Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ten Separatist Movements to Watch in 2016

A year ago in this space, I offered my predictions for which separatist movements would capture the world’s headlines in 2015.   Some of those, such as East Turkestan (in western China) (no. 8) and the Russian puppet states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia within Georgia (no. 4), are conflicts which continued to simmer during the past twelve months but did not boil over (and I am happy to have been wrong about that).

Abkhazia—still quasi-independent, but in a holding pattern
Scotland, which was no. 10 in this list a year ago, continued to build momentum for independence, but without too many significant developments other than the United Kingdom’s Labour Party betraying its utter ideological disarray in the face of defections to the Scottish Nationalist Party (S.N.P.) by selecting a cantankerous, bearded paleo-Marxist, Jeremy Corbin—who disrespects Queen Elizabeth II and sympathizes with Vladimir Putin—as the official opposition leader in Parliament.  This means that, to all intents and purposes, the S.N.P. is the opposition.  The U.K. is still headed for break-up, but probably not for a few more years yet.

Scots have not put their flags away, but independence is on hold.
Other aspirant states, such as South Yemen, Novorossiya (eastern Ukraine), and Islamic State (a.k.a. the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS)—nos. 6, 5, and 2, respectively, last year—continued to be the focus of high-profile conflicts in 2015 and will probably continue to be in 2016, though they didn’t make this year’s list.  Catalonia (no. 9 last year), Republika Srpska (no. 7 last year), Transnistria (no. 3 last year), and Kurdistan (no. 1 last year) remain on this year’s list.  For better or for worse, they may get their moment in history in 2016.  Here is the full list:

10. Biafra: A 1960s Cause Revitalized in the Face of Islamist Terror

Southeast Nigeria’s Igbo people were the first stateless nation to make a credible bid for independence after the mass European decolonization of Africa in the 1960s.  British colonists had left the supposedly more pliable northern Hausa–Fulani Muslims in charge of the new nation, but after a series of coups and counter-coups among Nigeria’s main ethnic groups, Igbos declared a Republic of Biafra in 1967.  The ensuing war killed millions, many through deliberate blockade and starvation by the British-backed Nigerian government.  Since then, modifying Africa’s irrational, arbitrary colonial-era borders has become a taboo, and nowhere more so than in Nigeria, still traumatized by the Biafra catastrophe.  But the emergence of the terrorist Islamist group Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has changed things.  In a country about evenly divided between northern Muslims and southern Christians, national unity is less of a priority today to the south’s Yorubas, Igbos, and others as Islamist radicals rampage through the north with massacres, rapes, and pillage.  The spectacle of Muslim terrorists targeting the predominantly-Christian Igbo population in the demographically mixed “Middle Belt” region has reopened the wounds of the north–south conflict that led to the Biafra War in the first place.  Few noticed when the tiny Biafra Zionist Movement (B.Z.M.) declared independence in 2012, but the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB) has been issuing Biafran currency and passports and hoisting the banned Biafran flag, and this year a new group, Indigenous People of Biafra (IPoB), launched a pirate station called Radio Biafra.  This was the last straw for the newly elected president, Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim who this year replaced Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner more popular with Igbos.  Buhari had the IPoB leader, Nnamdi Kanu, arrested, and riots ensued, with several killed.  Igbos claim that the government cannot protect them against Islamic terror or against trigger-happy federal police, and that a new Muslim-dominated government will marginalize the southeast politically and economically, as other administrations have done.  If Buhari cannot convince them otherwise, the conflict will worsen.  So far, he seems to be stoking conflict by meeting protests with disproportionate force.  Add to these complications the fact that some smaller ethnic groups within the former Biafra are saying that Biafran nationalists do not speak for them and that they are willing to secede from any independent Biafra in order to stay in Nigeria, and there is a recipe for horrible conflict in 2016.

9. Cyrenaica: A Sufi Kingdom That Suddenly Looks Like a Good Idea Again

Aside from Syria (see nos. 2 and 1 below), Libya is the most dynamically fractious country in the world today.  When the Arab Spring revolutions reached Libya in 2011, the eastern third of the country, Cyrenaica, which was an independent moderate Sufi kingdom from 1949 to 1951, rose up first, and for a while its main city, Benghazi, was the “capital” of “Free Libya.”  After NATO unseated and then offed the dictator Moammar al-Qaddafi, the scores of local Cyrenaican, Tripolitanian, Toubou, Tuareg, Berber, and Islamist warlords throughout the country did not want to give up the little fiefdoms they had established during the civil war, and they still haven’t.  Zubair al-Senussi, a nephew of the deposed King Idris, declared Cyrenaica autonomous in 2013, but the influx of Islamist militants to Libya soon after that has made the situation more complex: last year, the newly elected Libyan national parliament had to decamp to Tobruk, in Cyrenaica’s far northeast, while Libya Dawn, the bloc that lost the election, has set up a rival parliament in the official capital Tripoli, in the western region of Tripolitania (see map below), and is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.  Meanwhile, affiliates of Islamic State have utter control of an area around Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace, in eastern Tripolitania on the central coast.  On December 17, 2015, the two rival parliaments officially formed a “national unity government” at a summit in Morocco, but no one knows if that will mean anything in practical terms.  Real power in Libya lies in the ability to rally local militias, and those pushing for greater autonomy in Cyrenaica have a few things on their side: there is more unity among militias in the east, Tripolitania has more remnant Qaddafi loyalists and Berber unrest and is less friendly to foreign investment (despite the fact that the internationally-recognized Muslim Brotherhood government is temporarily located in the east), and Cyrenaica has nearly all the oil.  Ah, yes, it may all come down to oil in the end.  Unity government or not, 2016 may be the year Cyrenaica asks the world to give up on Libyan unity and back their secession.

