Struggles Between States
The current issue of Time magazine features an article by Robert Kaplan that emphasizes the geographical aspects of what he refers to as “endless chaos and old-school conflicts,” especially in regard to Ukraine. In general, I appreciate Kaplan’s insistence on the abiding importance of geography and I am impressed by his global scope of knowledge, although I do think that his analyses tend to be a bit too simple. My reaction to his most recent article is much the same.
Here Kaplan stresses Ukraine’s military and economic vulnerability imposed by its relatively flat terrain and its proximity to the Russian heartland. His assessment is clear: “the dictates of geography make it nearly impossible for that nation to reorient itself entirely to the West.” Kaplan reiterates this point in the caption of his map of “Ukraine/Crimea”: “Ukraine is too enveloped by Russia to ever be completely tied to the West. Crimea gives Russia its only access to a warm-water port.”
Many works on the current conflict emphasize the significance of warm-water ports, the pursuit of which have been a historical mainstay of Russian geopolitics. It is essential to note, however, that the naval value of Crimea’s Sevastopol is rather seriously compromised by the fact that its access to the high seas is constrained by Turkey’s—and hence NATO’s—possession of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. Yet Sevastopol certainly is of regional strategic value, as became evident in August 2008, when Russian ships based there were used to blockade Georgian ports.
Kaplan’s emphasis on Russia’s envelopment of Ukraine is less often encountered, and for good reason, as it is hardly evident on the map. As can be seen from Kaplan’s own visualization, only about a third of Ukraine’s border fronts on that of Russia. Further analysis, however, along with more detailed mapping, strengthen Kaplan’s envelopment argument. Consider, for example the position of Belarus, which sits across Ukraine’s northwestern border. If Belarus is counted as a Russian satellite, as it often is, then Russian-dominated territory does come much closer to encircling Ukraine. Yet the actual geopolitical position of Belarus is hotly debated. According to the title of Andrew Wilson’s recent article in Foreign Affairs, “Belarus Wants Out”—out of the Russian embrace, that is. As Wilson perceptively writes, “Above all, [Belarussian leader Alexander] Lukashenko wants to avoid having to make a decision between Russia and the West. He has always been happy to be Russia’s ally, but only as the leader of a strong, independent state capable of steering its own course.” The fact that Belarus, unlike Venezuela and Nicaragua, has not recognized the independence of the Russian-dominate statelets of Abkhazia and South Ossetia underscores the independence of its foreign policy. Lukashenko’s avoidance of choosing between Russia and the West is also evident from his recent actions. While accepting the results of the Crimean referendum, he has also initiated negotiations with NATO.
But Belarus is not the only territory unmapped by Kaplan that contributes to potential Russian envelopment of Ukraine. Crimea, of course, is now under effective Russian control, and thus should be depicted as such on maps aimed at showing the de facto rather than the de jure geopolitical situation. Equally significant but more often overlooked is the self-declared state of Transnistria, which is situated along Ukraine’s southwestern flank. Transnistria, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, is often regarded as a Russian puppet, although its actual situation is complex, as will be seen in a forthcoming GeoCurrents post. The main point, however, remains: if one were to include all of these additional Russian-influenced territories, then it would appear that Ukraine is almost encircled by powers potentially hostile to its current government.
In fleshing out his argument, Kaplan foresees Russian ascendency over eastern Ukraine, owing to its proximity to Russia, its economic importance, and its demographic domination by pro-Russian groups. He does not, however, anticipate annexation of the region:
Putin is not likely to invade eastern Ukraine in a conventional way. In order to exercise dominance, he doesn’t need to. Instead, he will send in secessionists, instigate disturbances, probe the frontier with Russian troops and in other ways use the porous border with Ukraine to undermine both eastern Ukraine’s sovereignty and its links to western Ukraine.
A similar prognosis is made by James Traub of Foreign Policy:
Putin has so many lower-cost options available to him that a large-scale invasion — even one limited to border areas — still seems unlikely. Putin may calculate that he can destabilize Ukraine, and thus turn its dalliance with the West into a failure, by using Russia’s immense economic power to squeeze Ukraine, by blanketing the east with propaganda from Russian media and by sending agents provocateurs to whip up popular discontent. Putin doesn’t “need,” as he put it, to divide Ukraine by force; he just needs to keep it out of the Western orbit.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether such events will occur, although Kaplan’s warnings do seem justified. But Putin does not need to “send in” secessionists, as plenty of them are already present, and it does seem odd that Kaplan would write about eastern Ukraine’s “sovereignty,” a quality that the region does not possess.
