Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Founding of “Free State of Australia” in New South Wales Stems from Zoning Dispute

[The following article is from November 2011.  See my more recent, July 2012 article on the F.S.A., covering new developments.]

News has just reached us of a new micronation in Australia.  The new country is known as the Free State of Australia and was apparently (though media reports differ) founded within the past week by a resident of the shire of Kyogle, in northeastern New South Wales, on the rural property of a commune leader named simply “Jonathan,” with, by his insistence, a lower-case j.  (News reports do not tell us what his name was before a recent name change.  In accordance with this blog’s house style, attempts to adopt initial-lower-case names are not indulged.  (Sorry, Bell Hooks.))

Jonathan, a 65-year-old minister in the Uniting Church (which in Australia means Methodists, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians), had long threatened to secede—in a blog entry of his dated November 4, 2011, he seemed on the brink of taking the step—and now it seems he has done it, though the F.S.A. is also reported to have been founded in August.  (This probably refers to his secession from the Shire of Kyogle, not the later total secession from Australia.)  The whole chain of events goes back to Jonathan’s anger at a local shire council, which, citing “old-growth forest and fire management issues,” refused him a building permit for a 22-home intentional community on his plot of land in rural Eden Creek in Kyogle Shire.  He appealed the decision to the state level but then halted the appeal proceedings in favor of secession.

Jonathan’s commune is apparently part of the Zeitgeist Movement, a new communalist movement which seems to mix elements of anarchism, libertarianism, and technocracy.  The movement, which has made appearances at Occupy Wall Street and related events, seeks an end to the money system but not to private property, as well as a society based on reason, consensus, and something called “social cybernation,” in which work and decision-making are eventually delegated to artificial intelligence.  The Zeitgeist Movement, in alliance with something called the Venus Project, has been energized in recent months by the OWS protests and the European currency crisis, which they see as vindicating their vision of a utopian moneyless future.  The New York Times, reporting on a Zeitgeist event in 2009, called it “a wholesale reimagination of civilization, as if Karl Marx and Carl Sagan had hired John Lennon from his ‘Imagine’ days to do no less than redesign the underlying structure of planetary life.

For the time being, the Kyogle Shire Council refuses to recognize the secession and claims its permit regulations apply fully to Jonathan’s property.  Jonathan says the Free State of Australia will be run by a council of elders and that it will continue to use Australian currency and stamps, though its 100 or so citizens will be issued new F.S.A. drivers’ licenses.  We will keep you posted.

Oh, and since I promised at least one map and at least one flag in each blog post—and since there is as yet no Free State of Australia flag that I know of—here is the flag of New South Wales, which in my opinion is rather nice.  Still, I’m still looking forward to seeing what Jonathan or his council of elders comes up with in the flag department.

[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.]

Remembering Odumegwu Ojukwu: On Biafra and on an African Continent Riven by European Borders

Africans are mourning the death last week of Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, at the age of 78, in a London hospital.  The Igbo leader was president of the Republic of Biafra from its declaration of independence from Nigeria in 1967 until its reabsorption into Nigeria in 1970 after one of the most brutal wars of even that most brutal of centuries, the 20th.  He lived in exile until his return to Nigeria in 1982, dreams of a separate Igbo state by that point having long since withered.

Since there is no current significant Igbo separatist movement, African leaders have felt free to praise Ojukwu as they buried him.  Nigeria is now debating whether to give Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who waged war on the Nigerian state, a state funeral, as many would like—Igbo and non-Igbo alike.  But the Biafran freedom-fighter’s life and death remind us that post-colonial African history has not erased the scars of history left scrawled across it by European cartographers.

Like many African populist leaders of the 1960s, Odumegwu-Ojukwu was bicultural, his biography a mix of African and European cultural influences.  He attended an élite preparatory school in England and earned a degree in history at Oxford University, where, the New York Times notes, classmates recall “he was popular, dressed stylishly, drove a bright red MG sports car, and loved discussions of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Louis XIV, and Shakespeare.”  He was a fluent speaker of English, French, Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa—though such multilingualism is common in sub-Saharan Africa.  His choice of Sibelius’s “Finlandia” as the Biafran national anthem is the type of factoid that causes more traditionalist African intellectuals to bemoan a version of the Stockholm (or in this case perhaps Helsinki) Syndrome.  But Odumegwu-Ojukwu for a while achieved what almost no African leader has done before or since: replace a European-drawn international border in Africa with an African-drawn one.

