Friday, January 27, 2012

Umberto Bossi’s “Republic of Padania” Expands into Central Europe

A month ago, I listed Padania—the new state some Italians want to create in the northern third of their country—as number eight among “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012.”  The party pushing this idea, the Lega Nord per l’Indipendenza della Padania—called Lega Nord (Northern League) for short—is not just any minor separatist movement.  It is the main political party in Italy’s large Veneto region (which includes Venice) and is the second-largest in Lombardy, which contains Milan and nearly 10 million people.  Italy’s fractious coalition politics allowed the League to become a junior partner in the Milanese media mogul Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition government in 2008.  The League’s flamboyant and confrontational leader, Umberto Bossi, became Prime Minister Berlusconi’s Minister for Federal Forms, pushing the agenda of, if not necessarily independence, at least a much more federal system, with much more power devolved to the regions.

The proposed borders of an independent Padania

Then, in 2011, the European debt crisis spread from Greece to Italy and brought down the Berlusconi government.  The new prime minister, Mario Monti, a shy economist and technocrat beholden to European Union institutions, left the Northern League out of his new coalition—despite the fact that Monti, like Bossi, is a Lombard.  The League saw this as a stinging betrayal.  In my earlier post, I predicted that sudden marginalization after having tasted the highest echelons of government would galvanize the Northern League’s separatist spirit.  What I didn’t predict was that this fall from power would push Bossi, a former Communist from Lombardy, over the edge.

Umberto Bossi

Bossi had long called for Italy’s more prosperous, more industrialized, and culturally less Mediterranean northern regions—Emilia-Romagna, Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Liguria, Lombardy, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto-Adige, Val d’Aosta, Veneto—to secede as Padania.  But after being forced out of government the League now asks all party members to pledge allegiance to the cause of Padanian secession.



And now media are reporting that at a conference last month Bossi unveiled his plans for a future Padania to be the heart of a new, greater Central European state that would also include Switzerland, Austria, Bavaria, and France’s Savoy region.  Bossi unveiled a map of this new superstate, colored in by his equally flamboyant son, Renzo Bossi.  Has the Northern League gone crazy?

Imperial Lombard cartographer
and apple-fallen-not-far-from-tree Renzo Bossi

It would be one thing if Bossi saw this Greater Padania as part of an integrated Europe, but Bossi over the years has become as Euro-skeptical as Margaret Thatcher.  The League laments northern Italy’s embeddedness in a Euro zone that allows inefficient and corrupt cultures like those of Greece, southern Italy, and Portugal to drag down the industrialized north.  And, make no mistake, Bossi thinks Italy is northern Europe.  Bossi, who spent more than ten years as a Member of European Parliament, now calls the E.U. both “fascist” and “Stalinist” and would like to take Padania out of it.  Now, it seems, he would like to punch an even larger hole in the middle of Europe.

Padania’s flag

Just to take the example of Switzerland—which, unlike other parts of the Greater Padania on Bossi’s fantasy map, is not in the E.U.—the idea that German-speaking Swiss would consent to be a province within a country ruled from Venice where Italian would be the predominant language is not only highly unlikely but rolling-on-the-floor laughable.  Switzerland is not only one of the Europe’s most xenophobic countries, but most of its xenophobia is directed eastward and, especially, southward (even though Italian is one of Switzerland’s national languages, spoken in the border canton of Ticino).  The Swiss do not see much distinction between northern and southern Italy and certainly do not regard Lombards, Ligurians, and Venetians as fellow ... Aryans-or-whatever, blond though some of them may be.  Much the same could be said of Austrian attitudes toward Italy, despite the fact that there is a very large community of German-speakers in the South Tyrol region of northeastern Italy.  (That region also has a large vibrant linguistic minority of Friulians, speaking a variety of the Rhaeto-Romanic language also in use on a much smaller scale in southeastern Switzerland, where it is called Romansch.)

Do you think the folks who made this poster
would swear allegiance to an Italian-run government?

As for Savoy, there are historical resonances Bossi is building on: the medieval Duchy of Savoy had its capital in Turin and extended to the Mediterranean; then the region was made part of the Kingdom of Sicily (later Sardinia), until France absorbed it for the first time during the French Revolution.  Sardinia seized it back after Napoleon’s fall, but then Napoleon III negotiated its return to France in 1858 in a secret deal that Savoyard activists today still recall bitterly.  Culturally and historically, then, Savoy is arguably half Italian already.  But Bavaria (which has its own marginal separatist movement)—that is hard to picture.

The medieval Duchy of Savoy

Bossi’s pipe dream envisions a Lombardy that is at the heart of a new Mitteleuropa, embracing those parts of Germany that are the least Nordic—the southern, Alpine region of the Alemannic dialects.  One could be forgiven for detecting a whiff of Axis geography in all of this; after all, Adolf Hitler was from Austria, Berchtesgaden was right on the Austro-Bavarian border, and Benito Mussolini was from Emilia–Romagna and emigrated to Switzerland as a young man—etc. etc.  In fact, though, what Bossi’s map shows more than anything else is a revived (but modified) Holy Roman Empire.  And just guess who would be Emperor.



Mario Monti—and the circumstances of recent political history—had already temporarily marginalized the Northern League.  But with this kind of talk, Umberto Bossi will marginalize it permanently.



(P.S.: I have had trouble finding a clear image of Renzo Bossi’s map.  The closest I can find is the following map (see below), from an “Anthrocivitas” forum thread on the subject.  If any readers find a more reliably genuine or better-resolution image for this map, please let me know!  And please help me understand how Bossi plans to redraw these other borders.  What is that I see there?  Southeast England plus Saxony and the Low Countries??  A restored East Germany??  A Viking reannexation of the Scottish Highlands??)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Succession or Accession: Could Scotland Leave Britain but Stay in Europe?