Such concerns, moreover, are by no means limited to eastern Ukraine. Although the far east is the most Russian-oriented part of the county, pro-Russian sentiments are also widespread over southern Ukraine, including the southwest. Consider, for example, Odessa (both the city and the oblast). Odessa figures prominently in the Russian historical-geographical imagination, and the local Russian minority is substantial. According to The Voice of Russia, thousands of people have recently taken to the streets of Odessa to demand “that the authorities hold a referendum on de-centralization of power in Ukraine, grant the status of a state language to the Russian language and change the country’s foreign policy course.” In recent elections, moreover, the pro-Russian Party of Regions has trounced all other parties in Odessa Oblast. But such Russia-oriented sentiments are far from uniform here, as even The Voice of Russia admits that the protestors that it highlighted were “opposed by local pro-European supporters who asked a court to forbid the march.” By the same token, the Party of Regions handily won the most recent Ukrainian election in Odessa Oblast only because the opposition was divided; as a result, it easily took first place with only 41.9 percent of the vote. In contrast, the Party of Regions won over half of the votes in Crimea and over 65 percent in the eastern oblast of Donetsk.
Odessa Oblast makes an interesting case, as its population is relatively heterogeneous, and in the recent past it was more cosmopolitan than it is today. As of the 2001 census, Ukrainians constituted 62.8 percent of its population, with Russian making up a fifth. Bulgarians, Moldovans, and Gagauz (the latter a Turkic-speaking, traditionally Christian people) together accounted for more than twelve percent of the oblast’s population. Numerous other groups are also found in the region, some of which (Jews, Greeks, and Belarussians) were formerly much more numerous. The Russian population has also been declining, having dropped from 27.4 percent in 1989 to 20.7 percent in 2001. Russian nationalist in the region are no doubt concerned about this decline.
Even far western Ukraine presents a challenge for Ukrainian nationalists. The region in question here is Zakarpattia Oblast, also known (from the Russian perspective) as Transcarpatia and (from the Hungarian perspective) as sub-Carpathian Ukraine (a more neutral term is Carpathian Ruthenia). In terms of physical geography, this is a crucial region, as it lies on the far side of the formidable Carpathian range from the rest of Ukraine, its core area situated in the lowland Danubian basin. Part of Czechoslovakia between the world wars, Carpathian Ruthenia subsequently passed to Hungarian control and then, in 1945, to the Soviet Union and hence Ukraine. Gaining the region gave the Soviet Union a geo-strategic advantage in the Cold War, although Soviet annexation was justified on the basis of its mostly Ukrainian population. But, like that of Odessa, the population of Zakarpattia Oblast is ethnically mixed, although, again, such diversity has long been declining. According to official figures, its population in 1921 was 62 percent Ukrainian, 17 percent Hungarian, and 13 percent Jewish (with significant numbers of Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Germans, and others), whereas by 1991 the Ukrainians had increased to over 80 percent while the Hungarians had dropped to 12 percent. The Jewish population, on the other hand, was no longer even tabulated. Russians currently constitute only about 2.5 percent of the population of the oblast.
Despite its large Ukrainian and small Russian populations, Zakarpattia’s voting patterns deviate substantially from those of the other regions of western Ukraine. The pro-Russian Party of Regions, for example, took a plurality (31 percent) of the oblast’s votes in the 2012 legislative election, as opposed to taking less than five percent in the Ukrainian-nationalist stronghold of Lviv. One of the main problems for the Ukrainian nationalist movement here is the presence of the so-called Ruthenian or Rusyn ethnic group. According to Ukraine’s government, such a community does not exist, as its members are merely Ukrainians who refuse to admit as much. Ruthenian partisans, not surprisingly, strongly object to such a classification, and some of them have long advocated independence for their region. According to the Ukrainian source Radio Svoboda, “Moscow has recently been fueling separatist sentiments among the Ruthenians in order to weaken Ukraine.”
The Ruthenian issue is complicated enough to deserve its own post, which will be forthcoming. But as we have seen from this post, the geopolitical situation of Ukraine is complicated indeed. Further posts this week will explore such complexities in greater detail.
(Note on Maps: In this series of maps, color is crudely used to show the degree of potential Russian domination. Russia itself is shown in the darkest shade of red, with Crimea, now under Russian control, in a slightly lighter shade of the same color, and Transnistria in a still lighter shade. Belarus, being a sovereign state, is depicted in red-orange on the final map rather than a shade of red, in order to signal this difference. In the last map, Ukrainian Oblasts with Russian-speaking majorities are shown in a still lighter shade of red, and those with Ukrainian-speaking majorities that nonetheless exhibit major challenges for Ukrainian nationalism are shown in the lightest shade or red.)
India’s military recently announced that it would deploy two tank brigades to guard the country’s border with China, one to be stationed in Ladakh (in northeastern Kashmir), and the other in the north Sikkim Plateau. As Business Standard reports, “Such formations, equipped with main battle tanks and BMP-II infantry combat vehicles, are traditionally used for striking into enemy territory.” The report also notes that India’s decision was based on the fact that “China’s People’s Liberation Army … has deployed armoured and motorised formations in both their military regions across the Line of Actual Control, as the de facto Sino-Indian border is called.” It goes on to claim that if China attacks and grabs a section of Indian territory, India will now be able to launch a counter-offense to take over a different piece of Chinese territory. As this is the 50th anniversary year of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, which cost India the Himalayan territory of Aksai Chin, Indian military officials are keen to argue that their country’s territorial integrity will never again be violated in such a manner.
