I don’t remember a time where there were two Germanys. I don’t think anyone currently a student at Vassar does. The reunification of Germany was a memorable event for an older generation. In fact, for our generation, the borders of the world have seemed to be a relatively fixed feature; the constant redrawing of lines on a map only a feature of a past time. And yet, the current number of “countries” often listed as 196 is rather vague and inaccurate. As it turns out, the borders of our world aren’t as set in stone as we were taught in elementary school, which isn’t so surprising. Many borders were arbitrarily drawn after war or colonialism, sometimes without input by the people who were supposed to live in these new countries. Is it time to reconsider the boundaries we thought were permanent?
I remember in elementary school, we had to color in maps of each continent, with each country a different color. It was supposed to teach us geography, but it really taught us more about how to color inside the lines. Those maps seemed like they were the definitive answer to what countries were there for. We were never taught to question the maps that hung on the walls—why they were drawn the way they were and who drew them was a mystery. The abrupt split of Sudan in 2011 into Sudan and South Sudan was the first time I realized that borders really weren’t fixed. In 2008, Kosovo, a region in conflict with Serbia since the 1990s, declared itself an independent republic.
However, unlike South Sudan, not everyone was happy for Kosovo to become an independent nation. Kosovo, like sixteen other states, is disputed as a sovereign state. Some of these disputed states are only recognized by one or two other nations—often fellow disputed states.
Perhaps the most famous example of this is Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China. Most of the disputed states are small portions of undisputed countries that have declared independence which larger states haven’t recognized. Some, though, are UN member states; the most controversial likely being Israel and Palestine, the latter of which only a member state.
Soon, there may be other states that will be added to the list. With the recent events in Ukraine, perhaps Crimea and Eastern Ukraine will join this list of disputed states whose membership in the UN is possible, but depends on recognition from larger, more influential nations like the United States. Meanwhile, since Russia is the one taking the initiative to call Crimea a part of Russia, the U.S. is almost forced to take issue with Russia’s actions. Either way, what Ukrainians want for Crimea and Eastern Ukraine will likely never be the main focus as Russia is certainly more dominant in the relationship.
All that, of course, implies that all the referendums, soldier movements and Putin glaring will come to something. They may not, though the possibility of everything going back to the way it was seems highly unlikely at this point, if not downright impossible. Perhaps what’s most disconcerting, at least for Westerners, is that this is the first major border conflict since the reunification of Germany and the end of the Yugoslav Wars. It marks a change in Russia-EU relations that had gone unchallenged since the end of the Cold War. That status quo is changing in a big way, and no one is quite sure how we’ll come out on the other side.
Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. Most states that we consider to have always been there are relatively new creations. Take Italy, for example. Prior to 1861, it wasn’t even a unified state and it didn’t become a republic until 1946. So really, current state conflicts aren’t all that surprising when one considers the longer timeline.
As for Ukraine, it will be interesting to see how it resolves the disparate parts of itself. Will it divide? Will it try to force continued unification? It’s impossible to tell. Hopefully, though, whatever happens will be the will of the people, and not the result of governments playing god on these people and their regions.
—Lily Elbaum ’16 is an international studies major.