8. Assam: Is China Contemplating Putin-Style Puppet States in Its Own Near Abroad?

Assam, the largest state in India’s eastern panhandle, is at first glance an obscure part of the world.  Its decades-long conflict among warring separatist militias, spilling over into neighboring states that form with it the “Seven Sisters” region, tend to have little effect on wider politics.  But that may be changing—and it’s all about China’s frustrated geopolitical ambitions.  First, understand that the government in Beijing does not recognize the MacMahon Line which the British (who then ruled India) agreed upon with the then-autonomous government of Tibet in 1914; China regards the area just below it, governed today as India’s Arunachal Pradesh state, part of its Tibet “Autonomous” Region.  Second, China has begun to flex its muscles beyond its borders in a way that it has not done for decades.  The West is alarmed over Chinese construction and military-patrolling activities—both in violation of international law—on and around tiny disputed islands and pseudo-islands in the South China Sea.  Surely, Beijing’s new boldness is partly due to China having seen Russia getting away with bald-faced expansionism in Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and elsewhere (see nos. 3 and 2 below).  China has mostly only tacitly backed Vladimir Putin’s irredentist empire-rebuilding, wary of being seen as a hypocrite on the subject of separatism.  But now that Russia is happily clamping down on separatists at home while arming them abroad, with none of its fist-pumping pro-Putin masses seeming to notice the contradiction, China may feel a little freer to do the same.  Despite brutal repression of any moves toward autonomy in Tibet, the Xinjiang Uyghur “Autonomous” Region, and even Hong Kong, China is very tentatively making ideological forays into neighboring regions.  Separatists in Japan’s far-southern archipelago, Okinawa, which used to be a separate kingdom with feudal-style allegiance to China, have been getting support from Beijing in the form of statements to the effect that Japan’s historical claims on the islands are concocted.  Okinawa, like the South China Sea islands, is part of a vast chain of Western-friendly territories—South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Guam, etc.—which form an impermeable barrier preventing China from projecting power toward the Pacific.  Keep in mind, also, that the recent elections in Burma (Myanmar) are the latest chapter in a Burmese liberalization and pivot toward the West, which threatens to rob China of some of its trade access to the Indian Ocean.

The Indo-Chinese border is a mess of competing claims.
If Beijing decides to aid Assamese rebels, it will get even messier.
So where does Assam come in?  Well, just last month, Paresh Baruah, the leader of the armed United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA) came out openly courting Beijing’s support.  Using Communist doublespeak in referring to Arunachal Pradesh (which was part of Assam state until 1987) as “South Tibet,” he scolded New Delhi for hosting Tibet’s government-in-exile despite having in 2003 pledged recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet (but not Arunachal Pradesh) in exchange for China backing off its claims on the formerly independent Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim.  It would be a cinch for Beijing to back eastern Indian rebels of various kinds—as well as those in neighboring Burma—as a way to destabilize the enemy and creep inch by inch toward the Indian Ocean.  Beijing seems poised to, ever slowly, “go Putin” on its neighbors.  This is a stealth phenomenon, but Springtime of Nations will keep readers informed of it during 2016.

7. Catalonia: The Stars May Be Aligning for a Final Break with Spain

Catalonia, a secessionist region of Spain, was no. 2 on last year’s list, being at that time fresh off of a non-binding referendum in which 81% of Catalans favoring independence but turnout was well below 50%—giving both sides, the unionist central government in Madrid and Catalonia’s ruling separatist Convergence and Unity (Convergència i Unió, or CiU) coalition, reasons to dig in their heels.  But in June, CiU split evenly into rival camps over the question of whether or not Catalonia should pursue independence unilaterally, even in the face of Madrid’s insistence that such moves are unconstitutional.  In Catalan parliamentary elections in September of this year, the new pro-independence Together for Yes (Junts pel Sí, or JxSí) coalition gained four seats and the more gradualist Popular Unity Candidacy (Candidatura d’Unitat Popular, or CUP) seven, but the surprise surge was from the anti-independence Ciutadans (“Citizens”) party, which gained sixteen seats, leaving pro-independence parties as a whole with only 48% of the vote—weak, but enough to keep the separatist Catalan president, Artur Mas, clinging to power for the time being.  Then came another blow—this month’s Spanish court ruling that any secession bid would indeed be unconstitutional, which prompted the usual defiance from President Mas.  But just this week the game has changed: in elections to the Spanish parliament on December 20th, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s People’s Party (Partido Popular, or P.P.) lost 64 seats, plunging from 45% to 29%.  No one did any better, though: the Socialists lost 20 seats, bringing them down to 22%, and the newly minted far-left Podemos (“We Can”) party came out of nowhere to take 69 seats.  Podemos could well be the king-maker, and its young, hip, pony-tail-sporting leader, Pablo Iglesias, supports the idea of a Catalan independence referendum.  Not surprisingly, Podemos did well in Catalonia in particular, and if a Catalan vote for Podemos counts as a vote for independence, it looks like these elections show separatism to be surging again.  The coalition-building process may drag into the new year.  Catalonia’s hopes for independence depend on the result.  Either way, their fight is far from over.