[Please see these related articles from this blog: “Orkney—the Next Dubai? Further Reflections on Scottish Independence,” “The World’s 21 Sexiest Separatists” (featuring Sean Connery), and “What Is a Colony? The United Nations’ Definition Needs an Overhaul,” “Happy Dependence Day, Hong Kong! 400,000 Protest Chinese Rule—but Secession Is Not on the Table,” “Celts, Cypriots, Aborigines Raise Stink at Olympics: Ethnonationalist Protest Update.”]

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland now faces the inevitability of a referendum on Scotland’s independence.  Alex Salmond, who became Scotland’s First Minister when the Scottish National Party (SNP) took charge of the 14-years-young devolved Scottish parliament last year, announced the referendum plans this month and thus embarked upon a war of words with anti-independence parties in the U.K. (that is, all the rest of them).  This scrapping over legal and political details may well drag on until the vote itself, which Scottish nationalists would like to hold in late 2014, on the 700th anniversary of the Scottish victory over the English at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

What the Union Jack would look like
without the St. Andrew’s Cross that represents Scotland

And speaking of battles, just this week, Philip Hammond, the Defense Secretary in David Cameron’s U.K. government, responded to Salmond’s assumption that an independent Scotland could be defended by the U.K.’s current Scottish regiments by saying that “The idea that you can sort of break off a little bit [of the British Army], like a square on a chocolate bar and that would be the bit that went north of the Border, is frankly laughable.”  And he warned that the U.K. might not want to foot the bill for the expulsion of nuclear submarines from its waters that an independent Scotland would demand—since Scotland would probably stay out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  Clearly, defense is one of many areas where innumerable details would still need to be worked out if Scotland seceded.  The SNP is being reminded that their parent country will have a say in what the new state would end up with.

Anti-nuclear protesters at a NATO base in Scotland

And now the question of whether Scotland could stay in the European Union after independence has been called into question from an unexpected quarter: Spain.  The Spanish government has said this week that if Scotland applies for membership in the E.U., it will veto the move.  Under E.U. rules, any new members must be approved unanimously by all existing member states.  Spain has separatist movements of its own—in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia, specifically—that it would not like to encourage.  So the government in Madrid was alarmed to hear Artur Mas, Catalonia’s premier, point to Scotland’s referendum as a positive example of peaceful secession.  Madrid fears that a successful Scottish referendum would encourage Catalans and other nationalists to break up Spain.  Thus their threat to block Scotland’s E.U. status.



In fact, continuing E.U. membership is a crucial talking point when separatists in western Europe make their case, reassuring the public that secession would not be politically or economically disruptive, and may in fact change little.  I made such an argument in this blog discussing the prospects of a Belgian partition, and it was implicit in my more recent discussion of the movement for northern Italy secede as “Padania.”

The SNP responded to the Spanish announcement by calling Madrid’s interpretation of E.U. rules “preposterous,” adding, “Scotland has been an integral part of the E.U. for almost forty years.  An independent Scotland would be a succession state, not an accession state, and there is no provision for citizens of the E.U. to be expelled.”

Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond

The SNP is probably right on the last point, but that doesn’t mean a mechanism couldn’t be found.  More important, from a legal perspective, is his point about succession and accession.

The European Common Market (later renamed the European Economic Community, the European Community, then the European Union) was founded in 1957 by six states: Belgium, France, the Federal Republic of Germany (west), Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.  The twenty-one subsequent member-states—including the U.K. and Ireland, which both joined in 1973—became members through accession—a fancy word for “joining.”  No member-state has yet joined by the mechanism of succession, which would mean, for example, that a member-state dissolved and was automatically replaced by two or more newly formed states.



So where should we look for possible precedents to the situation the E.U. would face if Scotland seceded?  Let’s look at three examples with respect to United Nations membership: the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), the United Arab RepublicCzechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia.

U.S.S.R.  When the U.N. was founded in 1945, the U.S.S.R. was a founding member.  Plus, Josef Stalin succeeded in getting two more member-state votes for himself by rather disingenuously sliding in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic as members alongside the U.S.S.R., though they were clearly governed by the party dictatorship in Moscow.  As for other S.S.R.s, the U.N. never recognized the Soviet annexation of the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania at the close of the Second World War but did not want to antagonize Stalin by seating delegations from Baltic governments-in-exile in the General Assembly, so those three states were in actuality treated by the U.N. as part of the U.S.S.R.  In late 1991, after the collapse of Soviet Communism, Russia’s president, Boris Yeltsin, requested and got recognition of the Russian Federation as successor to the U.S.S.R.’s seat both in the General Assembly and on the Security Council.  The Ukrainian and Byelorussian S.S.R.s kept their seats as the renamed Ukraine and Belarus, respectively, but for the first time their legal status as sovereign states was not fictional.  Nevertheless, the other nine members of the so-called Commonwealth of Independent StatesMoldova, the southern Caucasus republics, and the Central Asian “-stans,” as well as the Baltic States, who refused membership in the Commonwealth—had to apply separately to the U.N. as new members.  So, although all these are now considered “Soviet Successor States,” only Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus were members by succession; the rest acceded to the U.N.

Some Soviet successor states had to reapply for U.N. membership, but some didn’t

The United Arab Republic (U.A.R.) was a short-lived merger between Egypt and Syria in the early Cold War period.  Both were founding U.N. members, and they merged their seat in 1957 as the U.A.R.  When the union dissolved in 1961, Syria resumed its former membership seamlessly, and Egypt, which retained the name United Arab Republic itself for a few more years, was the successor state to the formerly unified U.A.R.

