Sunday, September 6, 2015

Why Does Abkhazia Get to Host the 2016 “World Cup” for Aspirant Nations?

[Special note to readers: This article elicited a strong reaction from ConIFA, which contributed a statement to the effect that it considers itself a “non-political” organization.  For that statement, please see the comments section at the end of this article.  This blog welcomes and encourages a full discussion of the political and ethical implications, if one feels there are any, to ConIFA’s relationship with Abkhazia, Transnistria, Magyar irredentists, and other entities which many see as playing a negative role, to say the least, in European politics.]

We are used to international geopolitics inserting itself into the world of association football (that’s “soccer” to Americans).  World powers sometimes use the game as a proxy war for their own tussles over what is and is not a state and where national borders lie.  Examples include the ban on holding FIFA games in Russian-occupied Crimea, Spain trying to block Gibraltar, which it still claims, from member-state status, and ongoing politically motivated fan violence in Balkan hotspots like Bosnia and Kosovo.  But now a smaller football league that was supposed to be aloof from the rougher political edges of FIFA (the French acronym for the International Federation of Association Football) is courting similar controversy.

This league, the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA), a new organization devoted to aspirant or unrecognized states ineligible for FIFA membership, decided this summer that its 2016 football (soccer) world cup would be held in the Republic of Abkhazia, a de facto–independent Russian puppet state in what most of the world outside Russia regards as part of the Republic of Georgia.  Despite damage and economic instability resulting from a recent history of separatist war and ongoing diplomatic limbo, Abkhazia and its capital city, Sukhumi, can, ConIFA promises, offer “top-class infrastructure” for a sporting event.  But Abkhazia is bound to be a divisive choice, considering that Russian support for violent separatism in Ukraine since early last year—a political situation which closely parallels Abkhazia, which split away as the Cold War ended—has led to calls to boycott the Russian-hosted FIFA World Cup planned for 2018.

ConIFA is not the first league of its type.  A predecessor was Viva, which doesn’t stand for anything but is a play on the name FIFA, also set up for national teams of unrecognized states.  Viva’s first world cup, in 2006, was originally to be held in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, a puppet state that every country in the world other than Turkey recognizes as part of the Republic of Cyprus.  Northern Cyprus ended up ceding hosting duties to Occitania (southern France) after a brouhaha over Northern Cypriot demands to vet participating teams—probably the result of Turkish skittishness at that time about any kind of recognition of any kind of Kurdish entity, since northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region was also a participant.  Viva has successfully kept politics out of the team-selection process in the four subsequent Viva cup finals hosted by, in turn, Sápmi (the northern Scandinavian homeland of the Sami, or Lappish, people), Padania (separatist northern Italy), Gozo (the Republic of Malta’s smaller island), and Erbil, the Iraqi Kurdish capital.

Sami (Lapp) footballers competing in Östersund
Other participating Viva teams over the years have included Monaco (not a pseudo-state, but too small for FIFA nonetheless), Provence, Zanzibar, Arameans Soryoye (the team of the Christian Syriac people), Darfur (southwestern Sudan), Raetia (the linguistically distinct Ladin, Friulian, and Romansh speakers of southeast Switzerland and northern Italy), Tamil Eelam (the Hindus of northern Sri Lanka), and Western Sahara (the Moroccan-occupied Sahrawi homeland).  Customs red tape and other logistical problems have mostly prevented Southern Cameroons, West Papua, and Tibet from participating.  But no one was deliberately excluding anyone, or being remotely provocative.  Even the Northern Cypriot team graciously conceded defeat to the Kurdish team in the 2012 Erbil games.

(Yet another organization, FIFI (Federation of International Football Independents), in 2006 held a one-off exhibition “Wild Cup” tournament in Hamburg, Germany, where Northern Cyprus triumphed over Zanzibar, Gibraltar, Greenland, Tibet, and the Republic of St. Pauli—this last being a fictive micronation (fictive even by micronational standards) consisting of Hamburg’s red-light district.)