As most students of history know, European empires carved up Africa with little regard to the extents and boundaries of the continent’s already existing kingdoms, states, and ethnic territories.  Although the tale that Mt. Kilimanjaro is part of Tanzania rather than Kenya because of a birthday present from Queen Victoria to her cousin, the Kaiser of Germany, is apocryphal, nonetheless the arbitrariness and ridiculousness of many African colonial borders can serve to excuse anyone for believing the story on first hearing.

Since the wave of African independence in the early 1960s, numerous secession movements have tried to draw new boundaries, but these nearly always follow half-forgotten lines drawn by the same European cartographers.  When Eritrea split from Ethiopia in 1991, the new border (which separates national groups so sloppily as to cause several costly wars which still have not budged it, incidentally) in a way merely sacralized cease-fire lines negotiated between Winston Churchill and Benito Mussolini.  The Polisario Front’s decades-long struggle against Moroccan kings to establish the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in what was once the Spanish Sahara is in fact a battle to reinscribe a line negotiated between French and Spanish empires.  Namibia’s independence from South African control in 1990 merely restored the old boundary between Deutsch-Südwestafrika and Britain’s Cape Colony.

And most of the separatist movements in Africa today that are having any kind of success get traction from tracing old divisions between European colonies.  Ambazonian and Ambazanian (sic) separatists in Cameroon seek a state using the exact boundaries between English and French zones of occupation in Kamerun after the Germans lost the First World War.  Zambians who want to establish an independent Barotseland draw the lines where British colonizers set apart a special economic zone within Northern Rhodesia.  The Barotses’ brethren just to the west in Namibia would like to establish a new state in the Caprivi Strip, the precise awkward shard of land that Germany purchased from Britain in 1890 as a supply route between South-West Africa and Tanganyika.  Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland separatists argue that they were a separate colony until Cecil Rhodes folded them into Southern Rhodesia on a whim.  And the international community might not tolerate the de facto independence of Somaliland to the extent that they do if it did not draw its border precisely on the old boundary between British and Italian pieces of what is now the dysfunctional Somali Republic.

The game-changer in this regard was the birth, in July 2011, of the Republic of South Sudan, comprising the southern, non-Muslim, non-Arab portions of a Republic of Sudan whose boundaries had been drawn by the English.  Sudan’s irreconcilable cultural chasm between north and south was only the most bloodily contested of a whole string of European-designed countries running the length of Africa, where northern Muslims and Arabs are asked to share power with vastly cultural different sub-Saharan peoples to the south.  This has been the cause of brutal conflicts in Chad, Ivory Coast, Morocco, and Mali, to say nothing of Nigeria, which, if it does ever split apart, might well do so with the secession of the increasingly violent Hausa Muslims in the more arid north of the country.

So why did South Sudan get to do what no other African separatists have done—win international (i.e. Western) approval of a separate state using African-drawn divisions between national and ethnic groups?  Well, for one thing it isn’t entirely an African-drawn boundary.  For another, we can thank George W. Bush, who during his presidency stepped up support for South Sudan separatists and arm-twisted Khartoum to accept a referendum on southern independence—since held and implemented under Barack Obama’s sponsorship—mainly as a way to punish an increasingly Islamist state which had long harbored al-Qaeda and its affiliates within its vast borders.  (Remember when Bill Clinton timed the bombing of what turned out to be a pharmaceutical factory in northern Sudan in 1998 so that it would chase Monica Lewinsky’s congressional testimony off the newspapers’ front pages?  Ah, those were simpler times.)  South Sudan, though it had been fighting for a separate state for decades, was hurried along the final, critical stages of the secession process to serve America’s War on Terror.  The demarcation between north and south that the international community agreed upon rather lazily followed a line of demarcation between northern and southern provinces agreed upon when Britain allowed the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to become the Republic of Sudan in 1956.  And it is South Sudanese themselves—who are now waging battle against better-armed northerners along nearly the entirety of the poorly drawn and cursorily negotiated new boundary—who are paying the price in blood every day.

The South Sudan debacle quite rightly worries African leaders who fear that their own violent separatists might be emboldened.  But luckily, even the fanatics of the northern Nigerian Islamist separatist movement Boko Haram know better than to seek Western approval and oversight for their struggle.  They’d rather have no border at all than a Hausa republic whose boundaries are scrawled out in haste by Hillary Rodham Clinton as part of some global chess game.

Africans may not be perfect, and their politics may at times range from the tragic to the absurd, but, as even Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu knew, there is no way they could cock up Africa more than the Europeans have.

[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.]

