Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why It Matters What You Call Your Country: Cyprus vs. Northern Cyprus, Azawad vs. THE Azawad

Last month in this space I reported on the Alice in Wonderland world of Balkan politics in an article titled “Balkan Semantics: How Kosovo Dropped Two Words and Serbia Gained Europe”—describing how an agreement to let the Republic of Serbia’s diplomats refer to the Republic of Kosovo as simply Kosovo, without the words Republic and of, was sufficient to clear a decade-old political logjam over the status of the secessionist province sufficiently to smooth the way for Serbia’s eventual admission to the European Union (E.U.).  But, although southeastern Europe provides some of the more colorful examples of onomastic pettiness in international diplomacy (cf. Macedonia, Former Yugoslav Republic of), there are many parts of the world where it genuinely matters what a country is called, even, or especially, down to the little words.

In July of last year (2011), Sudan was partitioned and, after a protracted search for a name for the newly born southern state, colorful names like Jubaland and Azania were rejected in favor of the more dour and familiar Republic of South Sudan—a name which, if one thinks about it, sort of makes it sound as though the new country formed by the south’s secession is indeed simply a subsection of the very country (the Republic of Sudan) the separatists spent decades of war and spilt millions of gallons blood to separate from.  Shortly afterwards, the government in what was left of the Republic of Sudan, no longer saddled with a large non-Muslim population, let its hair down and further tarnished its own brand in Western eyes by renaming its ruling party Hezbollah, using the same name as the Iranian-sponsored jihadist terrorist organization based in southern Lebanon.  If all of that doesn’t sound a bit Balkan, I don’t know what does.

The flag of the Republic of South Sudan, being waved on their independence day last year

More recently, media are reporting this week that the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a Turkish Republic puppet state which administers the northern third of the island of Cyprus, will drop the word Northern from its name unless the decades-old conflict over the partition of Cyprus is not resolved by July 1st.  That is the date when the Republic of Cyprus, the ethnically-Greek-dominated southern two-thirds of the island, takes over the rotating presidency of the E.U.  The whole island of Cyprus was a colony of the United Kingdom from the First World War till the 1950s, when, just as other British possessions in the region were easing toward independence, an organization called the National Organisation of Cypriot Fighters, or EOKA, representing the ethnically Greek majority on the island, began pushing for enosis, or union, with Greece.  Instead, in 1960, an independent Republic of Cyprus was established, with constitutional protections for the 18% Turkish minority in the north of the island.  But this was not enough for the Turkish government (see a recent blog article of mine outlining the number that Turkish nationalists pulled on the State of Hatay in the 1930s): in 1974, the Turkish military, taking advantage of a coup d’état in Cyprus’s capital, Nicosia, invaded the island and established the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a puppet state which not even Turkey itself will take the formal step of recognizing.  (Northern Cyprus, as it tends to be called for short, is recognized, among sovereign states, only by the largely unrecognized Russian puppet states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.)  For decades the U.K., and now the United Nations, have had to maintain a continuous peacekeeping presence just to keep Greece and Turkey from all-out war.  This stalemate is a surprisingly enduring one. It survives Turkey and Greece’s shared membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the European Union even managed to ignore—when it admitted Cyprus as a member state in 2004 and even let it join the Euro Zone—that it did not even administer all of its territory.  (It’s also, like nearly all of Turkey, in Asia, not Europe, but never mind that.)

A Turkish map of the island of Cyprus

Northern Cyprus’s threatened name change would partially correct an onomastic imbalance, whereby the name Republic of Cyprus implies a claim over the entire island—and indeed the E.U. and most of the rest of the world asserts that the Republic of Cyprus is the legitimate government of the entire island.  Presumably, the new name would constitute a more aggressive stance by implying a claim over the entire island.  However, it’s not clear that the E.U. will either mind or notice.  Turkey is threatening to take its ball and go stwaight home, but no one seems interested in playing its game anyway.

Other possibilities for a new name are being floated by Northern Cyprus’s president, Dr. Derviş Eroğlu, including Northern Cyprus Turkish State and Northern Turkish State (which would make it sound like it’s on the Black Sea, but never mind).  Not mentioned was Turkish Cypriot State, a name first floated in 2004 by Kofi Annan, at the time the U.N.’s Secretary-General, as part of his never-adopted Cyprus Plan.  It envisioned a United Cyprus Republic consisting of a Turkish Cypriot State and a Greek Cypriot State, very much along the lines of the 1995 Dayton Accords which nominally united a Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina consisting of two mostly sovereign entities called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (governed by Croats and Bosniaks) and Republika Srpska (governed by Serbs).  Turkish Cypriot State is also the name under which Northern Cyprus sits as a member state in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (O.I.C.)—it having been upgraded from observer status after Cyprus’s accession to the E.U., in 2004.  That wording seemed to suit the O.I.C. as sufficiently vague on the question of its level of independence.  Once again, as with Kosovo, the words Republic of seem to scare people.  (Other entities with O.I.C. observer status include Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Russian Federation, the Central African Republic, the Kingdom of Thailand, and the Moro National Liberation Front (whose inclusion prevents the Philippines from becoming a member state, or even observer).)