The ConIFA European cup this June, for its part, was hosted in Hungary by Székely Land, a proposed state in western Romania’s ethnic-Magyar (Hungarian) region.  Padania (northern Italy) won that 11-match series, with the County of Nice (in southeastern France), the Isle of Man, and Felvidék (Slovakia’s “Upper Hungary” region) ranking second through fourth, in that order.  The first ConIFA world cup, in 2014 in Östersund, Sweden, hosted by Sápmi (Lappland), was won by the highly impressive Niçois team.

Magyar nationalists displaying the Székely Land flag in Transylvania
And here, with this ConIFA line-up, the observant reader who is familiar with the minor nationalisms to which this blog is devoted will have caught perhaps a clue as to why Abkhazia, of all places, was selected to host the 2016 ConIFA cup.  Start with Székely Land, an autonomist cause with nowhere near the popular momentum enjoyed by, say, Scotland, Catalonia (both of which keep a plenty high profile in FIFA football), Padania, Kurdistan, or Tibet.  In fact, the idea of giving autonomy to the Magyar-dominated parts of western Romania is mostly a pet cause of the extremist far right in Hungary and Romania (as discussed once in this blog).  Autonomy for Romania’s Szeklers (Magyars) is in particular an abiding emotional rallying point for Jobbik, the neo-fascist ultranationalist party in Hungary, which in an election last year became Hungary’s third-largest party.

Jobbik armbands on parade
Felvidék, or “Upper Hungary,” the formerly Hungarian-ruled parts of Slovakia, is an even obscurer cause.  Slovakia is a stable, increasingly western-style state, and Hungarian is an official language in areas where speakers are more than 20% of the population.  (They are 8.5% of it nationwide.)   Slovakia’s Magyars are hardly separatist, but Jobbik has not forgotten them.   The party specifically calls for the revocation of the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.  That agreement, part of the dismantling of the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War, whittled the newly independent Hungary down to its current size, stripping away territories that had been under the Hungarian crown within the empire: all of Slovakia, a third or so of modern Romania, the Vojvodina province of northern Serbia, Ukraine’s Transcarpathia oblast, and significant territories which are now along the edges of Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia.  Jobbik wants all these lands back.  Only small bits of them have ethnic-Hungarian majorities today, but under Habsburg rule the German-speaking Austrian and Magyar élites ruled over smaller ethnonational groups in a political structure that was almost feudal.  Hungary, when it was an Axis country during the Second World War, tried and failed to use that conflict to regain lost territories.

Light green is modern Hungary;
darker green are those areas stripped from
the Kingdom of Hungary after the First World War
The County of Nice, too, is mostly a right-wing, even neo-fascist, irredentist cause.  In the years of conflict leading up to Italian unification in the mid 19th century, this Mediterranean city and its environs were ceded by the Kingdom of Sardinia’s House of Savoy (soon to become the ruling house of unified Italy) to France in exchange for help fighting the Austrians.  This stuck in the craw of the unification hero Giuseppe Garibaldi, a Niçois native who once famously said, “If Nice is French, then I am a Tatar.”  Thus Nice shifted from a mostly Italian-speaking city to a francophone one.  A claim on Nice was revived by Benito Mussolini during the Fascist era, and it is also included by the far-right, xenophobic, anti-Brussels Lega Nord (Northern League) in northern Italy as part of its dreamed-of “Greater Padania.”  Oh, and of course Padania is prominent in ConIFA too (as it was in Viva).  A ConIFA delegation to Nice in May of this year is prominently featured on the ConIFA website.