Czechoslovakia was a founding U.N. member-state but with the fall of Communism changed its name in 1990 to the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic, to reflect the loosening of central government control over its two constituent countries.  In late 1992, it dissolved in the so-called Velvet Divorce and was succeeded by the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.  Both were recognized by the U.N. as successor states, and neither had to apply for admission.

Neither the Czechs nor the Slovaks had to reapply to the U.N. when Czechoslovakia dissolved

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had also been a founding U.N. member-state, but after the fall of Communism its constituent republics began declaring independence one by one, beginning in the north.  The northern republics of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for admission to the U.N. and were admitted together in May 1992 as three new states, although in the case of Croatia and especially Bosnia, their wars of secession were ongoing, with Serbian regions of those two states fighting vainly to be recognized by anyone other than the Yugoslavian central government and each other as independent states themselves.  Later, in 1993, Macedonia applied for admission and was admitted.  The two remaining republics, Serbia and Montenegro, calling themselves the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, petitioned to be recognized as a successor state to the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, but the U.N. General Assembly erased Yugoslavia’s membership and told the government in Belgrade that it had to reapply.  They did, and the U.N. promptly refused, citing the barbaric behavior of Serbian forces in still-ongoing Yugoslav Wars of Succession.  Yugoslavia was not admitted until 2000, after Slobodan Milošević was removed from power.  In 2003, the state changed its name to the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.  In 2006, Montenegro seceded peacefully and quickly was admitted as a new U.N. member-state, while Serbia succeeded the former State Union as the Republic of Serbia.  So here was an odd situation where Serbia, the core republic (analogous to Russia in the U.S.S.R.), seen by the other republics as a kind of colonizer, not only was denied the right of automatic succession but was nearly the last to join the U.N. again by accession.


Serbia, the country the others seceded from, ironically had
the least luck in getting treated as a Yugoslav successor state

(The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other similar organizations for the most part followed the U.N.’s lead in the sequence and mechanisms for seating these new delegations.)

So, back to Scotland: is the U.K. more like the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslavia or more like Czechoslovakia and the U.A.R.?  The pivotal questions seem to be whether Scotland is a dependent territory of the central government in London, in a way that England perhaps is not, or whether it is a co-partner with England (and perhaps with Wales and Northern Ireland) in a union, like Czechoslovakia.  (Serbia-and-Montenegro, if the wars had gone differently, would probably have been allowed to join through succession rather than accession.)  Surely, other constituent parts of the U.K. that were unambiguously dependent territories—such as the former colonies in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere—joined the U.N. by accession, not succession, but Scotland hardly has the dependent legal status of Zambia, despite what some Scottish nationalists would have us think.

Scotland’s former royal coat-of-arms

For one thing, one might argue, unlike the two constituent countries of Czechoslovakia, it would be possible for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland to retain their designation as the United Kingdom (though they probably would have to change something about its full name, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, since Scotland is a major chunk of the geographic island of Great Britain).  Or could it even do that?

The Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland were separate, sovereign states until 1706 and 1707 when the English and Scottish parliaments, respectively, passed the Acts of Union, dissolving the Scottish crown and creating the Kingdom of Great Britain, also called the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  Similar Acts of Union in 1800 incorporated the Kingdom of Ireland into what then became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland—which later, when most of the island of Ireland gained independence in 1922, inserted the word Northern before the word Ireland.  The whole idea, then, of a United Kingdom is predicated on the idea that England, Scotland, and (now just a bit of) Ireland were equal constituent parts of a kingdom.  (Wales today also has equal status with Scotland, England, and Northern Ireland, but historically it had been ruled directly from London for centuries by the time of English–Scottish union.)  A Scottish secession would mean legally undoing the Acts of Union of 1706 and 1707.  Whether this would automatically restore the House of Stuart to the throne is something legal scholars will need to tackle.  Likewise for the question of whether the incorporation of Ireland, and now Northern Ireland, in the Union would hold after Scotland’s departure—since Scotland, at least on paper, was an equal partner on the Great Britain side of the Acts of Union of 1801.

The Parliamentary Union of England and Scotland, 1707,
as painted by Walter Thomas Monnington

All of these are questions for jurists, legislators, and diplomats not just in London and Edinburgh but in Brussels and Strasbourg as well.  To claim that an independent Scotland has left the E.U. but that England has not might not withstand the legal conceit that the Crown which ceded some powers to Brussels in 1973 implicitly included the sovereignty of Scotland as well.  After all, Jersey, Guernsey, and the Isle of Man chose to stay out of the E.U. in 1973 and are still out of it, pursuing a special legal status which Scotland never insisted on and would have rejected if there had been an attempt to impose it.



How legal scholars and politicians end up defining the matter may well decide whether Salmond can galvanize enough of the two-thirds of Scots who oppose secession today to change their minds between now and 2014.  Independence will look a lot less attractive if it means that Scotland would no longer be in the E.U.

Or will it?  Despite the fact that Croatia has just voted to join, the E.U., with its currency and debt crisis, is increasingly looking like more trouble than it’s worth.  And, after all, Scotland’s neighbors across the water, Norway and Iceland, are, along with Switzerland, major western European states that never joined the E.U., though they enjoy many of its free-trade benefits under separate arrangements.  (The Swiss are not really joiners.  Not only is Switzerland, unlike Norway and Iceland, outside NATO, but it didn’t even join the U.N. until 2002.)  Switzerland’s mammoth financial sector has always made it feel as though it needed no help from a customs union.  The same goes for Iceland, in its case because of vast fishing territories that it is permitted in a singular exception to ordinary law on marine boundaries.  And Norway, of course, has all that North Sea oil.  But, wait, isn’t the U.K., when you look at a map, just as well positioned as Norway to enjoy the largesse of all that oil? ...