6. Confederate States of America: Trump’s Rise and the “Browning” of America Lure Extremists out of the Shadows

All realistic dreams of independence for the “Confederated States of America” in the southern United States died in 1865 with the Unionist victory in the American Civil War.  But Confederate nationalism never went away, and, since the war was mostly (among other things) about slavery, Confederate nostalgia has always had a central racial component.  Federal enforcement of desegregation in the South in the 1960s reawakened the Southern white rhetoric of “states’ rights” that had dominated secessionist rhetoric in the 19th century, and the Republican Party repositioned itself atop a “base” of Southern white racists after Democrats like Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson adopted Civil Rights as their cause.  That explains why the 2000 electoral map that led to the months-long standoff between the candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush was essentially a map of old North-versus-South divisions—with of course a large extension of “red state” America into the Plains, where rural whites share many Southern “values.”  That also explains why the election of Barack Obama in 2008 sparked an explosion of racially-tinged far-right militancy in the guise of the “Tea Party” and the re-booted “Patriot” militia movement and a recruitment bonanza for Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups.  This year’s white-supremacist massacre at an African-American church in South Carolina sparked a broad public backlash against the Confederate flags, symbols, and toxic rhetoric that had warped the deranged young shooter via the Internet.  So today right-wing Southern whites feel their “heritage” is under attack.  And the ongoing tilting of American demographics toward a larger and more electorally mobilized dark-skinned (especially Hispanic) population has white conservatives in a panic as well—hence all the talk of “taking our country back” and hence the bizarre spectacle of the 2008 election, in which a protracted Republican primary season with unhinged xenophobes like Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and Michele Bachmann ranting about the black and Latino menace demolished any hopes of denying Obama a second term (even though their eventual candidate was by comparison very moderate).

And now comes Donald Trump, a billionaire Republican front-runner seemingly uninterested in preparing the ground for his party’s victory next year and dropping all pretense and all code in openly stoking ultra-bigotry.  Gone are the days of Republican nods and winks about “welfare mothers,” “voter fraud,” or—ahem, you know who I mean—“the inner city”: Trump calls illegal immigrants “murderers and rapists,” vows to erect a giant wall along the border with Mexico, contorts his arms on stage to mock the disabled, applauds when thugs beat and hurl the N-word at an African-American heckler at one of his hate rallies, and proposes that Muslim Americans be registered and monitored just as German Jews were in the 1930s and ’40s—an historical parallel he pointedly refuses to be offended by.  Trump for months now has dominated American political news with what is very easily the most openly racist major presidential campaign since Reconstruction—a new low for America’s image around the world.

What does this mean for neo-Confederates?  We had always been told that they were a minuscule political fringe, and perhaps they are, in one sense, but the following scenario still seems likely: Trump loses the nomination, but the aftersmell of his long, ugly campaign costs the Republicans any hope of the Hispanic and centrist (“undecided”) votes needed to win, meaning Hillary Rodham Clinton is headed unstoppably to the White House.  That leaves the 38% of Republicans who today back Trump and the 15% who today back Texas’s equally deranged and intolerant Ted Cruz (who is equally incapable of securing a nomination), angry and feeling betrayed by their party, their tiny brains aboil with conspiracy theories and thoughts of revolution and race war.  Mind you, we are talking here about somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population of the U.S.—tens of millions of people—and a solid majority of whites in much of the Deep South.  If you think that’s an exaggeration, look again at Trump’s poll numbers and listen to the unprecedented levels of furious racism in his rhetoric.

White supremacists tried to take over Leith, North Dakota, last year.  Where will they try next?
These nuts won’t start a real revolution or a secession, but many may split away as a militant-rightist, mostly-Southern-based third party that could be a more durable feature in American politics than third-party runs by the likes of John Anderson (1980), Ross Perot (1992), or Ralph Nader (2000 and 2004) could ever have hoped to be—and perhaps Trump will even start his own party before the election; he can certainly afford to, and he hasn’t ruled it out.  This would split the right just enough to keep the Republican base more or less permanently out of power nationally—and thus more and more paranoid and angry.  What I predict for 2016 and 2017 is a boost in visibility for groups like the League of the South and the Texas Nationalist Movement, both of them far-right in their orientation and both with violent elements.  (In 2014, the League launched its own paramilitary wing, called the Indomitables.)  More and more mainstream Republicans will also begin to adopt the doctrines of “nullification” and “state sovereignty” that are the underpinnings of secessionist Constitutional arguments.  And we can expect a spike in violent incidents, such as race massacres like the one in South Carolina; hostage situations and sieges involving armed neo-Confederates; and attempts to establish all-white enclaves, like the “Pioneer Little Europe” attempted in South Dakota in 2014 by the white-supremacist Craig Cobb (see reports from this blog here and here) or his more recent follow-up attempts in Nebraska.  America won’t split into two countries, but its people will be even more divided, and the ignorant conservative white masses who feel disenfranchised will rally more and more under their own disgraced Confederate flag.

Welcome to Dixie.

