Kyrgyzstan and Winston’s Hiccup

The recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan looks like a Balkan crisis.  Gangs of masked thugs have started a campaign of ethnic cleansing of the Uzbek minority in the south. Almost half a million Uzbeks have been displaced from their homes in an orgy of rape and murder. Their homes have been looted and torched to stop them coming back. Its a strategically important country for Russia and China since it is on both their borders. It is also important for the USA who have an airbase outside the capital Bishkek, which supports their efforts in nearby Afghanistan. Just like the Balkans, it is a geopolitical hotspot with a mismatch between the patchwork quilt of ethnicities and the national borders.

This is catataxis. It is a conflict between two levels: a nation and a State. I mean nation in the old sense of the word. It is s a group of people sharing a language, culture or ethnicity. So we can still talk about the Cherokee nation, or the Roma who are a nation without a country. A State is a sovereign territorial unit. It is a political and geographical entity. So there is a hierarchy of levels like this:

1) Person
2) Family – a group of related people
3) Community – a group of families
4) Nation – a group of communities with the same ethnicity and language
5) State – a sovereign territorial unit composed of one or more nations. A Geopolitical entity.

So the unrest in Kyrgyzstan is a catatactic friction between levels 4 and 5. So was the war in the Balkans in the 1990s and many of the post colonial African conflicts. The ethnic borders don’t match territorial borders.

The drawing of territorial borders is often arbitrary. The most famous example is Winston’s Hiccup. Its a huge zig zag on the border between Jordan and Saudia Arabia. Legend has it that Winston Churchill had a long liquid lunch on a Sunday afternoon in Cairo. When he came back to his desk, he hiccuped while drawing the new border for Transjordan. Hence the dramatic twist in the line.Since it was mostly desert no one really cared.

In fact it is an apocryphal story. The border takes account of ancient incense trading routes and Britain’s need at that time for an air corridor to India. But the notion that State borders are an arbitrary higher level intrusion into a complex ethnic landscape is valid.  It is catataxis: a confusion between levels. It has always been a source of conflict and remains so today.

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