Oh, no, wait, I guess that’s mostly just Scotland.  You know, maybe they won’t need the European Union after all.


[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my 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.  The book is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Moment Burma’s Separatist Minorities Have Been Waiting for

Burma, known by its ruling junta as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, has reached an historical moment like that of Eastern Europe in 1989: change is so massive and so abrupt that it is impossible to tell what will happen next, not just in the next few years but in the next few weeks.  Last month in this blog, I flagged Burma’s Karen minority as one of “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012,” and that at least is proving prescient, though everything I write here may be outdated or proven wrong within a month.

Changes had been afoot in Burma for a few years.  In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel laureate opposition leader, was released from house arrest, following largely fraudulent “elections” which retained the deeply unpopular junta in power.  In late 2011, Barack Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, began going public with negotiations for a détente between the West and the isolated regime.  Then, this month (January 2012), over 600 political prisoners were released unconditionally, diplomatic relations with the U.S. were restored, and a cease-fire was agreed between the government and the separatist Karen fighters in the southeast of the country, near the Thai border, ending what had been the world’s longest-standing armed conflict.

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Aung San Suu Kyi

In terms of Realpolitik, this of course is part of the United States government’s overt agenda of going head to head with the People’s Republic of China for influence in East Asia, in military, political, and economic terms.  Most countries are happy to do business with China, but few can really be called its political allies.  During the first half of 2011, when I lived in China, there were only a handful of foreign governments which the Communist Party’s English-language newspaper China Daily unconditionally praised in editorials: Syria, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Libya (then still under Moammar al-Qaddafi), North Korea, and Myanmar—all of them brutal authoritarian regimes and international pariah states (except for Pakistan, whose nukes are all that prevents it from being a pariah state).  I think Myanmar’s government has realized that this is not a foreign policy that is a way to tool itself for the new century.  It envies the rising prosperity, tourism, and serviceably warm Western relations enjoyed by neighboring countries like Thailand and even single-party (but capitalist) Vietnam.  As long as Burma has natural resources that Chinese corporations would like to plunder, China will never want to have it as an enemy, but being a close political ally of Beijing has few advantages for the regime in Rangoon.  The U.S., too, is eager to encircle China with countries that are more or less friendly to the U.S.  A stable, free-market, western-leaning Burma—or even a slightly less China-friendly one—would be a crucial link in a strategic chain that already includes Mongolia, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, and India.



Though the road may be rocky—after all, they haven’t tried free, open multi-party elections yet—it is clear the direction Burma will now drift, and it is undoubtedly good for Burma, for the region, for the West, and for the world.  But it is Burma’s internal politics that are now in unpredictable flux.

Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein

Burma is one of the more ethnically fractious countries in the world.  Before the British consolidated their control over what is now Burma in a series of wars leading up to full colonization in 1885, the area was home to several kingdoms with shifting borders over the centuries.  The Bamar or Burmese ethnic group, which accounts for two-thirds of the population, are descended from a migration from what is now Yunnan province in China about a thousand years ago.  Many of the minority groups in Burma have a longer history in the area and have never felt themselves to be “part of Burma.”  These include the Shan in east-central Burma (9% of the population), the Karen of Kayin state in southeastern Burma (7%), and the Kachin or Jingpo people, who make up only 1.5% of Burma’s population but whose eponymous state, in the far north of the country, is a vast region with agriculture, harvestable forests, jade production, and a massive Chinese-funded hydroelectric project which proceeds in fits and starts due to the ongoing civil war there between Kachin militias and the government.

When Burma became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948, it was supposed to be set up as a stable democracy, like neighboring India, but it proved difficult.  In the Panglong Agreement of 1948, the British and the new Burmese leader, Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi), agreed to establish the Karen, Shan, Kachin, and others in autonomous regions where their nationhood would be recognized within a federated “Union of Burma.”  The Karenni or Red Karen (often considered distinct from other Karen) and Shan were offered eventual right of secession.  The small and impoverished Chin ethnic group of the northwest border area had no interest in going it alone and merely asked for their own autonomous region.   The Kachin, small in number, got not even that, and independence led to an ongoing separatist insurgency in the far north.  The Kachin’s many grievances include the establishment of Buddhism as the state religion while only a minority of Kachin are Buddhist (a slight majority are Christian, and most of the rest follow local religions).  The Karen, who felt slighted by the British, sat out of the negotiations and got nothing.  The Shan and Karenni never got their promised referenda, either.  Overall, they ended up only with administrative divisions named after their ethnic groups (the Karen in Kayin state, the Karenni in Kayah) in a uniformly authoritarian state with one central authority.



The Karen, of these groups, has a powerful public-relations presence in the West which had played a major role in the West’s continuing diplomatic isolation of the Myanmar junta.  Because of this, the Karen cease-fire has been big news, and is being used by the U.S. State Department to demonstrate a loosening of the junta’s grip and a general democratization and demilitarization of Burmese society (analogous in some ways to public representations of the Oromo cease-fire in Ethiopia, as I discussed here recently).

Protesters’ sign displaying the flag of the Karen National Union

But behind the handshakes and the warm words, the junta has been intensifying its brutal war against Shan and especially Kachin civilians in recent weeks, as reported in the New York Times and elsewhere.  My guess is that this is the Myanmar government sending a message to Beijing: “Don’t worry.  We may be warming to the West and devolving some rights to some minorities, but we’ll never let Shan and Kachin rebels impede your rape of their forests and your flooding of their valleys.”

