,” Part I

(Note: The introduction to this post is found in the previous post, that of April 1))

U.N. Greater Middle East MapA detail from the Wikipedia map of United Nations members, discussed in the previous post, shows only one non-member in the region that we might crudely dub the “greater Middle East,” which is the focus of today’s post. That non-member is the Palestinian geopolitical anomalies map 1territory, composed of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, as can be seen the second map. This area is deeply anomalous in regard to geopolitical standards, and would be worthy of an entire post. The two units of which it is composed are not just geographically but also politically separate, despite efforts to form a unity government.* They have some but by no means all of the attributes of sovereignty. As the map notes, they also occupy an ambiguous position in the United Nations, as well as in the global system of mutual state-to-state recognition.

geopolitical anomalies map 2But the Palestinian territories are merely one of a great many geopolitical anomalies found in the region depicted on this map. Consider, for example, the situation of Kosovo. Although the U.N. map portrays Kosovo as part of Serbia, it is in actuality an independent country. It is not, however, a members of the United Nations, and its recognition by other sovereign states is far from complete. Three other states in the region are also characterized by incomplete international recognition, as the next map shows. 32 U.N. members do not recognize Israel, while Cyprus and Armenia are each denied by one member, Turkey in the former case and Pakistan in the latter. Curiously, Pakistan refuses to acknowledge Armenia in deference to Azerbaijan, which has lost much of its internationally recognized territory to Armenia, yet Azerbaijan itself continues to recognize the country.

geopolitical anomalies map 3







geopolitical anomalies map 4The next map, “States With Barely Functional Central Governments,” highlights recognized U.N member states in which regional governments or factional militias have more power than the state itself, a category that encompasses Lebanon and Bosnia & Herzegovina. In the former case, the militia of Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia political party, is much stronger than the national armed forces. As Hezbollah militarily operates on its own, with support from Iran and without oversight by the Lebanese government, its presence in Lebanon contravenes a key defining feature of the state, as states are supposed to have a monopoly over the legitimate use of force and coercion. Lebanon has a peculiar system of “confessionalism,” one in which politics are structured around religious communities. Although this system once functioned relatively well, it has not in the long run proved conducive to national unity. Intriguingly, Lebanese confessionalism was enacted as a temporary measure more than 80 years ago, yet it remains full ensconced.

Bosnia in many ways is even less of a coherent state than Lebanon. It is divided into three autonomous units, the “Serb Republic,” the Croat-Bosniak “Federation” (which is itself rather dysfunctional), and the self-governing unit of Brčko (which formally belongs to both the “republic” and the “federation”). Equally important, the highest political office in the country is arguably that of the “High Representative,” who is not even a citizen of the state, making Bosnia something of an international protectorate. As the Wikipedia notes, “The OHR’s [Office of the High Representative] prolonged interference in the politics of Bosnia and Herzegovina is also considered to be one of the causes of the low commitment of citizens towards the state.” The other reasons for the “low commitment of citizens towards the state,” however, are probably more significant, particularly that of the persisting ethnic animosity that marks Bosnia’s constituent communities. If given a free choice, most Bosnian Serbs would probably opt to join their territory with Serbia, just as most Bosnian Croats would likely want to join their lands with Croatia. Under such conditions, referring to Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state is a bit of a stretch, while calling it a “nation-state” is simply unreasonable.

geopolitical anomalies map 5The next two maps, showing internationally unrecognized annexations, are a bit more straightforward. Russia has officially annexed Crimea, and will likely retain full control over that territory. But as this action is widely viewed as illegitimate, most maps produced elsewhere in the world will almost certainly continue to show Crimea as geopolitical anomalies map 6Ukrainian territory. The situation in regard to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh is somewhat more complicated. The Armenian-majority territory of Nagorno-Karabakh has officially declared itself to be an independent state, although it has not been recognized as such by any member of the U.N. Most sources, however, regard it as having been unofficially annexed by Armenia. Most of the lands surrounding the official boundaries of Nagorno-Karabakh, moreover, are controlled by the Armenian military and are therefore effectively part of that country. Armenia is able to maintain control over these territories, which formally belong to the larger and more economically powerful country of Azerbaijan, in large part due to Russian support.

