Friday, November 29, 2013

State of Jefferson Idea Won’t Go Away: Activists across Northern California Push for Statehood

The political dust is still settling from last month’s partial rout of northwestern Colorado’s rural-and-Republican-driven 51st-state movement.  As reported at the time in this blog, five of the 11 counties that had the question on the ballot said “yes” to the idea of seceding as a new “red” state to be called North Colorado or New Colorado.  Disappointingly, the measure failed, narrowly, in Weld County, the least rural of the 11 but the one where the North Colorado movement first began.  The movement is not dead, but now seems to be shifting toward constitutional jiggering to create new forms of power-sharing between rural Colorado and increasingly liberal cities like Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder.

Meanwhile, the other two state-secession movements of this political season, after taking a few weeks to digest the Colorado results, are finding new life.  The Western Maryland State Initiative, which would (as reported earlier in this blog) like the five politically conservative and culturally Appalachian counties in Maryland’s landlocked panhandle to secede, held a town meeting in Cumberland, Maryland, on November 22nd.

The 1941 State of Jefferson activists were quite serious about it.
But the State of Jefferson turns out to be the state-secession movement with legs.  The idea was formulated in 1941, with five (or, in some versions, 12) counties in northern California and southern Oregon wanting to split away, complaining about poor government services.  They even set up roadblocks and distributed passports.  The attack on Pearl Harbor put those plans on hold seemingly permanently, but the idea persisted.  Later plans proposed an expanded Jefferson, made up of seven Oregon counties and 13 California ones.

The State of Jefferson booth at this year’s Tehama County fair.
(The “don’t tread on me” Gadsden flag imagery in the logo shown here is not the canonical Jefferson flag.)
But the Tea Party movement has reenergized Jefferson secessionism with a vengeance.  Inspired by the North Colorado movement (as reported in this blog), the board of supervisors in Siskiyou County, California, voted on September 3rd of this year to make their county the kernel of a new State of Jefferson (also reported in this blog).  Nearby Modoc County’s board threw its hat in the ring on September 20th with a unanimous vote (as reported in this blog), with (as also reported here) interest being shown in other northern counties as well.

There we go.  That’s the real State of Jefferson flag.
The board of supervisors in Tehama County, California, told a spillover, capacity crowd of hundreds in a special cession on November 13th that they were looking at the State of Jefferson idea and had a lot of concerns but weren’t taking it off the table.  They were waiting for “a structured plan,” in the words of the county supervisor, Dennis Garton.  The meeting was full not just of concerned Tehamans but official representatives of several municipalities, activists from the Jefferson Committee, and quite a few residents from other “Jeffersonian” counties, including Shasta, Siskiyou, and Glenn.

A Jefferson statehood supporter makes her case to the Tehama County board of supervisors.
Giving a presentation at the meeting, Tom Knorr, of the Jefferson Committee opined, “Our problems are lack of representation and lack of empathy.  It is a numbers question, it is not a question of the quality of people that represent us Los Angeles has more or less 25 representatives while the entire northern counties has four.  Urban legislation kills our rural economy.”

Which counties should be in or out has been a matter of debate.
Knorr went on to say that this year’s developments were only the beginning: “Once we have the declarations of 10 or more contiguous counties, the people will take the next step in initiating the separation. I want to point out that we are following a legal process as described in the U.S. Constitution, Article 4, Section 3.”

December 6, 1941.  Bad timing for a revolution.
Mike Murray, county supervisor for Glenn County, California, said on November 19th that he and his colleagues have been hearing a lot of clamoring to hop on the State of Jefferson bandwagon.  Though he avoided taking a position on the matter, Murray announced that there would be a public meeting to consider the idea.

The following day, a lecture hall at the California State University campus in Chico, the seat of Butte County, was also filled to capacity as Jeffersonian secessionists addressed activists, residents, and county and city officials.  Statehood activist Terry Rapoza tamped down rumors that Oregon—Oregon as a whole, presumably—was interested in joining California’s “Jefferson” counties in leaving the United States. “Oregon is in Oregon, California is in California, number one,” Rapoza said.   “Number two, we are not seceding.  We are not the South.  We are part of the United States of America and we want to be a state.  We want to have our voices heard.”  There was lots of talk of a 1964 court cases which helped shift California’s lower house to one based entirely on population, not on counties, which in the opinion of some erased rural representation.

