Saturday, September 28, 2013

Talysh Rebel Leader, Former Political Prisoner, Resurfaces in Armenia, Challenging Azerbaijani Unity

Alikram Hummatov
Like a bad penny, we knew Alikram Hummatov would show up again, and it is reactivating a lot of the animosities of the regional animosities in the Caucasus region that swirled around the time of the fall of Leninism.  This week, the Azerbaijani former political prisoner and separatist leader has been greeted as a political celebrity in the Republic of Armenia and its puppet state carved out of Azerbaijan, the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (N.K.R.).

In orange and brown is the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic,
on what the world considers Azerbaijani territory.
Hummatov, also known as Ali Akram Hemmatzadeh, was the separatist hero and self-proclaimed president of the brief-lived and tiny independent Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic (T.M.A.R.) (a.k.a. Talyshtan) in southeastern Azerbaijan, right along the border with Iran, in 1993.  This was in the midst of a coup d’état in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, in which the elected president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, was overthrown by Heydar Aliyev, the ex-boss of the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic (S.S.R.).  The T.M.A.R. was quickly crushed by Azerbaijani forces.

Heydar Aliyev
This week, on September 24th, Hummatov, who is a member of the Talysh ethnic minority, appeared in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to help inaugurate a postgraduate Talysh Studies Program at Yerevan State University (Y.S.U.), under the Iranian Studies rubric.  (The Talysh language is related to Persian, unlike Armenian, which is an Indo-European isolate, and Azeri, which is Turkic.)  Then, two days later, he spoke before the N.K.R.’s parliament.  Hummatov and the legislature’s chairman, Ashot Ghulyan, praised the Talysh-Armenian brotherhood and their parallel oppression by stronger nations.  Hummatov still considers himself president of the T.M.A.R., which operates a government-in-exile in Iran, and reiterated that independence was still the goal of the Talysh people.

After the failed separatist rebellion in 1993, Hummatov fled to Russia but was extradited and sentenced, in 1995, to death, then commuted to a life sentence.  He was released in 2004, after he and other political prisoners in Azerbaijan became the focus of pressure by the Council of Europe and Amnesty International.  He was stripped of his citizenship and exiled to the Netherlands.

Many today suspect that the 1993 declaration of independence was orchestrated from Moscow, perhaps even by Aliyev himself (he was once the K.G.B. head for the republic) in order to create a distraction, including convincing the public that ethnic uprisings needed a strong leader.  Elchibey had, after all, failed to secure the southwestern chunk of Azerbaijan from being solidified as a de facto independent Nagorno-Karabakh, propped up by Armenia and, indirectly, by Moscow.  True or not, the Talysh struggle for self-determination clearly became a pawn in the larger game of the Caucasus’s polarized politics.

When the southern Caucasus was absorbed by Russia’s newly installed Bolshevik regime at the close of the First World War, a Mughan Soviet Republic was briefly set up, as a Communist bulwark against the rebellious Azeri nation-state which proved difficult to snuff out.  Ethnic national identities were suppressed during the Soviet period, in accordance with Marxist–Leninist “internationalism,” though some Caucasian nationalities suffered particular oppression, especially those historically antagonistic to Georgia, the nation into which Josef Stalin, the the Soviet Union’s first minister in charge of nationalities, was born.  Some groups were promised autonomy but then denied it.  Moscow also reneged on its promise to redraw borders to accommodate the ethnically Armenian population in southwestern Azerbaijan.  When Communism began to falter in the late 1980s, Armenians in this region, Nagorno-Karabakh, demanded to be transferred to the Armenian S.S.R.; the republics were moving toward more autonomy, and they feared direct rule by Azeris unmediated by Russia.  Mikhail Gorbachev initially sided with the Azeris, out of inertia and unwillingness to redraw borders, but Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries—and, covertly, some claim, official Russian forces—helped Armenia set up the N.K.R. as a de facto state.  By 1994, Boris Yeltsin, the born-again-nationalist president of post-Soviet Russia, brokered a deal which solidified the N.K.R. as a permanent “frozen conflict” with a tense cease-fire line, which is the situation, more or less today.

The fact that Gorbachev wasn’t sure whom to back in the Karabakh conflict illustrates just how ideologically neutral many of the nationalist struggles of the early post-Communist period were; they were all in it for themselves.  But the fact that Russia soon settled in to become Armenia and the N.K.R.’s most solid backer shows that the polarizations of the Cold War were, and are, still playing themselves out.