The flag of Shan State

Meanwhile, there is suddenly more cooperation between Burma and India on separatists in their shared border region.  The Myanmar and Indian governments agreed this week to cooperate in rooting out Naga and Assamese separatist rebels hiding in Burma as well as Burmese Chin and other rebels hiding in India (though the former is a more common phenomenon).  And today (January 24, 2012), in India, a ceremonial cease-fire involving more than 700 rebels in India’s northeast seems to be the fruits of this agreement.  So the Indian government is clearly a party to the behind-the-scenes deals with Myanmar and the West over the minorities issue in the region.

It is not a stretch to observe the diplomatic machinations of the past couple weeks and conclude that the Karen are at the negotiating table with the U.S. and Burmese governments mainly because their making peace with a liberalizing government has to be a part of any international perception that Burma has turned a corner and deserves to be re-embraced as a good global citizen.  If the Karen are savvy (and they are) and if they still want independence (and that may well end up being decided after they see how liberal Burma is really becoming), then they may eventually get more autonomy and maybe even a separate state (which they would like to call Kawthoolei).  After all, also in recent months, the U.S.’s midwifing of a new Republic of South Sudan has been a successful power play that has further isolated (north) Sudan and may be pushing the Somalia war to a satisfying end-game.  If an independent Karen republic is what it takes to woo Burma away from China’s sphere of political influence, the U.S. will see that as a small price to pay.  A new Karen state would probably be a loyal U.S. ally.  But Burma’s rapprochement with the U.S. may prove to be at the cost of their long-suffering northern minorities and their lands.

The current flag of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Monday, January 9, 2012

Will Siberia Become the 51st State—or Maybe 51 through 77?

You know you’re in trouble when Pravda is your only source on a story.  So I am taking with a grain of salt the report by the paper, on December 28th, 2011, that there is a movement afoot to separate Siberia from the Russian Federation and make it part of the United States of America.  (Siberia is not a political unit; it is the term used for the parts of Russia that are in Asia, east of the Ural Mountains.)




The story does not seem to be corroborated by any other source.  The only concrete reference in the article is to one Vladimir Kiselyov, age 37, of Mezhdurechensk in southwestern Siberia’s Kemerovo Oblast, who supposedly started up a group on Facebook promoting the idea.  The Pravda article then connects this very tendentiously to the idea put forth by Zbigniew Brzezhinski, President Jimmy Carter’s national-security advisor (and one of the architects of the now-decades-old Afghanistan mess), for a “new commonwealth from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”  (Look at a map, though; that just indicates a vast swath of the Pacific.)

Mikhail Bakunin

In fact, however, Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist thinker, proposed an independent democratic Siberia in the 1860s and dreamed of it allying itself with the United States as a way of spreading democracy through Asia and to Russia from the east.  During the 1917-18 Russian Civil War that became the Revolution, Mensheviks declared an independent Siberia in Irkutsk, and adopted a diagonal green-and-white bicolor as their flag, but it was a short-lived idea, and the Bolsheviks gradually brought all of Siberia under a unitary state based in Moscow.  It is not unlikely that the Mensheviks would have supported the idea of joining the U.S.

Siberia’s regional coat of arms (unofficial)

But that is all far in the past.  I can conclude only that this recent article (Pravda is no longer an official state newspaper, as it was in the Soviet period; in tone and accuracy it is somewhere between the New York Post and the Weekly World News) is a ham-fisted attempt to paint separatist movements in the Russian Federation as ridiculous.  This is a reasonable propaganda goal for supporters of Vladimir Putin, since the current “Russian Winter” people-power uprising against the government has the potential to reawaken regional separatist movements—in Siberia and elsewhere—that were encouraged early on by Boris Yeltsin (who told regional governors to “take as much autonomy as you can stand”) but then stomped on by Putin, most horrifically in his wars against Chechen separatists.  There are dormant separatist movements in many part of Siberia—in the Sakha Republic (a.k.a. Yakutia), Buryatia, and the Tuva Republic, among other places—but the autonomy movements of the 1990s did not include Siberian nationalism per se.

Flag of the Tuva Republic

Nor would the U.S. be terribly interested in annexing Siberia, I gather.  During Quebec’s last secessionist crisis, in 1995, there was talk of Canada’s Maritime provinces—which would have been geographically cut off by an independent Quebec from the rest of Anglophone Canada and its capital—joining the U.S., and even that was regarded as laughable precisely because the Maritimes were so economically depressed.  Why would the U.S. want four more West Virginias?  Siberia would be an even more ridiculous proposition, needless to say.

But let’s think for a moment what would happen if the U.S. annexed Siberia.  For one thing, Siberia makes up more than three-quarters of Russia’s territory, so the United States would suddenly move from third-largest country in the world (or fourth-largest, if you count Taiwan as part of China and decline to include U.S. overseas territories) to an easy number one—almost 9 million square miles (ca. 23,310,000 square km) in extent, exceeding by more than 2 million square miles (ca. 5,180,000 square km) Russia’s current size.  Russia, meanwhile, would plummet from first place to 19th, with just over a million and a half square miles.  The new top-20 ranking would be: 1. U.S., 2. Canada, 3. China, 4. Brazil, 5. Australia, 6. India, 7. Argentina, 8. Kazakhstan, 9. Algeria, 10. Democratic Republic of the Congo, 11. Denmark (including Greenland), 12. Saudi Arabia, 13. Mexico, 14. Indonesia, 15. Sudan (north), 16. Libya, 17. Iran, 18. Mongolia, 19. Russia, 20. Peru.