Secessionist literature distributed at the Butte meeting showed one of the largest territories for Jefferson ever envisioned, slicing off approximately the northern quarter of the state just above the San Francisco Bay area, including a line of counties formed by Nevada (the county, that is), Yuba, Sutter, Colusa, Lake, and Mendocino and everything to the north.  According to Leslie Foss, a Jefferson activist, “Glenn County, Yuba County, Sutter County, Del Norte, numerous others, and Shasta County are all looking at it.  It is all up to the individual counties.”

Indeed, not all Jeffersonian activism comes from the right-wing end of the political spectrum.  Of the three candidates for a local State Assembly seat who addressed a gathering of Tea Party–affiliated “Corning Patriots” in Corning, Tehama County, on November 21st, two were Republicans, but the third, a Democrat from Red Bluff named Jim Reed, spoke against genetically modified foods and in favor of progressive taxation and labor unions.  All three share a concern for Southern California’s thirst for northern California’s water resources, and all three support the idea of the State of Jefferson.

The biggest barrier to Jefferson statehood is, of course, the United States Congress, which needs to approve any new states.  That may be an insuperable obstacle.  But for now, the State of Jefferson movement seems to have more momentum than it ever has in the over 70-year history of the idea.  So far, though, interestingly enough, only in California.  Where’s Oregon in all this?  Watch this space.

Political cartoonist Phil Fountain’s take on the Jefferson movement
[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 2014.  I will be keeping readers posted of further publication news.]

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Lega Nord, Flemish Separatists, Others at Secret Vienna Summit Plot Far-Right Slate for Strasbourg

On November 15th, in Vienna, Austria, history of a sort was made as seven far-right parties from across Europe met in secret to form the beginnings of a coherent voting bloc that could try to push their shared decentralist, anti-Brussels, anti-immigrant agenda in the May 2014 European Parliament elections.

Flemish nationalism and religious bigotry on display at a Vlaams Belang rally
The parties involved were: Belgium’s ethnic-separatist Flemish Interest (Vlaams Belang, or V.B.) party, France’s notorious but influential National Front (Front national, or F.N.), the NetherlandsParty for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or P.V.V.), the neo-Nazi-tinged Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, or F.P.Ö.), the Swedish Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna, or S.D.), the Slovak National Party (Slovenská národná strana, or S.N.S.), and Italy’s Northern League (Lega Nord), which seeks a separate republic called Padania.   Two other parties which planned to attend cancelled at the last minute: the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants the U.K. to leave the European Union (E.U.), and Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, or AfD), a rather ideologically mild party by this summit’s standards, which wants Germany to abandon the euro but not the E.U.  The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, or P.V.V.) was also not at the summit, but its membership in the new alliance is assumed; two days earlier, its founder, Geert Wilders, had met with the F.N.’s leader, Marine Le Pen, to declare a new working relationship.  (Wilders, whose party is unlike the F.N. not anti-gay or anti-Semitic—they prefer to focus their energies on hating just Muslims—had earlier been wary of associating too closely with the F.N. and even forbade P.V.V. members of European Parliament (M.E.P.s) from sitting next to F.N. ones.)

The Dutch ultranationalist GeertWilders
Not all of these movements believe in the same kind of decentralism.  Vlaams Belang would like to see the Kingdom of Belgium dissolved and replaced by the separate independent states of Flanders, Wallonia, and maybe even Brussels and the German-Speaking Communities (an autonomous sliver of Wallonia along the German border).  And Lega Nord would like to see a Federal Republic of Padania with significant self-rule for regions such as Lombardy, Liguria, and Venetia, as well as enhanced linguistic rights for German-speakers in the South Tyrol, speakers of Arpitan/Savoyard French and Walserdeutsch in Val d’Aosta, and speakers of Friulian and Ladin near the borders with Switzerland and Austria.

Umberto Bossi, founder of Italy’s Northern League
The Swedish Democrats, on the other hand, want the trans-national and ultimately toothless Sami Parliament, which represents indigenous northern (Lappish) people in Norway, Sweden, and Finland, shut down, while the Slovak National Party pounces on any attempts by the Hungarian-speaking minority in the Slovak Republic to secure more linguistic or cultural rights—fearing the kind of Magyar irredentism that haunts autonomy movements in Serbia’s Vojvodina province (see my recent article) and Romania’s Transylvania region (see my article on this).  And, even though the National Front’s founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was born in a village in a Brittany, his party recently called any government efforts to preserve minority languages like Breton, Occitan, Basque, Catalan, and Alsatian German “pure madness” (ironically, since France already has the nastiest policies in western Europe when it comes to linguistic rights).

