Saturday, December 20, 2014

10 Separatist Movements to Watch in 2015

Last year, in my annual look forward at what the coming twelvemonth promises in the way of ethnonationalist struggles and new-state movements, my predictions were sadly accurate when it came to a few movements in particular that came to dominate the headlines in 2014.

ISIS comes to town ...
No. 3 a year ago was what I referred to then as “Al-Sham”—the territory of “Greater Syria” referred to in Islamic State’s erstwhile, and still colloquially widely used, name ISIS, standing for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham.  (Al-Sham can also be translated as “the Levant,” hence its other English acronym, ISIL.)  At that time, December 2013, ISIS was confined to Syria, but I alluded to announced plans (not widely reported at the time) to annex Iraq’s vast, adjacent Anbar province, which they then proceeded to do.  I also wrote, at the time, “ISIS has no particular quarrel with Kurds, who are after all fellow Sunnis—not like the ‘heretical’ Druze and ruling Alawite Shiites—but that could change, since when it comes to the areas they are finding it easier to assemble into a coherent territory, Kurds are—I can’t believe I’m typing this—Kurds are in their whey.”  And how.  I did not predict such a colossal battle as the siege of Kobanê—nor the barbaric slaughter and enslavement of the Yezidi minority.  Syria’s embattled ruling Alawites were no. 8 on my list two years ago, but the advent of ISIS has pushed them far down the list and out of sight.  As might be expected, ISIS is on the 2015 list too, at no. 2 (see below), and the Kurds—who have had a roller-coaster of a year and were no. 4 on last year’s list, no. 1 the year before, and no. 3 for 2012—are this year’s no. 1 (see below).

In Ukraine in 2014, the patients took over the mental hospital.
In Ukraine, too (“West and East Ukraine” were no. 8 last year), I wish I had not been as prescient as I was.  “There have been pro-Moscow counter-demonstrations,” I wrote, referring to the Euro-Maidan movement then, a year ago, in its first weeks, “but so far no open demands for a partitioning of the country along linguistic lines or for re-annexation of the east to Russia.   But Lvov and other ethnic-Ukrainian-dominated western oblasts are declaring themselves no longer subject to the Ukrainian central government’s authority, moves which [Ukraine’s president at the time, Viktor] Yanukovych angrily decries as ‘separatism,’ so perhaps the seeds have already been planted.”  Indeed, in the months since Yanukovych’s replacement by a pro-Western government, Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in eastern Ukraine—or shifting territories therein—have become de facto rebel states amidst a war that has already killed almost 5,000.  It all started, of course, with Crimea, which I was presciently flagging as a trouble spot shortly thereafter during the Winter Olympics in Sochi, when no one thought Vladimir Putin would dare an outright invasion and annexation.  But in December 2013, I was more naïve, writing, “A drive to split Ukraine would also run right through Crimea, where Russians outnumber Ukrainians but where the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar Nation openly sides with the E.U. proponents.”  Alas, I underestimated the Islamophobia of the Putin regime and his readiness to roll right over and marginalize the indigenous Tatar minority.  Novorossiya—or “New Russia,” as the “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk call themselves collectively—is no. 5 on this year’s list (see below).

Slavering Serb “Chetniks” in Crimea, returning the favor after Cossacks
lent their cutlasses to the Serb side in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars.
Of the three movements it took no great insight to add to the list, Scotland (no. 1 last year), Catalonia (no. 2 last year), and northern California’s State of Jefferson (or at least three counties of it) (no. 7 last year) (or counties of it) already had votes scheduled.  The Jefferson results in June disappointed statehood proponents, and that cause has fizzled quite a bit.  But Scotland and Catalonia, though unionists mock their referenda as failures, are showing quite a bit of life in them yet, and they remain on the list, at nos. 10 and 9, respectively (see below).

