Professor Government and International Affairs
Virginia Tech, National Capital Region,
1021 Prince Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, USA
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Near Abroad was published in January and there’ll be a book launch event in the next month in Washington D.C.. In the meantime, I’ve been collaborating with John O’Loughlin and others to get a few research papers wrapped up based on our 2014 data. Three are in various forms of completion:
- A Russkii Mir paper that examines this geopolitical frame and who identifies with it the contested territories in Russia’s Near Abroad. This triple authored paper will be out soon in Eurasian Geography and Economics.
- A paper on the evolution of attitudes in Southeast Ukraine’s year of living dangerously. This compares KIIS survey data April (Mirror Weekly survey of SE8) with our NSF-sponsored survey from December of SE6. I’ve written the first part which contextualizes the survey work, and JohnO is refining the survey data analysis based on feedback received from Henry Hale and others at ASEEES 2016.
- A paper on blame attribution and conspiracy theorizing, using the MH-17 case. This re-visits and deepens the data we first published in a piece on the Monkey Cage blog.
- A “Lenin is Falling” paper that combines event data of monument destruction in Ukraine in 2014 with survey data on attitudes towards this destruction. We’re happy to be working with Volodymyr Ishchenko and his protest event database on this project.
All going well, I expect to be working on a different research project by this summer.
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, it invaded Georgia. Both states are part of Russia’s “near abroad”—former Soviet republics that are now independent states neighboring Russia. While the Russia-Georgia war of 2008 faded from the headlines, the geopolitical contest that created it did not end. Six years later, Russia invaded and annexed Crimea, once part of Russia but part of independent Ukraine since the Soviet collapse. Crimea’s annexation and subsequent war in eastern Ukraine have produced the greatest geopolitical crisis on the European continent since the end of the Cold War.
In Near Abroad, the eminent political geographer Gerard Toal moves beyond the polemical rhetoric that surrounds Russia’s interventions in Georgia and Ukraine to study the underlying territorial conflicts and geopolitical struggles. Central to understanding are legacies of the Soviet Union collapse: unresolved territorial issues, weak states and a conflicted geopolitical culture in Russia over the new territorial order. The West’s desire to expand NATO contributed to a growing geopolitical contest in Russia’s near abroad. This found expression in a 2008 NATO proclamation that Georgia and Ukraine will become members of NATO, a ‘red line’ issue for Russia. The road to invasion and war in Georgia and Ukraine, thereafter, is explained in Near Abroad.
Geopolitics is often though of as a game of chess. Near Abroad provides an account of real life geopolitics, one that emphasizes changing spatial relationships, geopolitical cultures and embodied dispositions. Rather than a cold game of deliberation, geopolitics is often driven by emotions and ambitions, by desires for freedom and greatness, by clashing personalities and reckless acts. Not only a penetrating analysis of Russia’s relationships with its neighbors, Near Abroad also offers a critique of how US geopolitical culture frames Russia and the territories it sustains beyond its borders.
“Near Abroad is a brilliant and indispensable contribution to our understanding of post-Soviet politics and the hidden power of geopolitical culture. Examining the conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, Toal convincingly shows that geopolitical practice is neither inherently rational nor driven by objective external pressures, but is rather infused with deep normative assumptions about the legitimate boundaries of political spaces, shared discourses and flows among transnational political communities, and highly stylized emotional appeals.” — Alexander Cooley, Director, Harriman Institute, Columbia University; author of Logics of Hierarchy and Great Games, Local Rules.
“Gerard Toal is one of the smartest and most interesting thinkers working on post-Soviet politics today and his incisive new book, Near Abroad, does not disappoint. Toal sheds new light on how Russians think about their neighbors, with major implications for regional stability and the West more generally.” — Henry Hale, Professor of Political Science and International Affairs, George Washington University; author of Patronal Politics.