Shirali Muslimov, presumed to be 168 when he died in 1973
and thus often called the world’s oldest man, was Talysh.
Historically, the Russian Empire had always had more troubles with its Muslim minorities in the Caucasus—Chechens, Avars, Circassians—than the far fewer Christian ones, such as the Georgians, Armenians, and Ossetians.  The fact that not-yet-independent Azerbaijan was being helped in the Karabakh war by Chechen and even Afghan fighters with sectarian bones to pick doubtless helped Gorbachev choose sides eventually.  Today’s polarization of (a) the United States aligned with Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan against (b) Moscow and its client states Iran, Armenia, and the N.K.R. has become one of the few areas in the world where a Washington-vs.-Moscow cold-war mentality still dictates regional alliances.  The early-20th-century Turkish genocide of Armenians was always soft-pedalled in the West (it still is) so as not to offend the strategically important Republic of Turkey, as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s only member-state bordering the U.S.S.R.—much to the (legitimate) fury of the U.S.’s huge Armenian-American lobby, which is estimated to be the third-most-influential immigrant lobby in American foreign policy, behind the Jewish and Cuban ones.  (California has more Armenians than Armenia, and this week when a legislative delegation from that state, under pressure from Armenian constituents, showed up in Stepanakert, the U.S. State Department scrambled to contain the damage.  See an article from this blog on the definition of genocide and its relation to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.)  Russia found it useful in the Soviet period to conflate Turkish crimes with Nazi ones and thus position itself as being a valiant foe of Germany in both world wars and of Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) in the first one as well (never mind that Stalin was just as bad).  After 1979, when a virulently anti-American Islamist government overthrew the U.K.- and U.S.-installed Shah of Iran, Moscow revived its decades-old project of seeking to bring Iran into its orbit as a way of inching toward the warm-water ports of the Indian Ocean—this time successfully, since even today Russia is almost Iran’s only ally.  The U.S., as a consequence, finds it useful to use Azerbaijan (as well as, now, the de facto independent and U.S.-liberated Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Iraq) as a staging ground for its espionage and sabotage campaign against Iran, and as oil-rich states that it is useful to have as allies.  Azeris and Kurds are happy for the patronage, even though neighboring Muslim states scorn them as stooges of America and Israel.

Yeah, it’s complicated.
This dynamic reverberates deep into the Caucasus region’s separatist politics as well.  The U.S. implicitly (and probably, in secret, concretely) backs a nascent movement to break Iran’s northwestern Azerbaijan region away so it can reunify with Azerbaijan proper.  Meanwhile, the loss of Karabakh has made Azeris nervous that the rest of their multi-ethnic republic could be whittled away too.  The Lezgin ethnic group over the northern border in the Russian Federation’s Republic of Dagestan would like to form a common territory with their Lezgin kin over the border in Azerbaijan, who have suffered serious repression.  Russian media celebrated gleefully when, in 1993, tens of thousands of Lezgins demonstrated in Azerbaijan against being drafted to fight the Karabakh war, and Moscow may even have been behind a Lezgin pro-unification march on the border from the Dagestani side.  Similar tensions prevail with respect to the Avar, Dagestan’s largest ethnic group, whose traditionally territory also extends into Azerbaijan.  How to count Azerbaijan’s minorities is highly politicized.  No one thinks they are as few in number as the government claims.  Officially, there are just over 100,000 Talysh in Azerbaijan, but some Talysh activists estimate they number more than 1 million of Azerbaijan’s population of just under 9 million.  After losing Karabakh, Azeri nationalists feel cooking the numbers is a matter of life and death.  Some Iranian nationalists, for their part, would rather see Talyshstan absorbed into Iran than become an independent state—a position that does not as yet make things as awkward as it should between the Talysh government-in-exile and its Iranian hosts.

Iranian nationalist propaganda sometimes portrays the non-Turkic Talysh people as “part of” Persia
This leaves Azerbaijan surrounded on three sides by powerful and to varying degrees anti-democratic states which are determined to chip away at it: Russia to the north, Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south.  Its only friendly neighbors are Georgia and Iraqi Kurdistan, and Azeris have already seen, during the 2008 South Ossetia War between Russia and Georgia, that the U.S. and the West are prepared to sit idly by while Russia bites large chunks (Abkhazia and South Ossetia) out of Western allies in the Caucasus.

The flag of Talyshstan (and of the Talysh-Mughan Autonomous Republic)
For Hummatov’s part, here is what he said at the Yerevan State University event, which among other things involved a commitment to preserving the endangered Talysh language: “In Azerbaijan, the Talysh are deprived of basic rights.  We are not respected; we are being extirpated, with a policy of assimilation being implemented against us.  They at the same time declare that we are brothers.  This is illogical.  We want to write and read in the mother tongue.  In response to our demands, they openly say, ‘You, the Talysh, have no future, you must be assimilated.’”  In the 1990s, he added, “We considered Azerbaijan our homeland and were even prepared to give up our lives for it, but the homeland should also defend us with might and main, and if it refuses to do it, then we have our homeland and we will build our homeland—Talyshstan.  Our youths already have self-consciousness.  No one can stop us anymore.  We will speak in Talysh and struggle for our independence.”