2014 saw the rise and fall of a movement to create a separate state
for people who never take their prole caps off, even at city-council meetings.
A few movements from last year’s list petered out rather unexpectedly.  In French Polynesia (no. 6 last year), things looked evenly divided politically a year ago, but in July the colonial government in France pressed a prosecution for charges of corruption against Gaston Flosse, the pro-French president of the territory.  By September, his party, Tahoera’a Huiraatira, had replaced him with his son-in-law, Édouard Fritch.  Flosse’s party is unpopular and Fritch thus at a political disadvantage, but the party has gone behind his back in pressing a compensation claim against Paris for the effects of nuclear testing in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.  Initially, Flosse had planned on calling an early referendum on independence, which, the hope was, would result in a “no,” thus inoculating the territory against separatism for another generation.  (Unionists in another French Pacific territory, New Caledonia, are taking a similar approach.)  But after Flosse’s judicial take-down, that plan, if implemented, could, unionists feared, backfire and end French rule, so the nuclear-compensation bid is a new effort to woo anti-colonialists and peel nationalists away from the independence cause.  It seems to be working.  Separatists are a minority still, and they have unable to make any political hay out of Tahoera’a Huiraatira’s troubles.

French Polynesia’s roller-coaster politics in 2014: President Gaston Flosse was garlanded with leis—
and then with subpoenas and court orders.
A year ago, Libya (no. 10 on the list back then) seemed to be coming apart at the seams: the Berber minority, as well as traditional leaders and trade-unionists in the formerly independent eastern region, Cyrenaica, were holding Libyan oil facilities hostage demanding more autonomy, and Cyrenaica and the southern, formerly French region of Fezzan both unilaterally declared autonomy and formed governments.  But a year later the tables have turned—in an almost absurdly unexpected way.  Cyrenaican nationalism has declined as a factor in the still fissiparous politics of Libya, and armed militias left over from the 2011-12 civil war, whose grievances are rarely openly regionalist, have become the real threat, along with Ansar al-Shari’a and other jihadist groups, which operate, again, mostly in the east.  Most grievously in 2014, the mishandling of a militia skirmish originally related to the Cyrenaican separatist cause was mishandled so badly that a coup d’état turfed the sitting government out of the capital, Tripoli, forcing it to relocate—wait for it—to Cyrenaica, where the president now runs a parallel government.  The oil is flowing, though, so the international community is willing to treat this odd state of affairs as business as usual.  The upshot is that Cyrenaica is now home base for the original unionists, and the rebel government in the capital is pursuing an agenda that has little do with partition or autonomy.  (However, a new faultline might be the radical Islamists, including some Tuaregs, who are decamping to Fezzan in ever larger numbers as Nigeria and Mali claw back Islamist-rebel-claimed regions.)  I do not predict Libya will move toward subdivision in 2015, but once the current crisis has resolved itself—maybe with another civil war—expect the Cyrenaican regionalist agenda to reemerge.  After all, that’s where all the oil is.

And in the heady run-up to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I listed the Caucasus Emirate movement as no. 5, fearing that they—more so than the more moderate Circassian activists, with their far more legitimate grievances—would disrupt the Games, perhaps in a spectacular way reminiscent of Munich in 1972.  But the F.S.B. ( K.G.B.) and hordes of Cossacks (yes, it is 2014, not 1814) worked mightily, and successfully, to tamp down both jihadists and ethnic autonomists in the Black Sea and North Caucasus region.  Perhaps only temporarily, though: the latest news (reported on recently in this blog) is that one faction of the now divided Caucasus Emirate group is aligning itself with Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS).

Circassian and Caucasus Emirate unrest were mostly no-shows at Sochi in 2014.
But now that the Emirate has fallen in love with ISIS, they at least will be back.
Without further ado, then, here is this year’s list: the ten separatist movements to watch in 2015.