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quebec Cracks Down on Crimes against the State—Like Playing Hopscotch in English

The largest school district in Quebec, Canada’s sometimes-secessionist province, has invited controversy by banning the use of English not just in classrooms but in cafeterias and hallways and on playgrounds.  The Commission Scolaire de Montréal, responsible for over 100,000 students, ranging from kindergarten—oops, sorry, jardins des enfants!—to high school, has introduced the new rules to a chorus of objections from English-speaking Canadians in Quebec and elsewhere.

The school board’s chairperson, Diane De Courcy, promises, “There will be no language police.  If they are automatically switching to another language, the monitor will gently tap them on the shoulder to tell them, ‘Remember, we speak French.  It’s good for you.’”  There is no mention of what happens if the first tap doesn’t work.  (We can also forgive a non-native English speaker for using “they” and “them” as singular pronouns, seeming to imply that some group of people shares a single collective shoulder.)

It is true that many such quibbles between Anglophones and Francophones in Canada are tempests in teapots.  Anglophones have been known to get their knickers in a twist over the severe imposition of having French writing on the backs of their cereal boxes (or, as they are known in French, des faces avant des paquets de céréale).  And it is true that single-language schools are nothing unusual in the world—even in the “free world” (a phrase which for many Anglophone Canadians means all of the modern industrialized democracies minus Quebec).  After all, immigrants tend to want to acquire their new homeland’s language, and throughout Anglophone Canada there are French-immersion schools with precisely the rules Montreal has only just now instituted.

But Quebec’s public immersion schools are not voluntary.  Plus, the 53% of Montreal’s public-school students whose first language is not French are not all immigrants, and their first languages are not all Vietnamese, Arabic, or Spanish.  In fact, about 7.7% of Quebec’s population is native English speaking, and 10.4% speak mostly English at home.  In Montreal, the figures are higher: there, 13.2% call English their first language.  (These figures are from Canada’s 2006 census.)  Nor is that 13.2% all carpetbaggers from Ontario or Pennsylvania.  Thousands of English-speaking Montrealers live in neighborhoods and districts that have been Anglophone for as long as they can remember.  There have been English-speakers in Montreal for essentially as long as there have been French-speakers, as is evidenced by institutions such as McGill University.

Canada’s French-speakers have wrenched more concessions in language policy from their central government than any other linguistic minority in world history (excluding extreme cases such as, say, the Manchu-speaking royal family in imperial China).  Mostly by dangling the threat of secession, Francophone Canadians have extended government services in French from their one relatively small area (only the extreme south of one province, truth be told) to every corner of the second-largest country in the world.  This includes places—from cowboy ranches in British Columbian scrubland to remote outposts in the howling Arctic—where not a word of French has ever been uttered.  And Quebec is the only Canadian province or territory with only one official language.  In 1993, in fact, the United Nations Human Rights Commission condemned a draconian provincial law which essentially banned all English signage.  (Quebec gave in, but modified the law to require French translations in lettering twice as large.  Which means that this scene from the comedy film Canadian Bacon is only a slight exaggeration.)

The Francophone world itself offers chilling counterexamples.  Go to France and ask any Breton or Basque of middle age or older—or any Innu or Inuk in northern Quebec, for that matter—about the “gentle taps” received for using his or her mother tongue on the playground.

Of course, everyone in Quebec should know French.  Everyone agrees with that.  And, with few exceptions, everyone there wants to and does (or, in the case of immigrants, soon will).  French in Canada is hardly a threatened or endangered language; it is the opposite.  Most Montrealers are proud to live in a bilingual—indeed, multilingual—city in what is arguably the most tolerant and progressive country in the world.  Quebec’s schools excel in producing fluent French speakers who almost always command English as well.  Those who patrol Montreal’s school playgrounds should be glad to see that there are students who gossip with their friends in the world’s lingua franca and then when the bell rings take their seats and display mastery of their home province’s first language.  Sounds to me like Canada at its best.  No gentle taps needed.

P.S.: Because I have promised that every blog entry will have at least one map and at least one flag, here is the flag of Montreal.  It very inclusively features a fleur de lis to represent the French, a shamrock for the Irish, a thistle for the Scots, and a rose for the English.  Note that the fleur de lis gets the pride of place in the upper left.  But Anglophones can take heart: a St. George’s Cross presides over the whole operation.  Quelle horreur!

[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, November 24, 2011

Vanillinois: Why Do Downstaters Want Chicago to Be Its Own State?

