Beers at the Border Bar: No Shirt? No Passport? No Service!
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This chapter covers the topic of strangely drawn borders. It highlights some of the stranger borders in the world by describing some unusual examples: a bar in the former Yugoslavia that is split between two countries; enclaves, counter enclaves, the world’s only counter-counter enclave; and the Scottish Court of the Netherlands, among others. It concludes with an explanation of the US-Canada border that began with Benjamin Franklin’s poorly drawn map.
KeywordsUAEUnited Arab Emirates Exclave UK United Kingdom (UK) USAUnited States
My earliest exposure to international relations involved a border crossing. I was not the one crossing a border, though. Instead, I watched The Living Daylights for my neighbor’s eleventh birthday party. I sat in the movie theater, mesmerized, as James Bond smuggled a Soviet defector across the Iron Curtain via a natural gas pipeline. How cool was that? More importantly, I thought, these borders between countries must be a really big deal if someone would go through all of that trouble.
Indeed, borders are a big deal. They are the place where the authority of one state ends and another one begins. They change only when grand bargains between governments are struck or, more likely, when wars are fought. They tell us what money we are supposed to use, which language we are supposed to speak, and which laws we are supposed to follow. Depending on which side of one you’re born, they also suggest who we are. Born in Bratislava? You are a Slovak. Born five minutes to the west? You are an Austrian. It is as simple as that. Borders are firm, dependable, and immutable. They are like the Cal Ripken of international relations—they show up every day; they do their job, and they do not ask for much more than your respect.
Despite being such an elemental part of our political lives, borders sometimes defy logic. They can be arbitrarily or vaguely drawn. They might even be based on a lie or a stupid careless mistake. This chapter highlights some of our favorite weird border stories.
Beers at the Border
It is no surprise then that a tiny bar that straddles the Croatian-Serbian border gets a lot of attention from tourists and passers-by. Enter the Kalin Tavern from the south and you could get the feeling you are still in Croatia. Enter from the north and you might think you are still in Slovenia. You are right both times, because the border runs down the center of the bar with a big yellow stripe. If you are ever in the tiny border town of Obrežje and you’d like to wet your whistle at this 187-year-old bar, there are a few things to keep in mind.
First, bring your passport. Second, you’re free to cross the border as often as you want when you’re inside. Third, Slovenian laws apply inside the bar. So, no smoking! Fourth, if you do want to smoke, make sure that you exit the door you came in, lest you might be accused of trying to cross the border illegally.
Why would such an odd arrangement exist? The answer lies in the history of Yugoslavia, a twentieth-century phenomenon in southeastern Europe. Yugoslavia was a patchwork of states comprised of six nations and even more ethnicities that emerged from the ashes of the dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire. After its birth, the Yugoslav state did a poor job of defining the internal boundaries between its constituent nations. In 1974, it tried again and purposely left some of the borders loosely defined. Croats lived outside of Croatia, Slovenes lived within and beyond Slovenia, and so on. This was not much of a problem because the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia subsumed all of the nations.
When democratic revolutions swept through Eastern Europe in 1989, however, those poorly defined borders became a bigger problem. Soon, the individual Yugoslav nations sought independence. When Slovenia and Croatia broke from Yugoslavia in 1991, they had no choice but to quickly come up with a border between their newly sovereign states.
The border they drew was a lousy one. Quite frankly, the two new states had bigger things to worry about than where to set up a customs office between them. After all, both states were worried about being invaded and reabsorbed by Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia.
The Croatian–Slovenian border was a disaster. It cut right down the middle of villages, cemeteries, and even bars like Kalin. They just wanted to have a border they could count on, so they could tend to other matters. When Croatia and Slovenia failed to agree on even this rough draft of a border, they left it sufficiently vague, like they did with the Bay of Piran.
The Bay of Piran is small potatoes for Croatia, but a big deal for Slovenia. While Croatia has a long coast on the Adriatic Sea, Slovenia would be landlocked if it were denied access to the Bay of Piran. So, when the two newly independent states needed to figure out who held sovereignty over the bay, Slovenia was ready to fight tooth and nail for it. Strangely enough, Croatia matched its neighbor’s intensity during the negotiations.