The National Front’s Marine Le Pen, as portrayed at a controversial Madonna concert
But one thing all parties can agree is an opposition to European integration and hostility toward immigrants, especially Muslim ones.  The F.P.Ö. leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said, in announcing the meeting after the fact, “There are many important patriotic parties in Europe that have recognised problems and are prepared to work together,” adding that there is now “a real chance that with the partnership that we’re working on we can have a strong parliamentary group.”

Make no mistake, this is not a move of desperation by these disparate groups but an attempt to capitalize on existing momentum.  The F.P.Ö. currently has only two seats in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, won with 12.7% of the Austrian vote in 2009 elections, but earlier this year it took more than a fifth of the popular vote in national parliamentary elections and is considered to be on a roll.  The F.N. is also expected to enlarge its current three-seat delegation.  The Slovak nationalists have one of Slovakia’s 13 European seats, but none in the national body.  Many expect UKIP to dislodge the U.K.’s ruling-coalition junior partner, the Liberal Democratic Party, as the country’s number-three party, at least in Strasbourg.  Vlaams Belang is also optimistic: the more moderate separatist party, the New Flemish Alliance (Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, or N.-V.A.), is expected to become the ruling party in Belgium in next year’s national elections, which will only raise V.B.’s profile and influence.  The euro crisis has obviously played a large role in all of this.

One of Vlaams Belang’s more controversial ad campaigns
But in order to form a functioning, recognized slate in the European Parliament, a coalition needs seven parties from seven different E.U. member states and 25 seated parliamentarians.  To fill this out, they have had not much luck in reaching toward the more moderate end of the Europhobic spectrum.  The Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, or D.F.), which controls 13.8% of Denmark’s parliament, turned down an offer to join the group, citing mainly fear of association with the Le Pens and their anti-Semitism.  That might leave the extremist F.P.Ö., which is spearheading the slate, to reach out to the farther right fringe for new allies, such as Hungary’s Jobbik: Movement for a New Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom), the neo-Fascist Tricolor Flame Social Movement (Movimento Sociale Fiamma Tricolore, or M.S.–F.T.) in Italy, Spain’s Phalangists, Romania’s New Right (Noua Dreaptă), or the openly neo-Nazi paramilitary movement in Greece, Golden Dawn (Laïkós Sýndesmos–Chryssí Avgí), which has benefited from anti-northern, anti-Brussels feeling in the recent currency crisis but has recently been all but shut down by the Greek government.

Members of Greece’s Golden Dawn party.  That kind of angled curly thing in the middle of their flag?
Um, that’s, um, that’s supposed to represent Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.  Yeah, that’s it.
(It would be less politic perhaps for the alliance to reach out to the neo-Fascist British National Party (B.N.P.) or Anglo-separatist English Democrats—largely in some ways an outgrowth of the B.N.P.—for fear of alienating the more moderate and successful UKIP.  (See a recent article on the English Democrats from this blog—which even features its founder, Robin Tilbrook, chiming in critically on the comment thread!).)

Robin Tilbrook of the English Democrats
This right-wing fringe constitutes more natural allies for the extremist F.P.Ö.  The party rose to prominence under the leadership of Jörg Haider, a confidante of Saddam Hussein and Moammar al-Qaddafi who once called the Waffen-S.S. “decent men of good character” and referred to Nazi death camps as merely “punishment camps.”

The late Austrian neo-fascist leader Jörg Haider.
Most Europeans’ complete and utter lack of any kind of gaydar whatsoever
(I mean, come on, people—right?) preserved his reputation until his death.
(Haider, who was married and loudly homophobic, died in a car crash in 2008—on his way, as it was revealed posthumously, to his grandmother’s 90th-birthday party from a gay bar in Klagenfurt, where he had had a lover’s spat with his “LebensmenschStefan Petzner.  As further evidence that there is an element of self-loathing in all bigotry, the head of Hungary’s virulently anti-Semitic Jobbik movement, Csanád Szegedi, was revealed last year—as reported at the time in this blog—to be Jewish himself.  He has since experienced a personal political transformation and has embraced his Judaism.  There is little of such wisdom or courage—belated though it was—among most of Europe’s far-right fringe.)

