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Saturday, March 13, 1999 Published at 04:16 GMT

Our Decade: The shifting lands of time

International matches used to be simple affairs for footballers: you played against France, Italy, Spain and the like.

Then, as if from nowhere, a revolution seemed to sweep half the world and British soccer stars found themselves having to learn where places such as Latvia, Moldova and Estonia are.

The European football leagues expanded rapidly as, domino-style, country after country split away to proclaim independence.

Football chiefs were not alone in suffering headaches: from governments to cartographers, the ramifications of the eastern European revolution of 1989-90 sparked unexpected upheavals around the world.

In the past few decades the number of countries in the world has risen sharply: in 1950 there were 82, now there are 192.

But the world map has also been changing in an opposite, albeit less dramatic way. In the 90s, other nations have been struggling to forge closer ties or to unite. Is this just coincidence?

Cold comfort for nations

The recent rise of nationalism and separatism can be traced back largely to the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The Cold War held in check smaller conflicts around the world because the Soviet Union and the West heavily aided particular regimes to prevent the rival bloc taking over. Observers say that in Indonesia, for example, the West supported President Suharto for more than 30 years to block Communism.

Nor is the fragmentation by any means over. Duncan Parrish, a world affairs researcher at the Foreign Policy Centre in London, for example, predicts: "It looks like East Timor will break away from Indonesia and a number of other areas of Indonesia will want independence."

Poverty sparks separatist hopes

The constitution of the Soviet Union was declared invalid at Christmas 1991 and by 1992 almost all the republics had developed their own.

[ image: Kofi Annan: UN has faced new challenges]
Kofi Annan: UN has faced new challenges
Nationalism flourished because dominant ethnic groups in major regions had always been aware of their national identities, says Mr Parrish.

Many saw it as a panacea for their economic problems. The Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, were followed by republics such as Ukraine and Chechnya, and today there are still dozens of smaller republics within the Russian Federation hankering for independence.

Refusing minority recognition

Czechoslovakia had no sooner gained its freedom from the Soviet Union than it too divided, at Slovakia's insistence. This was a peaceful split; Yugoslavia was not so lucky.

Yugoslavia had mirrored the Soviet Union, insofar as rising poverty caused many to consider they would be better off in independent republics.

One by one, Slovenia, Croatia, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and (most bloodily) Bosnia broke away, leaving only a rump, compromising Serbia and Montenegro. Then the world's attention turned to Kosovo.

"There is great reluctance within the world community to see changes in international borders because there are so many demands for recognition of minorities that one would set a dangerous precedent," says Mr Parrish.

The 1990s' surge of nationalism has been felt in Africa as well. Eritrea split peacefully from Ethiopia in 1993, but went to war in 1998 over a border dispute.

Italy, Spain and the UK have all been the subject of demands by separatists. Scottish and Welsh nationalist political parties achieved some of their aims with devolution.

Trading sovereignty for standards

Meanwhile, many countries have been getting closer to each other.

Mr Parrish said: "The economies of developed nations have become so interlinked that - now there's no fear of war - they have realised they have a lot to gain. Unification is driven by economics.

[ image: Euro coins: the EU is moving towards a single currency]
Euro coins: the EU is moving towards a single currency
"Political decisions are taken to maximise standards of living. So we've started to trade-off aspects of sovereignty against economic advantage."

In Europe, political will for integration led to the creation of the Euro earlier this year, with a queue of other nations wanting to join the EU.

Nato is also marking the entrance of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic to its ranks.

Ironically, although the break-up of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall were catalysts for separatism across large swathes of Europe, they also led to the reunification of Germany.

Breaking down barriers

The trend for closer links between "natural" allies has hit the Far East, with South Korea and North Korea putting out feelers after nearly 50 years apart, economic investment tying Taiwan closer to the Chinese mainland, and the handover of Hong Kong to Beijing, to be followed by Macau later this year.

The EU has been an inspiration: The Association of South East Asian Nations was launched with a view to removing trade barriers.

ASEAN will face huge obstacles but its very existence illustrates the changing nature of international relations. Similarly, in the 90s, the North American Free Trade Association was created to break down economic barriers between Canada, Mexico and the US.

The World Trade Organisation was founded in 1995 to improve trade relations, providing economic prosperity, and thereby leading to reinforcing world peace. Most major nations are members.

And the United Nations has found itself taking on an ever-widening role in world conflicts.

Connecting threads

The two apparently contradictory movements have come to represent fundamental shifts in the map of the world, like giant global plates shifting during an earthquake. It appears to be coincidence, but analysts see indirect links.

"There are connecting threads through all these events," says Mr Parrish. "But there are no direct political links. I think it's a sort of coincidence, but they are different responses to the same world situations."

Dr Mike Sewell, an international relations expert at Cambridge University, says: "People have been realising the old-fashioned nation-state is too big and bureaucratic to deal with certain issues."

He also believes new technology has radically altered our perspective of the world.

And nationalism, he says, is a direct response by underdeveloped countries to the perceived threat of globalisation, helping them feel more secure.

Other analysts say that during the cold war, western nations focused largely on foreign policy; when it ended, the focus shifted back to domestic policy, since self-interest was no longer involved.

The map of the world has been in constant flux throughout history and it would be naive to think the changes were over.

Coming to terms with the world's shifting states is a challenge for everyone. Including footballers.

The E-cyclopedia can be contacted by e-mail at

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