Despite such talk and actions, the Indian government, like that of China, hopes to avoid any actual conflict. As a result, the two countries are “planning to set up hotlines between army commanders in-charge of their respective border areas along Jammu and Kashmir and Northeastern states in the next three to four months,” as reported in the Economic Times. Meanwhile, economic ties between the two Asian giants continue to grow. As reported by NDTV, “India and China have entered into a five-year economic cooperation plan to strengthen the trade relationship between the two countries. Trade between China and India is expected to reach USD 100 billion by 2015…”
Map Source: Paksoldiers
International boundaries in oceanic space are often complex and disputed, especially in areas that abound in hydrocarbons. Boundaries that extend across lakes are usually less contentious and convoluted, but that is not always the case. Consider, for example, Lake Malawi (also known as Lake Nyasa) in southern Africa, widely considered to be the world’s eighth largest lake. As can be seen on the map, the central portion of this lake is evenly divided between Malawi and Mozambique, yet Malawi controls two islands that are well within the territorial waters of its neighbor, Chizumulu and Likoma, which together constitute a Malawian exclave district, with a population of some 13,000. As the Wikipedia explains, this situation “came about because the islands were colonised by Anglican missionaries spreading east from Malawi, rather than by the Portuguese who colonised Mozambique.”
The boundaries extending across southern Lake Malawi not particularly contentious, but the same cannot be said for those in the north. As can again be seen on the map, the international community has in general accepted Malawi’s claim to the entire northern portion of the lake, right up to the Tanzanian shore. Tanzania, not surprisingly, objects, claiming that the border should run down the center of the lake, arguing that “most international law supports sharing common bodies of water by bordering nations.” Tanzania regards the Malawian claim as illegitimately rooted in the colonial dispensation. As again explained by Wikipedia, “The foundations of this dispute were laid when the British colonial government, which had recently captured Tanganyika from Germany, placed all of the water under the jurisdiction of the territory of Nyasaland [which later became Malawi], without a separate administration for the Tanganyikan portion of the surface.”
This territorial dispute between the two countries has long simmered, but it has recently intensified due to the decision by the Malawian government to award an oil- and gas-exploration contract in the lake to the British company Surestream Petroleum. Then company is currently undertaking environmental impact assessments. The Tanzanian government has demanded a halt to all activities until the dispute is settled. Talks are currently underway, but tensions remain high. Earlier today, according to the Nyasa Times, Malawian police “arrested two freelance journalists who went to cover the ongoing diplomatic border talks between Malawi and Tanzania at the Mzuzu Hotel accusing them of publishing false news.”
After much wrangling, Tajikistan and Russia recently agreed to a 49-year extension of Russia’s military base in the strategically situated Central Asian country. The roughly 6,000 Russian troops stationed in the country, constituting Moscow’s largest foreign deployment, will thus remain in place. As Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin framed the issue, “The forces of NATO in Afghanistan are not eternal but Russia will be an eternal partner of these countries and if, God forbid, the situation deteriorates for security and the people of the countries, they will remember Russia.” Tajikistan recently rebuffed efforts by the United States to negotiate for military bases of its own; the U.S. is scheduled to withdraw from its Manas Transit Center in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in 2014, and is keen to maintain military logistical facilities near embattled Afghanistan.
Although the U.S. was turned down, India has been allowed to upgrade its own military facility in Tajikistan, Farkhor Air Base, located adjacent to the Afghan border. India’s strategic relations with Tajikistan are apparently deepening; in early July, as noted in eurasiareview, “Indian External Affairs Minister Somanahalli Mallaiah Krishna flew … to Tajikistan for a two days visit planned to discuss bilateral issues such as trade, energy and counter-terrorism.” Although most analysts frame India’s efforts in Tajikistan in the context of Afghanistan, others claim that New Delhi is actually seeking to “encircle China.” Not surprisingly, China is also courting Tajikistan. According to a recent Daily Times (of Pakistan) article:
Beijing [is] to extend $1 billion to Dushanbe in grants and credits. Some $600 million dollars alone would go towards building a cement factory in the south of Tajikistan. “Relations with China have the position of priority in Tajikistan’s foreign policy,” [Tajik President Emomali] Rakhmon told Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Tajikistan is also reaching out to other nearby countries on issues of economic and strategic cooperation. Azerbaijan recently announced that it would invest in oil-refining facilities in the country, and the Tajik government is currently negotiating with Kyrgyzstan to build a “rail link connecting Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and China.”
Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet countries, and it relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Russia. It is also known for its harsh and often repressive internal policies. Amnesty International recently condemned the “routine use of torture and beatings at detention facilities in the Central Asian nation of Tajikistan,” which are said to entail “electric shocks, boiling water, suffocation, beatings, burning with cigarettes, rape and threats of rape.” Tajikistan has also stepped up its restrictions on information access, seeking to create “a volunteer-run body to monitor Internet usage and reprimand those who openly criticize President Emomali Rakhmon.” On the other hand, the Dushanbe government does claim that it will loosen its strict anti-libel laws, which have been widely used to repress journalism.
On the lighter side, the international athletic community was recently surprised by Tajikistan’s announcement that it would be sending a female boxer to compete at the London Olympics. Reportedly, Mavzuna Choriyeva, age 19, is “on a mission not only to win but to smash gender stereotypes in the religiously conservative ex-Soviet state.”
The headline of an April 15 article in the Washington Post might strike many readers as slightly absurd: “Philippine president says his country won’t start war with China over disputed shoal.” Although the Philippines is hardly in a position to challenge China militarily, the remarks of President Benigno Aquino III did help the country save face as it pulled a warship out of the disputed waters and allowed several Chinese fishing vessels to return home with their catch. On April 16, the United States and the Philippines began joint military exercises, a move that officials insist has no connection with the China-Philippine dispute.
The disputed territory in question is Scarborough Shoal (called Huangyan Island in China and Panatag Shoal in the Philippines.) It is situated well to the northeast of the better-known Spratly Islands, which are often considered to entail the world’s most complex territorial contest, with multiple overlapping claims. Despite the fact that Scarborough is labeled as a mere shoal or reef, it actually contains a significant amount of dry land, estimated at 50 square kilometers (58 sq mi). It is, however, highly rocky and of little use. The local seas, however, are rich marine resources, and a successful territorial bid would give the controlling country power over an expansive maritime domain.
The dispute in the Spratly Islands is intensified by the possibility of substantial oil and natural gas deposits in the area. The most interesting recent maneuver in this contest occurred in March 2012, when Vietnam sent six Buddhist monks to re-establish an abandoned temple that the country had briefly maintained in the 1970s on one of the islands. The presence of the monks will supposedly help Vietnam establish its territorial claims in the region. One of the monks claimed that he would “pray for ‘anyone of the Vietnamese race’ lost at sea in defence of Vietnam’s claim to the archipelago.’”
Relations between Colombia and Venezuela have been so tense over the past decade that it sometimes seemed that the two countries were at the verge of war. Such tensions, however, have recently diminished to the point where the neighboring states are now discussing building a pipeline to transport Venezuelan crude oil to Colombian ports, a project enthusiastically backed by China. Just this week, moreover, the Colombia company Ecopetrol, the country’s largest oil and natural gas firm, announced that it would soon be drilling for oil in Venezuelan territory.
The improvement in Colombian-Venezuelan relations is often linked to the election of Juan Manuel Santos to the presidency of Columbia in 2010, as he is considered to be more accommodating to Venezuelan interest than his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe. But it is also true that the fossil fuel industries of the two countries, as well as their economies more generally, can profit through increased cooperation. Colombia’s economy is currently booming, having grown by 5.9% in 2011, due in part to the expanding oil and natural gas sectors. But Colombia’s fossil fuel deposits are limited, and Venezuela’s vast reserves beckon. Venezuela’s oil and gas economy, meanwhile, has been held back by the politicization of the industry, and investment by foreign firms is needed.
Other complementarities further link the energy sectors of the two countries. For example, the Trans-Caribbean gas pipeline, inaugurated in 2007, takes natural gas from Colombia’s Guajira Basin to Venezuela’s Maracaibo oilfields. Gas is then injected into the semi-depleted oil reservoirs in order to boost production. The Colombian oil and gas industry, moreover, has been held back by periodic attacks on pipelines by leftist rebels, who have allegedly received support from Venezuela in the past. Improved diplomatic relations between the two countries could also be helpful on this score.
The recent GeoCurrents news post on electronics factories in Tierra del Fuego brought up the issue of a politically divided island. I did a quick mental count and came up with eight examples of such islands: New Guinea, Borneo, Ireland, Hispaniola, Timor, Cyprus, Saint Martin, and Tierra del Fuego (or, more properly, Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, to differentiate it from the archipelago of the same name.). The Wikipedia, however, lists seven other divided “sea islands,” as well as numerous divided lake and river islands. I had never heard of any of the other divided sea islands, although two are significantly larger than Saint Martin. I have provided maps of all these islands except Embankment No. 4 on the King Fahd Causeway, split between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which I was unable to locate.