“Cutting through the overarching narratives that dominate discussion of Russia’s engagement with its ‘near abroad,’ Toal offers telling insights into the underlying geopolitical conceptions and arrangements that are at the heart of the territorial struggles that have unfolded in Ukraine and Georgia. The book is not just a contribution to understanding selected conflict, however. It will help audiences beyond the academy appreciate the nature and value of the ‘critical geopolitics’ project that Toal himself has played such an important role in advancing.” — Alexander Murphy, Professor of Geography, University of Oregon, and former President, Association of American Geographers.
“In this valuable work, Gerard Toal attempts to answers the question, ‘Why does Russia invade his neighbors?’ Toal performs the deft and essential balancing act of recognizing both that Russia poses significant threats to its region and that events and leaders outside of Moscow have also played a role in the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the US. This book is an extremely important contribution for those of us looking for a deeper, more thoughtful and challenging analysis of the dynamic between Russia, its neighbors like Ukraine and Georgia, and the US.” — Lincoln Mitchell, author of The Democracy Promotion Paradox.
Twenty years ago I was in northern Italy, enjoying that wonderful country and the hospitality of a good family. On the TV news, we saw pictures from the fall of Srebrenica. I remember being struck by the phrase ‘Musulmani’ during the broadcasts (with its echoes of Primo Levi). Having spent the previous three years in the US closely following the Bosnian war, and the painfully slow and inept international response to it, I was exasperated that nothing substantive had been done to protect this manifestly vulnerable UN ‘safe haven.’ Readers of Critical Geopolitics (1996) will know that the second last chapter is an attempt to grapple with the US debate over Bosnia and geographies of moral proximity and responsibility.
The horror of Srebrenica eventually came to light thanks to the intrepid reporting of David Rohde and others. In 1998 I wrote an essay on what was known about Srebrenica then (link below) for the book Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. Smith (Routledge, 1999). Toal_EthnicCleansingSafeArea_Srebrenica1999
My first visit to Srebrenica was for the memorial in 2002. It was still an open field with only the foundations for what would become the Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery (pictured). The previous year there had been some stoning so there was a strong Republika Srpska police presence along the road, a disturbing site to those returning to grieve. I returned in 2004 and there met Sarah Wagner, whose ethnographic work with the Srebrenica victim families and ICMP I admire tremendously.
A few weeks ago the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina asked if I would make a few remarks at a Capitol Hill event to support H. Res 310 which affirms Srebrenica as a genocide. The Rayburn Building room was full of Bosnian families, including some survivors of Srebrenica. I spoke and then Michael MacQueen, who does amazing work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) investigating suspected war criminals in the United States, spoke. Finally Semir Osmanovic, a student in Finance at Virginia Commonwealth University spoke. He looks like an all-American kid, blonde haired, well dressed, good looking. He is from a small village outside Srebrenica and he told the story of his happy childhood until the day came when the VRS attacked and burned down their home, driving the family into Srebrenica to seek shelter. There he was close to starvation for two years until 11 July 1995 when the VRS and Mladic came, his father fled and his grandfather was taken off the bus they were being transported out on. There were many tears in the audience.
Academics are generally privileged in this world relative to most: certainly I am. If we study conflict, we have responsibilities to those who are suffering from injustices and wanton cruelty in what we study. We can use our professional training and skills to do some simple things: present the facts, contextualize, seek understanding and employ judgement (listening this summer to Tony Judt’s spoken book with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, has been helpful and inspiring). I do believe we are off track when we treat Bosnia or Syria in abstracted and usually de-contextualized social science terms as “civil war case studies” or as data labs. But that is a larger debate…
I am grateful to Josh Tucker and the Monkey Cage team for publishing a considerably revised version of my comments at Srebrenica Genocide event on 9 July 2015. Subsequently, Bruce Hitchner drew my attention to an educational resource — sponsored by the British Embassy, Sarajevo (kudos to them and the work of the British government at the UNSC) — I really should have known about but didn’t at the time: Srebrenica: Mapping Genocide. It is worth viewing the 38 minute video for what it achieves — a sense of the arc of the genocide — but also for where it could have been more precise in its geo-locational presentation and graphic imagery. An accessible and concise yet comprehensive geographic and geopolitical analysis of the Srebrenica genocide remains to be written.
