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THE STATE OF WHERE?


FROM ABKHAZIA TO SEALAND, CITIZENS OF
UNRECOGNIZED STATES LOBBY (AND FIGHT) FOR
A PLACE ON THE MAPS.


By Dan Halpern
Photos by Eric Baudelaire


When is a nation not a country? The stage directions of Alfred Jarry's 1896 masterpiece, Ubu Roi, provide that the action of the play is to take place “in Poland, which is to say, nowhere.” Which was, strictly speaking, a reasonable definition of Polish geography at the time, inasmuch as Poland had not existed for a century. Its borders had been removed from the maps in 1795, when it was partitioned among Russia, Austria, and Prussia; they reappeared in 1918, thanks to postwar agreements between the Great Powers. And yet, to the Poles, Poland had always been entirely real.
     Today, the United Nations recognizes 191 countries



Near Kindgi
Tea plantation littered with car wrecks —a common sight along many Abkhazian roads
as full-fledged sovereign states. There are countries that have lasted for centuries, and there are countries recognized as recently as two years ago. What's not on the list are the states that are waiting to be born.
      Scots and Québécois, Palestinians, Kurds and Chechens, but also Gandas and Gorkhas, Ob-Ugrians and Ogonis, and scores or hundreds more, are all anticipating the day when their nations will become fully recognized states. (James Minahan's Encyclopedia of the Stateless Nations lists more than 300.) That is to say, they are peoples with common cultures, or histories, or languages, who seek to rule themselves entirely, to govern and legislate and tax and trade independently, to define their own borders and exercise power over who may cross those lines. This is the Fourth World: the stateless and the unrecognized.
     The birth of a country could be considered
SCOTS AND QUÉBÉCOIS, PALESTINIANS, KURDS AND CHECHENS, BUT ALSO GANDAS AND GORKHAS, AND HUNDREDS MORE, ARE ALL WAITING FOR THE DAY WHEN THEIR NATIONS WILL BECOME FULLY RECOGNIZED STATES. the transformation of a notion into a thing: if a nation is a dream, a state is the reality. A nation can describe a people who are one, wherever they are, their national heart
     stretched thin over a hundred other sovereign bodies, that heart smeared across Baku and Sydney and Cairo and wherever else its people live; a state is a place with borders and institutions and laws and currency. Thus Romanistan, for instance, exists as an idea: the Romany nation is made up of Gypsies in Marseilles and Bucharest, in Sofia and Sevilla, a nation with no capital city, no sports teams, and no borderlines, subject to the laws of France or Bulgaria or whatever recognized country bounds them. When the invisible lines on the earth—the borders every Pole, or Logone, or Tatar can see—become visible



Abkhazia, 2004.
Outside Ochamchira, painter with canvas at sulfur geysers.
to other states, and those other states agree to respect those lines, a Fourth World nation's notion becomes a thing.
     The final arbiter of these notions, of course, is power. There is little complexity, in the end, to the question of how a state is made: the powerful's interests trump the powerless's sovereignty. On the margins however, smaller revolutions are worrying the question all the same. In 1967, a British subject named Paddy Roy Bates landed on a British sea fortress from World War II that sat outside the UK's territorial waters and declared it a sovereign state called Sealand under his princely rule. The British navy made a halfhearted, unsuccessful effort to remove Prince Roy and his wife (Princess Joan); officially the UK denies Sealand's sovereign status, but Prince Roy's nation exists essentially independently, with its own national currency, motto (“From the Sea, Freedom!”), and passports.
      Then there are a host of less literal-minded land-grabbers.





In 1992, two Swedes declared themselves to be annexing and occupying every border frontier area between all countries, creating “The Kingdoms of Elgaland/Vargaland,” a free state whose lands comprise all the in-between places on earth that belong to no one. The Empire of Atlantium, created by three Australian teenagers, asserted statehood in 1981 without any territory to speak of. If a nation without a state unites a people who claim history, language, or culture in common, Atlantium claimed to be a state without a nation—a state free for all peoples to join.
      These are conceptual arguments about what a state really is, but for most of the stateless, the proof is in the lines on the ground. In Georgia, along the Black Sea, the ancient Abkhaz nation currently fighting for independence dates the original sketching of its own lines to tribes back almost as far as the sixth century BCE. “Amazing Abkhazia!” as the Russian writer Isaac Babel called it, and later, “the fertile and enchanted
garden,” was sovereign by the eighth century and saw its independence live, die, and be reborn over and over until the 20th century, when it became subject to Soviet Georgia. When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Abkhazia declared its independence again. “But will Georgia give up Abkhazia?” asked the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapus´ci´nski at the time. “There are four million Georgians and only 100,000 Abkhazians. It is easy to predict the chances.”
      Neither Georgia nor the United Nations has agreed to recognize the Abkhazian notion as a thing. War between the Abkhazians and the Georgians began in 1992 and lasted through 1993, with sporadic violence following; in August 2004, the Georgian coast guard fired on a vessel heading for Abkhazia, and President Mikhail Saakashvili announced that Georgia would sink all unauthorized ships





headed for the breakaway nation's shores. Abkhazia, unsurprisingly, broke off peace talks that were being overseen by the UN.
      Georgian historians deny Abkhazia's history; Abkhazians counter by pointing out the historical Soviet and Georgian efforts to erase it from the earth. Indeed, Abkhazians possess a history, a culture, an ethnicity, and a language (one with 68 consonants, many of which can communicate whole concepts, and sounds including a trill and a buzz); they also have a land that they know belongs to them. Ten years ago, Abkhazia established its own government, with the force of more than a thousand years of history behind it. But who will recognize it? The existence of a nation requires little besides the nation's belief in its own existence; the state requires the sanction of other states to exist. There is little agreement on how to treat the invisible; it is hardly any wonder, then,





that the invisible feel that to be seen, they must make a noise.   



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Flags, top to bottom (left to right)
Taiwan, Palestine, Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, Abkhazia, Chechnya, South Ossetia, Basque Country, Transnistria, Sealand, East Turkestan, Greenland, Western Sahara, Atlantium, Tibet.