Of all 51st-state proposals, this has to be one of the oddest.  As reported on the WJBC-FM website and in other sources, two state representatives in Illinois, the United States’ fifth most populous state, proposed on November 22nd that Cook County, which includes the city of Chicago as well as 40.5% of Illinois’s population, be “kicked out” and made to be the 51st state of the Union.  The two Republican lawmakers—Adam Brown, representing the city of Decatur, in the center of the state, and Bill Mitchell, whose district centers on the Decatur suburb of Forsyth—claim that Chicago’s inability to govern is dragging the rest of the state down.  More concretely, they cite tussles over school funding as well as Chicago lawmakers and voters who stand in the way of both “welfare reform” and gun rights.  They claim Chicago has “declared war” on the rest of Illinois.  (You can read the full text of House Joint Resolution HJ0052 here.)

What makes this proposal odd is that Mitchell and Brown are not fighting to secede from the rest of Illinois; they are the rest of Illinois.  They want to evict Cook County from the state.  I’m trying to remember if there are precedents for this.  It’s not really secession if the “secessionists” live in the part with the capital in it, is it?  Plus, there is no indication whatsoever that Cook County wants to secede from Illinois.

On the contrary, Chicagoans have responded angrily.  One commentator proposes that Decatur itself be ejected from the Land of Lincoln, “due to its offensive odor.  ...  There’d be no way to prevent the stench of roasting corn and soybeans from wafting across our new state lines.  But at least we could keep its nonsensical geopolitical schemes out of the General Assembly.”  Another suggests other areas, out of step culturally and politically with the rest of their respective states, who are just as ripe for secession: Austin, Orlando, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Colonial Williamsburg, Las Vegas, and the suburban-Chicago parts of Indiana known as “the Region” (and which are already in Illinois’s time zone, not Indiana’s).

In many ways, the rest-of-Illinois separatists are an example of what I call “prosperity secessionism”—the more prosperous and less politically chaotic parts of a nation or state hankering to split off.  And let me take this opportunity now to just admit that Chicago’s Democratic-dominated politics are corrupt and dysfunctional to an almost Third World degree.  Remember, this is the town where Rep. Dan Rostenkowski ran a re-election campaign while under indictment on federal corruption charges—and almost won.

Other examples of prosperity secessionism have: included the Czech Republic’s eagerness to be done with the less prosperous and more corrupt Slovak Republic, contributing to Czechoslovakia’s “Velvet Divorce” of 1993; Italy’s Northern League, which would like to split off from the poorer, crime-ridden south, where Rome is; and English separatists, who are tired of supporting the poor of Wales and Northern Ireland with their taxes.  This is to say nothing of northerners and westerners in the U.S. who respond to the idea of reviving the Southern Confederacy by saying, essentially, “Don’t let the screen door hit you on the way out.”

But there is really mainly partisan politics behind the Chicago-statehood proposal.  Like the new “South California” secession movement, which aims to form a separate state out of the Golden State’s most Republican counties, this is a cry for help from a G.O.P. that has millions of followers but, because of Chicago, will always be a disenfranchised minority in Illinois.  Here, below, are maps showing county and district breakdowns in recent Illinois elections, where red is Republican and blue is Democratic.  Keeping in mind that Cook County has nearly half the state’s population, you can see why many Illinois Republicans feel that it’s barely worth voting.

There is also a heavy racial subtext which no one in Illinois can fail to grasp, however much Republicans might try to deny it: Mitchell and Brown’s proposal would quite handily expel nearly all of Illinois’s African-Americans—including the present First Lady’s extended family, as well as “troublemakers” like Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan.  Oh, and most of Illinois’s queers and foreigners, too.  What Mitchell and Brown want is, essentially, Vanillinois.  Here is a map of Illinois counties, with the counties shaded based on proportion of the population that is African-American:

The proposal will fail, of course.  Mitchell and Brown’s plan is to hold a referendum asking all Illinoians to vote on whether to remove Cook County from the state.  There is no legal precedent for such a referendum, which their backers fantasize would be binding even if all of Cook County opposed it.  In fact, this all sounds highly unconstitutional—as well as downright tacky.

Now, if Cook County did secede, it would have a name problem.  The “State of Cook” sounds awful.  They would probably (let’s imagine for a moment that this could even happen) go with “the State of Chicago,” a one-county state, which would itself be unprecedented.  The postal abbreviation CH is available (as opposed to a State of Cook’s problem with CO already being taken by Colorado), so there’s no problem there.