A repressed Talysh newspaper
Indeed, the day after Hummatov visited the parliament in Stepanakert, the Azerbaijani government sentenced the editor of a small Talysh-language newspaper to five years in a labor camp for “ethnic hatred” and “drug-trafficking.”  The editor, Hilal Mamedov, has reason to worry: his predecessor as editor was arrested in 2008 on similarly dubious-sounding charges and died in prison the following year after being denied medical care.

Does Azerbaijan think it can keep doing that forever?  That’s what they thought about their Armenian minority too.

[N.B.: This article was modified on Oct. 3, 2013, to correct wording which suggested that Talysh and Persian were not Indo-European.]

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013 or 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Modoc County Joins Siskiyou in Seeking to Split from California as State of Jefferson

It’s 1941 again in northern California
Siskiyou County, a large jurisdiction in the forested interior of northern California, is as of this week no longer the only county trying to revive an aborted 1941 secession of California–Oregon border regions as a new State of Jefferson.  Siskiyou’s board of supervisors heard a statehood proposal last month (as reported at the time in this blog), which they put to a vote (also reported on in this blog) on September 3rd, coming out 4 to 1 in favor of Siskiyou seceding—by itself as need be—from California.  Last week, I reported here that Jeffersonian separatists were hearing words of support and interest from no fewer than 15 California counties.  Of the original “Jefferson” counties in southern Oregon, only Klamath County, which borders Siskiyou to the north, seemed intrigued.  Tehama County, California, seemed to have the most buzz going, though it was not in the original 1941 borders envisioned for the state and does not border Siskiyou.  (For more detail on the Jefferson movement, read my recent article from this blog.)

However, Modoc County, an original 1941 Jefferson county, promised to put the matter to a vote as well.  They did, and on September 20th voted 4-0 in favor of joining Siskiyou in a State of Jefferson.

And they have their sights set on pulling more counties up onto the bandwagon as well.  On September 24th, Rex Bohn, a district supervisor in Humboldt County, on the coast, an original Jefferson county to Siskiyou’s southwest, told a reporter, “I think this is resonating in some of our more rural counties, like Siskiyou and Modoc.  Maybe this will wake the sleeping giant.”  He added, “If there’s a group of citizens that would like to see this further looked into, I think as elected officials we have to look at everything.”  But he said he feared “taking a bunch of poor counties and forming a poor state.”

Humboldt County—“Home of the Redwoods!” ... and, um, all sorts of vegetation, actually
Modoc is named for a subgroup of Shoshone Indians who fought one of the last Indian wars of the Old West, in the 1870s in the lava beds of what are now Siskiyou and Modoc counties.  The battleground of the Modoc Wars is now the Lava Beds National Monument.  Nor is brutal racism is not merely in the distant past in this tiny scrap of land on the Nevada and Oregon borders: Modoc County was also home to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, a concentration camp for Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

From Indian-fighting to Japanese-American internment,
kicking people when they’re down is an old Modoc County tradition.
Mark Baird, of the Jefferson Declaration Committee, said of the Modoc vote, “California is essentially ungovernable in its present size.”  However, Siskiyou and Modoc splitting away won’t make California any more governable, in that view.  They are two of the largest of California’s 58 counties in area, forming just over 10% of the state’s land.  But, with just under 55,000 people, the two counties have less than a fiftieth of 1% of California’s population, which is the most populous of the 50 states.  A separate Jefferson state consisting of Siskiyou and Modoc would rank 42nd in size, between West Virginia and Maryland (assuming Maryland’s five westernmost Appalachian counties do not succeed in forming their own state).  Population-wise, this two-county Jefferson State would rank dead last, at no. 51, behind the current least-populous state, Wyoming.  It wouldn’t be a close 51st either: Wyoming would have 10 times Jefferson’s population.  The Northern Mariana Islands, a United States overseas commonwealth in Micronesia, would be the only U.S. jurisdiction with fewer people, and then only by a few.  Jefferson would also be the state with the fewest counties, beating Delaware, with its three counties, by one.  (Only 48 states have counties: Alaska is divided into boroughs, which are governed very differently, while Louisiana’s counties are called parishes.)