10. Scotland

But, wait, wasn’t that all settled in September?  Why is Scotland (which was no. 1 last year and no. 4 the year before) on the list again?  Well, in a way it was settled, with the stay-in-the-United-Kingdom vote beating the independence vote by 55%-45%, and this in a vote that on election eve was polling too close to call.  Unionists interpret this as Scots deciding, once push came to shove, that the status quo was not too bad.  But, in another sense, as the U.K.’s prime minister, David Cameron, pointed out in his “Better Together” campaign for the no side, there was no vote for the status quo.  This is because Westminister threw wavering voters so many promises of perks of autonomy and quasi-independence in the weeks leading up to the vote that once these are implemented, the Union will be a different one, with less power in the center.  One thing that everyone agrees on now—and, say what you will, we have Scotland’s pro-independence former premier Alex Salmond to thank for that—is that the structure of the Union will be completely rethought.  For Scots, even though their geographically proportionate share of North Sea oil revenues is not going to be on offer, that can still mean goodies like better environmental protection, more public funding, and in general the chance to build a more Scandinavian-style social democracy north of the border, as befits the Nordic-inflected culture of Scotland.  For Wales and Northern Ireland, it will mean longer leashes too—and, what luck!, they didn’t even have to advocate for it themselves (in fact, Northern Ireland Protestants have fought the idea of Scottish independence tooth and nail, since it calls their own identity as Britons into question).  And for England, coming changes should mean fixing a situation where there is almost no level of governance to speak of between Westminster and the municipalities—county boundaries nowadays are as quaint and meaningless as hedgerows—and where Scottish parliamentarians can vote on, for example, both Scottish and English education policy, while English M.P.s can vote only on their own.  In short, we might see England getting a parliament as well, which means that it would take over many of the functions now served by the House of Commons and the House of Lords.  (Watch also for regional-autonomy movements in Cornwall, Yorkshire, Wessex, and elsewhere to pick up steam.)  Then we might find a situation in which all the U.K. government is involved in is monetary and foreign policy.  As I argued in an editorial in this blog on election eve, Cameron’s fear-mongering about ejection from the European Union (E.U.) and inability to use the pound were largely invented, as he more or less admitted as soon as the voting was over—and “independence” could have meant all sorts of things for Scotland, including the very comfortable, very self-governing status enjoyed by the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Guernsey, “Crown Dominions” which are really independent Commonwealth realms (in the way Canada, Australia, and Jamaica are), but in “free association” with the U.K.  Thus, I argued, the referendum was not about whether massive changes were coming, but about whether Scots would have an equal, rather than a subservient and petitioning, voice in the way those changes were chosen and implemented.  Sadly, not enough of them really understood the question.  But, even if there isn’t another referendum soon—not this year, certainly, but within five years is possible—Scotland is set to receive a lot more self-government in the months and years to come, and Wales, Northern Ireland, and, yes, England, will get a lot too.  Oh, and there might still be another referendum anyway: membership in the Scottish National Party (S.N.P.) more than tripled in the weeks after the vote, and polls show that if the same ballot were presented today, Scots would secede by a hefty margin.  So the idea of Scottish independence is not going away at all.

Don’t look behind you, Cameron.

9. Catalonia

This one was supposedly settled too but, of course, wasn’t really.  About 91% of the votes cast in Spain’s wealthiest subdivision, the Autonomous Community (i.e., republic) of Catalonia, on November 9th said yes to the question, “Do you want Catalonia to become a State?” and about 81% voted yes to the second question, “Do you want this State to be independent?”  (No explanation was given what the difference was—for example, in what sense Catalonia is not already a “State” if being a state does not entail independence.)  But, despite all the hype and the months of building public interest and passion, turn-out was only somewhere between 37% and 41%, inviting the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, to deride the whole hullaballoo as a “deep failure.”  But indeed the reason for the low turnout was surely that the central government in Madrid had declared the looming vote illegal and unconstitutional and promised to stop it.  As soon as Catalonia’s president, Artur Mas, tried to climb down and cancel it, though, the crucial junior partner in his ruling coalition, the radically separatist Republican Left of Catalonia (Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, or E.R.C.), threatened to quit in protest and knock Mas’s separatist coalition out of power.  So Mas had to do a careful diplomatic dance in order to both stay in power locally and keep Madrid from sending in the tanks.  The compromise was spinning it a non-binding “participation process,” or opinion poll, on “self-determination” rather than independence.  Luckily, the weasel usage of the undefined term State (see above) had left some wiggle room.  But compromise has its risks: Catalan voters were disgusted by Mas’s waffling.  If anything, this may strengthen the hand of the E.R.C. against the currently more numerous moderate, gradualist independentists.  The “street” in Spain does seem to be shifting leftward these days: for example, not only is public opinion in the Basque Country, the second most independent-minded of Spain’s autonomous regions, becoming more separatist, but radical leftist Basque separatists are forming informal political ties with some of Vladimir Putin’s nominally-socialist puppet states, the Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in Azerbaijan, and Ukraine’s pro-Russian Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (which are not people’s republics at all in the way that Basque radicals are used to thinking of) (see below under “Novorossiya”)—all just to stick a thumb in the eye of Madrid, and of NATO and the E.U.  That’s more anti-establishment than Mas would like things to be drifting, but then again he’s had his chance to exercise real leadership and blew it.  Don’t let last month’s anticlimactic referendum fool you: Spain is fragmenting, and disappointment over what happened—and especially what didn’t—in November will only deepen the cracks.  Catalans (who were no. 2 on last year’s list and no. 6 the year before) are just looking for the next vehicle for their frustration and impatience.