geopolitical anomalies map 7The next map portrays internationally recognized sovereign states that do not control their full territorial extent due to the emergence of self-proclaimed states (which are themselves depicted on the following maps). All of these proclaimed statelets exercise effective power over all or most of the territories that they claim, but they do not necessarily possess all of the elements that constitute genuine sovereignty. Most of them are widely viewed as “puppet states” of larger independent countries.



geopolitical anomalies map 8The map posted to the left shows the three self-proclaimed states in question that have received some international recognition. Northern Cyprus is recognized only by Turkey and is often regarded as Turkish client state. The other two, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have gained higher international standings, being reckoned as independent by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Nauru. (Vanuatu had briefly recognized Abkhazia and Tuvalu had briefly recognized both states, but they later withdrew their recognition). Both Abkhazia and South Ossetia are commonly regarded as Russian client states, with Nauru giving its nod of approval due to financial compensation from Russia, and Venezuela and Nicaragua doing so to signal their disapproval of the United States and other countries opposed to Russia’s actions. Abkhazia and South Ossetia declared their independence shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, rejecting membership in Georgia, which by international consensus should rightfully encompass them. Northern Cyprus declared its independence from Cyprus in 1983, a maneuver made possible by the Turkish invasion and partition of the island in 1974.

geopolitical anomalies map 9The next map adds to the previous one several self-proclaimed states that lack international recognition. One, Nagorno-Karabakh, has been discussed earlier in this post. Three of the other entities shown on this map, Transnistria (officially, the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic), Luhansk People’s Republic, and Donetsk People’s Republic, are widely regarded as Russian puppet states. Transnistria was hived off from Moldova after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the latter two emerged out of far eastern Ukraine during the conflict of 2014. Together, Luhansk and Donetsk form the self-proclaimed federation of Novorossiya, or New Russia. They are recognized as sovereign states only by South Ossetia. Transnistria is recognized by South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Together, these four statelets comprise the inaptly named Community for Democracy and Rights of Nations, also called the Commonwealth of Unrecognized States. The other self-proclaimed state shown on this map, Somaliland, enjoys more genuine independence, not serving as a client state. Yet Somaliland has no formal international recognition and is instead regarded as part of the non-functional state of Somalia. Ethiopia, however, comes close to recognizing it, with its local consulate headed by a diplomat with ambassadorial ranking. In 2014, moreover, the British city of Sheffield recognized Somaliland’s independence, a purely symbolic maneuver that nonetheless generated marked enthusiasm in the self-proclaimed state.

geopolitical anomalies map 10Finally, the last map includes as well a fully autonomous region that has not declared its own sovereignty but may well do so in the future: Iraqi Kurdistan. Of all of the “statelets” shown on this map, Iraqi Kurdistan probably has the most effective government; along with Somaliland, moreover, it has the best claims to possessing something approaching genuine independence. I have also appended to it the currently autonomous Kurdish areas of northern Syria, known locally as Rojava. The future situation of this area is of course highly uncertain.


Whatever Rojava’s future may hold, the region is currently structured in an interesting manner that has some bearing on geopolitical models. As described in the Wikipedia:

 The political system of Rojava is a mixture of socialist principles at the local level with libertarian principles at the national level. …

Political writer David Romano describes it as pursuing ‘a bottom-up, Athenian-style direct form of democratic governance’. He contrasts the local communities taking on responsibility vs the strong central governments favoured by many states. In this model, states become less relevant and people govern through councils similar to the early US or Switzerland before becoming a federal state in the Sonderbund war. Rojava divides itself into regional administrations called cantons named after the Swiss cantons. …

Its programme immediately aimed to be “very inclusive” and people from a range of different backgrounds became involved (including Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, and Turkmen (from Muslim, Christian, and Yazidi religious groups).


Thus far we have examined just a few of the anomalies found in the geopolitical map of this region. We will look at many more in tomorrow’s post.

* As noted in the Wikipedia, “On 30 November 2014, Hamas declared that the unity government had ended with the expiration of the six month term. But Fatah subsequently denied the claim, and said that the government is still in force.”