Indonesia has territory on more divided islands than any other country: New Guinea, Borneo, Timor, and Sebatik. At first glance, Borneo seems to be the most complexly divided island, as it contains major portions of two countries, Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the entire extent of another, Brunei. The division of Cyprus, however, is more intricate. Cyprus contains two de facto countries, Cyprus and the Northern Cypriot Republic, although the international community largely rejects the legitimacy of the latter state. But Cyprus is further split by the existence of two sovereign British military bases, as well as a U.N. “buffer strip” that separates the two independent countries.
The bulk of the territory of several internationally recognized countries is situated on divided islands: Papua New Guinea, Republic of Ireland, Brunei, Timor Leste, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cyprus. The Dutch half of Saint Martin (Sint Maarten) is also counted as a country, but not an independent one; rather, is forms a “constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” The only island that is divided into two countries both of whose territories are largely limited to that island is Hispaniola, split between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Yet again, talks on Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara collapsed without agreement. Representatives from Morocco, the independence-seeking Polisario Front, Algeria, and Mauritania recently met for three days in a suburb of New York; in the end, “‘Each party continued to reject the proposal of the other as the sole basis for future negotiations, while reiterating their willingness to work together to reach a solution.” Representatives from same groups will convene again in Europe in June. As the conflict has essentially been stalled since the Moroccan annexation of the former Spanish colony in 1975, little is expected.
The Western Sahara conflict generates diplomatic complications for the United States. Although the U.S. seeks good relations with Morocco, it is concerned about Western Sahara. A pending Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Act (S.1601), would have the U.S. withhold some scheduled military assistance for Morocco until the Secretary of State “submits a report on steps taken by the government of Morocco to respect the rights of individuals to peacefully express their opinions regarding the status and future of the Western Sahara, and to provide unimpeded access to human-rights organizations, journalists and representatives of foreign governments to the Western Sahara.” The Moroccan foreign minister Saad Eddine Othmani reportedly views the bill as “an unfair judgment about his country — and a simplistic approach to a highly complicated issue.” GovTrack.us, however, claims that this complex bill has only an eight percent chance of being signed into law.
Meanwhile, NGOs and humans rights organizations have criticized the recent decision of the German company Siemens to build and maintain a number of electricity-producing windmills in Western Sahara. The wind farm is scheduled to become commercially operational in the summer of 2013. According to a March 21 article in Newstime Africa, “The problem is that, according to international law, it is illegal to trade or dispose of resources in occupied Western Sahara without the consent of Western Sahara’s indigenous population, the Saharawis, who also have to benefit from any such dealings.”
Kidnappings have recently turned up the pressure in Western Sahara. Two Spanish and one Italian aid workers were recently kidnapped in Tindouf, the Algerian refugee camp that also serves as the seat of the government-in-exile of the dispossessed Saharawi people. The abduction was evidently carried out by an al-Qaeda splinter group that calls itself the “Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa,” which is demanding $37 million (30 million Euros) to free the three aid workers.
Indian newspapers have recently been reporting that the large numbers of Hindus are fleeing Pakistan and seeking refuge in India. Such reports focus on southern Pakistan, especially Balochistan and Sindh, where most Pakistani Hindus reside. According to one article, “reports speak of abduction for ransom [of] traders and business-people [and of] professionals like teachers and doctors being harassed and in some cases dragged from their homes or places of work and killed in broad daylight.” Abductions and forced conversions of young Hindu women to Islam are frequently mentioned as well.
Pakistan’s Hindu community is often overlooked yet is far from insignificant, numbering between 2.5 and 4.5 million. Before the 1947 political division of the Indian subcontinent, Hindus were far more numerous than they are today in the territory that became Pakistan. In the bloody partition process, almost all Hindus were expelled from Pakistan’s portion of the Punjab, just as almost all Muslims were expelled from India’s portion of the Punjab. Hindus also fled Karachi en masse at the time. But in rural Sindh, and especially in districts near the Indian border, most Hindus remained.
Very few Hindus live in the northern Pakistani region of Gilgit-Baltistan, an area that has long been almost entirely Muslim, with noted concentrations of Ismaili Shiites. Until recently, Gilgit-Baltistan was a peaceful place, but that is no longer true, as Sunni extremists have been attacking Shiites. As a result, Pakistani authorities fear that the area could experience massive sectarian violence. Some Indian nationalists are angry that this issue is not receiving more attention in their country, as India retains territorial claims over all of Gilgit-Baltistan, which was once part of Kashmir. As one recent article frames the issue:
Ironically, this report, involving the lives of people from Gilgit-Baltistan, which India claims to be an integral part of its sovereign territory and is now currently under the occupation of Pakistan, was published on the ‘international’ page of one of India’s leading national newspapers. Of course, many others did not bother to publish the news at all.
Meanwhile, efforts to reduce tensions between Indian and Pakistan are proceeding on several fronts. One intriguing avenue for hostility reduction is popular culture, focusing on food and television. As NPR recent reported:
The Indian cooking show Foodistan, on NDTV, has all of these tricks plus another spicy device: nationalistic pride. The show pits Indian chefs against Pakistani chefs in a mad race to prepare three dishes in 90 minutes. And in doing so, it exploits the long rivalry between the two countries — something that has rarely been a joking matter ….
