The Olympic flag flying at half-mast at Munich in 1972 after the Black September massacre
Absences also—absences especially, actually—can be political: the U.S. snubbed the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan (even Jimmy Carter admirers, of whom I am one, think this was far from his finest moment), then the reciprocal East Bloc boycott (which only Romania defied) of the 1984 Los Angeles games. And the 2008 Beijing games, though touted locally as harmoniously smooth, seemed cloaked only by a malevolent calm for Western media audiences who knew about the brutal police-state repression used to keep protesters away from the action. (Poetic justice: the famous “bird’s nest” design of the Beijing National Stadium built for the games was conceived by Ai Weiwei, who has since become the personification of Chinese dissent in the international arena.) Equally eerily, to watch footage of the 1984 Winter Olympics host city Sarajevo, which television puff pieces portrayed as a mountain-ringed paradise full of harmoniously co-existing ethnic groups in the true Olympic spirit, is to be reminded that a decade later Sarajevo was a city in ruins, the very center of the most destructive war to sweep through Europe in the second half of the twentieth century.
Tomorrow begins the Thirtieth Olympiad in London, England, and politics is sure once again to rear its head. In fact, two days before the opening ceremonies (and it’s beyond me why they hold the first events before the opening ceremonies nowadays), the first diplomatic row occurred when the giant video monitor accidentally (or not?) displayed South Korea’s flag instead of North Korea’s as North Korea faced Colombia in tennis in a game in Glasgow, Scotland. (Let’s remember that the next time a Scottish nationalist complains that foreigners tend to call the entirety of the United Kingdom “England.”) (Scotland, incidentally, despite their independence movement, is not predicted to cause trouble at the games; after all, Scottish nationalists believe they have it in the bag and that 2012 will be the “Great Britain” team’s final lap.)
The London Olympics’ first diplomatic incident: wrong flag on the Jumbotron.
In fact, flags are a major source of diplomatic friction at the Olympics. The People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) and the Republic of China (R.O.C.) (i.e., Taiwan) have mainly enacted their hostilities at the Olympics over the years mainly in the vexillological arena. In Melbourne in 1956, the R.O.C. flag was mischievously switched for a P.R.C. one, causing a diplomatic incident (which is probably why the North Koreans smelled a prank during the Glasgow match this week). Since 1984, the R.O.C. has to call itself “Chinese Taipei” and use a specially designed “Chinese Taipei Olympic Flag” in the Olympics. (The R.O.C. was offered the name Taiwan but rejected that, since it still insists it is the rightful government of all of China. It is not clear why Chinese Taipei, in that light, is better, but whatever: they agree.)
The “Chinese Taipei” Olympic flag making its entrance in Beijing in 2008Politics in the Olympics is not always a bad thing. There should have been more of it to disrupt the games in Beijing, for example, in my opinion. In a sense, the protests and politicizations, large and small, are part of what we—if this is actually a verb—are spectating. Here is a solemn hope that no one gets hurt or killed in the inevitable intrusions of politics into this year’s Games, but it would be nice to see some overlooked just causes get their moments in the spotlight. But enough editorializing. Readers will find some of the causes listed below repugnant, and some laudable. Here, anyway, in no particular order (but culminating in a biggie), is my list of the ten political causes which are most likely to make a splash during the London games:
The struggle for an independent Palestine is one of the most divisive issues in international politics. Quick review: Palestinian Arabs rejected the 1949 United Nations plan for a coexisting Israel and Palestine in the Holy Land, so Israel expanded into both designated areas step by step, creating a refugee population in occupied territories which slowly over the decades built itself into a quasi-nation—declaring independence in 1998 with a government-in-exile and then in the 2006 Oslo Accords being granted de facto quasi-independence through the Palestinian National Authority. Most countries in the world grant Palestine full diplomatic recognition, the exceptions including Israel, Israel’s one ally the U.S., and most of the U.S.’s allies in western Europe. Though the U.S. veto on the U.N. Security Council prevents Palestine from joining the General Assembly, Palestine participates as a sovereign nation in most other international bodies—including, since 1996, the Olympics.
Palestine’s official Olympic team, Atlanta, 1996
Palestine’s unofficial sharpshooting team, Munich, 1972
One thing that makes the Olympics necessarily political is that the games can proceed only if it can be agreed what is a country and what isn’t—and, as with Palestine, there are numerous examples where major and minor powers are unable to agree. The Republic of Kosovo declared independence from the Republic of Serbia in 2008, after having been ushered into existence by a 1999 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bombing campaign to shield Serbia’s ethnic Albanians from another Serb-engineered genocide. Just under half the U.N.’s member-states recognize Kosovo, but (in a mirror-image of the Palestinian situation referred to above) the Security Council vetoes of Russia (which sides with Serb nationalists out of pan-Slavic chauvinism) and China (which, like Russia, is generally allergic to separatism) ensure that Kosovo will stay indefinitely in a halfway state as not-really-a-country. But unlike Palestine, whose quasi-nationhood was achieved with the permission of the state it was seceding from (Israel), Serbia still calls Kosovo its southern province, so the stalemate is more severe in some ways. One result: no Olympic team. Kosovo has an Olympic committee itself, but the actual International Olympic Committee (I.O.C.) will not engage with it. It did not even try to field a team in Beijing in 2008.