8. East Turkestan

For decades, Tibet (no. 7 on this list two years ago) and Taiwan had dominated the large area of the Chinese Communist Party’s collective brain labeled “paranoid fantasies.”  But now the most serious threat to the unity of the Chinese state is the tiny Uyghur national minority, who form only a slight majority in the vast far-western Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the People’s Republic of China’s largest province-level jurisdiction, known by nationalists as East Turkestan (which was no. 9 on last year’s list).  Uyghurs are different: their land is an arid swath of Central Asia, they are Muslim, and they speak a Turkic language related to those of formerly Soviet republics like Azerbaijan and nearby Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.  In the early 20th century, Xinjiang (called Sinkiang, in English) was a far-flung, thinly governed part of the old Chinese Empire, then a Soviet satellite of sorts for a while, till Josef Stalin, at Yalta, negotiated it away to the Nationalists who were running China as the Second World War ended.  The Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) promised, and to some extent granted, Xinjiang some autonomy, but once Mao Zedong seized the territory in 1950, ruthless central control was imposed and it became a Glorious Worker’s Paradise where all were treated equally—actually, I’m just kidding about that last part.  During the Cultural Revolution in Xinjiang, Maoists, in a frenzy similar to what was happening in the rest of the country, embarked on an orgy of destruction, much of it focused on obliterating the Muslim religion.  Alas, little has changed.  Muslim holidays, prayers, and dress are criminalized as part of the official ideology of denouncing all religion as superstition.  In the old Maoist China, worship of Mao was the only worship permitted; today, Chinese—and their smaller captive nations as well—are really only allowed to worship money.  (Buddhism of the type practiced half-heartedly by the ethnic Han majority gets a pass.)  For several years now, a sporadic Uyghur uprising has been claiming lives on a regular—recently almost weekly—basis.  Most unrest takes the form of crude knife or hatchet attacks by Uyghurs on civilian targets like marketplaces.  According to Beijing, that is: as with much else in this closed, totalitarian society, no one knows what is really happening in these incidents—whether Uyghurs are being provoked, whether agents provocateurs are staging the attacks in “false flag” operations to discredit Muslims, or whether, indeed, some of these events are even happening at all.  And some of the alleged Uyghur terrorist attacks have happened far afield—in Kunming, even Beijing.  This is a far cry from the peaceful approach taken by proponents of Tibet’s autonomy or independence, and Beijing is making much of supposed links to Islamic radicals in places like Pakistan, Central Asia, even—implausibly—Turkey.  But Beijing had better be careful what it wishes for: after seeing what has been going on in Hong Kong this fall, Uyghurs may be awakening to the fact that—even though Han Chinese are threatening to soon outnumber them in their own region, as part of Beijing’s internal-migration program to dilute the local culture—there is still some strength in numbers.  Uyghurs do, if they play it right, have the capacity to make Xinjiang ungovernable.  It’s possible a truly general uprising would result in a bloodbath that would make the Tiananmen Square massacre look like nothing.  But if it happens in the context of a general unraveling of Chinese unity—with separatist sentiment on the rise in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet as well—then anything can happen.  I predict that, if nothing else, there will be more and greater interethnic carnage in China’s wild west in 2015, and a further official crackdown on Uyghur religion and culture—which, of course, will only create more radicals.