Flag of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation

Northern Cyprus’s geopolitical position and its level of diplomatic recognition is also a unique situation in the shadow world of pseudo-states.  Aside from Turkey itself (and, please, skip this paragraph if you’re not interested in a digression on the relationship between Caucasian and Cypriot geopolitics), only one entity (that I know of) recognizes Northern Cyprus as sovereign: the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan (a.k.a. Nakhichevan), which is today part of the Republic of Azerbaijan but had a brief flirtation with independence just after the fall of Communism.  In fact, it has the distinction of being the first territory to secede from the Soviet Union, beating Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990 by a matter of some days.  Oddly enough, Azerbaijan itself—which is Turkey’s geographically closest fellow Turkic-speaking nation—has never recognized Northern Cyprus.  This is mostly, of course, because of Nagorno-Karabakh, the unrecognized but self-governing Armenian puppet state which was carved out of Azerbaijan’s western flank by a bloody war in the early 1990s.  Nagorno-Karabakh is the one issue on which all Azerbaijani foreign policy pivots.  Pan-Turkic solidarity does not trump it, and Turkey’s aggression in Cyprus too much resembles Armenia’s in Nagorno-Karabakh for Azeris to be able to stomach recognizing Northern Cyprus; it would also open them up to charges of hypocrisy by Armenia and by the United States’ Armenia lobby.  Nakhchivan is another matter, however: an exclave of Azerbaijan, cut off from the rest of the country by Armenia’s southern arm, Nakhchivan was economically choked by Armenia during the Nagorno-Karabakh fighting that began even before the Soviet Union dissolved.  The Turkish government threatened to declare war on Armenia if it tried to occupy Nakhchivan the way it had Nagorno-Karabakh.  This, more than anything else, kept Nakhchivan out of the war.  Currently it remains under Azeri control, and no longer claims independence (Turkey is tacitly ensuring its safety), though a portion at the far north has remained under Armenia’s control.  So Nakhchivan needs Turkey, though Azerbaijan has reasons to feel betrayed by Turkey’s unwillingness to engage in all-out war to keep Nagorno-Karabakh out of Armenian hands.)

The official seal of the City of Nakhchivan, in the Autonomous Republic of Nakhchivan.
Yes, that’s Noah’s Ark.

But the flap over Northern Cyprus’s name is not the only naming muddle in recent news.  The other happened with much less fanfare.  The world’s newest country—and one unlikely ever to be internationally recognized in its current form—the Independent State of Azawad, declared its independence from the Republic of Mali on April 6th, but at the time it did so as the Islamic Republic of Azawad.  That turned out to be a mistake, since the state had been declared by Tuareg militias left over from Libya’s civil war, but largely with the help of the firepower of an al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamist militia called Ansar Dine.  This was not supposed to be noticed, but it became the one fact that nearly every major foreign ministry mentioned prominently in explaining why it would not dream of recognizing Azawad as sovereign.  The words Islamic Republic of were giving Azawadis a branding problem.  So they quietly became the Independent State of Azawad.  Dropping the word Islamic would keep the West from getting nervous, and dropping Republic of—as Northern Cyprus and Kosovo have learned—helps take the edge off of a declaration of independence when it comes to international diplomacy.  But it was too late.  I will be surprised if the international community allows Azawad to survive for even a year.