Kosovo has an Olympic committee, but no Olympic team
Judo champ Majlinda Kelmendi, from Kosovo, competes under the Albanian flag
The Falkland Islands, a small array of storm-swept rocks in the sub-Antarctic seas off the coast of South America’s southern tip had no indigenous people. Both Britain and France claimed it in the 1760s, unbeknownst to each other. The French sold them to Spain, which declared it part of the colony that eventually became Argentina. In the 1770s the Spanish pushed the British out, which was resisted only half-heartedly, since the British were at that time marshaling their military might to try to prevent the United States of America from coming into existence. By 1811, the islands were empty again, since even the Spanish had gotten bored with them, but then a Connecticut-born mercenary, in 1820, claimed them in the name of the newly independent United Provinces of the Río de la Plata (later renamed Argentina). A U.S. warship chased the Argentians off the rocks in 1831, but gradually both British and Argentine settlers made temporary camps there and lived and traded side by side until the Argentine settlement was wiped out by a “creole” and Indian rebellion, armed by the Americans. The British established the islands’ first permanent colony in 1840.
Prince William being burned in effigy by Argentinian nationalists this spring
President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is boycotting the London Olympics.
(No, this photo was not taken at a quinceañera party.
These are the tasteful and understated regalia of the Argentine presidency.)
Here’s another rock, a big one, and another big headache from the U.K.’s dwindling collection of rocks and jetties and bits of land scattered around the globe. Spain formally ceded this boulder-like peninsula, with a town atop it, to the British Crown in 1713, after losing the War of Spanish Succession. The Treaty of Utrecht is unambiguous that Gibraltar is British, and in a 2002 referendum 98% of the ethnically diverse Gibraltarians opted for the status quo instead of even any kind of shared Spanish sovereignty. But Spaniards still feel Gibraltar should be theirs (though many Spanish nationalists hypocritically turn the tables when they insist on their right to rule two scraps of the Moroccan mainland called Ceuta and Melilla). Just this past week, British and Spanish diplomats faced off over a Gibraltarian sport-fishing boat which London says the Spanish Civil Guard illegally hijacked in Gibraltarian (i.e., U.K.) waters. This sort of thing happens from time to time. And earlier this year, Spain’s Queen Sofía boycotted Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee over the Gibraltar question, so some Spaniards may be planning to make a public point about Gibraltar this Olympiad.
This boulder is the biggest obstacle in Anglo-Spanish relations.
Yet another former U.K. colony, this one was handed “back” to the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.) amid much pomp and ceremony in 1999. Hong Kong for the most part has been a topic on which the U.K. and the P.R.C. can make nice, and bask together in what was a victory for diplomacy. But many Hong Kongers themselves feel that, 13 years later, they ended up with the short end of the stick. Although the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (H.K.S.R.A.), which kept many of the U.K.’s freedoms, is one of the wealthiest and freest states or quasi-states in the world, the P.R.C. has made no secret of meddling ever more deeply into its political affairs. When President Hu Jintao showed up in Hong Kong on July 1st of this year to celebrate H.K.S.R.A. Establishment Day, he was (as I reported at the time in this blog, in a special article on the subject) almost the only one celebrating: 400,000 protesters took to the streets, some waving the former Hong Kong colonial flag with the Union Jack on it, some carrying portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, but none of them openly saying they were tired of being part of China, since that’s one of the few freedoms of speech not permitted in Hong Kong.
Some Hong Kongers pine for the good old days
Nice flag, Hong Kong. But enough with the creepy mascots, okay?
The situation is slightly different for Tibet, which is ruled by the P.R.C. as the so-called Tibet “Autonomous” Region. Compared to Tibet, Hong Kongers have almost nothing to complain about. The Communists overran Tibet in 1950, exiled the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in 1959, and promptly set about demolishing ancient temples, cracking down on the Tibetan language, forcing atheism on millions of Buddhists at gunpoint, rounding up anyone who complained into concentration camps, and killing a quarter-million Tibetans in an engineered famine. And that was just the first few years. The plight of the Tibetans is one of the most galvanizing human-rights issues in the Western world, and backers of Tibetan sovereignty are probably holding high-profile protests somewhere in the world on any given day. After Tibetans and their supporters watched with nausea the P.R.C.’s portrayal of itself as a joyous, harmonious, multiethnic workers’ paradise at the 2008 games, London 2012 seems like the perfect occasion to take off the kid gloves and raise a stink. I’m no fan of self-immolation, but anything nonviolent, angry, and attention-catching—bring it!
7. Abkhazia and South Ossetia
Again, here is the question of what is a country. Abkhazia and South Ossetia were two autonomous regions within the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic which, after the collapse of Communism in 1991, split away from the newly independent Republic of Georgia. De facto independent they were, until 2008, when Georgia’s military decided to retake South Ossetia once and for all. The result was a war with Russia in which Georgia got a bloody nose and Russia got two new client states, whose newly minted de jure independence is recognized only by Russia, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu. (Venezuela and Nicaragua, here, are just trying to thumb their nose at the U.S. Naura, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu, on the other hand, opened embassies in the two statelets in exchange for lucrative Russian development deals.)