While there’s still a long way to go for the kitchen stadium to replace the cricket stadium as the main battleground for the Indo-Pakistani rivalry, both seem better than the alternative.
The struggle between Ethiopia and Eritrea has recently been extending well beyond the boundaries of the two countries. Ethiopia has accused Eritrea of supporting the radical Islamist group al Shabaab in Somalia, and is now pushing for stronger U.N. sanctions against the Eritrean government. Ethiopia is particularly concerned about the growing mining industry in Eritrea, which has recently attracted massive investments from such firms as Nevsun Resources Ltd. of Canada. Eritrea, for its part, has denounced Kenya and other African states for joining the struggle against al Shabaab. Although Eritrea has been viewed as increasingly isolated from the global community, it has made progress on this front, agreeing, for example, to establish diplomatic relations with Georgia in late February.
Struggles over telecommunications in the region involve a number of countries. In mid February, Lebanon condemned Ethiopia for its practice of jamming satellite television signals, a practice designed to prevent “the increasingly popular Eritrean Television from being viewed in Ethiopia,” but which also has the effect of keeping out Lebanese shows broadcast over the Saudi-based Arabsat network. Ethiopia has extensive jamming expertise, as it has also been blocking signals from Al-Jazeera Arabic, Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle (DW).
Ethiopia and especially Eritrea are generally viewed as repressive countries; Human Rights Watch has gone so far as to call Eritrea a “giant prison.” In Reporters Without Borders most recent assessment, Eritrea has the world’s most restrictive press regime, exceeding even North Korea, whereas Ethiopia ranks 127th out of 179 countries rated. The Christian Science Monitor, however, recently reported that Eritrean opposition groups have become very sophisticated in using the Internet to spread their messages. As the article notes, the sizable Eritrean diaspora has been crucial to maintaining the flow of information into the despotic country.
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Iran have been intensifying in recent days. On February 23, hackers from groups called “Iranian Cyber Army” and “Cocaine Warriors from Persia” attacked several Azerbaijani website, including that of the national airline, AZAL. Two days previously, Azerbaijani security forces reported the arrest of an armed gang with ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which was supposedly stockpiling weapons in preparation for an attack on foreigners in Baku. Azerbaijan has also claimed that Iranian military helicopters have violated its airspace. Iran, for its part, has accused Azerbaijan of sheltering Israeli Mossad agents seeking to assassinate Iranian nuclear scientists. Both sides have accused the other of funneling narcotics into their national territories. Azerbaijan recently arrested an Iranian journalist on drug charges, which Iran claims were fabricated. Iranian sources, meanwhile, claim that Azerbaijan has sent troops to Afghanistan for the express purpose of protecting the country’s opium crop, which it claims is a major “source of income for the occupiers.”
The tension between the two countries is linked to Azerbaijan’s relatively close and reportedly tightening relations with Israel, as well as to the fact that up to 20 millions Iranians are ethnic Azeris, some of whom have divided loyalties. According to report by NPR, Azerbaijani partisans in the Iranian city of Tabriz recently disrupted a soccer game by unfurling flags of Azerbaijan; the video of the incident was evidently “a big hit in Baku.” The same article notes that, “Israel buys 30 percent of its oil from Azerbaijan, and recently awarded a lucrative gas-drilling contract off its Mediterranean coast to an Azerbaijani firm.”
While Azerbaijan’s relations with Iran have deteriorated, its government has been trying to shore up connections with other states. Last week, officials from Azerbaijan met with Austrian officials to discuss “bilateral trade and economic relations and the Azerbaijani entry into the World Trade Organization.” After similar meetings with Belarus, the two countries pledged to support “the expansion of economic cooperation, the development of bilateral relations, the support for economic relations between the countries” and much more. An Azerbaijani delegation even visited the U.S. state of Mississippi in order to enhance trade ties and further develop bilateral relations. Azerbaijani officials are less favorably disposed to California at the moment, due to a pending Californian assembly bill that would recognize, “the deportation of more than 350,000 Armenians from Azerbaijan” in 1988. Azerbaijan claims that this legislative maneuver is “ignorant and irresponsible,” since outrages were committed by both Azerbaijan and Armenia during this period.
As the struggle for the Spratly Islands heats up, basic place names are coming into play. In the Philippines, news outlets and various official agencies now insist on calling the body of water in which the islands are located the “West Philippine Sea” rather than the “South China Sea,” as the latter term might seemingly grant China priority in this contested area. In China, however, the more neutral term “South Sea” (Nánhǎi) is generally used, while Vietnam favors “East Sea” (Biển Đông).
