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What are vanity and interstitial states?

Published on 26 March 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Diplomats nowadays like to speak of states, rogue states, failed states – but they hardly refer to ‘vanity’ and ‘interstitial’ states. Let me explore these categories: they may become more relevant or common than these currently fashionable labels. Admittedly, they have much in common with each other, so it is mainly a matter of perspective. As we will discover – the two terms describe old situations. As they say, there is nothing new under the sun, but it is nice to put things in direct view.

Vanity states

On 19 February 1954, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union issued a decree transferring the Crimean Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic: a ‘symbolic gesture,’ marking the 300th anniversary of Ukraine becoming a part of the Russian Empire. The General Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union was at the time Nikita Khrushchev, who, like Leonid Brezhnev, originated from Ukraine.

One will never know why Crimea was moved to Ukraine in 1954. There seem to be few ‘objective’ criteria underpinning the decision, and ‘symbolic gesture’ hardly qualifies as such. To me, this ‘correction’ of the Ukraine borders is an example of ‘vanity’ when applied to a state’s borders: I can imagine those two leaders wanting to vacation in Crimea while claiming to be at home. Possibly, there was a curious precedent: Stalin (who hailed from Georgia) had shifted his home state’s borders back and forth on what seemed an aggrandising whim. Maybe the next leadership was replacing the old. However, there seems to be a tenuous link between the tracing of the borders at the time and the underlying historical, cultural, and economic realities. It was political will – or vanity – imposed. Unsurprisingly, both these states have since proven unstable in their borders. May there be more?

While the story of Kilimanjaro as a gift by Queen Victoria to her grandson Wilhelm is a myth, this bit of historical lore highlights the arbitrary character of much of the border tracing throughout the XIXth century until after WWI, as the West carved up large parts of the world to make colonies. A clear example was the two colonies of Rwanda and Burundi, which were split off from what was then German Tanganyika to reward Belgium for its role in WWI. Whether the transfer of Tsingtao from Germany to Japan should be called ‘vanity’ or downright ‘arbitrary’ is a matter of debate.

This process continued in some countries as the former colonial lands became independent. Possibly the worst instance was the drawing of the partition line between India and Pakistan: it resulted in the displacement of about 12 million people and the killing of one million or so. Of course, the populations concerned were never consulted, or if they were, their wishes were disregarded. The emergence of India as a unitary structure (but for Pakistan) was a highly unseemly affair that reflected the political vanity of the few who had a say.

Many of the lingering tensions within numerous modern states can be traced back to such ‘vanity’ drawing of borders on one side and the insistence on the sanctity of borders thereafter. Again, in India, a host of repressive legislation and a two million-strong military, paramilitary, and surveillance complex impose with much brutality the integrity of the country in the face of regional independence movements. One could argue that about 30% of India – from Kashmir to the North East – would secede were it not for this repressive system. The ‘Indian Ideology’ – the notion that the preservation by the Indian state of the unity of the country is a feat so unique to be little short of a miracle relying on democracy, secularity and unity – covers up the reality in plain view of the world.

Interstitial spaces and states

The use of ‘Ukraine’ in English dates back to the time Ookrayeena (as it is pronounced) was a region (‘near the edge/border’) in the Russian empire. According to the most widespread (including Ukraine itself) academic version, the name Ukraine derived from the Old East Slavic word ‘ukraina’, which had the meaning ‘borderland’ or ‘march’ and was used for different border regions of the Rus. We have an equivalent term in the Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK), a state that emerged in 1991 in between Croatia and Serbia, was internationally recognised until 1995, and then vanished again.

Historically, the borders of empires reflected the ability of the ruling extractive elite to project power from within so as to read and extract economic surplus from the lands they had subjected. Geography, historical contingencies and the existence of other empires were external factors shaping imperial borders from the outside. The ensuing border could abut on another empire, in which case one might find marches on both sides or leave interstitial spaces without rule, too distant for either empire to expend energy in expanding rule. The periphery of a state could become an autonomous buffer zone or (if it was attached) resemble the tails of lizards, jettisoned under attack in order to facilitate strategic retreat.

The ancient history of Ukraine is that of an „interstitial space’ eventually becoming a state. For a time, it was either empty or contested between the Golden Horde, Muscovy, and Lithuania. Later, Poland and the Austrian Empire got into the act. Without geographical features to stabilise political control, Ukraine was cut and recut to fit the vanity of surrounding rulers.

People in interstitial spaces tend to be mixed ethnically and culturally and to develop ‘get along skills’, making them useful to any neighbour – often for consideration. Thus, the Cossacks emerged in this interstitial region around 1450 and assisted the Stroganoff family acting for Ivan the Terrible in the conquest of Siberia from the ruling Khans. Fascinatingly, such interstitial people seem to have cherished democratic traditions: this is not surprising, for they tend to develop the ‘art of not being governed’.

Recognising complexity on the ground

Political principles tend to be cruel taskmasters. President Wilson struggled in vain to uphold the twin and mutually contradictory international relations principles of ‘no secession’ and ‘consent of the governed’. The outcome was seamy and a harbinger of more conflicts to come. ‘Consent’ in itself is ambiguous, for one might rightly ask why today’s citizens should be bound by their forefathers’ choice. When a community is mixed, one is left with the conundrum of either moving about the borders to suit the community or moving the community to fit the borders in order to avoid the ‘tyranny of the majority’ (both approaches have been tried, with dire results). Add the forever-changing cultural and economic landscape. As new political, economic, or cultural opportunities emerge or old ones wither, people may reassess their best interests in shaping the symbolic border of their community.

The idea that borders are forever sacrosanct – an unchangeable ‘world order’ in the stern words of The Economist – is a (in my view: dangerous) myth, particularly when many countries have been ‘vanity’ states in the past or were ‘interstitial’ to super-powers. Even worse is the ancillary myth of coherence and precedent – Procustes beds on which reality will be maimed forever.

Of course, there is no principal road out of the complexity of historically grown borders. The best we can achieve is closure – a settlement that brings peace to the region. Closure, like arbitration, has the great merit of yielding neither coherence nor precedence – just an agreement to move on.

This being said, one might first and foremost focus on the concept of ‘interstitial’ or in between, for it might possibly point to a way forward in some cases. Such states are ‘residuals’ between empires – imperfections of a complex reality, if you will. The best thing to do might be to let them be. Neutrons have their uses among protons.

If one were to summarise the period after WWII, one might use the metaphor of a squabble between East and West over interstitial regions. As empires dissolved, the first question both sides asked emerging countries was: ‘Are YOU with us or against us?’ Fortunately, most newly independent countries expressed a clear preference for non-alignment (which was not welcome in the West. Vietnam was a case where, from the beginning, the nationalist movement in the country was recast by France and the US in terms of the free world struggle for holding up the first domino. More instances occurred, and such countries are among the hotspots of today.

Sometimes, history tends to repeat itself. The struggle between the US (as well as the EU) on the one side and Russia on the other to appropriate interstitial states in their common vicinity, rather than let them be useful buffers, has poisoned relations between superpowers and now triggered the latest tit-for-tat.

George Kennan famously advised ‘containment’ of the USSR, followed by negotiations on a modus vivendi. This flexible and political concept was soon replaced by military ‘roll-back’ and eventually ‘encirclement’ after the demise of the Soviet Union. This has led a maritime empire like the USA to impress its military footprint on Central Asia (though for collateral reasons). The muted US response to Ukraine may have something to do with the US need for an orderly withdrawal of their armadas from Afghanistan through Central Asia and Russia.

This post was first published on DeepDip. 

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