Finding common ground on the issue remains difficult. Slovenia entered NATO and the European Union (EU) before Croatia, and tried to use it as leverage on the border issue. Ultimately, Croatia agreed to international arbitration as a condition to join the EU. In 2012, representatives from the two countries’ foreign affairs ministries even had a meeting at Kalin to see if they could work out their differences. (They could not, and they wouldn’t say on which side of the yellow line they sat or even if they had a Croatian Ožujsko or a Slovenian Lasko while they talked.)
After Croatia entered the EU, it withdrew from the arbitration hearing, claiming that a Slovenian judge corrupted the legal process.1 Then, it returned. When the ruling came in 2017, it awarded most of Piran to Slovenia. Yet, the Croatian government refused to abide by the decision in early 2018. Thus, the situation remains unresolved; so, you still have to bring your passport if you want to have a pivo at Kalin.
Indeed, borders are serious, even when they absurdly split a bar in half. It seems as if states are willing to go to great lengths to respect them, even when they know that there is seemingly little at stake. Kalin was an innocent bystander that got caught up in a diplomatic row between two states over a sloppily drawn line on a map. While it was linked to larger issues, such as Slovenia’s need for access to the sea, the bar split in two was a consequence of the importance of borders as sacrosanct instruments of state authority. In this sense, Kalin is the exception that proves the rule: borders are serious stuff.
There are so many nonsensical borders in the world that go unnoticed. If you ever encounter one of these weird borders, you might not think they are very fair. Or you might get the impression that your government does not really care about where the border is.
Enclaves, Counter-Enclaves, and, Yep, Counter-Counter Enclaves
Perhaps the strangest border situations involve enclaves, which are countries, or a part of a country that is surrounded by foreign territory. A classic Cold War example is West Berlin, the part of West Germany that was completely surrounded by East Germany. Enclaves create a logistical nightmare. Imagine that the only way to get from your living room to your bedroom was to walk through your neighbor’s yard. You should hope that you are on good terms with your neighbor, right? Enclaves complicate bilateral relations and they are rare for good reason. It would make sense for governments to avoid them at all costs, but they persist today.
A whole enclave is slightly different. It is a state that is completely engulfed by another state, which puts it in a diplomatically vulnerable position. The surrounding foreign power has tremendous leverage over the whole enclave because it can block its access to the rest of the world. Today, there are three such countries and, for some weird reason, two of them are surrounded by Italy: the Vatican City, which is in the heart of Rome, and San Marino, a tiny mountain hamlet to the north.2 The third whole enclave, Lesotho, is much larger and, yet, is completely surrounded by South Africa.
A strange partial enclave exists in France, where the American flag flies over a handful of cemeteries for US soldiers who died there during World War II. The US has a special agreement with France to treat the burial grounds as American soil in perpetuity.
There are a handful of other special arrangements that cede sovereign territory in the middle of a country to foreigners. According to international law, a country’s embassy abroad is technically its own sovereign territory, despite being in the host country’s capital city. This is widely followed custom, however, so it is not that strange.
One of the oddest of these special provisions was a temporary British enclave in the heart of the Netherlands. It got its start on December 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. Tragically, everyone on the plane and an additional eleven people on the ground died in what was a clear act of terrorism. After three years of investigation, British authorities charged Libyan intelligence officers with the ghastly crime. The problem, however, was that the Libyans were in Libya, and the Libyan government had no intention of handing them over to the UK for a trial.
The international community called for Libya to hand over the operatives but the Libyans ignored this. The United Nations, which doesn’t care for being ignored any more than the rest of us, slapped a set of coercive sanctions on the North African country. Libya’s head of state, Col. Muammar Gaddafi, started to feel the pressure but claimed that he could not comply. He doubted that the Libyans could get a fair trial in the UK.
So, the UN brokered an unusual agreement between the UK and Libya. Instead of sending the accused Libyans to the UK, they would be tried in a neutral country by a British court. Gaddafi wanted the sanctions lifted and saw this as a reasonable compromise, so he agreed to a criminal trial under Scottish law, but in a neutral country.