5. Russians in the Baltic States: Could the Kremlin Pull Another Crimea Right under the NATO Umbrella?

When Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, invaded and annexed Ukraine’s majority-ethnic-Russian Republic of Crimea in 2014, his triumphant speeches made clear what Russian expansionist ambitions were about.  He addressed the “plight” of those Russians who went to sleep one night in 1991 as the dominant ethnic group in the Soviet Union and woke up as minorities in foreign lands such as Ukraine, Moldova, Kazakhstan, and, most of all, in the Baltic States.  In Lithuania, 5% of the population consider themselves ethnic Russians (15% in the capital), in Latvia it is 28% (with nearly half of Riga and most of its second-largest city, Dagauvpils, speaking Russian), and in Estonia 24% (with 47% of the population of Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, being Russian-speakers).  These high numbers are the result of an explicitly colonial policy of settling Russians in the Baltics which began soon after their illegal annexation by the Soviet Union during the Second World War.  (The United Nations and most of the world refused to recognize the annexations, but no one did anything about it.)  By the time the Baltics became independent again in 1989, the demographic damage could not be undone; large parts of the three countries had become Russified.  Post-Soviet Latvia instituted harsh laws excluding newcomers and non-Latvian-speakers from public life, and so here Russophones’ resentment is sharpest.  In 2012, a referendum on making Russian an official language alongside Latvian was doomed by numbers to fail (as reported at the time in this blog), but the emotionally-fought campaign put Russians in alliance with some Latgalians, a sort-of-separate ethnic group in the area around Dagauvpils which feels marginalized.  After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Balts became understandably jittery.  All three are in NATO, so a full-on attack by Russia is unthinkable—it would put Putin on an instant war footing with three nuclear powers—but Putin favors “stealth annexations” anyway.  In places like the Russian puppet states within Georgia, Moldova (see no. 3 below), and Ukraine, the Kremlin has distributed Russian passports to local Russian-speakers and used or threatened economic blockades.  If Putin ever decides to pull a Crimea in the Baltics, he will start with strategies like this.  Keep in mind, Putin violated NATO airspace one time too many this month, in Turkey, but he probably still feels that was worth it: he lost only one plane, but whipped up jingoism at home and destabilized an enemy state.   Speculative maps leaked from the Kremlin in 2012 (as reported on in this blog) (see map below) showed eastern Estonia and eastern Latvia absorbed into Russia as, respectively, Narvski District (Narva is a 94% Russian-speaking town in Estonia) and Dvinskaya Oblast (Dvinsk being the Russian name for Dagauvpils).  Sure, that sounds silly, but so did the phrases “Donetsk Republic” and “Luhansk Republic” a couple years ago.  Already, Russian submarines troll Baltic harbors, and it is within the Kremlin’s means to stoke grievances in Russian-speaking parts of the Baltics (where they all watch Russian propaganda television anyway) and even run guns to rebels for a “liberation.”  Annexation and old-style direct invasions are off the table, but severe destabilization would be the next best thing.  2016 may be the year Putin tries it.

Modifications to the map of Europe in progress at the Kremlin

4. Republika Srpska: Bosnia’s Serbs Haven’t Had a Good War in 20 Years or So ...

After the devastation of the Bosnian War, the 1995 Dayton Accords created a Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina divided into two quasi-independent and insanely gerrymandered halves, with only a veneer of national unity between them: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, governed by Croats and Bosniaks (Muslims), and the Republika Srpska, the “Serb Republic,” which is called by its Serbian name in English to avoid confusion with the fully independent Republika Srbija (Republic of Serbia) just to the east.  It was a pyrrhic victory for the peacemakers: the fighting had stopped, but the new map rewarded “ethnic cleansing” (a term coined for this war) by carving into stone the territorial gains made through wholesale massacre.  Both sides seemed content to simply pretend, for the sake of greater peace, to pretend that they were a single country.  But then, in 2014, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, changed all of the ideological dynamics in the Slavic world by invading and annexing Ukraine’s Republic of Crimea.  Russia had always been the diplomatically isolated Serbia’s one ally in the wider world, since Russian nationalists see in Serbia parallels to their own grievances: a feeling that NATO and the West are punitively whittling their empires away, a sense of historic humiliation, and a panic over Muslim insurgency (where Bosniaks and Kosovars are analogous to Chechens or Crimean Tatars—never mind that all of these are among the most politically and doctrinally moderate Muslims in the world).  Russia’s new muscle-flexing and its eagerness to settle old scores have now rekindled the embers of the Republika Srpska’s dormant jingoism.  Serbia itself, which hankers for European Union (E.U.) membership and is eager to shed its global image as a pack of bloody-fanged ultranationalists, wants nothing to do with Republika Srpska, even though in the bad old days reunification was the mutual goal.  But Bosnian Serbs are now once again thinking about independence, or at least some way to cut their ties with Croats and Bosniaks.  The republic’s president, Milorad Dodik, stated this year that a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska was the only way forward and that 99% of Bosnian Serbs would support it—surely an exaggeration, though such a referendum, if held, might well pass.  Dodik’s own party, plus two far-right radical nationalist parties, hold nearly two-thirds of the seats in Republika Srpska’s parliament.  Just in the past few months, Serb nationalists have upped the ante: they are planning a referendum on whether the republic is beholden to decisions by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Constitutional Court, and earlier this month the republic announced it was severing all ties to Bosnian state institutions.  The provocations that led to these moves were mostly symbolic ones: the Court voted to abolish Republika Srpska’s own “national” holiday, Republic Day, and federal Bosnian authorities arrested several Srpska citizens on decades-old war-crimes charges (still a sore spot for Serbs).  But the course Dodik is taking amounts to a virtual declaration of independence.  He might climb down, but it’s also possible that with tensions running high a minor event could lead to the renewal of fighting.  Putin has shown he would have no compunctions about sending in troops, regular or irregular, to help Serbs in any renewed civil war (if only to repay the Serb irregulars who flooded to Ukraine to fight for Putin last year).  And Bosnia is not in NATO, so, if previous events in Georgia and Ukraine are any indication, the West would in such a case sit on their hands and watch in horror as the Balkans descend once again into open war.

Milorad Dodik wants to re-open the Bosnian can of worms—and dump it all over NATO’s head.

