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Asia: Analysis From Washington -- Another Divided Country

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- By voting for independence, the people of East Timor appear set to become yet another country whose territory is divided into non-contiguous units, an arrangement certain to have serious consequences both for its domestic development and for its relations with its neighbors.

On the one hand, the existence of these two non-contiguous territories is likely to exacerbate national feelings among the population and may even contribute to the appearance of extreme nationalist leaders in the more exposed section of the country.

And on the other, this arrangement almost certainly will make relations between East Timor and Indonesia more difficult because the East Timorese will want to maintain links between the two portions of their country and the Indonesian authorities will exploit this desire in order to put pressure on the East Timorese authorities.

Because of East Timor's many other problems and also because of its small size, such potential problems there have received almost no attention. But the experience of such territorially divided states which East Timor will soon join provides some intriguing hints onto just how large such problems may prove to be in the future.

The number of countries whose territories are not contiguous is quite large. Besides island states -- which constitute a special and very different problem -- such countries now include the United States, the Russian Federation, and Azerbaijan and, in the not so distant past, Germany and Pakistan as well. In each of these five cases, the existence of such territorial divisions has played a major role in the foreign and domestic policies of these countries.

With regard to foreign policy, the existence of non-contiguous territories has had two broad and competing effects. Sometimes, it has pushed the country with a non-contiguous section to develop an even closer relationship with the country through which its citizens must pass to go from one section to another. That has generally been true for the American government's dealings with Canada.

But far more often, it has exacerbated or even sparked conflict between the divided country and the state lying between its separate sections. Azerbaijan-Armenian relations were structured by the Soviet state to be worse than would otherwise have been the case when Moscow attached Nakhichevan to Azerbaijan but did not do the same for Armenia with the ethnically-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The otherwise largely good relations between Lithuania and the Russian Federation have sometimes been clouded by tensions over Moscow's insistence on unfettered access through Lithuania to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave situated on the Baltic coast.

Germany went to war with Poland at least in part to "unify" its territory, and Pakistan fought with India over communications and transportation links between east and west Pakistan when that country included what is now Bangladesh.

But these sometimes dramatic events in foreign affairs are probably far less significant than the impact such territorial divisions have on the domestic political arrangements of these divided countries. In some cases, these territorial divisions may lead to political ones as well, but in others, the more exposed section of a divided country may become a virtual greenhouse for growing radical nationalist politicians for the country as a whole.

Because of the territorial divide, Pakistan fell apart into Pakistan proper and Bangladesh, and that prospect seems particularly likely in other cases where the country lying in between wants to weaken or even defeat the divided state.

And even where the outside country may not be playing that role or where the populations in the non-contiguous portion are not much interested in independence, elites in the non-contiguous portion of a country may be able to exploit such potentialities to extract more resources from the central government lest the latter lose control. That is clearly the strategy that the leadership of Kaliningrad appears to have adopted.

The most dramatic impact of such territorial divisions, however, lies in their impact on the ideology of national elites. Nationalism, all studies of this phenomenon suggest, tends to arise not in the center of an ethnic group but rather at its periphery, in those places where members of one group come into contact with and frequently clash wish other ethnic communities.

Non-contiguous portions of countries frequently provide precisely such a locus for the rise of nationalism. History provides numerous examples of such developments, but the division of Azerbaijan into Azerbaijan proper and Nakhchivan provides the most dramatic one at present.

Despite its relatively small size, Nakhichevan has provided many if not all of the most nationalist politicians for Baku: not only current President Heidar Aliyev but also former President Abulfaz Elchibey, to name only the most prominent. And as long as Azerbaijan remains divided in this way, that process of nationalist-building appears likely to continue.

East Timor may escape many of these problems, but it is unlikely to escape all of them. And as a result, it will contribute yet another chapter to the complex history of geographically divided states.