A State of Chicago coterminous with the current Cook County would be the second smallest state, only slightly larger than Rhode Island (which has a whopping five counties, incidentally), and it would be by quite a long shot the smallest state west of the Appalachians.  But it would rank 22nd in population, just behind Minnesota.  African-Americans would have a larger share of the population (24.8%, as opposed to 15% in Illinois currently) than in any other state outside the Deep South—though that would change if the District of Columbia ever achieved statehood.

Plus, the State of Chicago would have an automatic and obvious state song: “Sweet Home Chicago,” the uptempo blues composed by Robert Johnson, the itinerant Mississippian guitarist and singer who never visited the city but dreamed of doing so.  It is already the Windy City’s unofficial anthem.

Chicago also has its own flag already, which many major American cities still do not.  Illinois’s flag is one of the many state flags which merely feature the state seal lazily placed on a white or blue background, resulting in a design that is headache-inducingly busy while not being at all memorable:

Chicago’s flag, on the other hand, is a dandy.  Vexillologically speaking, they would come out far better in this deal.

It will never happen.  But it does remind us that we are in need of a word for the converse of separatism—the agenda of ejecting a state or other political entity from a union.  I welcome readers’ suggestions.

And, once we come up with the word, someone in Brussels had better figure out how to translate it into Greek, Italian, and Portuguese.

(Galician and Sicilian too.)

(Postscript: see the blog of Michael J. Trinklein, author of Lost States: True Stories of Texlahoma, Transylvania, and Other States That Never Made It (2010), for a discussion of the Chicago-statehood movement of the 1920s, in which Chicagoans themselves wanted to secede, griping that they had a disproportionately low influence on Illinois’s legislature.  Trinklein’s book points out that “the tension between upstate and downstate Illinois was intended by the folks who drew the original boundaries.  If the inhabitants of the southern half had been part of some other state (such as Kentucky or Missouri), they likely would have sided with the South in the Civil War.  So the boundaries were drawn (by northerners) to attach southern Illinois to a northern port” (p. 29).  (Anyone who enjoys my blog, should also check out Trinklein’s, as well as his informative book.))

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Transnistria’s Limbo to Continue Indefinitely

It’s being reported now in the Washington Post that talks will continue on November 30th, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on the status of the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, or Transnistria for short, the sliver of the Republic of Moldova where non-Moldovans, mostly Russians, form a majority and are at times openly nostalgic for the Soviet Union.  The talks will be under the auspices of the Russian Federation, the European Union, the United States, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Russia’s relationship to Transnistria has always been odd.  It “supports” the Transnistrians but does not recognize their state.  The only states that recognize Transnistria are two other mostly-unrecognized states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  (Transnistria also recognizes Nagorno-Karabakh, which has not returned the favor; that must sting.)  Russia’s withholding of recognition of Transnistria may seem odd, considering that Russia went to war in 2008 to carve those two not-terribly-viable puppet states, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, out of what nearly the whole rest of the world regards as the sovereign territory of the Republic of Georgia.  Doubly so since Russia’s rationale for supporting Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists involves fears that Ukraine will join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and thus further encircle poor Russia.  But wouldn’t a fully recognized pro-Moscow regime in Transnistria turn the tables and encircle Ukraine, compromising and slowing NATO’s strategic extension toward the Steppes of Asia?  Well, yes, but Russia seems to be making a calculation here.  They knew, in 2008, that the West would never come to the defense of Georgia, because it borders Russia itself, and because the Caucasus is close to volatile areas like Turkey, Kurdistan, Iran, and Iraq; it’s just too close to the powderkeg (see map below).  Transnistria, on the other hand, is enough out of the way—landlocked and wedged between Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine—that an Abkhaz-and-Ossete-style recognition by Moscow might just spark a NATO and Russian proxy war that Russia would lose.  (One can imagine Romania, which joined NATO in 2004, rising to defend the territory of mostly-Romanian-speaking Moldova, requiring NATO to take a stronger position than it would otherwise be inclined to do.)

So Russia is for the moment content to use the Transnistria issue behind the scenes simply to unnerve Ukraine and NATO.  But they are not remotely interested in pushing the issue toward a resolution.

Nor is the Ukrainian government interested in pushing the issue terribly much.  At current levels of stability, Ukrainian admission to NATO will happen eventually, and until then Ukraine is too large and well armed for the Russians to mess with it the way they messed with Georgia.  So Ukraine is in no hurry to dismantle the Transnistrian state.  However, Ukraine is even less eager to prevent Transnistria from moving even one inch closer to legitimacy.  The last thing Ukrainians want is for parts of Ukraine that have a Russian ethnic majority to feel inspired and empowered.  These include Crimea, which has an active Russophilic separatist movement mainly because of its distinct history and the fact that it was not even part of Ukraine until Stalin transferred it from the Russian S.S.R. to the Ukrainian S.S.R. in 1954.  But they also include vast swaths of eastern Ukraine (some of which have been parts of Russia at various points in history).