3. Transnistria: A Pseudo-State in the Balkans Seems Ripe for Russia’s Plucking

Transnistria—more properly the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic—is not much, actually.  It’s a wafer-thin sliver of the formerly-Soviet Republic of Moldova, and Moldova itself is a sliver, being the slice of Romania’s Moldavia region which ended up being divvied out to the Soviet Union after the Second World War.  Today, Transnistria governs itself and calls itself independent, but doesn’t even have the official diplomatic recognition from Russia that puppet states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia, have.  Transnistria’s half-million or so people are about about evenly divided three ways among ethnic Russians, ethnic Ukrainians, and ethnic Moldavians (i.e., Romanians).  In 2006, 97% of them voted in a referendum that they wanted to break from Moldova completely and be recognized as a separate state in “free association” with the Russian Federation.  There is no reason to think that sentiment has cooled in the decade since, except in defection to the even more appealing idea, since 2014, of following Crimea’s lead in become part of Russia outright—which is the openly stated goal of Transnistria’s government.  The only problem is that a large chunk of independent Ukraine stands between Transnistria and the nearest point of de facto Russian territory, Crimea.  For a while it looked as if President Vladimir Putin and his proxy forces meant to take not only the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts in the southeast of Ukraine but also the entire Black Sea coast, where ethnic Russians are also numerous.  Those ambitions have been scaled back a bit, but it’s not out of the question that Russian residents of the ethnically tense Odessa Oblast which borders Transnistria on its east could secede from Ukraine just as Donetsk and Luhansk have done and unify with Transnistria.  (Anti-Western Odessans did declare an “Odessa Republic of Novorossiya” in April 2014, as reported at the time in this blog, but it never translated into actually holding any territory.)  Putin’s Syrian adventure (see below) has overextended his forces somewhat, but if the right opportunity came along—such as a local uprising by ethnic Russians that “need protecting,” he might just snatch up Transnistria as an after-dinner snack, or at least grant it diplomatic recognition on its own.

2. Alawite State: Shouldn’t Assad Be Gone by Now? If Putin Has a Say, We’re Stuck with Him

Since Syria descended into civil war four years ago, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has used his influence with the embattled Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to enhance his own diplomatic credibility.  In 2015, the United States and western European nations, which had only half-heartedly been helping the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.) and other moderate rebels, began stepping up their fight against the self-declared terrorist Islamic State (a.k.a. ISIS), which controls large swathes of Syria and Iraq, and in October Russia stepped into the Syrian fray itself, with public announcements that Russia and the West, despite their differences, were partners in the fight against the Islamic State terrorists.  But a look at where exactly Russia has been dropping its bombs since early October tell a different story.  Putin is expending very little of his firepower against Islamic State and instead is pinpointing his attacks on the F.S.A. and other moderates who control the territory surrounding Assad’s redoubt in the west.  This includes the area around Damascus, the capital, but also the coastal provinces of Tartus and Latakia, where Russia has its military bases.  This is the part of Syria which was known as the Alawite State when it was a colony of France, and it is home to the doctrinally liberal Shiite Muslims of Assad’s minority Alawite sect, whom Islamic State regards as heretics.  Assad’s Syria is a crucial part of Putin’s loose alliance of tinpot dictatorships (also including Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, and Sudan), since it offers him a guaranteed Mediterranean presence, and Syria is also part of an arc of Shiite-ruled states, along with Iraq and Iran, that Islamic State is keen to punch holes in.  Already Putin is starting to treat western Syria more and more as his own territory, including threatening to turn the whole country into a “no fly” zone for Turkey, which is aiding some Syrian rebels but attacking others (like the Kurds; see no. 1 below) and which shot down a Russian warplane earlier this month.  Many observers expect that Assad’s long-contemplated plan to reestablish an Alawite State as a way of avoiding being removed from power entirely could become reality if Putin uses the same approach he has used with some success in places like Georgia, Moldova (see no. 3 above) and Ukraine: establishing quasi-independent puppet states, with or without diplomatic recognition.  Russians and Turks have been battling for centuries for dominance in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean.  The establishment of an independent Alawite State is Russia’s logical next step.

1. Kurdistan: No One Has Waited Longer, or Fought Harder, for Freedom

The Middle East’s 30 million or so Kurds are the world’s largest stateless nation, spread across northern Iraq, northern Syria, northwestern Iran, and—the largest chunk of their homeland—southeastern Turkey.  They were promised their own independent state when Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations dismantled the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, but the brutal nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey had other ideas and absorbed the Kurds and another aspirant people, the Armenians, into their rump empire.  The Armenians finally secured independence in 1991—though without their heartland in northeast Turkey that was depopulated by genocide.  But the Kurds are still waiting.  Iraq’s Kurds tasted autonomy of a sort after the First Gulf War of 1990, when the United States enforced a “no fly” zone that kept them safe from Saddam Hussein’s worst abuses, and then after Hussein’s fall they were able to convert that into a genuine Kurdistan Autonomous Region.  Their cousins in Turkey fared far worse: millions of Kurds were massacred by Turkey during the 1920s and ’30s, and their culture and language were criminalized to the extent that they were officially “Mountain Turks”: it was illegal to even say the words Kurd or Kurdistan.  Starting in the 1970s, an (initially Soviet-backed) Communist insurgent army called the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or P.K.K., waged a fierce war against the Turkish state, with tens of thousands dead over the decades.  A ceasefire in 2013 promised to bring an end to the fighting, but that has mostly unraveled under pressure from the situation to the south, where Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, retreated from the far north of his civil-war-torn country and allowed Kurds to found there a quasi-state called Rojava, which is—unlike the Kurdish government in northern Iraq, which Turkey gets along with—aligned with the P.K.K.  And then, soon after, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a.k.a. Islamic State, established itself in the large Sunni Arab homeland that stretches across much of Syria and Iraq.  Islamic State’s success in exploiting the local oil wealth, recruiting followers from around the world, and exporting terrorism to the West meant that the Syrian civil war became internationalized, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and various NATO countries, including the U.S., fighting there either directly or indirectly, all with different agendas.  Of these players, the Kurds closest allies are the U.S. and other Western powers and, to a lesser extent, Russia.