Football fans waving the Niçois separatist flag
Abkhazia, next year’s ConIFA host, is one of two ethnically distinct parts of Georgia which split away from Georgia after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s—the other being South Ossetia, which, like Abkhazia, is also a ConIFA member “state.”  After the brief South Ossetia War in 2008, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin shored up their de facto independence and granted them diplomatic recognition, something only a handful of other tiny states have followed the Russian example in extending.  Abkhazia and South Ossetia are in fact just the longest-standing parts of an archipelago of Russian-backed puppet states in non-Russian parts of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.  Others (discussed at length elsewhere in this blog, e.g. here) are Transnistria, in Moldova; the Armenian-dominated Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in Azerbaijan (the N.K.R. is also in ConIFA); the Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” established last year in eastern Ukraine; and, less concretely, possible future separatist entities in places like Transcarpathia (see discussions in this blog here and here), Ukraine’s Odessa oblast (see reports from this blog here and here), and ethnic-Russian parts of Kazakhstan, the Baltic States, and elsewhere.  Another emotional issue for Armenian nationalists and their Turkophobic puppetmasters in the Kremlin is another ConIFA “member,” Western Armenia, a proposed N.K.R.-type entity many Armenians would like to carve out of what is now eastern Turkey.  (Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has been a bugbear of Russian nationalists since Ottoman days.  Turkey and Azerbaijan are both allies of the U.S.)

Transnistria, it will be no surprise, is also a target of ConIFA diplomacy, in the form of an official ConIFA visit just before June’s European cup to Tiraspol, capital of this tiny, Russian-backed sliver of a pseudostate consisting of Moldova’s eastern edge abutting Ukraine.  ConIFA would like Transnistria to host a future tournament.  It also features prominently in contingent Russian plans for a takeover of more of the southern, ethnic-Russian-dominated areas of Ukraine, which mostly extend in a belt across the northern shores of the Black Sea, extending to Odessa oblast, which borders Transnistria.

Transnistrians in Bessarabian folk costume in a flag ceremony in Tiraspol
Putin’s proxy expansionism, while it exploits Soviet iconography and terms like “people’s republic,” is in fact a right-wing type of enterprise, and to this end it is not surprising that it has gained the support of far-right parties in the west that might otherwise talk a lot about “freedom”—such as (see discussion in this blog) Jobbik, Lega Nord, Flemish separatists in Belgium, libertarian-leaning separatists in Venice, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and high-profile right-wing conspiracy-mongering nuts in the United States such as Lyndon LaRouche and Ron Paul.  Putinism shares with these far-right movements a suspicion of the European Union (E.U.), NATO, and multilateralism in general; xenophobia focusing on a nakedly bigoted Islamophobia; and an infatuation with muscular militant nationalist leadership that in fact has more in common with 1930s Fascism than with Soviet-style Communism.

Putin is a darling of xenophobic Padanist separatists like these Lega Nord activists in Milan
To be sure, leftist aspirant states are in ConIFA too, including the Aymará indigenous nation of Bolivia; the disinherited Chagos Islanders of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, who live in exile in England; and Cascadia in the American and Canadian Pacific Northwest.  But even some of these are causes which appeal to Putin’s anti-Western imperialism.   The Aymará nation includes Bolivia’s left-wing president, Evo Morales, who sided with Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea.  Bolivia was one of only ten countries which sided with Russia in voting against a March 2014 United Nations resolution that upheld Ukraine’s right to territorial integrity following the Crimea annexation; the others—all of them (as discussed at the time in this blog) mostly profoundly undemocratic societies—were Armenia, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Sudan, and Belarus.  Even Iran, China, and Myanmar had the decency to at least abstain.  The Chagos Islanders’ cause, too (see discussion here and here), is one which Putin is keen to highlight because it is an example of a serious human-rights abuse which can be laid at the feet of NATO.  Along with the prominence of the above-discussed obscure neo-fascist irrendentist entities like Upper Hungary, Székely Land, and Nice, most of the teams prominent in ConIFA are ones that conform to the anti-Western, anti-NATO, anti-E.U. agenda of Putin’s new imperialism in its “near abroad.”

Aymará Indian demonstrators with their national flag
One possible result of a tournament in Abkhazia next year, and a possible later one in Transnistria, would be to spread the popularity and prestige of the Russian puppet-state model among separatist groups across the political spectrum and around the world—fitting the new pattern of parties like Lega Nord, France’s National Front, and Jobbik—even the otherwise-leftist Basque nationalists in Spain—lining up behind Putin’s imperialist agenda in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.  Playing in Abkhazia is sure to be willfully misinterpreted as a de facto recognition by these aspirant nations.  It is worth asking who is running ConIFA—or, perhaps, who has taken it over or whom it serves.  While Putin plays hardball in Ukraine, the lurch to the right in separatist soccer may be playing into the hands of his stealth “soft power” offensive against the West.