It’s also worth noting that Siskiyou, Modoc, and Humboldt do not have very substantive complaints about being in California other than ideological differences, as rural Republican strongholds in an overwhelmingly liberal Democratic state.  Water is, as always, an issue, but local fears of a looming apocalypse of gun confiscations, gay group marriages, yoga and astrology in the public schools, and shari’a are, to say the least, overstated.  As the 51st state, Jefferson’s main exports would be water, marijuana (especially if Humboldt joined), and ignorance.

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013 or 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Caliphate Movement Comes to Syria: New Islamist Army Falters in Azaz but May Try to Carve Out Separate State

An ominous Islamic Emirate banners flying over a checkpoint in Azaz, Syria
It was bound to happen.  While the international community beyond the Middle East has debated and stalled on whether and when to offer overt aid to the rebel opposition in Syria—hoping that the conflict would sort itself out first and put a Western-friendly regime of some sort in charge—the ideological nature of the opposition has shifted.  And now the salafist Islamist component in the opposition seems to be gaining the upper hand, with territorial gains that may presage the formation of a de facto independent Islamist enclave.

The location of Azaz in Syria.  (Turkey is to the north.)

On September 18th, Azaz, a town in Syria’s Idlib province two miles from the boundary with Turkey and 20 miles from Aleppo, fell to Islamists associated with al-Qaeda.  Azaz is near a major Turkish–Syrian border crossing and was the scene of fighting between the regime and the more moderate rebel umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.), last year.  Nine centuries or so earlier, during the Crusades, it was the site of a victory of Christian European forces over the town’s Turkish defenders—a resonance that is surely not lost on the deep-historical-grudge-bearing jihadists.

Near Azaz, a more official border crossing between Turkey and “Free Syria”
These particular jihadists, who—though the reports are inconclusive—seem to still hold the town, or part of it, are members of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a new player in the Syrian civil war.  Reports indicate that a cease-fire has had some success but that Islamic law seems to be in effect there, after a skirmish resulted in ISIS expelling an F.S.A. unit called Northern Storm from the town.  And the assassination of the self-declared emir of Azaz, Abu Abdullah Libi (nom de guerre: Junood), on September 23rd—his car was shot up by snipers while at a checkpoint—may only stoke the flames of conflict between the two groups.  But who is ISIS, and what do they want?

One finger means I have to go wee-wee, two fingers means behead the infidel:
students at a school in Aleppo run by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.
Al-Shām, or Sham, is an old Arabic term for the fertile lowlands between the Mediterranean and Iraq’s Euphrates River.  ISIS is thus sometimes called, in the media, the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant,” or, less accurately, “... and Syria.”  Some say that ISIS represents a merger between the al-Nusra Brigades—the most prominent Islamist force in the Syrian war and, some say, by far its best organized rebel group—and an older entity called the Islamic State in Iraq (I.S.I.).  I.S.I., under its original name Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (Organization for Monotheism and Jihad), was founded in 2003 by a Jordan-born Mujahideen commander from the Afghan War named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, during the period when al-Qaeda-linked groups were flooding into Iraq to fight the United States, which had invaded using as justification the lie that al-Qaeda was already there and cooperating with Saddam Hussein, which everyone knew it wasn’t.  Zarqawi folded his Afghanistan-based militia into Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network in 2004 and renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq (A.Q.I.).  Later, as I.S.I., it aimed to create an Islamic state in the Sunni-Arab-dominated parts of Iraq between Kurdistan and the Shiite-dominated south.  (See my article from this blog about a possible partition of Iraq.)  Zarqawi was dubbed al-Qaeda’s “Emir of Mesopotamia” (i.e., Iraq) before being killed in a U.S. bombing in 2006.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
For a group like ISIS to become a player in Syria is new, and dangerous.  Radical Islamist terrorists never had time to organize themselves as a major fighting force in Arab Spring revolutions such as those in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Bahrain, though they were already a presence in Yemen and still are in the ongoing fighting there.  Zarqawi’s relocation from Afghanistan to Iraq in the early 2000s is part of a larger pattern of Islamist fighters from various points around the world converging on trouble spots that are perceived to be frontline struggles in a holy war to reclaim traditionally-Muslim-ruled areas and place them under shari’a (Islamic law).  This is what happened, for example, in southern Russia, in Chechnya between the First Chechen War in the mid-1990s, which was a secular nationalist movement, and, in 1999, the onset of the Second Chechen War, by now a salafist religious war with local rule often modeled on the harsh Saudi Arabian form of salafism known as Wahhabism.  It is also what has happened in Kashmir, where a war over the question of independence and self-determination in an area claimed by both India and Pakistan has been transformed into a holy war (for some, anyway).  It is also what happened last year in northern Mali, where the latest nationalist uprising by the Tuareg minority was coopted by jihadists as well as by Libyan Tuaregs displaced by civil war.  It is also the pattern in places such as northern Nigeria (Boko Haram), Zanzibar (Uamsho), and the southern Philippines (Abu Sayyaf), among other places.