Russia would be smaller than Kazakhstan.  Just get your pointy head around that, Putin.

One of several unofficial flags of Siberia, though Siberians, on the whole
tend to consider Siberia a region, not a nation.  Looks to me like a lynx
that’s got a hold of a mink, no?—or a minx that’s got hold of a link
... or something like that.

In terms of population, Siberia’s 40 million people, added to the U.S.’s 300-million-plus, would not change the U.S.’s current population ranking at no. 3, behind China and India, but it would dislodge Russia from its current no. 8 spot to no. 11, between Mexico and the Philippines.

If Siberia joined the U.S. as one state, it would be by far the largest state, and in fact would be considerably larger than all the other fifty states put together, and larger than any single country in the world.  More likely is that Siberia’s 27 (out of Russia’s total of 83) constituent “federal subjects”—the republics, autonomous regions, krais, oblasts, and okrugs that are its provinces and territories—would join the U.S. as separate states, for a total of 77.  This would create, for one thing, a flag question.  The red and white stripes would possibly end up alongside a slightly unfamiliar rectangle featuring an 11-by-7 grid of stars:


—unless one went with alternating lines, specifically five rows of nine alternating with four rows of eight, which looks more like our current flag:


(See this article on the mathematician Skip Garibaldi’s attempt to come up with a formula for forming new star grids as new states join the union, and try this widget for generating flags for each number of states up to 100.)

Alaska would no longer be the largest state.  It would be third, behind the Sakha Republic (1,198,152 square miles, or 3,102,300 square km) and Krasnoyarsk Krai (903,363 square miles, or 2,339,700 square km).  Take that, Sarah Palin—plus, you’d no longer be able to see Russia from your front porch ... or whatever.

Even better, Texas would no longer be the second-largest state, it would be ninth, after Sakha, Krasnoyarsk, Alaska, Tyumen Oblast, Khabarovsk Krai, Irkutsk Oblast, Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and Chukotka Autonomous Okrug.  Take that, Rick Perry!

Well, yippee-ki-yay, ever’thin’s big in the Sakha Republic.


But perhaps oddest of all would be the situation of one of America’s 77 states being something called the Jewish Autonomous Oblast, a desolate, Maryland-sized scrap of land just to the north of China’s northern Manchurian wastes.  This forlorn place was Josef Stalin’s dumping ground for Russia’s Jews.  Today, only 1% of the population is Jewish, but the territory was never renamed.

Location of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast

In this idle what-if exercise, one thing, however, is clear: the first thing Rick Santorum would do as President of a United States of America and Siberia is change the Jewish Autonomous Oblast’s current flag:


After all, there are the children to think about.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my 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.  The book, which contains dozens of maps and over 500 flags, is now in the layout phase and should be on shelves, and available on Amazon, by early fall 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even though you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook.]

Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Pyongyang Giant: North Korea’s Photoshop Mystery

This topic is only very tangentially within the purview of this blog.  The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a.k.a. North Korea, is in one sense a secessionist portion of the original People’s Republic of Korea (covering the whole Korean peninsula) which succeeded, in 1945, the Japanese Empire’s occupation of the peninsula.  The Republic of Korea, a.k.a. South Korea, still does not diplomatically recognize North Korea, and vice versa.



However, even though this blog does not intend to treat the ins and outs of inter-Korean politics as part of its bailiwick, I still feel that I must chime in on the subject of the Pyongyang Giant.  No one calls him that but me, but I figure if Cardiff can have a (phony) giant, so can the capital of the most absurd dictatorship in the world.  Or is he phony?

Some of you have seen the pictures already, and there isn’t actually much more to it than the pictures.




Officially released photos from the December 28, 2011, funeral of North Korea’s mad hermit dictator Kim Jong-Il show what appears to be a more than eight-foot-tall (2.438-meter) soldier (the first reports in Western media said nine feet tall) in a row of military observers at the funeral procession—in the back row, naturally.  The North Korean government has not commented on the photo, but reaction in Western media has been baffled and incredulous.



The first question that comes to mind is whether it could be real.  When dealing with a regime that claims that Kim Jong-Il was born amidst supernatural omens like double rainbows and the spontaneous turning of winter into spring, that he invented the hamburger, and that he once shot five holes-in-one in a single round of golf, no information that is released in any form can be taken at face value.



It seems to me that the North Korean government is perfectly capable of faking photos for the purpose either of scaring the United States into thinking it has the capacity to produce giant super-soldiers or of countering the common (and accurate) perception in the outside world that North Korea’s economy is such a shambles that a huge portion of the population is stunted from malnutrition.  A doctored photo of a giant soldier is exactly the sort of misguided propaganda stunt that a regime as isolated and warped as North Korea’s would regard as a credible information campaign.  Indeed, Kim’s funeral procession also included instances of Photoshopped illusions such as the deletion of a camera crew from one photo, as comparisons of different officially released images reveals.


However, the giant soldier is seen from several different angles, and the differently angled images correspond much as they would if he were really there.  So, if these photos were doctored, someone put a lot of trouble into doctoring them.

It should also be noted that humans that grow to heights of eight or nine feet tend to have so many attendant health problems that normally they would be excused from military service—though perhaps not in North Korea, where such a recruit might be a handy propaganda tool.

Some observers suggest that the soldier may be Ri Myung Hun, the 44-year-old, 7' 8.5" (2.35-meter) tall North Korean basketball player, who is sometimes called the tallest person in the world, and certainly the tallest professional basketball player.  But the figure in the photos seems to be significantly taller even than that.

