current events


Somaliland and Somalia

If you’re like me, when you saw the title of this post you wondered, “Has the country of Somalia changed its name?” But, no, Somaliland is not an alternative name for Somalia, but rather the name for a region that is fighting for independence from Somalia (see map at right).

I do not intend this site to become focussed on would-be independent countries, but I do have to admit that the question fascinates me and partly drew me to the Peace of Westphalia in the first place.  In the 1640’s, partially sovereign states in Portugal, Catalonia, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Transylvania (as well as some shorter-lived ones) struggled for recognition.  In the modern world, we see much the same thing as Taiwan, Tibet, Somaliland, South Sudan, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Catalonia, and the Basque territories struggle to obtain or retain autonomy and international recognition.  These places at a a wide range on the spectrum of independence:  Tibet can only dream of independence at this time; Taiwan is fully independent but China undermines its sovereignty at every opportunity (most recently by insisting that airlines serving China not use the name “Taiwan” on their routes); Abkhazia and South Ossetia are Russian puppet states; Catalonia and the Basque territories are firmly part of Spain but have varying degrees of autonomy and strive for more; South Sudan is recognized as independent but struggles to maintain control over its own territory.  (This is an incomplete list, of course.)

I was not even aware of Somaliland’s would-be independence until recently, which is ironic because it has been de facto independent for 25 years.  (For some background information, check out the BBC site and Wikipedia.)  In colonial times, Somaliland was administered by Britain and Somalia by Italy.  They both became independent in 1960 and agreed to merge into a single government, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  However, differences between the two regions became obvious as the first national leader imposed military rule, eventually leading to civil war.  Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 and has been functionally sovereign ever since.

There is one qualification:  no other country formally recognizes Somaliland’s sovereignty.  Legally, Somaliland claims that it was an independent country for a short time in 1960 and has a right to reclaim its independence, just as Syria separated from its voluntary union with Egypt in 1971 and Senegal from Gambia in 1989.  Politically, Somaliland is surprisingly democratic and is rated as more free than any of its neighbours by Freedom House.

So why the hesitation to accept it as a member of the international community?  The political reason is fear that it would lead to even more independence movements in the region.  I find this logic curious, since Djibouti and South Sudan are recognized internationally and both are far more problematic (from what it appears) than Somaliland.  It is true, however, that Somaliland has border disputes with several other would-be independent regions of Somalia, and sorting out all those claims would be tricky.  The other reason Somaliland may have trouble gaining recognition is that it is one of the poorest countries in the world, which means there are no major nations with a vested interest in its economic stability.  Compare this with the case of China, whose Communist government was not widely recognized until the early 1970’s:  unlike Somaliland, China was simply too big to ignore and offered too many advantages to countries who were willing to overlook Taiwan’s situation.  Moreover, Somaliland has been free from the kind of catastrophe that mobilized world opinion in support of South Sudan.  Ironically, Somaliland seems to be doing fine without official recognition, so there is little incentive to rock the boat.

I find Somaliland’s situation fascinating.  Every country’s claim to independence is different; some have a stronger legal justification, others have established institutions that make its de facto sovereignty something that other states are likely to recognize eventually.  I think Somaliland has both a strong legal justification and a generation of functional independence, which makes the failure of anyone in the international community to recognize them puzzling.  If the situation continues for another generation, I suspect other nations will eventually accept the fact that Somaliland is independent, regardless of what problems that might theoretically create in the region.  In the meantime, they are only a step away from being reunited forcibly with Somalia, as they are too poor to defend themselves against a determined attack and owe their continued independence to the complete inefficacy of the central government in Somalia.Everything Peace of Westphalia

current events

Sovereignty and Separatists: Abkhazia and South Ossetia

Independence movements have been a lot on my mind since the harsh European reaction to Catalonian independence. Actually, independence movements have always been a lot on my mind; one of the main reasons I wanted to study the Peace of Westphalia was to learn about how the European map achieved its modern shape. One aspect of that shape is the fact that Catalonia is part of Spain rather than France or an independent country of its own.

The situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia obviously owes nothing to the Peace of Westphalia. The conflict and complicated mixture of languages, ethnicities, and religions in the Caucasus is far older and infinitely more complex: if you think the Balkans are difficult to sort out, they have nothing on the Caucasus. The similarity is that all three regions — Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Catalonia — wish to be independent (or, at any rate, contain a sizeable proportion of people who wish to be independent) but are not widely recognized in the West. Catalonia, of course, is not at all independent at the moment. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have been de facto independent since the early 1990’s, but they remain so only thanks to major support from Russia. The only other nations that recognized their sovereignty are Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Nauru; in the last month, Syria has joined that list. The obvious connection between these four states is their close relationship with Russia (or, in the case of Nauru, financial aid). The rest of the world presumably considers the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia as illegitimate, and European nations have stated as much explicitly.

At least the West is being consistent in supporting the “territorial integrity” of both Spain and Georgia in these cases. But what about the territorial integrity of Russia, which following 1989 lost Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia along the Baltic, as well as a series of Central Asian republics (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.), and several nations in the Caucasus, among them Georgia itself? Who in the West spoke out for the territorial integrity of Russia against these independence movements? A similar scenario unfolded in Yugoslavia, where Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia broke away from Serbia.

One could argue, of course, that the circumstances were different. These newly independent nations had their own languages, cultures, and histories that predated Russian or Yugoslavian control. On the other hand, the same is true of Catalonia, and to some extent of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. I have seen people argue against Catalan independence on the grounds that Catalonia has never been independent. This is mostly true (leaving aside some brief periods following revolts, e.g. in 1640), but it is equally true of almost all of the new countries. Very few of the new Balkan nations had ever experienced independence, and it had certainly been a long time since Georgia and Azerbaijan had ruled themselves. The Baltic States were independent for about two decades following World War I, but apart from that Latvia had hardly ever existed as an independent polity.

Should this matter? If a country has a distinct culture and history, is that enough to warrant its right to independence? What about the people who live in the country but don’t want to be independent of its current government? The Spanish government is quick to point out that opinion about independence in Catalonia is divided, although since they outlawed a vote on the matter and actually dragged people away from polling places, it is hard to see how the Catalans could prove that a majority support independence. In the United States itself, arguably only a minority supported independence against Great Britain in the 18th century, yet we still celebrate the results of our revolution.

What of a nation’s viability as an international political actor? South Ossetia is home to only about 50,000 people, which is clearly not enough to maintain its independence from Georgia without major outside support. Then again, Nauru, one of the five countries that has recognized it, has only a fifth as many as that. I frequently think about this when I hear of objections to the creation of an independent Kurdistan because it would be a landlocked nation with territorial claims in various neighbours (assuming that it would be created from only some of the countries that currently occupy the Kurish homeland, perhaps Iraq and Syria but very likely not Turkey or Iran). Sure, one could argue that an independent Kurdish nation would be a “source of instability” in the Middle East, but since when has that been a dominant concern in our foreign policy? What people have ever suffered so much at the hands of their rulers that they deserved a chance at independence more than the Kurds? Unless, indeed, one were to cite the Jews, whose homeland was explicitly created as a safe haven against hostile rulers. Would anything that could happen with Kurdistan be more destabilizing than the existence of the state of Israel?

I raise these points, not because I have answers, but because it seems some people don’t want to acknowledge that they are difficult questions. The people who support Spain and Georgia against separatists seem to do so without asking themselves under what circumstances they could be convinced to change their minds. It is, of course, idealistic of me to think that nations would ever pursue a coherent foreign policy based on rational principles, but I think it is worth striving for. Indeed, it is not so much the governments themselves that disappoint me as the people who are not government officials who are so quick to oppose independence movements. As one Russian researcher said about the question of independence, “International law is ambivalent. On the one hand, it gives the people the right to self-determination, and on the other hand it protects the territorial integrity of states. In each specific case, a country decides which of the principles for it is more priority.”