The only problem was that Scottish (UK) law did not apply in the Netherlands. In fact, the very notion of sovereignty is that the authority of a state, embodied in its laws, is exclusive within a specified territory. If the Netherlands were to allow the UK to exercise its laws on Dutch soil, it would set a dangerous precedent for any government to set up courts in foreign countries. The British and the Dutch, however, figured out a solution. The Netherlands passed a law that declared a former US air base in the town of Utrecht to be, temporarily, the sovereign territory of the UK. In 1999, the British transformed a school on the base into the “Scottish Court of the Netherlands,” complete with its own courtroom, offices, judge’s quarters, and even a small jail in case anyone got out of hand during the proceedings.3 According to the new Dutch law, the former school would remain British sovereign territory for the duration of the trial and for any subsequent appeals. The British flag flew over the makeshift court for over three years, thus expanding the territory of the UK for the first time since the end of the British Empire.
True enclaves are seldom seen in international relations, but exclaves are much more common. Like an enclave, an exclave is detached from the rest of the country and borders a foreign state. Unlike an enclave, however, residents of an exclave have other ways to travel between it and the rest of the country, usually by sea. The largest exclave in the world is Alaska, which borders Canada and a lot of ice cold water. While Alaska is detached from the lower 48 states, it is not an enclave because Americans can come and go without setting foot on Canadian soil.4
Other exclaves and enclaves persist today. Spain is a European nation, but the sovereign Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla are nestled on the coast of North Africa. Campione d’Italia is technically attached to the rest of Italy by land, but because the mountains surrounding it are so treacherous, the only way to get from it to the rest of Italy is via Switzerland. Nakhchivan is an exclave of Azerbaijan that is surrounded by Iran, Turkey, and Armenia. In fact, Nakhchivan had its own exclave, Karki, which was surrounded by Armenia until the Armenians occupied it in 1992 and renamed it Tigranashen. There are so many strange and unusual borders between sovereign states, and many of them seem to make little sense to us, but are taken quite seriously by the governments that make them.
The Russian Outpost: Kaliningrad
The Kaliningrad Oblast is one of the more notable exclaves in the world today. Nestled between Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic Sea, it is nearly 500 km away from the rest of Russia, separated by Lithuania.
Before the twentieth century, Kaliningrad was known as Königsburg. Königsburg had never been very Russian. Sure, the words Russian and Prussian rhyme, but that is about all that this seaside city had in common with the Russian Empire. Before World War II, Königsburg was the easternmost part of Germany, known as East Prussia, and populated by a mix of Poles, Lithuanians, and German-speaking Prussians. The Second World War brought massive destruction to the area, reducing most of it to rubble by the time that the Soviet Red Army claimed it in 1945.
Without any historical or cultural ties to Königsburg, it was a surprise that Soviet leader Josef Stalin wanted to add the city and its environs to the USSR. He had a reason, however, and it had everything to do with power politics. In order to project power across Europe, the Soviet Union needed a post-war navy to match that of the USA and its NATO allies. While the USSR had the industrial might and political will to build one, it lacked a capable port. To the north, Leningrad had access to the Atlantic Ocean (via the Baltic Sea) but it was frozen over for part of the year. The Soviets didn’t want to be a superpower only in the summer, so it grabbed Königsburg, which was a warm water port year-round.
When the Potsdam Declaration gave Königsburg to the Soviet government in 1945, it embarked on an ambitious campaign to make the place seem Russian. First, it kicked out all of the Germans living there. Then, it renamed the city after Mikhail Kalinin, one of the original members of the Bolshevik Revolution. Those that moved into the exclave were either Soviet military or were there to support the Soviet military. The Kaliningrad Oblast was, for all intents and purposes, a Soviet military base within striking distance of the heart of Europe. There lies the Soviet rationale. After forty years of “Sovietizing” Kaliningrad, the exclave felt pretty Russian at the end of the Cold War. Most of the residents were ethnic Russians and the territory itself was part of the Russian Federation within the USSR. Thus, when the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, Kaliningrad was part of the newly independent Russian Federation.
Thus, Kaliningrad continues today as a weird exclave. Every once in a while, Kaliningrad will come up in the news. In 2007, when Russia’s government was incensed over American plans to build a missile defense system in Eastern Europe, it threatened to position nuclear missiles in the exclave. It never did, but it threatens to do so on occasion.
Life in Kaliningrad is a lot like life in Russia, with a few notable exceptions. Until 2016, an agreement between Poland and Russia allowed Russians living in the exclave and Poles in neighboring towns to apply for a special pass that allowed them to travel freely across the Russian-Polish border without a visa. The Polish government suspended the program when the Russian military began some aggressive drills and maneuvers in Kaliningrad that were intended to intimidate Poland and its neighbors.