Ri Myung Hun

Eastern Asia is already known to physical anthropologists as a part of the world where some of the planet’s tallest individuals and some of the shortest can be found, sometimes from the same ethnic group or community.



However, it seems odd that the world-record-crazed North Korean propaganda machine would not already have boasted to the world of having produced the tallest living person (a record generally attributed to one Sultan Kösen of Turkey, who stands 8'3" (2.515 meters)).

The possibility remains that the Pyongyang Giant is what he appears to be—a North Korean soldier who stands somewhere between eight and a half and nine feet tall.  If so, then just think how tall he would’ve been without the malnutrition.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Détente in Ethiopian Civil War—or U.S. Power Play in the Horn of Africa?

Media have been reporting on a special announcement by the leadership of the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) National Council, the most high-profile group representing Ethiopia’s Oromo minority internationally, to the effect that they are ending their armed struggle for a separate state.  But less widely reported is that actual Oromo fighters engaged in the armed struggle within Ethiopia reject that.  Are the Oromo really laying down their arms?  Who really represents the Oromo?  And does this statement from an American exile group claiming to speak for Oromo in Ethiopia reflect a new phase in Ethiopia’s stabilization, or is it merely a reverberation from a United States power play in the Horn of Africa?

The OLF statement, released on January 1st and announcing the results of its December 30-31 meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, states that the Council “has examined all aspects of the Oromo peoples’ struggle; the political program of the OLF; the current conditions of the Ethiopian peoples under the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi; and the importance of working with all democratic forces in Ethiopia to end the suffering.  ...  The New OLF political program will accept the new federal democratic republic of Ethiopia that will work for the betterment of all of its citizens, neighboring countries and international communities.  ...  Therefore, we call upon all Oromo political forces and other forces in Ethiopia to join us to implement this new vision.  The OLF National Council also appeals to International Community to stop supporting the dictatorship of Meles Zenawi’s regime that has engaged in terrorizing the Ethiopian people, selling the precious resources of the country to the highest bidders, and the government that does not respect the principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law.”  (You can read the entire OLF press release here.)

Map showing the aspirant nation of Oromia within what is now Ethiopia

But while the Minneapolis meeting was still going on, the United Liberation Forces of Oromiyya (ULFO), from within Ethiopia, released an announcement on the Oromo Parliamentarians Council (OPC) website titled “Response to the Current Onslaught on the Oromo Liberation Struggle.”  The statement essentially implies that the OLF, despite their anti-regime language, are beholden to the status quo and accuses the OLF of “fashion[ing] a pseudo shared political platform as a concerted effort to distort the history and the object of Oromo political struggle ... under the guise of ‘uniting all political opposition groups against the regime of Meles Zenawi.’”  (You can read the full ULFO statement here.) Other regional media have also questioned the significance of the announcement, and the Ethiopian government has not responded to it.



As is usual with these complex topics, a brief history lesson is in order.

Ethiopia is a country with no ethnic majority.  The Oromo are the largest group, making up 34.5% of the population.  The Amhara, with 26.9%, are the next largest, while the rest of the population is made up of dozens of groups with a 10% share or smaller.  Emperor Haile Selassie, the national hero (and international hero to the African diaspora), who ruled Ethiopia from 1930 to 1974, was a popular uniting figure partly because he was of mixed ancestry, being from the Oromo, Amhara, and Gurage ethnic groups (the Gurage are 2.5% of the population) (in addition to being, by popular tradition, a direct descendant of the Hebrew King Solomon).

Ethiopia’s ethnic regions

In 1974, Selassie was deposed in a Communist revolution by Mengistu Haile Mariam, whose personal and ethnic background was murky but who followed Selassie in using Amharic as the federal language of business and thus reserving a prominent place for Amhara in public life.  The Communist period saw a series of calamities for Ethiopia, including a fracturing along ethnic lines.  Tigray, Oromo, Eritrean, and Ogaden groups led armed separatist struggles.  Somalia briefly invaded Ethiopia, in 1977, to try to annex the Ogaden region, which is ethnically Somali.  Most infamously, the Mengistu regime in the 1980s used one of the worst famines of modern history as a weapon of war—fattening the military while choking off the flow of aid to rebel regions.

Mengistu Haile Mariam

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its aid to Ethiopia ended abruptly, Mengistu fled to exile in Zimbabwe, and the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), a multi-ethnic anti-Communist rebel group, moved into Addis Ababa, the capital, and took power, with no Soviet troops even to slow them down.  (Soon after, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia with international recognition, reinscribing the old line between Italian Eritrea and British-ruled Ethiopia.  See my recent blog post on African colonial boundaries for some context.)  Meles Zenawi was installed as Ethiopian prime minister, a post he still holds.  Meles is a member of the Tigray ethnic group (6.1% of the population), and indeed the EPRDF was originally a coaliton of several Mengistu-era rebel groups, including the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the OLF, as well as an anti-Communist Amhara militia.  However, the OLF departed the new EPRDF government soon after it took power, leaving a ruling party disproportionately dominated by Tigrays; ULFO even bluntly calls it a TPLF government.  The largely ceremonial presidency is currently filled by Girma Wolde-Giorgis, an Oromo.  Amhara retain a role mostly because their homeland includes the capital and their mother tongue is the language of government, but the association of them with former regimes leaves them out of the political spotlight so as not to provoke long-standing ethnic resentments.