Csanad Szégedi’s new look.
Which way the new far-right alliance will swing as it seeks sufficient breadth to secure a place at the table in Strasbourg will depend on the volatility of European politics in this time of financial crisis—and ultimately it will determine the success of the movement, and its effect on European policy, as well.

Strasbourg or bust?  The Slovak National Party on parade

[You can read more about many of these and 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 special announcement for more information on the book.]

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Syrian Kurds’ Declaration of Autonomous “Rojava” Scorned by Turkey, Assad—Even by Iraqi Kurds

The Kurdish people of northern Syria, after declaring an autonomous region last year in liberated pockets and towns near the border with Turkey (as reported at the time in this blog), are finally trying to make their statelet official.  And the plan is meeting with hostility from all sides, even from fellow Kurds in northern Iraq.  But why are Kurds not all on the same page on this—autonomy is supposed to be good, right?—and, moreover, why is this all happening now?

P.Y.D. flags are more common in Syrian Kurdistan lately
than the usual sun-emblazoned Kurdish national ones.
Well, for one thing, the Syrian civil war has reached a strange impasse in recent months.  There has been little change lately in the general boundaries between areas administered by the embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, and those under rebel control.  But there have been dramatic changes in the make-up of the rebel opposition.  In particular, the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.), which is being armed by Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and others, has lost ground since summer to a new organization called the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (as reported recently in this blog).  ISIS seems to be an outgrowth of two pre-existing groups, the al-Qaeda-backed al-Nusra Brigades, who have for some time now been a player in the Syrian civil war, and the Islamic State in Iraq (I.S.I.), a radical Sunni Arab militia which featured prominently in the Iraqi civil war during the United States occupation and which in turn has roots in al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in the days of Taliban rule there.  The al-Sham of ISIS’s name is an archaic term for Syria plus Lebanon, i.e. the Levant.  ISIS hopes to link up adjoining Sunni Arab areas of Syria and Iraq—both of them Arab-Shiite-ruled nations currently—to create a new Islamic state.

One international idea of a partitioned Syria—
but nobody puts Kurdistan in a corner!
But one rebel area where ISIS is not gaining influence in the far north of Syria, where Kurds have in recent weeks been able to push back the battle lines of ISIS and other Islamist militias.  This has put the People’s Defense Units (Y.P.G.) of the Kurdish-dominated Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or P.Y.D.) in control of a large swath of the Syrian side of the Syrian–Turkish border.  Maybe even all of it, though reliable information is hard to come by.

Kurds celebrating the liberation of Derki, Syria, last year
When the P.Y.D. first started “liberating” parts of this area last summer, their “victories” were mocked by their detractors, like the Turkish government and the F.S.A., for being in reality a bloodless takeover of areas that had been handed to them by a voluntarily retreating Syrian military.  There was probably some truth to this.  Assad had already been courting and handing political favors to Kurdish, Christian, and Druze minorities in Syria in the months before the Syrian civil war really broke out, in an attempt (a vain one, it turned out) to prevent or forestall the kind of Arab Spring uprisings that were already rocking Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.  Assad last year may have withdrawn from the Kurdish areas in an attempt to see how the creation of an autonomous or independent area might turn out, as part of exploring a “Plan B” of partitioning Syria into an Assad-ruled Alawite (Shiite) coastal state and other ethnic fiefdoms inland.  Or perhaps, fearing a Turkish military intervention to aid the rebels, Assad wanted to create a de facto buffer state hostile to Ankara.  (The P.Y.D. is closely allied with southeastern Turkey’s partially-pacified Kurdish rebel army the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or P.K.K.).  In any case, Assad’s forces have totally withdrawn from border areas since then, hesitant to risk a flare-up with Turkish forces and more interested in fighting for Damascus, Aleppo, and other towns in the heartland.

Protesters in Berlin display P.K.K. flags
The new declaration of autonomy by the P.Y.D. speaks not of a West Kurdistan Autonomous Region, which was the preferred phrase last summer (in Kurdish nationalist usage, West Kurdistan is northern Syria, North Kurdistan is southeastern Turkey, East Kurdistan is northwestern Iran, and South Kurdistan is northern Iraq).  Instead, it calls its new autonomous statelet Rojava (rojava being the Kurdish word for “west”), which looks much larger on maps being circulated now than last year’s sliver and which, it is claimed, will include three autonomous-regions-within-the-autonomous-region: one for Kurds, one for Christians, and one for Arabs.  This last part is odd, since Syria’s mostly mountainous Christian minority has tended to keep its head down in the civil war and not demand its own autonomous region the way some Christians in Iraq do.  Plus, Kurds and Arabs have quite famously not been getting along lately.  It could be that the P.Y.D. is trying to reassure the international community that Christians and Arabs in the enlarged autonomous territory will be allowed freedoms and also to signal to the world, perhaps especially Turkey, that this is not just a Kurdish state—i.e., not an extension of the national aspirations of the dreaded P.K.K. as many Turks fear.