The global caliphate some Muslim radicals envision
In each case, the aim has been to create an emirate (like Zarqawi’s Emirate of Mesopotamia) under shari’a, ruled by mullahs, or self-appointed doctrinal experts among the militant leadership.  These pseudo-states prominently feature the bureaucratic language of the political structure of the Ottoman Empire (emirates, vilayats, etc.), the closest thing there has been to the superstate ruling the entire Islamic world that these radicals envision.

A more Ottoman-centered vision for an Islamic caliphate
There have been some successes.  Under the Taliban’s rule, Afghanistan was known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—a term still used by radical Islamists who control pockets of the country.  The areas along the Afghan border which Pakistan’s government is unable or unwilling to govern is a de facto sovereign Taliban and al-Qaeda territory called the Islamic Emirate of Waziristan.  Al-Qaeda-linked radicals ran a so-called Emirate of Waqar in the towns of Jaar and Zinjibar in southern Yemen for more than a year until it was shut down (as reported at the time in this blog) by a Yemeni government offensive last summer.  Perhaps most prominently, as indicated above, the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Dine militia and the Algerian-based Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) ran an Islamic Republic of Azawad in the northern two-thirds of Mali until dislodged by France earlier this year.  (See my recent article with an update on Azawad.)  In all these places, shari’a means that music and beard-trimming are banned, women have to be completely covered and are denied education, adulterers are stoned to death, and anything deemed a non-Muslim or pre-Muslim religious structure can be demolished, including ancient architectural treasures.  These are not nice people.

Ansar al-Dine in Azawad
Some “emirates” are more imaginary.  A visit to the Kavkaz Center website reveals a fantasy world in which Russia’s North Caucasus region and surrounding areas are an Islamist-governed Caucasus Emirate, divided into renamed vilayats (provinces) where “Russian invaders” are always successfully resisted by the loyal mujahideen, in deadpan journalistic prose.  In the real world, this translates into a low-level but unending procession of suicide bombings, ambushes, assassinations of moderate clerics, and other terrorist acts in Russia’s North Caucasus republics.  The Caucasus Emirate has managed to send quite a few fighters to join the struggle in Syria, not incidentally, and they have their sights set on areas such as Tatarstan, in central Russia, as well.

The imaginary Caucasus Emirate of southwestern Russia
Starting in the late 2000s, an al-Qaeda-affiliated militia called al-Shabaab (literally, “the youth”) controlled nearly a third of Somalia—pretty much everything west and south of Mogadishu, the capital—until being dispersed by troops from Kenya and Ethiopia under the African Union (A.U.) banner last year.  Those events are the grievance behind al-Shabaab’s (as of this writing) ongoing Westgate shopping-mall massacre and siege in Nairobi, Kenya.  During its dominance of southern Somalia, al-Shabaab called its territory the Islamic Emirate of Somalia.  (See my recent article with an update on Somalia.)

How Somalia was divided up during the height of al-Shabaab’s influence
A version of this may be what is going on in Azaz.  In addition to the de facto West Kurdistan Autonomous Region in northern Syria along the Turkish border and a de facto division of much of the country into Bashir al-Assad’s Syria and “Free Syria,” we may now be seeing the beginnings of pockets of a so-called Islamic Emirate with plans to link the bulk of Syrian territory to adjoining Sunni-dominated parts of western and central Iraq.

One view of how Syria might be partitioned
One motivation for international salafist interest in Syria is that it is, like non-Kurdish Iraq, ruled by Shiites, whom Sunni salafists such as al-Qaeda and its partners regard as heretics.  In particular, this is true for the Arab Shiite minority that forms the political elite in Assad’s Syria, the Alawites, whose version of Islam is not particularly rigid and observant by most Muslim standards.  Some members of the Assad regime are interested in the possibility of forming an independent Alawite State in the coastal areas where the opposition is weakest and where Shiites predominate.  (See my recent article on the Alawite State idea, which I also called one of “10 Separatist Movements to Watch in 2013.”  See also an earlier, longer discussion in this blog of how Syria might be partitioned.)

The former flag of the “Alawite State” area in French-ruled Syria
may one day fly again over Tartous and Lattakia.
This sectarian division also intersects with the tussle over Syria between the local superpowers.  Iran, which is Shiite, is the Assad regime’s strongest backer, while Turkey funnels arms to moderate Sunnis (as long as they’re not Kurdish) and Saudi Arabia funnels arms to—well, we do have to worry that some of those arms at least are ending up in the hands of groups like al-Nusra and ISIS.