7. Republika Srpska

One of the many odd side-effects around the world of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Republic of Crimea this spring has been the stirring of similar irredentist feelings among the Serb ethnic group in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Back in the 1990s, when the West was demonizing Serbia and the Serbs in adjacent republics as the villains of the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, Russia responded with a warming of relations with Serbia, especially as Belgrade with its bitter, foam-flecked nationalism became diplomatically isolated in the years that followed.  The secession of Serbia’s Kosovo province, under North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) cover, exacerbated the matter, with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, starkly opposed to Kosovo’s independence and asking President Bill Clinton, at one point, why in God’s name he wanted to help along “the Islamization of Europe.”  And Putin has made much of the Kosovo precedent in justifying the Crimean land-grab and in pointing fingers at Western hypocrisy on the subject.  Nationalist Serbs that now find themselves outside Serbia, in places like Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo, have remained more fiercely nationalistic and more enamored of the idea of a “Greater Serbia” than the more cosmopolitan and pragmatic Serbs in Serbia itself, who are groping for a face-saving way to make peace with the reality of Kosovo so that everyone can be in the European Union (E.U.) together.  And no Serbs are more passionate than the Serbs of Bosnia, whose designated half of the two-part federation, Republika Srpska (translatable as “(Ethnic) Serb Republic,” as opposed to the “Republic of Serbia” called Republika Srbija) is more or less completely self-governing and separate from the other half, shared by Croats and (Muslim) Bosniaks.  So when the Russian–Ukrainian conflict erupted a year ago, it pushed Bosnian Serbs’ nationalist emotional buttons: reclaiming lost lands (Bosnia, analogous to Ukraine) and reattaching them to the motherland (Serbia, analogous to Russia), and of course ruthlessly rolling right over any Muslims that stand in their way (Bosniaks or Kosovars, analogous to the disenfranchised Crimean Tatars).  Just as Russian irregulars, including Cossacks, fought on the Serb side in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars, so have Serb mercenaries been joining battle in Ukraine on the side of ethnic Russians.  Bosnian Serbs don’t seem to care much whether they ever join the E.U. or not; they’d rather be part of an expanded Serbia that—in this emerging Second Cold War—joins the new anti-NATO axis of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Syria, and Iran in thumbing its nose at the West.  Mind you, Serbia itself would never ignite another war by offering to annex half of Bosnia, and the international community would never accept the logic of two Serb republics, so it is a non-starter.  But life is economically rough in Bosnia, and Serbian political culture, like its Russian counterpart, is dominated by a persecution complex.  The Srpska president, Milorad Dodik, says, with probably only a little bit of exaggeration, that 99% of his subjects crave independence.  The eastern half of Bosnia (“half” not being the best word for the meandering gerrymander that is Srpska) could be the site of a hasty, ill-thought-through declaration of independence, and a messy, murky guerrilla war (à la eastern Ukraine, but in miniature) during 2015.  Stranger things have happened.

President Milorad Dodik kisses a Serbian flag at his inauguration in 2010.