As a reader notes below (see comments), this map may seriously underestimate
the number of Kurds in the border areas.
Well, and how is the idea of an autonomous or independent Rojava going over?  Like a lead balloon—in Ankara, predictably; in Damascus and among the F.S.A., almost as predictably; and, a little surprisingly, in Erbil (capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan Region).  We’ll take these in turn.  The Turkish government mostly fears that Kurdish separatism is a contagion that can spread to its own Kurds, even though it has decided to make peace with the idea of an autonomous, perhaps even eventually independent, Iraqi Kurdistan.  The implementation of this year’s historic peace deal between Ankara and the P.K.K. is proceeding relatively smoothly, but naturally Turkey worries that the still-armed P.K.K. rebels already retreating over the border into Iraqi Kurdistan—where the regional president, Massoud Barzani, can assure that they will be watched closely—might instead head to the more lawless Syrian Kurdistan, where they have natural allies in the P.Y.D.

Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurds
Assad, for his part, may have liked the idea of a buffer area to keep Syrian and Turkish armies out of firing range of one another, but he is probably nervous about full-blown autonomy or independence.  If successful, the idea could spread rapidly to, say, the Druze.  ISIS already is drawing up its new borders.  And that would be the end of Syria.

(This map is ridiculously generous; Kurds don’t live as far west as the coast.)
President Barzani, the president of the quasi-independent Iraqi Kurdistan, condemns the Rojava declaration as being driven by the P.Y.D. with insufficient input from other Kurdish factions, which had been—nominally and precariously—united through painstaking multilateral diplomacy under Barzani’s auspices over the past couple years.  As Barzani put it, “We only support the steps that have the consensus of all Kurdish parties in Rojava.  We refuse to deal with unilateral actions.”  For the most part, Barzani refers to the Kurdish National Council (K.N.C.), which is closely allied to his own government and approved of by the West but seen by the more hardline P.K.K. and P.Y.D. as Western and Turkish stooges, while Barzani and the K.N.C. regard the P.Y.D. as unruly terrorists who have a working relationship, if not worse, with Assad.

We will be keeping readers informed of how the repercussions of the Rojava declaration play out.

[You can read more about these 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.]

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cyrenaican Nationalists in Libya Form Regional Government, No Longer Even Pretending It’s Not about the Oil

The question of centralism vs. federalism in the new Libya, and in particular the question of whether the oil-rich east of the country, called Cyrenaica (or Barqa, in Arabic), should have its own autonomous government, has returned.  And this time the pro-home-rule Cyrenaicans seem to really mean it.  Separatist militants have even taken over oil-industry facilities, crippling the nation’s power grid.

In March of last year (as reported at the time in this blog), with Libyans still reeling from a quick European-facilitated Arab Spring revolution which eliminated their long-time dictator, Moammar al-Qaddafi, leaders in the Cyrenaica region declared that they were now an autonomous region.  The leader of the autonomists, Prince Ahmed al-Zubair al-Senussi, was a great-nephew of King Idris, a member of the Sufist “House of Senussi” which ruled Cyrenaica during its brief period of British-backed independence after the defeat of the old colonial power, Italy, in the Second World War.

Moammar al-Qaddafi
Idris stayed in power when the United Nations and the United Kingdom folded the Emirate of Cyrenaica into a United Kingdom of Libya in 1951, joining it to the former British colony of Tripolitania to the west and the vast, arid Fezzan region to the south, which had been part of French West Africa.  The 1951 constitution guaranteed strong local powers to the three regions, in a loose federation.  The new Libyan capital was officially Tripoli, capital of Tripolitania, but Idris ruled from the old Senussi family seat in Benghazi, Cyrenaica.  In 1963, King Idris centralized the government, dissolving the three autonomous regions and breaking them into smaller, less powerful provinces.  Tripolitanians regarded this as a Cyrenaican power-grab.  By 1969, Libya was seen as weak and precarious with its aging, childless monarch regarded as a British stooge beholden to European oil interests (as, arguably, he was—otherwise the British would not have installed him).  Plus, the Suez Canal crisis and, more immediately, the 1967 Arab–Israeli War had stoked unprecedented Arab nationalism, which made the Senussis look like some kind of Ottoman-era anachronism.  So an ambitious army colonel named Moammar al-Qaddafi, born in a Bedouin tent in Tripolitania, overthrew the king in 1969, kicked out foreign oil firms, and installed a petroleum-fueled socialist dictatorship which shifted power back to Tripoli.  A failed Senussi-led monarchist coup in 1970 only tightened Qaddafi’s grip on the east.