Abkhazians and South Ossetians consider themselves neither Georgian nor Russian. In fact, of late they have been chafing more than ever at Moscow’s expectations of them; their Russian-won “independence” leaves them little wiggle room as truly free countries. Ethnic Georgians were ethnically cleansed out of the two republics in the early 1990s, so most residents are Abkhaz or Ossete, plus quite a lot of expat Russians—and nearly everyone there has a Russian passport, or is eligible for one. So the obvious solution for South Ossetian or Abkhazian athletes is to compete on the Russian team. All well and good, and not much Georgia can do about that, as far as formal citizenship goes. But just this past week the Georgian Olympic committee raised a stink after noticing that two wrestlers from the Russian team, an Abkhaz and a South Ossetian, had their birthplaces listed as Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, with both locations designated as part of Russia. Even if that kerfuffle gets cleared up, which I’m sure it will, Georgian nationalists are fierce, and they may decide to raise a ruckus over the issue of the two “lost” republics that they have never given up on.
Besik Kudukhov, the Olympic wrestler whose birthplace listing as “South Ossetia, Russia,” infuriating Georgia
This swath of coastal desert in North Africa is one of the world’s forgotten conflicts. After the Spanish and French had dismantled most of the rest of their African colonies in Africa, Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator, negotiated an agreement that, after the Spanish departed the area to the south of Morocco, called the Spanish Sahara, the territory would be co-governed by the independent states of Morocco and Mauritania. The idea was to make a more graceful exit than the Moroccan military seemed to be itching to force upon them, so that they could maintain their economic stakes in the territory. But as soon as Spanish forces left, Morocco swallowed up the entire territory, calling it part of “Greater Morocco.” The native people, the Sahrawi, declared their own Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (S.A.D.R.), claiming all of Western Sahara but in reality governing only the eastern sliver of territory they were able to hang onto, the boundaries of which are now solidified by a series of massive earthen walls built by the Moroccans. The U.N. doesn’t recognize the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara, but it doesn’t recognize the S.A.D.R. either—neither does the I.O.C.—so there the matter sits, at a decades-old stalemate, during which the Sahrawi suffer, forgotten.
The unrecognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic is shown in red.
Salah Ameidan with his country’s flag
The conflict on everyone’s mind this month is Syria. When the 18 members of the Syrian Olympic team arrived in London, they were badgered with questions during the welcoming ceremony, but steadfastly refused to talk politics. Not surprising in the case of one of them—the equestrian Ahmed Saber Hamcho, who is related to Syria’s mass-murderer dictator Bashar al-Assad. Already, some Syrians living in London have shown up at the Olympic Park carrying Syrian flags alongside portraits of Assad. Let’s hope that the athletes take the high road and concentrate on competing—as hard as that is knowing that people are being killed back home. But I also hope that as long as the pro-Assad wingnuts are making their views known, the pro-democracy Syrians—hey, maybe even some Kurds—will as well.
Syria’s swim team arriving in London.
Having just flown in from a civil war, Heathrow actually looks sort of orderly.
The most volatile issue connected to the Olympics has nothing to do with London in 2012 but may make an appearance this year anyway. It concerns the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia. Sochi is not just in any part of Russia. It is on the scenic Black Sea between the Caucasus and the border with Ukraine, in the historic homeland of the Circassian people. Like many minorities in the Russian Federation, Circassians have their own more-or-less autonomous-ish republic—in fact, three separate ones, part of a deliberate divide-and-rule tactic of breaking up their homeland into disparate shards of territory. In only one of those republics do Circassians number just over 50% of the population, and they are far outnumbered by Russians in Krasnodar Krai, the Russian province where Sochi sits—and where Russian ultranationalist thugs try to keep the Circassian minority out of public life.
And why are there so few Circassians in the vast territory that is, in point of fact, Circassia? Well, I’m glad you asked. The Russian Empire, in a series of brutal expansionist wars in the 1860s and ’70s, murdered and exiled hundreds of thousands of Circassians, essentially shattering an ancient civilization into pieces, in the process of extending their boundaries south to rub against the Ottoman Empire. But Circassian nationalism has been on the rise since the fall of Communism. While not fighting for secession per se, Circassians have been speaking up for more rights in exile in Turkey (where they number 2 million, one of Turkey’s largest minorities), would like to unite the disparate Circassian territories into a single autonomous republic, and are trying to get more from the Circassian diaspora to return to Russia—something that Vladimir Putin, who smells another Chechnya brewing thereby, is trying to block. As a result, tragically, many Circassians in exile in Syria are trapped in the civil war—the one country that might take them, Russia, having turned its back. Circassians tend to be politically moderate, but—like their neighbors the Kurds and the Armenians—they nurse their ancient grievances, which include what they call Russian-engineered genocide, defiantly and proudly.
Circassian protesters marking the Russian genocide
The 2014 Winter Olympics mascot Cheburashka
kidnapping two Circassian children to take back to his lair and devour
[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.]