As you can see, the slightest bit of progress for Transnistrians could embolden Transnistrians to stoke ethnic-Russian separatism in Ukraine’s nearby Bessarabia region, which includes the important Black Sea port Odessa—a city where even the bare majority of ethnic Ukrainians mostly speak Russian.  The distribution of Russian and Ukrainian speakers and ethnic-self-identifiers in Ukraine also maps quite neatly onto how Ukrainian elections tend to divide the country.  If it looked like the Transnistria project was moving forward, Ukrainians would worry that their country might start to rip apart—even if Russia officially stayed out of the fight, as it would.  And then Ukraine would never be let into NATO.

Nor is it probably accidental that these upcoming talks will be held in Vilnius.  Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian maps of distributions of Russian-speakers look similar to Ukraine’s.  And, while the three Baltic states are in NATO and their Russian minorities are rather chastened (and generally realize, though they rarely admit it, that they’re living in countries with more freedom and stability than Russia offers), no one in the West wants a suddenly restive population of Russians within NATO’s borders.

So, while it’s, I suppose, in general fine that all sides are talking to make sure Transnistria remains stable, don’t expect any changes to the status quo one way or the other.  Everyone wants the status of Transnistria, for the moment, to stay just as it is.

Monday, November 21, 2011

And Now Civil War ... Could Syria Break Up?

A front-page story recently in the New York Times echoes increasing speculation in the media that Syria is “lurching” towards civil war.  (You have to love journalists sometimes: countries always “lurch” toward civil war; they never gallop or careen toward civil war or mosey on over to it or sidle up to it.)  For this, we have to give the Times some credit.  I mean, how long was it before they finally called the civil war in Iraq under American occupation a civil war?  But that was understandable, of course: they didn’t want to imperil their objectivity by departing from the Bush administration’s language.  Oh, no.

Anyway: now that Syrian military defections to the protestors’ side are numerous enough that one actually now finds different military units battling one another, Syria can indeed be said to have reached a state of civil war.  In this respect, Syria’s uprising now, among Arab Spring revolts, more resembles Libya or Yemen than it does Egypt or Tunisia.  And that raises the question: could Syria break up into separate states—at least temporarily, at least de facto?

[Note: This article was written in November 2011.  See these more recent articles from this blog on related topics, especially with respect to the Kurds and the Arab Spring: “The Iraq War Is Over, but Is Iraq’s Partition Just Beginning?” (Dec. 2011), “Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2012” (Dec. 2011); “Get Ready for a Kurdish Spring” (March 28, 2012); “Shifting Alliances in the Kurdish Struggles” (April 1, 2012); “Turkish Delights Hide Ugly History” (April 4, 2012); “Syria’s Kurds Are Setting Up a Quasi-State—How Long Can It Last?” (July 23, 2012), and “Liberation of Syrian Kurdistan Infuriates Turkey, Iraq, and the Free Syrian Army—in Fact, Everyone but Assad” (Aug. 4, 2012).]

For one thing, Egypt and Tunisia never reached a state of civil war or imperiled unity for a few reasons: relative ethnic homogeneity across local regions, no recent history of partition in the colonial or postcolonial period, and also a stronger unified hold on the military.  This last factor was also true of Syria until recent days.

Yemen, on the other hand, differs from Egypt and Tunisia in its recent history of partition: the Arab Yemen Republic absorbed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen to form the new Republic of Yemen a mere 21 years ago, in 1990, and South Yemeni separatism is a major feature of the anti-government uprising there, including especially how it is playing out regionally.  Libya, too, has fairly strong regional identities—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east—but they are pretty much all Sunni Arabs, and the popular uprising against Qaddafi unfolded and resolved itself so quickly that the geographical division of the country—with a temporary rebel capital in the Cyrenaican city of Benghazi—never had time to line up with political divisions.  Put another way, it turned out Tripolitanians hated Qaddafi as much as Cyrenaicans did; it just took a while for them to work up the nerve.  Not all Libyans are Arab, but the country’s Berbers had enough anti-Qaddafi allies among Arabs that their revolt did not end up dovetailing with the longstanding grievances they share with their brethren in Algeria and Morocco.