King Idris—once ruler of Cyrenaica, then of Libya
Thus, when, in 2011, it looked like the Arab Spring revolutions would come to Libya next, Cyrenaica was unsurprisingly the center of rebellion, and for quite a while during the 2011 civil war, the internationally backed transitional rebel government was based in Benghazi.  The June 2012 elections went smoothly, despite threats by Zubair’s Cyrenaica National Council and other regionalists to disrupt them.  Then, near the first anniversary of those elections, came another autonomy declaration from Zubair.  It was largely ignored, but the next developments weren’t.

Ahmed al-Zubayr al-Senussi at this year’s autonomy declaration
In July, a mostly non-political labor strike at Cyrenaican oil fields and refineries provided the occasion for more militant Cyrenaican nationalists, led by Ibraham al-Jadhran, to piggy-back their cause onto that of the oil workers and add autonomy for Cyrenaica to the strike demands.  In October, Jadhran’s Political Bureau of Cyrenaica (P.B.C.) declared the formation of a Cyrenaican government, one with no Senussis in it.  Zubair later clarified at a press conference that his own group, now called the Council of Cyrenaica in Libya (C.C.L.), had failed to find an accommodation with Jadhran and had nothing to do with the new “government”—which, incidentally, the central government in Tripoli also denounces as illegitimate.

The flag of the former Emirate of Cyrenaica
Now that the gentle, Sufist, royally-descended, and for the most part accommodationist autonomists of the C.C.L. have had the banner of Cyrenaican pride snatched from them by a more radical and better-armed militia led by Jadhran, it is not clear what the movement’s new direction will be.  Is there an Islamist component to the new provisional government?  It is not yet clear, but the fact that Benghazi has, in the post-Qaddafi era, become a breeding ground for salafist radicals who are contemptuous of the region’s Sufi heritage makes one wonder.  (This is only one part of the world where Islamists are going head to head with more moderate Sufis—and winning.  It also happened in northern Mali last year and is also the dynamic in the North Caucasus, western Saudi Arabia, and northern Somalia.)  After last year’s killing of the United States ambassador in the city, the very name Benghazi has in the U.S. at least become synonymous with the vulnerability of Western interests, and of Libya’s fragile democracy, to fundamentalist violence.

Nor is eastward the only direction in which Libya is being pulled apart.  The southern region, Fezzan, also declared an autonomous government this summer.  Fezzan is an ethnic mix of mostly non-Arabs—including Toubous who were dismissed by Qaddafi as “black Chadians” and stripped of their citizenship rights, as well as Tuaregs who were traditionally loyal to Qaddafi and who stoked a separatist Tuareg uprising in northern Mali last year which was co-opted by Algerian-based Islamist radicals and then, early this year, toppled by France’s military.  It is very unclear as yet what role Tuareg nationalists—or, even, Islamist radicals—might have in Fezzan’s emerging regionalist movement.

Cyrenaica’s coat-of-arms
The ongoing talks on a new Libyan constitution are now being boycotted not only by the Cyrenaican and Fezzani separatists but, in Tripolitania itself, by the Berber minority.  Berbers, who are in some sense the indigenous people of the North African Maghreb, are linguistically and culturally related to the Tuareg and make up about 5% of Libya’s population but a quarter of Algeria’s and 40% of Morocco’s. The mostly mountain-dwelling Berbers of Libya, who fought bravely against Qaddafi on his home turf, want Berber declared an official language and their cultural rights and autonomy enhanced.  Berber activists from the Amazigh High Council have taken over a harbor in Mellitah—in Tripolitania, along the border with Tunisia—which is crucial to Libya’s oil economy, and in particular to Italy’s energy supply.