So now, if a resolution to the war in Syria is to involve some kind of partition, we would be looking at not only Kurdish, Alawite, and Sunni Arab (and maybe Druze) statelets or autonomous regions but also, perhaps, an attempt to establish an Islamic Emirate.  And the experience in Nigeria, Mali, and Somalia is that emirate movements are never content to revel in their safe enclaves but want to expand in order to bring shari’a to the rest of the benighted world.  These new developments make it much less likely that a peaceful partition can be achieved—and it also raises the prospect of a well-organized, Taliban-style faction jostling for the upper hand in any post-Assad regime.

It doesn’t look good.

An F.S.A. rebel defending Idlib province from the Assad regime and, now, al-Qaeda-linked Islamists as well

[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013 or 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Monday, September 23, 2013

Slovene E.U. Diplomat’s Words on Vojvodina’s Status Ruffle Serb Feathers

Vojvodine nationalists rallying in Novi Sad, the provincial capital
Jelko Kacin, a Slovenian diplomat who is the European Union’s “rapporteur” for the Republic of Serbiastepped on a landmine in the European Parliament last week by calling for a clarification of the status of Vojvodina, an autonomous—but not really—province within Serbia.  Then his remarks were interpreted with great alarm, putting the Serbian foreign ministry into damage-control mode.

Jelko Kacin
While speaking on a panel on Vojvodina at the E.U. legislature in Brussels, Belgium, Kacin said, “Having in mind upcoming negotiations on Serbia’s membership in the E.U., I believe this is the right moment to raise the question of the constitutional and statutory regulation of the autonomy of Vojvodina.  The present framework for autonomy is uncertain and vague, which prevents Vojvodina, and therefore Serbia, from developing its capacities.”

Map showing Vojvodina within the former Yugoslavia (the green countries)
Vojvodina, in the north of Serbia and forming the only Serbian borders with Hungary and Croatia, is historically and potentially one of the most multi-ethnic and contentious portions of the former Yugoslavia, but it largely stayed out of the fray of the Wars of Yugoslav Secession in the early 1990s.  Vojvodina was an ethnically-Hungarian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but when the empire was dismantled after losing the First World War the newly created independent Hungarian Republic set Vojvodina, including a portion of what is now western Romania, as a Hungarian-dominated Banat Republic.  Serbian and Romanian forces invaded the fledgling Banatia, as it was also known, and divvied it up: Romania got what is now its western Transylvania region, while Serbia absorbed the rest and made it the autonomous province of Danube Banovina within the Serbian part of the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia.  (For a discussion of separatism in Transylvania, see a recent article from this blog.)

During the Second World War, the Independent State of Croatia, a Nazi puppet state, and Hungary, then an Axis power, took over the province and tried to revive the Banat Republic, with ethnic Germans and Hungarians in charge.  It failed, and after the war Yugoslavia filled its vacant Nazi concentration camps with Vojvodina’s Germans, who were subsequently cleansed from the province, and Danube Banovina was renamed Vojvodina.

As the “Banat Republic,” Vojvodina (dark green, at center) almost achieved independence
in the aftermath of the First World War.
Yugoslavia’s Communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito, granted Vojvodina some genuine, but limited, autonomy in 1974, but then Vojvodina’s hopes of further loosening ties to Belgrade after the fall of the Berlin Wall were dashed when Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milošević, revoked its autonomy in 1990.  It has never been restored, so it is the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina in name only.  Ethnically, the region is two-thirds Serb, but the 13% Magyar (ethnic Hungarian) minority feels that, with the de facto independence of Kosovo—once Serbia’s other “autonomous province”—they are the last colonized people in the Serb mini-empire.  Belgrade is ever alert to the possibility of the province flaring up in rebellion.

Vojvodina’s autonomy: Tito giveth, and Slobo taketh away
In Brussels, Mr. Kacin—a former independence leader during Slovenia’s “Ten-Day War” of secession from Belgrade in 1990—was not being inflammatory.  He merely pointed out that if Serbia is to get its bureaucratic house in order in preparation for E.U. candidacy, then it must sort out Vojvodina’s financial relationship to the central government.  If it is an autonomous unit, then it is eligible for special E.U. funds after accession, but if so, the implication went, it would have to start being treated autonomously, and its role in the levying and spending of tax funds must be clarified.  Pending resolution of the conflict over Kosovo, Serbia is considered close to the front of the line for E.U. enlargement, along with Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo itself.

Aleksandar Vučić
Serbia was furious at this interest in its internal structure, however, and by September 19th, Serbia’s first deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, had bullied Kacin into appearing alongside him at a special press conference, where he intoned sternly that Kacin’s statement was liable to misinterpretation, adding, “I can say this in Kacin’s presence, because I know he also believes that Vojvodina cannot be separated from Serbia.”