6. South Yemen

As much as Iraq and SyriaYemen is arguably the emerging front in the Sunni vs. Shiite war within Islam that has always been a subtext of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings and their ongoing aftermath.  (South Yemen was no. 4 on this blog’s first of these lists, for 2012.)  North Yemen (on a map it looks more like West Yemen, but its capital is almost due north of the Southern one) was the mountainous, Shiite-dominated portion that became an independent kingdom during the Arab Revolt in the 1910s.  South Yemen was the United Kingdom’s former Aden Protectorate, which became independent in 1967.  Through the latter part of the Cold War, this divide was less a sectarian one than a geopolitical one, with the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, in the south, being a Communist client state of the Soviet Union and the north a pro-Western bulwark.  But when the Cold War ended, the two reunified, almost simultaneous with Germany’s unification and for similar reasons.  Since then, the northern, Shiite Arab tribes, including a powerful one called the Houthis, and the southern, Sunni Arab tribes have chafed at sharing a country.  The southern separatist insurgency, called the al-Hirak movement, was reawakened when the Arab Spring toppled Yemen’s post-unification Shiite dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh in 2012, but it bumbled along with no real way to get traction for a while—hindered mostly by the necessity of acquiescing to the central government in order to let them fight the Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (A.Q.A.P.), who were also searching for a South Yemeni foothold.  But the sudden shift of al-Qaeda resources and attention to Iraq and Syria in 2014 (see below under no. 2, “Islamic State”), combined with a Shiite-led invasion of the capital, Sana’a, by Houthi militias over the past few months, have changed the whole political landscape.  The Houthis may or may not be backed by Iran or by Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated Hezbollah militia or both, as detractors claim, and al-Hirak may or may not be in league with al-Qaeda or Saudi Arabia or both, as its enemies say, but both groups have been able to make enough headway that the central government has capitulated to the Houthis and more and more southerners are feeling that there is no unified, pluralist alternative to secession.  Yemen is breaking up in spite of itself.  In 2015 this may become permanent.

5. Novorossiya

When the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire conspired, two centuries ago, to dismember and divvy up Poland and Ukraine, Catherine the Great ended up with the southeastern portion, the Donbas (Donetsk basin) and Crimea, an area plastered on Czarist maps with names like “Little Russia” (Malorossiya) and “New Russia” (Novorossiya), while regions like Transcarpathia, Galicia, Bukovina, Silesia, and Bessarabia became Habsburg lands centered on vigorously multi-cultural cosmopolitan cities like Lvov and Odessa.  In reality, this cultural and geopolitical divide in Ukraine is long-standing.  When Russian Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War consolidated their control over the entire area, pushing out the more multi-ethnic and progressive Mensheviks of western Ukraine, these differences rapidly declined in significance: everyone was ruled directly from Moscow anyway, under a Russophilic hegemony thinly disguised as a petty-nationalism-transcending Red internationalism.  Thus, there were no real administrative implications when Nikita Khrushchev (during a vodka bender, according to popular belief) swapped Crimea from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (R.S.F.S.R.) over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.  But when the Soviet Union unravelled in 1990 and internal administrative boundaries became international frontiers, it suddenly mattered quite a bit.  Crimea, dominated by ethnic Russians, including many rootless military families, resisted inclusion in independent Ukraine, but Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Communist leader, did not press the matter.  Russian-speakers who dominated the southeastern oblasts were willing to reclassify themselves as Ukrainian nationals.  But when, in late 2013 (Ukraine’s divisions premiered on last year’s list at no. 8), Ukrainian nationalists began to push back against diplomatic bullying from Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, over the question of ties to the European Union (E.U.), and when the Ukrainian parliament removed the pro-Russian president under popular pressure, Novorossiya boiled over.  After Putin’s sotto voce Blitzkrieg and Anschluß of Crimea, to which the stunned West to all practical purposes acquiesced, Novorossiyans wanted a similar deal.  With heavy covert (but only half-heartedly denied) backing from Russia, two of the several oblast rebellions gelled over the summer as the Donetsk People ’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic (loosely federated as the Federal State of Novorossiya).  Slow to react, the central government in Ukraine eventually moved in, and the resulting grinding war has so far cost nearly 5,000 lives, with pro-Kremlin rebels still in control of big parts of those two oblasts.  For whatever reason, Putin has declined to recognize the republics, let alone annex them, but he has also not called off his dogs.  His strategy now seems to be to permanently destabilize the rump Ukraine, so as to make it an unappealing morsel for NATO or the E.U. to ever want to swallow up.  It has worked.  Putin has won.  No one thinks Ukraine’s central government can ever fully reassimilate the rebel areas.  In 2015, we will learn if the situation will drift into a “frozen conflict”—like Transnistria (no. 3 below), Armenia’s client state the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (N.K.R.), or Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia (no. 4 below)—or if more oblasts will declare their own “people’s republics”—TranscarpathiaOdessa, and Kharkiv seem ripe for it—or if Putin will pull his support and allow the Kyiv government to move back in, perhaps as a way of easing sanctions against Russia.