(N.B. The last quotation, as well as my original source for learning about Syrian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, was an article in Izvestiya. My Russian is pretty limited, and I pasted that translation directly from Google. There has been little Western news about Syria’s diplomatic moves, but you can find articles on it in English, e.g. Peace of Westphalia

current events

Catalonia and Westphalia

I recently learned that Catalonia is scheduled to vote on independence on October 1st, which is less than a week away.  How is this related to the Peace of Westphalia?  Very closely, as the fate of Catalonia was perhaps the touchiest part of the negotiations, and was certainly the main reason France and Spain could not reach an agreement.  When they finally made peace 11 years later, it was only after the Catalonian issue had been completely resolved by Spain’s reconquest of the province.

Catalonia has its origins as the Spanish March that Charlemagne had conquered from the Muslims — a very small and early beginning of the Reconquista.  It ended up a part of the Kingdom of Aragon, but France retained a claim to it until the 13th century.  In 1640, Catalonia rose up against Spain and declared its independence.  This marked the beginning of a drastic downturn in Spain’s military fortunes.  Shortly thereafter, Portugal also declared independence, meaning that, without Catalonia’s revolt, it is possible that Portugal might not have become independent.

France was quick to recognize Catalonia’s independence, but a determined Spanish counterattack convinced the Catalonians that they stood little chance as an independent state; consequently, they placed themselves under French protection.  Catalonia became a part of the French monarchy, under guarantees that France would respect its rights and privileges that Spain had violated leading up to the revolt.  Based on other cities and territories that accepted French protection (such as in Alsace), I feel confident that Catalonia would have ultimately been disappointed with their new arrangement.  In the short run, it created a nearly intractable legal problem in that Philip IV refused to accept the withdrawal of Catalan obedience, but Louis XIII (and soon thereafter his son, Louis XIV) could not consent to the return of Catalonia to Spain.  There were actually two things preventing France from returning Catalonia.  One, as it had now become part of the royal patrimony, it was considered inalienable, and going back on that principle would call into question a French legal doctrine dating back two centuries that had been used to justify the impossibility of ceding land to other states.  Two, as France had agreed to protect Catalonian rights against Spain, the mere suggestion that they might be willing to return the province to Philip IV would have seemed like betrayal and would have hurt France’s international reputation severely, not to mention the likelihood that Catalans might have tried to strike a deal with Philip IV at the first hint of French treachery, which could deprive France of all the advantages it had gained from the province’s rebellion.  The situation regarding Portugal was similar, but France did not have the liability of actually having agreed to make Portugal part of the French crown, so it had more flexibility.

The best either side could hope for was a truce in Catalonia.  For France, the longer the truce was for, the better, as it would enable them to incorporate the province into royal government and gain legitimacy by prescription.  It wanted a truce of at least 30 years.  Spain hoped for just the opposite:  as short a truce as possible, just enough for Spain to disentangle itself from its other conflicts (notably with the Dutch Republic) and focus its efforts on Catalonia.  The Dutch, who had no particular desire to continue the war either then or in the future for the sake of French conquests in Iberia, eventually made peace with Spain while the French-Spanish war continued.  Thanks in part to unrest in France, Spain was able to retake Catalonia in the years immediately following 1648.

The fate of Catalonia also has particular significance for me for two further reasons.  One is that my dissertation advisor’s dissertation advisor, J. H. Elliott, wrote his dissertation on the Catalan revolt.  Second, I chose the Peace of Westphalia as my dissertation topic because I wanted to know about the factors that shaped Europe’s borders.  I was particularly concerned with Alsace in my dissertation, but Catalonia would certainly make an equally interesting case.  It ended up remaining with Spain, but it would not be difficult to imagine a French Catalonia, or even an independent Catalonia.