The “South China Sea” thus joins the Sea of Japan—which the Koreans call the East Sea—and the Persian Gulf—which the Arabs call the Arabian Gulf—in the list of political contested maritime place names. Atlas publishers, beware.
The idea that Afghanistan is the “Graveyard of Empires,” a country that perennially entices imperial conquerors only to humiliate and expel them, is often encountered. This potent cliché has been thoroughly debunked, yet it refuses to die. An October 7, 2011 Time magazine article, for example, opens with the provocative headline, “Afghanistan: Endgame in the Graveyard of Empires.” And as we saw in Sunday’s GeoCurrents post, the same idea was recently invoked by Thomas Freidman, although he avoided the cemetery analogy.
The “graveyard of empires” idea rests on a shallow understanding of world history. It proponents point to the fact that many empires have tried to conquer Afghanistan, yet none has been able to maintain permanent rule. In its stronger version, the thesis holds that no foreign power has ever subjugated Afghanistan, even temporarily. As a 2009 Cato Institute report put it, “Although Afghanistan has endured successive waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol, British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power has ever successfully conquered it.” Others allow that conquests occurred, but maintain that the conquerors always came to grief, sometimes losing not just Afghanistan but their entire empires in the process. As a 2009 CNN report put it, “And can it only be coincidence that in the wake of their Afghan disasters both the British and Soviet empires … crumbled?” In both versions, the syndrome is depicted as one of long-standing, extending “throughout [Afghanistan’s] history” according to a 2009 Guardian article. Many authors stress the difficulties faced by two of the world’s most formidable empire-builders, Alexander of Macedon and Genghis Khan. As stated in a 2009 article in the New York Times:
Around 330 BC, Alexander the Great and his army suffered staggering losses in fierce battles against Afghan tribes. His astonishing conquest of Eurasia became bogged down in Afghanistan …. Over the next two thousand years, the region was deeply problematic for major empires from the West and the East — from the Arab armies to such legendary conquerors as Genghis Khan, Timur (more commonly known as Tamerlane), and Babur.
The “graveyard of empires” canard does rest on a few factual supports. The rugged, mountainous areas of central and eastern Afghanistan have historically been difficult to conquer and control—as is the case in many rugged and mountainous areas across the world. The Pashtun people, moreover, who form roughly half of Afghanistan’s population, do seem culturally predisposed to resist foreign rule, and they have produced more than their share of doughty warriors willing to die for the cause. The British Empire in the mid-1800s and the Soviet Union in the 1970s proved incapable of subduing the region, and the current military efforts of the United States do not seem any more sustainable in the long run. But beyond these limited instances, the “graveyard thesis” does not withstand scrutiny.
The failure of the thesis as a trans-historical generalization is evident in almost any historical era one chooses to investigate. Take, for instance, the forays of the ancient Macedonians and Greeks. Certainly Alexander had troubles in the Hindu Kush, as he did in a number of other areas that he and his troops vanquished. But conquer and rule the region they did. Greek power remained ensconced in the area now called Afghanistan for roughly two hundred years, contributing to an interchange of ideas and practices that enriched South Asian, Central Asian, and Greek civilization. The so-called Greco-Bactrians did fall eventually, succumbing to Yuezhi (Kushan) invaders who absorbed much of their culture. But this was to be expected; great powers ebb and flow, and no empire lasts forever.
Serious authors such as Christian Caryl and Thomas Barfield have turned the graveyard cliché on its head, arguing that Afghanistan is better interpreted historically as both a “highway of conquest” and a “cradle of empires.” Even the British failure to subdue the region has been much exaggerated. As Caryl cogently notes:
[In the] Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), [Britain] succeeded in occupying much of the country and forcing its rulers to accept a treaty giving the British a veto over future Afghan foreign policy. … London, it should be noted, never intended to make Afghanistan part of its empire. Britain’s foreign-policy aim, which it ultimately achieved, was to ensure that Afghanistan remained a buffer state outside the influence of imperial competitors, such as the Russians.
The fact that an independent Afghanistan served British interests as a buffer state is evident in the very outline of the country. Northeastern Afghanistan features a curious panhandle, the Wakhan Corridor, that extends all the way to the border of China. Negotiations during the late 1800s, first between Britain and Russia and then between British India and Afghanistan, ensured that the territories of the British and Russian empires would never directly touch each other. As a result, Wakhan was appended to Afghanistan. Today it is a sparsely populated and generally peaceful region eager to welcome tourists, at least according to a recent BBC report.
In 2009, both Afghanistan and the United States asked China to open its border along the Wakhan Corridor to provide an alternative supply line for the embattled Afghan government. China responded to the Afghan request with vague promises of increased cooperation. Its response to the American appeal was less accommodating, noting that it would not consider opening the border unless the Unites States were to agree to change its stance on such issues as Taiwan and the Uyghur militants held at Guantanamo. An October 12, 2011 Strategy Page report, however, claims that China is now reconsidering the issue, promising to open the border provided that “a sturdy road [is] built along the length of the 210 kilometer long corridor.”