4. Abkhazia and South Ossetia

As with Novorossiya, so with the Republic of Abkhazia and the Republic of South Ossetia, two Russian puppet states in what nearly the whole rest of the world regards as the Republic of Georgia’s territory.  These territories were only very quietly backed by Russia when they rebelled, mostly of their own accord, after the fall of Communism, fearful of Georgian hegemony—and expressing that fear by ruthlessly ethnically cleansing ethnic Georgians from these lands.  But in 2008 when Georgia finally decided to bust a move and reclaim these rebellious, unrecognized de facto states for good, Russia stepped up its game, gave Georgia a bloody nose in a five-day war, and formally recognized the two republics as independent.  (Venezuela and Nicaragua have followed suit, mainly just to piss off the United States, along with Nauru, the world’s third-smallest country.)  Abkhazia and South Ossetia—Abkhazia more stridently—have openly asked to be annexed by Russia, and a brand-new Russo-Abkhaz treaty seems like a preliminary step toward just that.  But there is tension too: Belarus and Kazakhstan, two countries traditionally reliable as Russian vassal states, are balking at the idea of Abkhazia and South Ossetia joining Putin’s new eastern Eurasian Union trade bloc; they fear that an extension of Putin’s irredentist agenda might mean their countries, or the large ethnic-Russian dominated parts of them, getting swallowed up too.  How far will Putin push things?  In 2015 we may find out.  The same can be said for Transnistria (see below).

3. Transnistria

Like Abkhazia and South Ossetia (see above), the area east of the Dniester River in the newly minted Republic of Moldova consisted, in the early 1990s, of ethnic minorities—mostly Russians and Ukrainians—who feared being finding themselves marginalized in a country dominated by possibly nationalistic and chauvinistic ethnic Romanians (Moldova, or Moldavia, being merely a subdivision of traditional Romania).  The newly sovereign Russian Federation exploited those tensions by carving this slender splinter of a nation out of Moldova using Russian tanks and Russian cash, but it never went as far as recognizing its self-declared independence.  However, Transnistria (or the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, as it is formally known) has—again, like Abkhazia and South Ossetia—has become impatient watching Crimea rapidly go, in the spring of 2014, from being solidly part of Ukraine to being solidly part of Russia in a matter of weeks.  Transnistria wants an end to its ambiguous status and isolation and not just be a place-holding chess piece that prevents Moldova from joining NATO.  Last month, Moldovan elections narrowly returned anti-Kremlin parties to power, which has irked Transnistrians.  Ukraine has fortified its border, and Russia is sending “humanitarian convoys” to the pseudo-republic—eerily similar to how it ships arms into southeastern Ukraine (see above).  Moreover, if Russia does ever attempt to ignite more oblast-level uprisings in ethnic-Russian-dominated areas of Ukraine, Odessa Oblast is a likely candidate—and that could help create a geographically continuous arm of Russia stretching from Donetsk to Crimea all the way to Odessa and Transnistria.  This would bring Russia closer to Catherine the Great’s dream of turning the Black Sea into more or less a Russian lake.  If Vladimir Putin truly isn’t done expanding his geographical reach—and why should we assume he is?—this seems like his next project.  I modestly predict that Odessa Oblast and Transnistria will erupt in Ukraine-like violence in 2015.