Berbers initially celebrated the new post-Qaddafi order in Libya
Libya’s movement toward a constitutional democracy is now stalled, and its very economy is being held hostage.  So far, the ardent nationalism seems mostly to be of the regional kind, but, as we have seen in Mali, purely local regional fights can, in a power vacuum, become something else entirely.  Is this the beginning of the break-up of Libya?

Rebels fly a Berber flag at the captured Mellitah oil harbor in western Tripolitania

[You can read more about these 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.]

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“Separatism” Added to List of Things Russians Aren’t Allowed to Talk about

Dead journalists.  The existence of homosexuality.  Anything which “offends” Eastern Orthodox Christianity.  And now Vladimir Putin’s political allies in Russia’s Duma (parliament) put forth a bill on November 8th which provides for prison terms of up to 20 years for “spreading separatist propaganda.”  The move comes on the heels of other assaults on free speech which have been damaging Russia’s already-precarious reputation as a new democracy: the jailing of members of the anti-clerical, anti-Putin dissident punk band Pussy Riot, the requirement that any charitable or nonprofit groups branching out into Russia have to register as “foreign agents,” and, most controversially in recent weeks, a new law criminalizing so-called homosexual propaganda.  This last has prompted calls at the popular level for boycotts of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, or at least for protest actions to disrupt the Olympics themselves.  (Putin has promised that no athlete or spectator at the Games would be prosecuted under the new law, but that sort of misses the point.)

And what counts as “separatist propaganda”?  Well, the most likely answer—as with “homosexual propaganda”—is: anything that makes the authorities decide they want to arrest you and throw you into a hole for as long as they want.  This will doubtless include, along with violent insurgents who mean ill, many peaceful citizens with legitimate aspirations for autonomy for their ethnic and national communities.

It will also probably include much silliness as to what constitutes a separatist propaganda.  The ban on so-called gay propaganda, incidentally, has gotten so silly that last month a Kremlin vexillologist addressed a minor kerfuffle over Russia’s far-eastern Jewish Autonomous Oblast (J.A.O.)—which is, as discussed recently in this blog, a godforsaken patch of Siberia set up by Josef Stalin as a dumping ground for a troublesome minority, though today almost no Jews live there.  It seems the J.A.O. has a flag which some mistake for the “gay pride” flag.  But as the federal government official explained, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast flag ...

... was not in fact the same as the “gay pride” flag:

The designer of the J.A.O. flag, Alexandr Valyaev, even chimed in, explaining, “ On its flag the gay movement uses seven stripes, not six.  ...  The rainbow is a divine symbol, taken from the Bible.  God threw the rainbow from the sky into the wilderness of the desert as a symbol of hope.  Gays used this divine symbol, the rainbow, but removed from its spectrum the light blue color, so it’s already not a rainbow.”  In fact, the J.A.O. flag just has a lighter blue than the gay-pride flag; nothing is missing.  But, nonetheless, I notice that this Valyaev fellow seems suspiciously well versed in what the gay-pride flag looks like.  Check his papers.  (Also, the Kremlin will have a harder time explaining away the official protocols for the display of the J.A.O. flag, which call for the flag-bearer to hang the banner out of his back left jeans pocket, and then take it out and swing it above his head in a rotary motion when “Disco Inferno” comes on.)

Islamists’ proclaimed “Caucasus Emirate”
Seriously, though, Russia does have a separatism problem—most seriously in the predominantly-Muslim North Caucasus region.  Though Chechnya was pacified in two horrific wars of aggression by Russia, nationalism still persists there, awaiting a reawakening, while a Chechen government-in-exile still operates out of London.  More seriously, the Caucasus Emirate movement—a salafist, jihadist Islamist terror group which came into being after the Chechen wars lured floods of idealistic, battle-hardened young Muslim fighters from Afghanistan and the Middle East—claims that the Muslim regions of Russia’s southwestern rim are a separate Islamic state and that Russians are the interlopers.  They have killed hundreds over the last few years in a merciless campaign of ambushes, assassinations, massacre, and suicide attacks on government targets and “moderate” (mostly indigenous Sufi) clerics.  Ingushetia and Dagestan have been hit especially hard.  The Emirate has also shown signs of spreading into other restive Russian regions, such as the far-flung Republic of Tatarstan in central Russia, which was one of two republics to refuse initially to join the new Russian Federation after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Smaller, lesser known movements persist as well.  President Boris Yeltsin had told Russia’s constituent republics and other jurisdictions (oblasts, okrugs, krais, etc.) to “take as much autonomy as you can stand.”  But Putin has reversed that course—withdrawing de facto autonomous status from places like Tatarstan and Bashkortostan and even installing loyal Kremlin stooges to run places like Chechnya.  There is always the possibility that some of these other regions will get ideas and rise up—from the Finno-Ugrian-speaking Karelians along the border with Finland to the mostly-Buddhist Kalmyks and Tuvans, to the Sakha (Yakuts), Altai, Chukchi, and other peoples of the far east, to ethnic-Russian frontiersman who would like to see Siberia (all of Russia east of the Urals—i.e., 10% of the land surface of the world) become its own independent nation (some have even called for Siberia to join the United States), to “Volga Germans” who once had their own republic within Russia, to residents of the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave in former German territory who would like to split and join the independent Baltic States, and even to revived Cossack hosts along the border with Ukraine and Kazakhstan and the cis-Caucasian steppes who recall their days of glory when separate Cossack republics flicked in and out of existence during the Russian Civil War that followed the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