The suspension disappointed a lot of people on either side of the border. Apparently, Russians liked the Polish supermarkets across the border so much that a Polish pop group, Parovoz, wrote a song about it.5 For Russians in Kaliningrad, after all, buying kielbasa in Poland is a bit easier than driving to the rest of their country. They still need a special visa from Lithuania if they want to take a road trip to Moscow or St. Petersburg. This is like making residents of Maine apply for a special permit from New Hampshire every time they want to drive to Boston. As a result, there is not much traffic between the Kaliningrad Oblast and the rest of Russia. It might be good for the airlines, but it is inconvenient for ordinary Russians.
The Counter-Enclave: When One Enclave Is Not Enough
While strange, enclaves and exclaves are not exactly mind-blowingly bizarre. The counter-enclave is more advanced weird IR by comparison. It is an enclave, surrounded entirely by a foreign country, with that foreign country having its own enclave inside your own enclave. Yes, these things actually exist. One of the most notable ones is in the United Arab Emirates.
In 1972, the hasty creation of the UAE required its new leaders to firm up some borders that were, to say the least, laid back. In this process, local villages and their leaders were asked to identify to which local ruler they were loyal. Since some local rulers preferred to align with neighboring Oman, this was an important undertaking. With a few notable exceptions, there were no surprises and everything went swimmingly.
One of those notable exceptions was in Madha, a small town that claimed allegiance to the UAE’s neighbor, the Sultan of Oman. The people of Madha were surrounded by communities that aligned with the emirs of the UAE, but they stuck to their story. This could have ended badly but, for all intents and purposes, the balance of power did not depend upon which country Madha would choose. The entire territory is about 75 hectares large and is home to about 2000 people, after all. So, the UAE recognized Madha as part of Oman and moved forward.
Except for one small detail, that is. Within Madha is a minority contingent that pledged loyalty to the emirate of Sharjah, part of the UAE. This counter-enclave, known as Nahwa, consists of about forty houses and less than 200 Emirati. It remains part of the UAE today, even though it is surrounded by Omani territory (which is surrounded by UAE territory).
The UAE takes its claim on Nahwa quite seriously. It maintains a police station there to enforce UAE’s sovereign laws. Letters sent from Nahwa require UAE postage stamps, which can only be purchased with UAE currency, even though the territory is so small and inconsequential that if you stand in the middle of it, you can see Omani territory to your left and right without having to squint.
The Counter-Counter Enclave: Seriously Weird, Weirdly Serious
Counter-enclaves are rare, but counter-counter enclaves are by far the weirdest. Dahala Khagrabari, the world’s last counter-counter enclave, ceased to exist after being a thorn in the side of South Asian politics for over forty years. The tiny parcel of sovereign Indian territory was microscopic—less than 2 acres in total area. By comparison, the facility where Boeing makes its famed 747 jumbo jets is more than forty-five times bigger.
In 2016, Dahala Khagrabari and one hundred one other enclaves were absorbed by India or Bangladesh, thus cleaning up the world’s least organized border. This development had been a long time coming, though. These wayward communities have been around a while, dating back to at least the eighteenth century. According to multiple accounts, a hasty treaty between the collapsing Mughal Empire and tiny Kingdom of Koch Bihar ended a conflict but left their shared border poorly defined. Complicating the problem was the fact that many of the villages on the frontier between the two entities had no strong allegiance or national identity, so that people had no clear inclination of where the border should be in the first place. A local legend suggested that these areas were repeatedly won and lost over chess games between the leaders of rival empires, only adding to the malaise among the locals.6
In the nineteenth century, the British Empire consolidated its control over all of South Asia, encompassing what used to be the Mughal Empire and Koch Bihar, among other regions. When the British Indian Empire was dissolved in 1947, its final act was the partition of the colony into two sovereign states—the Dominion of Pakistan and the Union of India. Pakistan included a West (today’s Pakistan) and East (today’s Bangladesh), which were, interestingly enough, exclaves of one another. The two regions had very little in common except for the fact that they felt that they didn’t belong in India. The marriage of convenience ended in 1971 and East Pakistan became Bangladesh. Three years later, India and Bangladesh took a look at their mess of a border, with all of these disorganized enclaves, and did what eight-year-old kids do when their parents tell them to clean their room—they swept the mess under the rug and pretended that it did not exist.