In early reports in this blog on the Azawad rebellion, I referred to the country as the Islamic Republic of Azawad, even after the name change, since it had happened so quietly. Also, in early blog postings, I called it the Islamic Republic of the Azawad.  Most English-language media now seem to be saying just Azawad, not the Azawad.  The question is in one sense moot, since in French, the former colonial language of Mali, still used as a language of administration, the country is called l’État Indépendant de l’Azawad.  In French (as in many other continental European languages), all countries are given a definite article—some masculine, some feminine.  So why were some sources translating—and why are some still translating—this into English as the Azawad?  No one says the Germany or the France, after all.  Well, there is a practice, in African countries, of sometimes using the definite article, in English, before the main name of the country.  The Republic of Sudan used to be called the Republic of the Sudan, and the Republic of the Gambia, still uses its the, to say nothing of the misnamed Democratic Republic of the Congo, not to be confused with the Republic of the Congo.  In the case of Gambia and Congo, these are rivers, and that follows the common practice of calling rivers in English the (So-and-So) River.  (Think also of the Confederation of the Rhine etc.)  Gambia, then, describes not the land territory but, more properly, the river around which the republic is oriented.  (This approach is helpful in post-colonial Africa, where several ethnic groups often share one “nation”; geographical features are more neutral than ethnonyms.)  You can also see this pattern in places like the Yukon Territory and the Klondike region—districts overtly associated with their primary rivers and oriented around them in a way that places like Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio (note, the State of Mississippi, not the State of the Mississippi, etc.)—whose eponymous rivers they merely border, sometimes only glancingly, rather than being formed more recently all around them—are not.  The Sudan, on the other hand, like the Sahel and the Azawad, was a geographical descriptor long before it was a country name.  The Sudan was the area of the southern Sahara called, by Arabs, “the land of the blacks”—straight across the continent, west to east, not at all restricted to what is now Sudan and South Sudan.  In fact, South Sudan is not really part of the Sudan at all—yet another reason it is, if I may be so blunt, a stupid name for their country.  The phrase the Azawagh—which inspired the name of the new Independent State of (the) Azawad—refers to a dry basin in the western Saharan and Sahelian regions, defined originally geographically and not just in its current usage as the places where Tuaregs live, in Mali, Algeria, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Of other countries that use the before their chief name (I’m not counting places which feature a the merely by virtue of being prefixed with the Kingdom of or the Republic of), at least one, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, retains it because the name means literally the lowlands (hence, the Low Countries, which also technically include Belgium and Luxembourg); it is a transparent geographical descripter like the Sahel.  (The Dutch have also given the English language definite-article-laden geographically-descriptive toponyms like the Hagueden Haag or ’s-Gravenhage, literally “the count’s wood”—and the Bronx, named for the Bronx River which was in turn named for the 17th-century Dutch-American settler Jonas Bronck. Why we don’t say the Brooklyn (from the Dutch for “the broken-up land”) or the Flatbush (from de vlacke bos) is a question I leave to the philologists.)

But most “the” countries are island chains, such as the Republic of the Philippines and the Republic of the Marshall Islands (one could also add St. Vincent and the Grenadines).  The Seychelles and the Maldives, however, have dropped their definite articles and are now the Republic of Seychelles and the Republic of Maldives.  In the case of the Seychelles, I can conjecture that this is because the republic’s main language is a French-based creole language called Seychellois, which lacks a definite article.  Actually, Seychellois has vestiges of the French definite article but not as a morpheme, only as some variation on the l sound absorbed into the beginning of the word.  So lezyel is the Seychellois word for “sky,” based on French le ciel, but it is a single word meaning simply “sky.”  “The islands” is lezil, from French les îles.  (This process can be found in other French creoles, which is why the Louisiana folk music called zydeco derives from saying les haricots—the beans—in a Southern U.S. accent.  The “L” section in French creole dictionaries tend to be half the book.)  So the name for the Republic of the Seychelles in Seychellois is Ripiblik Sesel, not the Ripiblik Sesel or le Ripiblik Sesel.  I’m not sure why it isn’t Liripiblik Sesel, though.  Hence, the Republic of Seychelles.

The coat of arms of the Republic of Seychelles

Similarly, Slavic languages tend to lack articles (as can be noticed in the mistakes made by English-speakers whose first language is Russian), so one would think it would be no difference whether the country which calls itself Ukrayina is referred to in English as the Ukraine or as Ukraine.  But to Ukrainians it matters a lot, which is why the people that consented through the years of Soviet rule to being called, in English, the Ukraine, asked the world to call them simply Ukraine.  (Also, it is simply Ukraine, not the Republic of Ukraine—though it is a republic—which makes the lack of a definite article harder to notice at first on official insignia.)  But why?  Well, partly it is because Ukraine derives from an old word meaning “borderlands,” which implies, if not outright states, that the country is in fact just the fringe or edge of the more important and central land of Russia.  (Some Ukrainian nationalists have tried to concoct alternative etymologies, but I leave negotiating such controversies to the Slavicists.)  In English, putting in the the emphasizes the noun-ness and thing-ness of the name and not its arbitrary designation as a proper name.  The the reminds goads people into asking “the borderlands of what?”, so it was dropped.

The flag of the Ukraine—oops, I mean, Ukraine.

Interestingly, a cognate word in Serbian provides the name for the Serbian Republic of Krajina (Republika Srpska Krajina), which existed as a de facto self-governing puppet state of the Republic of Serbia, consisting of those parts of Croatia, mostly in eastern Slavonia and along the rim of Bosnia, under the control of Serb militias during the Bosnian and Croatian wars in the early 1990s.  It was just as often referred to in English as the Krajina.  But then again, the Krajina, unlike Ukraine, never minded being the borderland; its ultimate goal was always reunification with Serbia.

The Azawadis will have time to think about these precedents and decide whether the way the Tuaregs’ Tamashek language is translated into Arabic and French and how that comes across in English either recommends or does not recommend retaining the in its name.  As of this writing, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and other neighbors are contemplating a joint invasion to return to the region to Malian rule.  So they’d better figure it out fast.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it in spring 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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