It has become clear that the West is promising independence to the Kurds of Iraq when and if Islamic State is defeated, and indeed it is Kurds in Iraq and Syria who are in the very front lines of that fight.  What is not clear is whether or not Rojava will be allowed to become part of that independent Kurdistan.  That will depend on how the Syrian civil war resolves itself eventually: Turkey is dead against the idea and Russia would only allow it if Assad is able to retain some territory outright (see Alawite State, no. 2, above), but the U.S. seems open to the idea.

Rojava, it should be said, is a kind of miracle: a progressive, democratic enterprise, with respect for women’s rights (Kurds have the world’s most feared female soldiers), a very moderate form of Islam, and, though its population is mostly Kurdish, a robustly multi-ethnic government with power-sharing between Kurds and the Sunni Arab, Assyrian, Chechen, and other minorities—all of this in the eye of the hurricane, surrounded on all sides by what is today the world’s most devastating war.  A merger with Iraqi Kurdistan would mean that this new member of the international community could be something the Middle East desperately needs: a place where Christians, Muslims, Yezidis, and others of all ethnic backgrounds can live in peace and security.  Plus, they’ve got all that oil.  Maybe 2016 will be the year that ISIS is defeated, or contained enough that the international community can allow the Kurds to start building independence.  It cannot happen soon enough.  They’ve waited long enough.

[You can read more about all these and 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.]

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Near Russia’s Arctic Rim, Karelians Bristle under Putin’s Rule

Vladimir Putin, as this blog tirelessly points out, is a hypocrite when it comes to separatism.  Though the authoritarian Russian president arms and funds separatists in places like Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and—perhaps soon—Syria, within Russia it is (as I have reported in this blog) a crime, as of last year, even to publicly advocate secession from the Russian Federation.  I have detailed how the Russian government has cracked down mercilessly on activists arguing even for enhanced autonomy in Russian regions like Circassia (in the north Caucasus and nearby steppes) and Siberia (see articles here and here), to say nothing of demands for self-determination by the Tatar minority in Crimea, which Russia reconquered from Ukraine last year.  A Crimean Tatar activist, Rafis Kashapov, was the first person tried under the new advocacy-of-separatism ban.  But the latest flare-up of resistance to Moscow rule is not along one of these familiar fault-lines but to the Sub-Arctic extreme northwest of the country, in the Republic of Karelia.

Last week, on October 26th, Vladimir Zavarkin, a municipal deputy (equivalent to city councilman) in the Karelian town of Suoyarvi (population ca. 10,000) became the second person, after Kashapov, to be put on trial for promoting separatism.  He is is being tried in Petrozavodsk, the Karelian capital, for advocating separatism.  The charges stem from an address he gave in May.  “Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” he said in the speech, “I propose to you: get rid of the wool over your eyes, look at what’s being done in Karelia.  Forests are being felled down to the root ... everything is being moved to St. Petersburg, Moscow, taxes aren’t being paid.  What will be left for our children?  Nothing!  So we, probably, if the Russian government won’t hear us, will stage a referendum, I think.  If Russia doesn’t need Karelia—let’s secede.  That would be the most honest!”

Vladimir Zavarkin, who is on trial for promoting the idea of a referendum on Karelian independence
Zavarkin’s attorney, Dmitry Dinze, said that the real reason behind the arrest is Zavarkin’s criticism of the Karelian governor, Alexander Khudilainen, who, like other governors of Russia’s constituent republics and provinces, is not elected but appointed directly by Putin.  But the Kremlin is also very keen to nip internal separatism in the bud wherever it appears, be it Chechnya or Tatarstan, but especially in areas rich in natural resources like Karelia.

Karelia (upper left) is one of many “republics” within the Russian Federation, but it has no autonomy.
Also last week, Anatoly Grigoryev, chairman of the unofficial Karelian Congress, used the occasion of the post-Soviet regime’s annual Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression to point out that the Putin regime downplays the Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s repression of Karelians and ethnic Finns in Russia.  In fact, Stalinist iconography is enjoying a resurgence in Putin’s Russia, with little apparent awareness of the barbarity of his genocidal crimes against minorities.

Karelian rebels in the days of the Russian Civil War
Karelia spreads northward from near the edge of the former imperial capital at St. Petersburg and thus has always been in Russia’s backyard.  Tensions between Karelia and the Kremlin sharpened in 1917, when, in the midst of the Russian Revolution and the disastrous civil war in which nearly every region of Russia tried to split away from the new Bolshevik dictatorship, Finland—up to that point part of the Russian Empire—became the first and only nation in the Civil War to succeed in its secession bid.  While Finland was establishing its independence, a Karelian nationalist insurgency controlled Karelia and in 1918 voted to secede and to merge with Finland.  This makes sense: the Finnish language is nearly mutually intelligible with Karelian—both being members of the Finno-Ugric language family that has no connection to any other European languages and also includes Estonian, Hungarian, Saami (Lappish), and the languages of numerous small nations in Russia’s north.  There is no agreement on where to draw the line between Finnish and Karelian languages and cultures; some call them two branches of a single nation.