It is a commonplace today to speak of the “map of Europe being re-written” and point to the actions of Russia in Crimea and the Donbas. But the process of ‘re-writing’ the world political map is perpetual. A key question is to determine significant moments of rupture and break, when we transition (to stick with a textual metaphor that has its limits) from one chapter to the next. Currently, geopolitical commentary is trashing about for a new language to describe the current moment, with memes like the ‘return of geopolitics’ and ‘revisionist geopolitics’ (re)appearing. Both are unhelpful, the first particularly so as it delimits geopolitics to a certain approach to international affairs rather than the innate condition of international affairs. Our world is always already situated geopolitically, within geopolitical fields (spaces), within geopolitical cultures, and a geopolitical condition (order of time/space compression shaping how we experience international events). The second has its blindness to the last two decades of US foreign policy in the Middle East.
Today, it is more helpful to think historically about the rupture in the fields of Eurasian space and post-Soviet space. The key data (as I’m arguing in my manuscript in progress) is 2008, Kosovo’s UDI and recognition, the Bucharest summit, and then the Georgian-Ossetian-Russian August War. The key moment defining post post-Soviet space is the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states.
In our recent Monkey Cage blog piece JohnO and I argued against the current practice of seeing the Donbas as another ‘frozen conflict’ scenario (Nial Ferguson does it, like so many others, today in the FT, debunking ‘fairy tales’ while implicitly seeding another if only we hadn’t ‘strategic patience’ aka ‘dithering’). This misses the key rupture of 2008, and also the crucial fact that Crimea was outright annexed while any new Novorossiya in the Donbas will be unlike anything we’ve seen before with the existing de facto. This statelet will be the first true post post-Soviet de facto state, and its uniqueness should be appreciated by all.
Thanks to all at the Kennan Institute yesterday (esp Mattison Brady for these photos) for hosting JohnO and I as we presented preliminary results from our RAPID grant work. We’ll be publishing future pieces in the next few months, and academic papers as soon as our schedules allow. Let me leave with a quote from George Kennan (younger twice removed diplomat cousin of the showman popularizer George Kennan after whom the Institute is named) that is (Am Diplomacy, p. 97) relevant to our times: “We tend to underestimate the violence of national maladjustments and discontents elsewhere in the world if we think that they would always appear to other people as less important than the preservation of the judicial tidiness of international life.” The world political map is messy and we should never expect it to be judicially tidy.
Today’s Monkey Cage blog features the first publication of survey data based research on geopolitical attitudes among ordinary citizens in southeast 6 Ukraine and Crimea. This research was funded by a RAPID grant from the Political Science division of the National Science Foundation. Our initial proposal had to be modified because of the outbreak of fighting in the far eastern oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk in April 2014. The survey research was administered in 6 southeastern oblasts (excluding Donetsk and Luhansk) in December 2014 by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) while the Levada Center conducted the research in Crimea. We wish to acknowledge the professionalism and independent integrity of both organizations in helping us realize this social scientific and academic research driven project.
Yesterday John O’Loughlin (pictured) and I presented the data that is in today’s Monkey Cage blog at an event organized by the Director of Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES) at George Washington University, Dr Henry Hale. He and a team of fellow academics also used KIIS for a three part panel survey on Ukrainian elections, the Euromaidan protests, and security perceptions in 2014. Part of that team, Dr Olga Onuch from the University of Manchester and Dr Nadiya Kravets from the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, were in attendance as were a number of other researchers engaged in ongoing work in Ukraine. Unfortunately bad weather prevented Dr Erik Herron from attending but an article on his 2014 research on the Ukrainian electoral administration system is published, along with lots of other interesting articles, in a special edition on Ukraine’s crisis in Eurasian Geography and Economics.