But what about Syria?  Well, Syria does have a recent history of partition, it does have strong regional identities, and it does have ethnic and religious differences with the potential to override national identification as the iron fist of the central government loosens (what I call the post-Tito effect, drawing on the Yugoslavian example).  Let's take a look at the dynamics of Syrian geography.

First, unlike Tunisia or Libya or Egypt, the shape of modern Syria is recent and is the product of complex colonial and local interests.  Here is a map of French Syria in 1924—after France, Britain, and Italy had picked over remnants of the Ottoman Empire to consolidate their own empires in the aftermath of the First World War:

French Syria, as this map shows, was divided into “states” of Aleppo, Damascus, Lebanon, Jabal Druze, the Alawite State, and the Sanjak of Alexandretta.  The Druze state was designed to protect the Druze minority, while Alexandretta became the independent Republic of Hatay for a year in 1938-39 when a Turkish invasion expelled the Arabs and Armenians that dominated the area, followed by a sloppy, rushed referendum that absorbed the area into Turkey, of which it is today a part.  Christians in French Syria had patches of territory through Aleppo and Damascus states but had their strongest and most cosmopolitan and European-connected presence in the form of the Maronite Arabs of Lebanon (who are Catholic, as opposed to the mostly Orthodox Christians in the rest of Syria).  This concern for fellow Catholics led the French to establish an independent Lebanon in 1943, with a painstaking balance of power between Druze, Shia, and Christian groups embedded in its Constitution—the idea being that Lebanon would be a refuge for Christians in the Holy Land.  Christians in the rest of French Syria outside Lebanon were not protected in this way, but France took pains to help establish an independent Syrian Republic in the 1930s in which France still played a political role and in which those Orthodox Christians were at least not persecuted.  Christians, making up 10% of Syria’s population, are today fairly well integrated into Syrian society, certainly compared to other Arab countries.  Christians and Muslims are protesting side by side in the streets of Syrian cities.  Here is a map of the current distribution of religious groups in Syria:

As you can see, Druze and Christians do not have much of a territorial base as against the Muslim majority—Lebanon having been established partly to provide a more solid homeland for these groups.  The major denominational division in Syria, then, is between Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and Sunnis, who share that faith with the vast majority of the Arab world.  The Assad regime now under threat from its populace is an Alawite dynasty allied with Shia-dominated Iran, and it has its fingers in Lebanese politics mostly via Lebanon’s Shia communities.

In this light, it is significant that some of the conflicts in this year’s Arab spring have been Shia–Sunni conflicts: Shiites rising up against a Saudi-backed Sunni majority in Bahrain, roiling discontent among Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Iraq border area—and that’s to say nothing of Shia–Sunni conflict that is the major feature of Iraqi internal strife.  Some have even suggested that Iran and Saudi Arabia are now jostling for hegemony in the new map of the Middle East and might even be itching to settle it once and for all with an all-out Shia–Sunni war.  If Iran eventually wants to maintain a Shia corridor stretching from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon, then an Iran-friendly Syria is a crucial link in that chain.

That having been said, is the Syrian uprising playing itself out mostly along Shia–Sunni lines?  It remains to be seen, but some tendencies may already be in play.  Here is a map showing centers of Syrian unrest in recent months:

You’ll note that a lot of the unrest is occurring in the Alawite regions by the coast, and that Damascus, where there is relatively little unrest, is where the Alawite regime has its headquarters in a largely Sunni area.  The center of unrest has been the city of Homs, which sits right at the border of Alawite and Sunni areas, not far from the Christian-dominated mountain areas that separate the former Alawite State from the rest of Syria.  In this, it is a symbolic mingling place of the major groups of a multi-ethnic country, almost eerily reminiscent of the battle of Sarajevo as the climax of the Yugoslav wars of succession.  This suggests that the main geographical dynamic in Syrian unrest is proximity to the center of power, not religious territories.  But now let’s look at a map of Syrian unrest superimposed on a map of ethnic, not just religious, groups (though this map does not show the intensity of different areas of unrest):

The Alawites, then, are as up in arms against the regime as anyone, and if this becomes a regional war in which the regime holds out for a long time defending an area around Damascus (shades of Libya), then what will be left—the capital, some areas of high desert, and the disputed Golan Heights—will not be a very viable state politically.