After the United States accused Iran of hatching an elaborate and ill-conceived plot to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, a number of commentators expressed incredulity, some wondering why the Saudi diplomat would be so targeted. The most common response to such questioning was to outline the history of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and to stress the mutual antipathy between the Shia (Shiite) Islam dominant in Iran and the harsh Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam dominant in Saudi Arabia. Deeper analyses delve into Saudi Arabia’s recent support for the brutal crackdown on Shia protestors in nearby Bahrain, a small Shia-majority country ruled by a Saudi-aligned Sunni establishment. More comprehensive inquiry also highlights the unofficial Saudi response to Iran’s nuclear program, as revealed in diplomatic cables posted by WikiLeaks: “cut off the head of the snake!” King Abdullah repeatedly urged the United States, hoping for US military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Less often mentioned is the Saudi fear of Shia insurrection in its own territory, which the Riyadh government links to potential Iranian subversion. Although Saudi Arabia officially estimates its Shiite population at around five percent, informed sources peg it closer to twelve percent. Most Saudi Arabian Shiites, moreover, live in the eastern region of the country near the Gulf—a relatively poor part of the country that contains the major share of its oil resources. Inexplicably, unrest in this area tends to be overlooked by the US media. Rioting in the town of Awwamiya in early October, 2011, for example, was almost entirely ignored—as was the Saudi government’s reprisal. The fact that the Shia-inspired Houthi rebellion of northern Yemen, reportedly aided by Iran, also sets its sights on Shia communities across the border in southwestern Saudi Arabia is also routinely disregarded by the media. It is thus hardly surprising that the depth of Saudi-Iranian animosity continues to surprise many American observers.
The early October disturbances in Awwamiya arose after Saudi authorities arrested two elderly men in a bid to find and detain their sons, who were both wanted for organizing demonstrations in solidarity with the recent Shia protests in Bahrain. (More than twenty Saudi Shiite protestors had already been arrested, including two bloggers.) According to the Saudi news agency, the subsequent incident involved “assailants, some on motorcycles, us[ing] machine guns and Molotov cocktails” to attack authority figures. Fourteen persons were injured in the resulting melee, including eleven policemen. Saudi official immediately blamed the disturbance on “a foreign country.” An amusing understatement in one news report tells us that, “Stratfor, a private intelligence company in Texas, suggested the statement regarding foreign interference could be a reference to Iran.” Not surprisingly, the Saudi Arabian government vowed to suppress any further unrest in the region with “an iron first.”
An excellent assessment of the Shia situation in eastern Saudi Arabia, circa 2005, is found in the International Crisis Group’s Middle East Report N°45, “The Shiite Question in Saudi Arabia.” The report emphasizes the efforts of King Abdullah to reduce the disabilities long imposed on the Shia minority. It also details the deep discrimination that the community has faced, while showing that its situation could have been much worse: after the Saudi state conquered the eastern region in 1913, “The ikhwan [religiously impassioned tribal warriors] exerted considerable pressure on the future King, Abd al-Aziz, either to forcibly convert or kill [the Shiites]. His refusal led in part to the ikhwan‘s 1926 uprising, which the al-Saud ultimately crushed.”
Saudi Shiites began to agitate for greater rights in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but their aspirations were crushed. Shia leaders subsequently urged their followers to work patiently with the country’s authorities to improve their situation. Many Sunni leaders, however, remain skeptical of such an accommodating stance. According to the report’s authors, “The belief remains strong among Sunnis that Shiites are merely biding their time, banking on external support — U.S. or other — to establish their own independent state. Such views regularly find their way to internet sites and chat rooms; some clerics have explicitly warned of a Shiite-U.S. connection.”
After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Saudi Shia leaders again pressed the government to relax religious restrictions and to establish a constitutional monarchy. The Saudi government responded by arresting the activists. When Abdullah gained the throne in 2005, however, some constraints on the Shia community were eliminated. Such cautious movements toward religious pluralism have not pleased all members of the country’s religious establishment. As recently as 1991, the report specifies, “a member of the Higher Council of Ulama, issued a fatwa designating Shiites as apostates and condoning their killing.” The Crisis Group’s document also notes that many Saudi radicals who fought in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein did so precisely in order “to kill Shiites.”
The Crisis Group’s report concludes by noting that “sectarian relations in Saudi Arabia are far from the boiling point, and the risk of imminent violent confrontation is low,” adding the opinion that “King Abdullah’s accession offers cautious reason for hope.” Such assessments now seem a bit premature. The widespread Saudi theory that the United States is abetting Shia unrest, however, seems unreasonable if not paranoid, considering the American fear of spreading Iranian influence in the region. The publication of Ralph Peters’ “Blood Borders” map of 2006, however, did seemingly lend credence to such conspiratorial thinking.