One wonders if Kacin, during this, thought to himself, “Where have I heard those words before?  Oh, yes—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo ...”

[You can read more about Vojvodina, Kosovo, other sovereignty and independence 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.]

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Introducing the Bangsamoro Republik—but for How Long?

Here at “Springtime of Nations,” we endeavor to bring you the latest declarations of independence, notably in the last couple years the Free Sate of Australia, a tiny Russian Democratic Republic near Moscow, the Independent State of Azawad in Mali, Al-Serw in Egypt, the Sovereign State of Biafra in Nigeria, the Republic of Bakassi along Nigeria’s border with Cameroonthe Sultanate of Sulu in the Philippines and Malaysia, Puntland (almost?), and the State of Palestine’s admission (sort of) to the United Nations.

Added to this mixed list (Palestine thrives and moves forward and Puntland’s greatest hour may come soon, while the Azawadi independence bid has been violently snuffed out and Biafra’s was simply ignored) we can add the newest member of almost-existent nations: the United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik (with Republik usually, in press reports, spelled with a final k instead of a c).  Its independence was declared, without action, on August 12th on the island of Sulu by the Moro National Liberal Front (M.N.L.F.) and then put into concrete form on September 9th with the M.N.L.F.’s forcible takeover of Zamboanga City, on the island of Mindanao, and the raising of the Bangsamoro flag.

Map showing Zamboanga City on the island of Mindanao
At the time of this writing (September 22nd), the battle has come to a kind of standstill.  The M.N.L.F. still controls parts of Zamboanga (pop.: ca. 800,000) and some nearby villages, but key parts of the city have been retaken by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (A.F.P.), with President Benigno S. Aquino III making a dramatic, defiant stand within the embattled city itself.  The M.N.L.F.’s founder and commander, Nūr Miswāri, who is from Sulu, is in the city as well and is believed to have about 300 remaining supporters.  As far as is known, 113 people have been killed (92 of them rebels), but tens of thousands have been displaced.  111 rebels have surrendered.  Reports depict Zamboanga as an eerily empty ghost town.

Map showing the current Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao
Conflict in the southern Philippines is long-standing.  By the time Ferdinand Magellan claimed what is now the Philippines for Spain in the 16th century, there was already a divide between a mostly Muslim south with close cultural and economic ties to what is now Indonesia and a north, including what is now Manila and the bulk of the islands’ population, more traditionally more tribal and with more ties to China and other Asian cultures.  The Spanish Christianized the north but were never able to fully colonize and subdue the south.  The United States conquered the Philippines in the Spanish-American War but had no intention to keep it on as a fully occupied colony like other new acquisitions such as Puerto Rico.  Zamboanga seized independence briefly as a Republic of Zamboanga during the chaos of that war, in 1899.  As the U.S. began to usher the Philippines toward home rule in the 1920s, leaders in the southern Sulu Islands petitioned to remain under U.S. rule, worried about the fate of a Muslim minority in a new nation governed by a northern Roman Catholic majority.  Moros are only about 5% of the population but cover a much larger share of Philippine territory.  Speaking many languages, Moros are no a unified group—they were dubbed Moros by the Spanish, for whom all Muslims were essentially “Moors”—but a Moro national consciousness gathered momentum with Philippine independence in 1946.

The flag of the original Republic of Zamboango, in 1899
The Muslim Independence Movement (MIM), later renamed the Mindanao Independence Movement, referring to the Muslim region’s largest island, was founded in 1968, aiming to establish an Islamic Republic of Mindanao, Sulu, and Palawan.  Ferdinand Marcos, the Philippine dictator and U.S. ally, was opposed to the rebels’s Communist and Islamist tendencies and cracked down brutally in the 1970s, which only intensified Moros’ desire for independence.  The M.N.L.F., originally a MIM offshoot, became more prominent after Marcos’s declaration of a state of emergency in 1972, with calls for a Bangsa Moro Republic (variously spelled).  After Marcos’s fall in a people-power movement in 1986, the government’s approach to the insurgency shifted radically.  An Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was established in the following year.  Warfare continued, however, with holdouts still demanding a fully separate state.

An old flag of the original Sultanate of Sulu, of which the modern M.N.L.F. flag is a modification
Last year, Manila negotiated with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (with its unfortunate acronym MILF) to replace the ARMM with an expanded and more autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro.  But the M.N.L.F. was unsatisfied and refused to disarm until independence was achieved.  The M.N.L.F. also threw their weight behind a recent quixotic attempt (reported at the time in this blog) by followers of a self-proclaimed successor to the Sultanate of Sulu to retake Malaysia’s nearby province of Sabah, on the island of Borneo, which was a former possession of the sultanate (and the source, during the Marcos era, of a territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia).