‘Southeast 6 Ukraine’ is an awkward geographic designator but it is the most accurate as we are not surveying all of ‘Eastern Ukraine’ or ‘Southeast Ukraine.’ The Monkey Cage blog piece appeared with graphs that had the title ‘Eastern Ukraine’ but this should be understood as Southeast 6 Ukraine and not areas beyond those surveyed. This issue came up yesterday in questions where someone asked what our bottom line conclusions are about “Eastern Ukraine” and Crimea. Our answer was to stress how Ukraine is made up of very distinct geographic regions. Crimea is very clearly different from the territory to its north: it is a place apart. In a very different way, so also is the Donbas(s), Donetsk and Luhansk. There is no homogenous ‘Eastern Ukraine’ or ‘Southeastern Ukraine’ but a quilt of very different places. Our survey considers two but is unable to make any observations about the Donbas(s).
Our next public presentation of this KIIS-Levada survey data, and what it reveals about the contemporary conflict between Ukraine and Russia, is at the Woodrow Wilson Center on the 13th of February 2015. The working title of the presentation is: “Geopolitical Games and Ordinary Citizens.”
Yesterday Adis Maksic defended his Ph D dissertation “Mobilizing for Ethnic Violence? Ethno-National Political Parties and the Dynamics of Ethno-Politicization.” Adis is a Sarajevo native who was fortunately able to come to the United States with his family after his family suffered a tragedy at the outset of the Bosnian War in 1992. He completed a Masters in our program in 2009 on referendum discourse in Republika Srpska, and returned to our program for a Ph D in 2011 with funding from the US National Science Foundation (our program, unfortunately, provides no independent Ph D student funding so most of our Ph D students are part-time students and full time working professionals in the DC area). Through his diligent research and translation work, we were able to write together “Serbs, You are Allowed to be Serbs”: Radovan Karadžić and the 1990 Election Campaign in Bosnia-Herzegovina” which was published in Ethnopolitics 13, 3 (2014).
For his dissertation, Adis deepened and widened this research topic by studying the origins, founding, electoral triumph and subsequent political machinations of the Serb Democratic Party, Jan 1990 to April 1992 when the Bosnia war erupted with intensity. The argument in that article about the power of visceral understandings and affective experience of the nation in recruiting people to ethnonationalist movements, ethno-parties and ethnicized violence.
Beyond exploring the power of affective thinking, Adis provides the best and most deeply researched account of Bosnia’s road to the ‘gates of hell’ I have read. It is a story full of contingencies and fluidity, and he relates it with extreme attention to the ‘mixed emotions’ of the participants (as well as with exemplary scholarly evenhandedness). Karadžić famously interpreted the idea of placing state borders between Bosnia and Serbia as “severing the living flesh of the Serb nation.” What is striking about the 1990-91 period is how permeated it was by fears and fantasies of extreme violence. Fear of a return of the Ustasa in Croatia was a primal theme that played on the consciousness of many (the map above is the illustration of an article in the Serbian weekly NIN on the coming to power of the HDZ in April 1990 after democratic elections in Croatia). Mass graves sites were dug up (‘pits’) and victims of the Partisans re-buried in services that created communities of affect.
By way of establishing perspective on the SDS and BiH/Yugoslav context, Adis develops an asymmetrical comparison with the rise of the Georgian national movement at the same time, analyzing Gamsakhurdia and ‘Round Table – Free Georgia’ within the terms of his overall three part analysis of political opportunity structures, dissemination modalities, and discursive framings.
It is always gratifying when a Ph D student, through hard work and serious scholarly application, reaches his or her potential in a work. Adis Maksic has done so in this work and hopefully we will all see this work in book form within the next two years. Pictured with Adis in black suit and tie are external observer Dr Sarah Wagner (whose book on Srebrenica has just been published) and his Ph D committee Dr Giselle Datz, Dr Toal and Dr Joel Peters. Not pictured yet an integral and inspiring part of his committee is Dr Robert Donia, whose new biography of Radovan Karadžić has just been published, also by Cambridge University Press. Its cover photo of Karadžić before a map underscores the intimate connections between cartography, space and genocide.