Karelian is one of the Finno-Ugric languages.
Of these, only Finnish, Hungarian, and Estonian have speakers numbering over 1 million.
There was also a move among the Finno-Ugric-speaking Ingrian people of the area around St. Petersburg to become an independent Ingermanland (a.k.a. Inkeri or Ingria) or to join Finland as well—and you can imagine how popular with the Bolsheviks was the idea of either losing St. Petersburg or seeing it cut off as an exclave separated from the rest of Russia by hostile territory.  Self-declared Ingrian and Karelian republics held out against the Reds until the early 1920s, with Finland too busy fighting for control of Finland proper to worry about annexing areas to the east which Russia was fighting tooth and nail to retain.

In the Second World War, Finland was an Axis country, allied with Nazi Germany, which led to the “Winter War” of 1940, in which the Soviet Union tried unsuccessfully to retake Finland, and to the political demonization of any species of Finno-Ugric nationalism as somehow pro-Nazi—even though Finns aligned themselves with Adolf Hitler mostly as a way to protect themselves from Russia.  (This is very analogous to the way in which Putin’s propaganda machine today brands any anti-Moscow feeling in Ukraine as neo-Nazism.)

Some Karelian activists today fly the flag
of the short-lived Republic of East Karelia of the 1920s
Stalin upgraded the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic in 1940 to create the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic, which it was hoped would grow as larger and larger chunks of Finland were annexed—which did not quite happen.  In 1956, Stalin’s successor, Nikita Khrushchev, downgraded the Karelo-Finnish S.S.R. to the Karelian A.S.S.R. again—this during a period when other nationalities victimized under Stalin were being repatriated and recuperated and seeing their statuses restored.

Marching in Finland for Karelian–Finnish solidarity
As for Karelia, the bare facts are that a referendum on independence, even if it were permitted to be held, would avail Karelians nothing.  Even under Stalin, Karelians were a minority in their own republic, at 37% of the population, outnumbered by the 57% majority of ethnic Russians.  Today, Russians are 82% of the population, and Karelians are only 7.4% (and only 5.1% in Petrozavodsk, the capital), with ethnic Finns and Vepsians (another related Finno-Ugric-speaking nationality) making up 1.4% and 0.5%, respectively.  Much of this demographic drop is due to Karelians emigrating to Finland to escape Stalinism, where some assimilated, or passed, as Finns.  At least 10,000 Finnish citizens today identify as Karelian.  Karelian is not even an official language of the Republic of Karelia.

The Karelian national flag
If Karelia were to split away, it would disconnect Murmansk Oblast (province) to the north from the rest of Russia.  Murmansk’s local population includes Russia’s portion of the Saami (Lappish) indigenous territory stretching west into Norway, Finland, and Sweden—though today Saami form only 0.2% of the oblast’s population, which is 89% ethnic Russian.  Losing Murmansk, including the Kola Peninsula on the Arctic Ocean, is an even more important possession for Russia, economically speaking, not only for the harbor at Murmansk but for the larger slice of the pie of the Arctic, with its potential energy bonanza beneath the slowly melting ice.

So Zavarkin, who can be guaranteed a predetermined verdict in a Putinist kangaroo court, is not quite grasping the problem when he says, “If Russia doesn’t need Karelia—let’s secede.”  Putin does need Karelia.  It’s the Karelian people that he couldn’t give a damn about.

The flag of Russia’s Murmansk oblast
[You can read more about Karelia, Ingermanland, and 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.]

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Tsimshian Protest Camp on Small Canadian Island Defies Massive Natural-Gas Project

Since late August, members of an indigenous First Nations community from the Tsimshian (also spelled Ts’msyen) Nation have been occupying—“re-occupying,” as they prefer to put it—an island off the coast of northern British Columbia where an energy multinational from Malaysia wants to build a liquid natural gas (L.N.G.) exporting terminal.  The community, Lax Kw’alaams, often referred to by its colonial name, Port Simpson, is the most populous Tsimshian village in Canada (there is also one over the border in Alaska) and is home to nine of the Tsimshian Nation’s fourteen constituent tribes.  Lax Kw’alaams members overwhelmingly voted down the developments plans in a referendum in May of this year, and the community’s mayor, Garry Reecesaid late last month that the Lax Kw’alaams First Nation would file suit for aboriginal title to the island, Lelu Island, and to nearby Flora Bank.

Tsimshian territory makes up about the northern third of B.C.’s coast.  Since, with very few exceptions, almost no land in this vast province has been ceded by Indian treaty, technically all of Tsimshian territory, and nearly all of B.C., is in one sense not part of B.C. or Canada but is unceded aboriginal territory.  An “aboriginal title” claim by Lax Kw’alaams would take these territories out of their current legal limbo (which the federal and provincial governments treat as de facto Crown sovereignty) and put them squarely before the courts, where a number of recent decisions (the Gitxsan in 1997, the Tsihlq’otin in 2014) have greatly strengthened the aboriginal hand.

Artist’s rendering of the L.N.G.-terminal project proposed for Lelu Island
The struggle over L.N.G. pipelines through the territories of B.C. nations has become a flashpoint in the indigenous North American land struggle, including the recent aboriginal push against environmentally destructive energy projects which operates under the banner “Idle No More.”  (See articles from this blog about the Gitxsan land struggle here, here, and here and about that of B.C.’s Wet’suwet’en here.)