Could it come to this?
The most delicate area right now, though, is the Circassians.  Inhabiting an area of the northeastern Black Sea area, including the northwestern Caucasus, the Circassians were dispersed and nearly exterminated in a series of brutal invasions by Russia in the mid 19th century.  The remnant Circassian subgroups are now spread out as mostly minorities in three different republics—all of which, to complicate things, are claimed as territory of the so-called Caucasus Emirate.  Circassians, already becoming more nationalistic in their diaspora in Turkey, Syria, and elsewhere, have become especially politicized by the choice of Sochi as a site for the 2014 Olympics.  Sochi was the site of one of the worst of the Russian massacres, in which the Ubykh subgroup of Circassians was wiped off the map exactly 150 years before the 2014 Games.  For Circassians, Sochi is hallowed ground and the choice of the site a provocation.  The Caucasus Emirate has vowed to cause trouble at at the Olympics, and Cossacks, hired by the government, have vowed to defend the Games from the trouble-makers.

Circassians remember their genocide.
But is this ideologically consistent?  Of course it isn’t.  This is Putin we’re talking about.  Although Putin cites Russia’s own internal insurgencies as it blocks the accession of the Republic of Kosovo (which split from Russia’s ally Serbia) to the United Nations, he has long played a double game.  Regular readers of this blog well know that Putin used the occasion of a 2008 war with the Georgia to grant diplomatic recognition to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two regions that de facto seceded from Georgia (and cleansed their territories of ethnic Georgians) right after the fall of Communism.  (A month ago, as reported at the time in this blog, Moscow narrowly decided against allowing Abkhazia and South Ossetia to send their own Olympic teams so Sochi.)  More quietly, Russia props up the de facto independent Republic of Transnistria, which seceded (never formally recognized) from Moldova in the 1990s, and, even more quietly, backs the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, which Armenia (which remains friendly to Moscow) carved out of the west flank of independent Azerbaijan in a nasty war.  Isn’t all this separatism too?  Well, yes, unless you classify those regions as “properly” part of Russia.  Putin hasn’t come right out and said that, but if he wants to have that conversation we can certainly have that conversation, and he won’t end up looking very good.

Russia’s newly empowered Cossacks.  Don’t worry, they’ll keep things nice and orderly
and peaceful—you know, like before.
In any case, will a new law criminalizing separatist propaganda make Russia’s separatist problems better or worse?  It will certainly allow Russian authorities to round up radical clerics, Muslim gang members, and anyone else suspicious with little provocation and lock them up for a long time.  In the past, though, in the Caucasus, that kind of thing only angers and emboldens the insurgency.  It is also likely to lend international sympathy to the cause of an autonomous or independent Circassia, something the movement, because of past association with jihadists, it does not enjoy.  If the Olympics were already going to be a headache for Putin, they certainly will be now.  Already, gay activists—and lots of just plain old visitors and participants who have a sense of equality and decency—are plotting ways to whip out and unfurl gay-pride flags at various times during the games, even the opening ceremonies.  Perhaps lots of other flags will start appearing as well.

Tatarstan’s flag.  Will it fly again?
Maybe even in Sochi?
Putin needs to realize that democracy means having the right to express whatever your views are on how you should be governed, including separatist sentiment.  And he will learn the hard way that suppressing national aspirations only stokes the fires.  But tyrants never learn.

[You can read more about Circassia, Siberia, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Circassia, Chechnya, and many 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.]

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