Second, note that there are also uprisings in Kurdish and Christian areas, but really only mostly in small, hard-to-defend pockets of territory (including Aleppo, where many Christians are concentrated).  The Kurds have only tiny slivers of territory to begin with, and they have their backs against the border with Turkey—a state which, needless to say, will not only not give them any help (opposed to Assad though Turkey is) but in fact would bomb Syria’s Kurds as much as necessary to stop them building anything like a Kurdish state (as they do, gingerly, in northern Iraq—and would do all-out if Washington and Baghdad would let them).

This, in my opinion, leaves only the possibility that the former Alawite State—now the Syrian provinces of Lattakia and Tartous—might become nostalgic for the two years it spent as a quasi-independent state under a League of Nations mandate, until French Syria absorbed it thoroughly in 1922.

If Lattakia and Tartous split away, however, it could only be under one of two scenarios: (a) the Assad regime flees to the Alawite homeland at the coast to try to establish a separate state there, or (b) things become so chaotic in Syria as a whole that Lattakia and Tartous attempt to secede as an Alawite State opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus (shades of Slovenia tiptoeing out of the room in 1991 as Serbs and Croats started gouging each other’s eyes out).

In either of these scenarios, we would have a situation where the vast majority of a nation, including its capital, relented and allowed a chunk of the country to secede, taking with it its only avenue to the sea.  Would a Damascus-based Syria, whether pro-Assad or anti-Assad, allow this to happen?  Well, I would say “never,” except that two of the last four or five newly recognized independent states have been examples of this: Eritrea seceding from Ethiopia and leaving it landlocked in 1993, and in 2006 Montenegro seceding from Serbia and leaving it landlocked.  Moreover, South Sudan was so eager to be independent this year that the loss of access to the sea was not even a factor.  Besides, Syria does have some oil, and as long as it maintained friendly relations with either Saudi Arabia or Iran—depending on the political orientation of the rump state—then it could get it to market via the sea and do quite nicely.

But this is all premature.  We’ll have to see how the Syrian civil war unfolds—whether defensible territories emerge; whether Christians, Druze, Kurds, or anti-Assad Alawites form their own militias; and especially what effect Sunni neighbors’ diplomatic isolation of Assad will have.  Syria is not exactly ripe for partition right now, but there seems to be a slight chance that that could change.  Watch this space.

Oh, and by the way, here is the old Alawite State flag:

Perfectly serviceable, I think, but they might want to lose the tricoleur.

[You can read more about the Alawite State, Kurdistan, Islamic State, 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.]

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Micronationalism Comes to “Occupy Wall Street”

There seems to be some overlap emerging in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Just as Free State Christiania in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Greenpeace’s “Waveland” micronational publicity-stunt on the Scottish island of Rockall in 1997 have combined separatism and micronationalism with left-wing politics and the counterculture, something similar seems to be happening on this side of the Atlantic.

The left-oriented Second Vermont Republic movement has mentioned on its website that many S.V.R. activists are involved in the Occupy Vermont movement as well as that in New York City over the past weeks and months.  The idea has now emerged that Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, which has been ground-zero of the Occupy protest movement, might declare itself a sovereign state, along the lines of Christiania, or the portable “Woodstock Nation” happenings of the 1970s.  This idea is dovetailing with the sometime S.V.R. agenda of dissolving the Union.  (See this article.)

An independent Zuccotti Park republic would be notable for a couple reasons.  First, at 33,000 square feet—or 0.0031 square kilometers—it would, if recognized, be by far the smallest recognized sovereign state in the world.  The current title-holder, Vatican City, at 0.44 square kilometers, is 142 times larger.  (However, Zuccotti Park would still dwarf the currently-unrecognized smallest declared state, the BjornSocialist Republic, the territory of which is a rock in a lake in southern Sweden totalling about six or eight meters square.)

Second, Zuccotti Park, if it kept the name Zuccotti Park in some form or other, would be the last country in the world in alphabetical order, after Zimbabwe, Republic of.  (In English, at least, but not in every language: Cyprus, for example, is known in German as Zypern, which comes after Zuccotti alphabetically.)  For these reasons alone, I fully support Zuccotista separatist aspirations.

Lastly, a Zuccotti Park Free State would need a flag.  So far, no clear vexillological consensus has emerged in this movement, but this one gets my vote:

I welcome any other suggestions for Occupy Wall Street or 99-Percenter flags in general or Zuccotti Park flags in particular.

First, of course, the protesters have to be able to get back into the park and stay there.  A technicality, I say.  A mere bagatelle.


Welcome to Springtime of Nations, an irreverent blog which reports and comments on developments in secessionist, separatist, indigenous-rights, micronation, and autonomy movements around the world.

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