The Lelu project planners, Petronas (a Malaysian corporation known worldwide for its record-breaking Petronas Towers skyscraper complex), and its Canadian arm, Pacific NorthWest L.N.G., have said that construction of the terminal would cost nearly $1.5 billion.  This includes constructing a bridge and a harbor in addition to the processing plant.  But Lax Kw’alaams, with studies in hand, points out this will harm salmon habitat in the nearby Skeena River estuary, a serious issue for a community very dependent on the traditional seasonal round of resource-gathering, primarily salmon.  Among the other six Tsimshian communities in Canada, Metlakatla (Maxłakxaała) and Kitselas (Gits’ilaasü) bands signed off on the project (Metlakatla is home to members of several of Lax Kw’alaams’s nine tribes, but the tribes’ paramount chiefs are of Lax Kw’alaams), but Kitsumkalum (Gitsmgeelm), Kitkatla (Gitkxaała), Klemtu (the Gidestsu people at Kłmduu), and Hartley Bay (Gitga’ata), as of late September, had yet to do so.  B.C.’s premier, Christie Clark, is a supporter of the Petronas plan.

Sm’oogit Yahan, a.k.a. Donald Wesley, Jr., who has been speaking for the protestors, said in September that his group will be co-founding a brand-new organization called the Northern First Nation Alliance, along with some of the more uncompromisingly sovereigntist nations in the province, including the Gitxsan, the Wet’suwet’en, and the Council of Haida Nations.  (The Nisga’a, just to the north, are not part of the club: their chiefs surrendered their territory to the Crown in the 1990s for a cash settlement and for self-government rights that they already possessed.)  As Yahan explained, “Our Traditional ways of life and the resources which have sustained our people are not to be pawns in the Christie Clark government’s L.N.G. dreams.  Development within our Traditional territories must have our free, prior and informed consent.  The people of Lax Kw’alaams spoke very clearly in their rejection of the 1.25-billion-dollar offer from Petronas, and this camp builds upon that rejection.  This issue is not just a First Nations issue but one that will affect all British Columbians, especially those who rely upon healthy and abundant fish stocks.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Reece—whose village government office is separate from the Lelu protest group but for a while was quoted in the media as implicitly supporting it—said last month, “We want to protect crucial salmon habitat, protect our food security, and ensure that governments and industry are obligated to seek our consent.  If we obtain title, we will own Lelu Island and Flora Bank.”  He added, “Our traditional law, backed by our scientific reports, has made it clear that Flora Bank cannot be touched by [Pacific NorthWest] or any other company that proposes development.”

Gitxsan chiefs visited Lelu Island to show solidarity.
But things got complicated in late September, when Petronas workers conducting unauthorized surveying on Lelu were escorted away by members of the Lax U’u’la Warriors—an intertribal, interethnic support group linked to the Lelu protest camp.  (Lax U’u’la, also spelled Lax Üüla, or “place of the harbor seals”) is the Sm’algyax (Tsimshian language) name for the island.)

The flag of Lax Kw’alaams, flying on Lelu Island
In response, in early October, a statement issued on behalf of “the Hereditary Chiefs of the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams” granted Petronas surveyers “conditional access to Lelu Island and the Flora Banks to complete their studies, the results of which will allow us to determine our final stance.”  The statement said that Yahan and the island’s occupiers did not have “authority to speak or act, no authority to unilaterally decide to use and occupy any lands and no authority to use the identity of the Nine Tribes.  All of this contravenes Ts’msyen Law.  ...  We are actively addressing the shame certain individuals, bound by our laws, have brought by these actions.”  Regarding the expulsion of the Petronas workers, the hereditary chiefs’ statement added, “To commit violence, demean and disgrace the station of Ts’msyen Chieftainship through words and action is abhorrent to the true Chiefs of the Ts’msyen Nation and such disrespect threatens the Nine Tribes of Lax Kw’alaams,” whose “duties and responsibilities” and “names handed down since time immemorial, are thus activated, and we remind all our people that they have the right to live and work in safety under the protection of the Laws of the Ts’msyen.”

Lax Kw’alaams
In the traditional social and political structure of the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, Wet’suwet’en, Haisla, Haida, Tlingit, and other nations in the area, it is the hundreds of matrilineal extended families (houses) which hold sovereignty over their separate territories.  In Lax Kw’alaams, however, houses pool some of their authority in the paramount hereditary chieftainships of the community’s nine tribes.  (For more detail on Tsimshian social structure, see my book Becoming Tsimshian: The Social Life of Names.)

Mayor Garry Reece (left), with timber executive Wayne Drury
Yahan, identified as chief of the Gitwilgyoots (one of the Nine Tribes), reacted swiftly to the joint statement from the hereditary chiefs by stating that only he had the authority to grant access to the island.  “I stand on that island because it is on our traditional territory.  I am the sole chief in standing in this tribe that has a say in what goes on.  ...  We are all individual tribes and we don’t go over other tribes’ territory.”  Mayor Reece, who uses the chiefs’ name Txagaaxs and is identified as chief of the Ginaxangiik, appeared to agree with Yahan that no one had “authority to represent or sign anything on the tribe’s behalf.”  He added that no person or group currently speaks on behalf of all nine tribes.

The Tsimshian, at least, certainly are idle no more.  Which approach to land stewardship will prevail in the Lax Kw’alaams community, and whether protectors of the land will win this battle in the war over energy projects and the environment, remains to be seen.

[You can read more about the Tsimshian, Gitxsan, Nisga’a, etc., as well as 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.]

Full disclosure: I have worked with and for various Tsimshian organizations, including the Allied Tsimshian Tribes Association, the Tsimshian Tribal Council, the Kitsumkalum Band Office, and, in particular and most extensively, the Kitsumkalum First Nation Treaty Office, as well as many individuals and families.  My opinions and perspectives are my own, not necessarily shared by anyone else, and I do not speak on behalf of any Tsimshian individual or organization.

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