[You can read more about Abkhazia, Transnistria, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in 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.  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 interview for more information on the book.]


  1. Dear Chris Roth,

    this is Sascha, the general secretary of CONIFA.
    I just found your article by accident today and must say that I am seriously shocked by your misinterpretation of our work and by the amount of factual errors within your blog entry.
    You end your blog entry by stating "It is worth asking who is running ConIFA", which makes me wonder why you never asked that in fact ?
    I invite you to contact me any time at to speak about our members, our organisation and about the people who are running CONIFA.

    I am looking forward to hear of you and remain with best wishes!

  2. I stand by the facts as I've presented them and the questions I've asked. ConIFA's strong relationships with Abkhazia and Transnistria are worrying: they lend legitimacy to entities that violate international law and that advance violent neo-Soviet expansionism and serious human-rights abuses. It is one thing to have teams that celebrate the survival and aspirations of small ethnic groups like Sami, Manx, and Syriacs. But Transnistria and Abkhazia are not examples of this. They are highly-militarized bulwarks in Russia's war against the democratic world. That is why I think it is worth asking whose interests are served by ConIFA's choice of partner states as hosts for future events and why such deeply divisive choices are being made. I would love to learn more, and I would be happy to relay further information about ConIFA's history, composition, and policies in this blog.

    1. People of Abkhazia fought for their freedom from Georgia. Members of my family fought, some died, in 1992. We earned our independence. That Abkhazia allies with Russia is thanks to the West. Your diplomatic isolation of Abkhazia left us nowhere else to go and nobody else to turn to.

  3. Again the best way to learn more about is is surely to just contact us anytime...

    The point you misunderstand completely is the fact that we are non-political. This means that we do not grade anyone as "good" or "bad", like you constantly do here. We are also neither recognizing nor non-recognizing any "stately entity". We are not acting on a geopolitical level and we do not intend to do so.
    We work on a human level and that's it. And I can assure you that in Abkhazia and Transnistria, as well as in Nice or on the Isle of Man there are humans living. Believe it or not. And some of them play football. And they do identify with the entity Abkhazia more than with the entity of Georgia or Russia. However you call those entities (nation, state, country, whatever). The same is true for Nice, for the Isle of Man or for Romani People or Eelam Tamils, who both are spread all over the world.
    And that is what "qualifies" them to be CONIFA members.
    We think it is wrong that football players do either not have any chance to play internationally (like Abkhazian players) or are only allowed to do so by wearing a "false flag", meaning one they do not at all identify with. That is strongly against the values we believe makes international football what it is - global, inclusive and a matter of pride and love except for finances (which club football represents).

    Speaking about the selection of the host we obviously first of all ask our members if they are willing and/or interested in hosting a tournament. It is just natural that this has the highest priority. From all the bids we receive that way we simple choose the one with the most promising concept. In 2014 this was Östersund, in 2015 it was Debrecen and for 2016 it is Abkhazia. No other tournaments were given to any hosts yet. All we said in regard to Transnistria is that their infrastructure is surely sufficient to host a CONIFA event (which can be a smaller friendly tournament as well) one day. And that is true. The sports complex of Sheriff Tiraspol is the third biggest in Europe!

    That is mainly what I meant speaking of "misinterpretation" in my first comment. You see us as something we are not even a little bit - a political entity. We are working on football, not more, not less. And all our teams identify strongly with that ethics. In that regard our choice of hosts can also never be "divisive" as all our members feel themselves as a part of a "CONIFA family" and not more.

    Again I invite you to open discussions with me anytime, possibly also leading to more articles/insights into any topics you might have an interest in.

  4. Great blog! There is lots of good information, not only me but also everyone can understand it easily.


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