“President” Nūr Miswāri (with microphone)
Miswāri, who styles himself president of the new republic, says its territory includes the islands of Basilan, Mindanao, Palawan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, while his legal counsel, Emmanuel Fontanilla, says Bangsamoro also includes not only Sabah but also the large Malaysian province to its west, Sarawak, which never belonged to Sulu’s sultan.  That discrepancy has yet to be sorted out.

The claimed Bangsamoro Republik in dark red, with additional possible territories claimed in pink.

But that question may be moot.  Soon, undoubtedly, Zamboanga will be fully retaken, and the cause of Moro autonomy, let alone independence, will have suffered a great setback.  (Or I could be wrong.)  Watch this space for updates.

The Philippine flag still flying over Zamboanga’s city hall,
next to a statue of the Philippine national hero, José Rizal
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013 or 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Other California & Oregon Counties May Be Jumping on “State of Jefferson” Bandwagon

The fires of secession lit in California’s remote northern Siskiyou County last month (as first reported in this blog) may be spreading. The county’s board of supervisors voted 4-1 on September 3rd (as reported here) to seek separation from the rest of California as the State of Jefferson, with the idea that other counties in northern California and southern Oregon might join in.  Talk of northern California splitting off, as either the State of Klamath, the State of Siskiyou, or the State of Shasta, dates to the 1850s, but the far more serious State of Jefferson movement in 1941 aimed to create a 49th state out of California’s three northern border counties and a seven-county block in Oregon’s mountainous southwest.  Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor chased Jeffersonian statehood off of people’s priority lists, but some feel it may be time again.  By now, the idea of splitting from ultra-liberal California is a pipe dream not of farmers and loggers, as in earlier eras, but of Republicans of the Tea Party persuasion who have a beef with the state government’s approaches to guns, taxes, and the environment.  California’s usual rural–urban and north–south rifts over water allocation play a role as well.

It took a week or so, but other counties have started chiming in.  To Siskiyou’s east, the board of supervisors in Modoc County, which borders both Nevada and Oregon, plans to vote on secession on September 24th.  Members of the board of commissioners in Klamath County, one of Oregon’s original “Jefferson” counties, said this week that they found the secession idea appealing and would confer with their Siskiyou counterparts this month or next on the subject.  Klamath borders Siskiyou, whose county seat, Yreka, was in 1941 the proposed Jeffersonian state capital.

I’m not sure this metaphor works.  What’s inherently “independent” about toilet paper?
And who wants their T.P. rough anyway?
Then, on September 10th, a member of the public urged the board of supervisors of Tehama County, a large rural jurisdiction to Siskiyou’s south, to consider joining a secessionist State of Jefferson; the citizen, Tom Mohler, promised to begin organizing a petition to that effect.  In fact, a rancher and radio broadcaster in Yreka, Mark Baird, says he has had expressions of support from no fewer than fifteen California counties.

Over the years, proposals for which counties should be in a State of Jefferson have varied.
Most politicians at the state level or higher pooh-pooh the idea as impractical while acknowledging the ideological rift that divides California’s urbanites from the less populous hinterlands.  But Doug LaMalfa, of the United States House of Representatives, told media that if the majority of citizens in the region supported a State of Jefferson then he would too.  He even, who knows how seriously, offered his services as governor.  Rep. LaMalfa represents California’s 1st Congressional Districts, which includes Siskiyou and covers a large inland swath of the state’s northeast, almost to Lake Tahoe.

It remains to be seen if Jefferson statehood will catch on as quickly as last month’s secessionist rebellion in northeastern Colorado, where eleven states now plan to include a referendum on the formation of a State of North Colorado or New Colorado on the November ballot.  (See my articles on North Colorado here and here.)  Already, the 2013 Jefferson statehood movement is eclipsing last year’s aims to set up a State of South California, consisting mostly of Republican-dominated areas of rural south and central California, plus, oddly, San Diego (a movement discussed in detail at the time in this blog).  I predict more counties will be lining up to join the movement soon—though perhaps without the original proposed state’s coastal counties, which are a little less rural and isolated now than they were in 1941.

A State of Jefferson flag displayed in the history museum in Klamath County, Oregon
[Also, for those who are wondering, yes, this blog is tied in with a forthcoming book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas to be published by Auslander and Fox under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements, Independence Struggles, Breakaway Republics, Rebel Provinces, Pseudostates, Puppet States, Tribal Fiefdoms, Micronations, and Do-It-Yourself Countries, from Chiapas to Chechnya and Tibet to Texas.  Look for it some time in 2013.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

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