Earlier this year, after more than a year of anticipation, the people of Scotland held a vote to determine whether their country would become independent from the United Kingdom. That vote was unambiguously in favor of remaining part of Britain, with pro-union majorities in nearly every county, but it revealed deep divisions within Scottish society and between Scotland and its hegemonic neighbor, England. Indeed, the histories of the various parts of the island group best known as the British Isles are surprisingly different, leading to persistent divisions that, in the past and into the future, define nations.
Earth is a huge planet, far larger and impossibly more complicated than any fantasy realm. Its vastness is often concealed from us, particularly in the way that common map projections section the Pacific Ocean and stretch and warp Asia. One region has the opposite problem—common maps make it look far larger and wider than it is. The Arctic Ocean is the world’s smallest, surrounded by landmasses so close together that, in colder times, every one of them was linked by a single mass of ice. The eastern Arctic is defined by Russia steamrolling over a multiplicity of indigenous peoples speaking languages from numerous families. The western Arctic, by contrast, is the story of two specific tribes expanding, colliding, and deciding how best to maneuver around one another: the Norse and the Inuit.
And because North American map-readers can’t seem to make heads or tails of that one huge island next to Canada in particular, it’s worth a look.
Most of the stories in Shifty Lines are and will be about separatist conflicts. Particularly in Africa, though, the simple separatist concept does not accurately reflect the goals of the border-rearrangement movements. While this is fairly obvious in North Africa, where two of the major ethnic groups with nation-state aspirations are spread across multiple countries, eastern Africa presents a different case. In East Africa, like the Caribbean, a large-scale effort to combine several countries into a single federated state is underway, and stands a decent chance of success.
The South Pacific rarely features in anyone’s mental registers of conflict zones. The region was a major theater of World War II, but it was settled very late in human history and discovered very late by colonizers. Its extreme isolation meant that it has mostly avoided creating indigenous conquering empires or being riven apart by colonial divisions, especially when compared to Africa or western Asia. So it’s fitting, in a way, that the westernmost edge of the Pacific region, where it blends into Asia, should be home to a long-running conflict alternately dubbed “Asia’s Palestine” and “the forgotten war.” (Someone tell that first group that Palestine is in Asia). The struggle to turn New Guinea into a free and united Papua receives far too little attention and even less understanding, which is far less than this fascinating region deserves.
After the binge that was Shifty Lines: South Asia, a smaller helping of international relations is in order. And as Ukraine and Russia still have some sorting out to do before their situation makes enough sense to summarize in this space, we will visit a less grandiose conflict: the Cyprus crisis.
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire set up many of the conflicts explored in the Shifty Lines series, in particular those in the Persosphere, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Balkans. The wholesale revolt of southeastern Europe against Ottoman rule took place in large part because of the emerging ideas of ethnic nationalism and self-determination, which prodded the long-suffering peoples of the Balkans to expel this latest empire and make their own way in the world. At the same time, similar sentiments elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire had little chance to develop before they were commandeered and squelched by older European powers, in particular the French and British. Where southeastern Europe divided into new nation-states that have mostly held steady (what became Yugoslavia being a notable exception), the re-colonized Ottoman possessions in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levant remain divided along colonial lines that serve as persistent sources of conflict. The island of Cyprus is at the intersection of these two patterns.
A Succession of Empires
North America’s history prominently features separate British colonies combining into larger independent countries. This has made the formation of Canada and the United States in particular quite distinct from the otherwise similar independence movements in Latin America, which fragmented from approximately seven colonial units into 18 countries by the beginning of the 20th century. However, there is one part of the Americas where the British legacy has not followed this pattern, and where it more closely resembles the postcolonial histories of Africa. Since I vacation in this region regularly with my family, I’d like to give it the attention it deserves.
Russia is really big.
Russia is twice as large as the next-largest country even after shedding 14 smaller countries from its periphery. Russia is the largest country in Europe and Asia even without counting the parts on the other continent. Russia spans nine time zones.
It’s difficult to imagine, but Russia spent a great deal of its early history as “the empire without a coastline.” The original, ancestral homeland of the people who would become the Russians is the general vicinity of Moscow. While the East Slavs were still coalescing as a people, they bordered the West Slavs on the west, the Karelians and other Finno-Ugric peoples to the north, the Khanate of Kazan to the east, and the Nogai Horde to the south. To reach a coastline and the massive economic advantages that come with access to the sea, the Russians had to conquer their way there. And conquer they did, until they dominated much of the Arctic Ocean, Baltic Sea, and Black Sea boundaries and all of the peoples living therein. Russia is smaller now, but its enormous expanse still contains numerous groups of people who do not see themselves as Russians and which the Russian state is assiduously trying to destroy. We have already met the Caucasus peoples and their finely granulated quests for national self-determination. Russia’s imperial designs have spanned much farther than these ongoing altercations, and tell a very familiar story.
Africa looks to us as one continent, with perhaps the most recognizable shape of the lot and only the smallest land connection to Asia. But for all its geographic continuity, Africa contains a continental divide as profound as any ocean, and becomes a very different place on either side. Rather like Asia. And the north side had five wars last year. But what’s going on there?
The Sahara Desert separates North Africa from the rest of Africa, and its edge, the subtropical Sahel, translates as the “coastline of trees,” demarcating the ocean of sand. Where the region south of the Sahel mostly evaded foreign conquest until Rome’s successor empires found it, the north spent much longer under foreign heels. The ocean of sand proved a much more formidable barrier than the Mediterranean Sea.
The Balkan Peninsula of southeastern Europe has been a focal point in world history since the times of Classical antiquity. While historians speak of the Balkan Peninsula and its eponymous mountains as one of several cradles of Western civilization, recent history places the region in a different light. The modern Balkans are best known for economic hardship and decades of genocidal war. While the entire region might be highlighted as a place where some lines desperately need shifting, two areas in particular deserve specific attention. These two breakaway regions present curiously linked yet strikingly dissimilar scenarios: Kosovo and Transnistria.
Both stories start with the decline of the Roman Empire. Rome’s influence encompassed the peninsula and most of the region surrounding the Black Sea. As the Roman and Byzantine Empires declined, “barbarian” groups moved into their periphery. In the west, these groups were primarily Germanic, and their descendants comprise a great deal of modern England, Germany, and Austria’s genetic makeup. Their Romanized kin became the French. The eastern invaders were the ancestors of the Slavic people. The Slavs eventually established themselves as Rome’s successors via the Kievan Rus, which became part of the Russian and Ukrainian cultural identities. Before that, the Slavs moved into the Balkans, conquering and assimilating the Romanized peoples of the western, Adriatic coast in particular. This invasion separated the Eastern Romance speakers—the ancestors of modern Romanians—from the rest of the Romance-speaking world. This also brought the Slavs into contact with the other Balkan peoples, in particular the Greeks and Albanians.
This map highlights Kosovo and Transnistria (red), the countries from which they seceded (blue), and other countries involved in the conflicts. (Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.)