Nina Shtanski, foreign minister of Transnistria

2. Islamic State

The short game ...
Not to say, “I told you so,” but this blog was covering the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) with alarm way back in September 2013 when they had captured one little town in Syria.  It was clear they were looney-tunes.  But even when, over the course of 2013, they expanded their hold in the chaos of the civil war in northern and northeastern Syria, I did not fully predict (though al-Sham was no. 3 on last year’s list) that during 2014 this radical reincarnation of al-Qaeda in Iraq (A.Q.I.) would capture most of Iraq’s far west, push boldly toward Iraqi Kurdistan, and create a massive quasi-state in the Syrian–Iraqi borderlands that would impose a reign of terror, committing ethnic cleansing, slavery, and outright genocide against Shiites, Kurds, resistant Sunnis, and, most grievously, Iraq’s ancient—older than Islam—Assyrian (Christian) and Yezidi religious minorities.  In 2014, President Barack Obama, who had just rather belatedly finished extricating the United States from George W. Bush’s disastrous and illegal Iraq War, went back into Iraq with a bombing campaign designed to at least contain and maybe defeat ISIS (now renamed simply Islamic State).  (Let’s never forget that Bush’s lies and crimes created the very power vacuum that ISIS is now filling in the first place.)  But the reality is that it will take far more than bombing to do the job.  And on the Syrian side U.S. and NATO policy is further complicated by the fact that anything done against ISIS benefits the brutal anti-Western Alawite Shiite regime in Damascus—and vice versa.  No wonder millions of average Iraqis and Syrians are so confused that they seem convinced that ISIS is actually, in some convoluted way, working for the U.S.  It would be kind of like Obama to decide to merely kick this can down the road until it becomes his successor’s problem, but along the way, during 2015, something might just have to give.  And that brings us to ...

... and the long game
1. Kurdistan

... because (see above), just about the only way that Islamic State can be contained on the ground is with the central help of Kurds (whose aspirations to statehood were no. 4 on last year’s list and no. 1 the year before).  When ISIS first started expanding northward, in 2014, from Fallujah to Mosul and Nineveh, the Kurds dug in their heels and slowed them, even stopped them, while the official (Shiite-dominated) army of Iraq dropped its guns and ran screaming.  The West took due note of this, and strengthening the Kurds is becoming another question—along with opposition to ISIS in general—on which the West and Iran agree.  Kurdistan is a perennial entry on my annual “separatist movements to watch” lists, but that is not because I am wrong again and again about their imminent independence.  In fact, the necessary conditions for Kurdish independence have been steadily falling into place for years—first the no-fly zone over northern Iraq in the 1990s that allowed them to build real autonomy outside the killing range of Saddam Hussein; then the 2003 war which overthrew Hussein and granted Kurds a constitutionally enshrined autonomous region; then growing economic cooperation between Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey; then the civil war in Syria, which prompted the regime there to withdraw from the far north and allow the creation of a de facto Kurdish buffer state called Rojava along the border with Turkey; then the peace deal between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.) which ended decades of strife and opened the space for some sort of autonomy there; and now the rise of Islamic State, which is gradually revealing to the world that the only way to keep Sunni radicalism at bay is by creating an independent pro-Western state straddling the deeply strategic Asia Minor–Arabian Peninsula divide, defended by the region’s most committed and fierce military (the Peshmerga), and with a constitution crafted by the most liberal, progressive, and egalitarian society in the Muslim world.  That country would be the Republic of Kurdistan, and it would include Iraq’s Kurdistan Region and some already-Kurd-governed areas to the south provisionally, possibly adding Syria’s Rojava, and maybe eventually (probably not soon) parts of Turkey or (perhaps never?) Iran as well.  Kurds are the world’s largest stateless people.  They’ve had shit thrown at them from every possible direction, going back centuries.  They’re ready, and the world needs them.  No one deserves it more.

[For those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  (That is shorter than the previous working title.)  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this special announcement for more information on the book.]


  1. This is an awesome site! Just saw it linked from Political Geography Now. I teach geography to college students and these sorts of posts are great at condensing real-time information. If I can ask, who are you? :) What is your interest in separatism, etc.?

    1. Short answer is: a retooled anthropologist (

  2. I love your blog so much. Thank you for writing.

  3. @Chris Roth
    What about the ahwazi arab separatist movements in southern Iran?
    The arab league and Gulf Cooperation Council are arming this terrorists since 2012!
    The FSA even proclaimed in 2013 that after the fall of Assad they would invade ahwazi in cooperation with isis and Al-Nusrah to help their brothers in Ahwazi!

    Not only ISIS and Al-Qaida intend to estbalish an islamic caliphate in middle east and north africa but also all salafist, wahhabi groups and the chief of states of the gulf cooperation council are strong-willed to establish an sunni caliphate!

  4. Where are those poor Basques in this? Quebec? Would have thought Basque or Quebecois separatism a lot more likely than hillbilly California farmers playing silly games.


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