Meles Zenawi

Meles’s Ethiopia is a nominally free and multi-party state but—while not quite the dictatorship the statements quoted above make it out to be—is in reality a deeply flawed, corrupt, and ethnically unbalanced democracy.  Its apparent unity, especially compared to its neighbors, belies divisions just below the surface.  Only Somalia’s own dysfunctionality prevents a revival of war in the Ogaden region, and only the current alliance between Amharas and Tigrays in the Ethiopian federal government prevents full-blown separatist struggles from leaving the country divided as it was in the 1980s.  In June, the Ethiopian government had issued a list of terrorist groups operating in the country, including the OLF, the Ogaden National Liberation Front, Al-Shabab, and a multi-ethnic civic organization it dislikes calls Ginbot 7.  Western governments, indeed, are happy to support the central government, whatever its shortcomings, rather than risk a second failed state in the region, alongside—yes literally alongside—Somalia (see map below).  Indeed, an argument can be made that Western, especially U.S., efforts to control and contain and where possible exploit separatist tensions in the Horn of Africa may be a subtext behind the current split in the Oromo community, with rebels on the ground vowing to continue the fight and activists in the diaspora criticizing Meles but willing to focus on the possibility—and let’s be clear, it is only a possibility—of a free, democratic, and multi-ethnic Ethiopia.

The flag of Ethiopia

But what is behind this sudden conversion of one faction of Ethiopia’s last remaining serious rebel movement?  An observer could be forgiven for wondering whether there is a U.S. power play behind this move by the U.S.-based OLF National Council exile movement (which, although it is hard to tell, is probably distinct from what goes on at  the OLF headquarters in Asmara, Eritrea).  To understanding if or why this could be the case, it’s necessary to look at U.S. interests in the region since the Cold War.



By 1974, when Ethiopia became Marxist, Somalia had for five years already been in the grip of the coup leader Mohammed Siad Barre, under a more moderate Socialist banner.  Barre’s infatuation with Communism soured after the Soviet Union helped Ethiopia win the 1977 war with Somalia over the Ogaden region.  After this, Barre began courting the U.S., which, not minding terribly much that Somalia was a socialist dictatorship, mostly wanted to seize the opportunity to partially encircle the Soviet client state of Ethiopia.  The U.S. poured military aid into Somalia, while, according to the U.S.’s Somali allies, Ethiopia supported rebel factions throughout Somalia in an attempt to destabilize it.  Around the time Ethiopian Communism fell in 1991, Somalia imploded, resulting in the Somali Civil War and the disastrous U.S. intervention there during President George H. W. Bush Sr.’s administration.  Although Ethiopia was no longer an ideological enemy, the U.S. has since sought to prop up what passed for a unity government in Somalia, even as bits of it like Somaliland and Puntland split away (see map below).  Today the U.S., with the rest of the international community, recognizes only the so-called Transitional Federal Government—I say “so-called” because it controls little more than much of the capital, Mogadishu.  During Bill Clinton’s presidency, and especially after the first World Trade Center bombing, in 1993, the U.S. became concerned that Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations had found a haven both in the chaos of Somalia and in neighboring Sudan.  Comfortable with Puntland and Somaliland as stable pseudo-states which did not allow Al-Qaeda to operate there, the U.S. began to focus, vainly, on helping the TFG control central and southern Somalia.


Areas of control in Somalia today

The orchestration of South Sudan’s secession from the Republic of Sudan in July 2011—a process initiated under President George W. Bush, and then completed under Barack Obama—can also be seen as a deliberate crippling of the terrorist-harboring regime of Omar al-Bashir in Khartoum.  With South Sudan now a U.S. client state (without the U.S. it would not exist), and with the rump Sudan under ongoing international pressure for its human-rights abuses in Darfur and elsewhere, the past few months have also seen a major U.S.-led offensive to root out the al-Qaeda-aligned terrorist al-Shabab network which controls much of southern Somalia.  In early 2011, the very southwesternmost region of Somalia—calling itself by a variety of names, including Azania, Jubaland, and even “Greenland”—attempted to set up an autonomous region and de facto independent state on the model of Somaliland and Puntland, specifically as a bulwark against al-Shabab.  However, soon after, in the fall, a U.S.-supported invasion across the Somali border by Kenya put the kind of pressure on al-Shabab from the south that the U.S.-supported TFG never could from the north.  Meanwhile, just in the past couple weeks, Ethiopia invaded southern Somalia as well, capturing some border regions and further tightening the noose on al-Shabab.  Clearly, this represents a recent diplomatic success by the U.S. in securing Ethiopia as an at least temporary ally.  Surely the U.S.-supported international sanctions current embargoing Ethiopia’s enemy Eritrea for supposedly backing al-Shabab helped ingratiate Ethiopia to the U.S.

The 2011 Kenyan invasion of southern Somalia

All of these events have helped transform the Horn of Africa, in a few short years, from a country with vast swaths of territory in the control of violent Islamists into an area with U.S. allies in the form of South Sudan, Kenya, Somalia (at least the southern half), and, now, perhaps, Ethiopia, all fighting alongside the U.S. against al-Shabab.  Perhaps the U.S. hopes that this latest defection of one Oromo faction from separatist rebellion to unity government in some sort of emerging alliance with an Amhara- and Tigray-dominated government in Addis Ababa will be one of the puzzle pieces that helps consolidate the Horn of Africa, in these uncertain times of Muslim upheaval around the world, into a more or less safe region for American interests.  Perhaps one side effect of this will be that the U.S. helps usher Ethiopia away from authoritarianism and toward becoming an ethnically unified country that is a stabilizing force in the region.  But it may be a gamble.  And, if it fails, Somalia may eventually succeed in dragging Ethiopia down into its own familiar chaos.

Members of the Oromo diaspora in the U.S. display their ethnic flag at a demonstration

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