In point of fact, the borders in Western Europe have changed remarkably little in the past 500 years or so. Looked at from one perspective, it seems almost inevitable that the modern states would take on the shapes that they have:  how would France not encompass all the French-speaking peoples, Italy the Italian, Spain the Spanish, and so forth.  But this only appears true until one looks at the cases more closely.  Alsace was a Germanophone territory until the 17th century and only gradually switched to French over the next two hundred years.  There are many French speakers in Belgium, mixed with Flemish speakers, whose language is very close to Dutch.  Switzerland includes German, French, and Italian speakers.  And Catalan is a distinct language from Castilian; very similar, it is true, but then Portuguese is also very similar, and Galician is closer to Portuguese than to Castilian.  In short, much of what we take for granted about Europe’s borders only appear so because territories have been stable and have homogenized over time, and because we tend to dismiss anomalies.

The borders in Eastern Europe have been more fluid, and I have witnessed in my lifetime quite a number of significant changes:  the creation of independent states in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and the Ukraine, the breakup of Yugoslavia into a number of smaller, more homogeneous countries, and the division of Czechoslovakia into two states.  Most of these changes have been welcomed in the West as a chance for people with a distinct language and culture to become independent and self-determining.  (The way that Yugoslavia broke up was a tragedy, of course, but now that it has happened, I haven’t heard anyone other than Serbs urging a reunion.)  Strangely, though, anything resembling an independence movement in Western Europe is usually treated as an impending disaster.  Even the British withdrawal from the European Union, which is quite a young organization and is not yet a proper government, brought about great howls of protest.  Similarly, the Catalonian referendum generally seems to be viewed unfavourably (if I may judge from a tiny bit of reading) outside of Catalonia itself.

As so often happens, I take the less popular side.  In general, I sympathize with independence movements wherever they occur.  I don’t always agree with them or think they would be for the best, but I understand why one group of people would feel like they don’t belong with another, and I am very conscious of how difficult it is to get any government to part voluntarily with any part of itself.  Spain tried to grant some concessions to Catalonia in 2006, but the nation’s courts ruled many of them illegal and unconstitutional.  I’m not surprised that Spain’s government would object to the independence of Catalonia.  It is almost a given that a government will cede power and land only to force.  Arguably a government’s main purpose is to keep people united, so I don’t expect it just to wave goodbye at any region that happens to vote itself independence.  What astonishes me is that people with no stake in the government in question, and who purport to believe that governments are founded on the will of the people, should be so hostile to independence movements.  How can a popular democracy insist that no region may legally secede and still be consistent with its principles?  How can it be right to force a people to remain in a voluntary union?

In some cases, the creation of a new, independent country out of an older, larger one presents difficulties in international relations.  The breakup of Austria-Hungary after WWI left a number of small, unstable, and relatively weak countries in Germany’s vicinity, and these countries were easy targets for German alliance offers — or, in case they refused, for German invasions.  Changing gears to the present, the union of Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran into an independent Kurdistan would introduce a major complication into an already messy international situation in the Near East.  Arguably, a landlocked country under Kurdish rule would be unstable and would have unresolved territorial claims against virtually all of its neighbours, which could mean even more warfare.  In my view, Kurds have suffered enough and deserve the opportunity to rule themselves; but it’s hard to disagree that the creation of Kurdistan would spawn all sorts of unknown issues that we can’t possibly expect to anticipate.

One hundred years ago, instability in the international system would have been a major concern regarding independence movements.  But I can’t believe that anyone seriously expects an independent Catalonia would make war more likely on the Iberian penninsula, any more than one would expect Britain’s exit from the EU to increase the likelihood of war.  The same goes for independence movements in the Basque territories, Scotland, Flanders, Northern Italy, and Quebec.  So, while most of the West laments every independence movement as a social breakdown, I support them as a chance for people to determine their fate as part of a smaller, more homogeneous group; ironically, as a chance for them to unite more closely to people whose principles they share, rather than to participate anonymously in the ever-widening circle of global culture.  Although my optimism is rather limited on this score, count me in Junts pel Sí.Everything Peace of Westphalia