Years later, India and Bangladesh signed the Land Boundary Agreement of 1974 that, on paper, codified a permanent resolution to the status of 162 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. The Indian Parliament, however, did not ratify it until May 2015. I suppose that when your civilization has been around for thousands of years, taking four decades to approve an international agreement is not that big of a deal, right?
Between 1974 and 2015, life was difficult for the people living in these enclaves. The borders between the isolated Bangladeshi towns and the Indian mainland were rigorously enforced. In effect, the people living in the Bangladeshi enclaves were trapped. This made commerce and, more importantly, access to basic services, frustrating at best and impossible at worst for the 70,000 people living in the messiest areas of the Koch Bihar region. In fact, there is no way to know if 70,000 is an accurate number, since no government has been able to take a census there since before the partition in 1949.
The confusion of who lived where and belonged to whom was not limited to the governments of India and Bangladesh. Some people lived their entire lives in Koch Bihar without having any clear understanding of which country they belonged to. To wit, none of the enclave dwellers were eligible for passports because they could not prove residency or citizenship.
What makes this situation even more bizarre is the fact that there was little reason for India and Bangladesh to leave this problem unresolved for so long. The two countries have the largest bilateral trade in South Asia. They even cooperate in times of war. There is little in Koch Bihar to argue about: there is no oil and no treasure to fight over. Considering the fact that the 2015 agreement amounted to just drawing a line down the middle, India and Bangladesh could have split the difference back in 1974. What took them so long? It defies common sense.
All of this this makes the story of Dahala Khagrabari, the world’s smallest enclave and last known counter-counter enclave, even stranger. The tiny patch of Indian land sat entirely inside of Upanchowki Bhajni, a Bangladeshi village. That village was entirely inside of the Indian enclave of Balapara Khagrabari, which rested inside of the Bangladeshi mainland. So, if you are still following along, that means the quickest way to get to India’s Dahala Khagrabari from the mainland was through Bangladesh, then India again, and then Bangladesh again.
It is no surprise that no one lives in Dahala Khagrabari. Today, it is still a wet parcel of farmland. Here is the funny part, though. Despite the fact that it was once sovereign Indian territory, it was, and still is, owned entirely by a Bangladeshi who lives in the surrounding Bangladeshi enclave of Upanchowki Bhajni. All of this makes the story of these enclaves seem entirely arbitrary and pointless.
In Franklin’s Map We Trust: The Northwest Angle
Not all of the world’s bizarre enclaves start off without a focused rationale; it is just that they do not always end up that way. Take the Northwest Angle, a strange little sliver of Minnesota trapped by Canada. Fans of American geography will already know that “The Angle” is the northernmost point in the lower forty-eight states. Without it, the American-Canadian border would be a straight line between Puget Sound and Lake Superior. The Angle consists of the Lake of the Woods and its northern shore, a little sliver of America connected only to Canada by land. It is a geographic oddity that is completely Benjamin Franklin’s fault.
Benjamin Franklin was a man of many talents. He was a publisher and a writer. He was America’s first Postmaster General. Franklin invented his eponymous wood-burning stove. He claimed to have discovered electricity by flying a kite in a storm. He also claimed that he invented bifocal glasses so he could simultaneously read his books and check out women who might be walking by. Franklin was also a diplomat and elder statesman and he chaired the meetings that produced the US Constitution. A lesser-known fact was that he was also in charge of negotiating the final border with British North America (Canada) at the end of the Revolutionary War. As the saying goes, Franklin was a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. Perhaps this is why he royally screwed up the negotiations with the British by insisting on using a bogus map.
On Franklin’s map, the Mississippi River extended northwest beyond the Lake of the Woods and into what today is Canada. In reality, the river never gets to the lake before it makes a turn to the south. This mattered greatly because Franklin and the British agreed to make the US–Canada border a line between the Lake of the Woods and the origin of the Mississippi River. If the British had never caught the mistake, the agreement would have given the USA significantly more territory than it has today. Indeed, the British caught the mistake—but it was over thirty years after they signed the Treaty of Paris. I guess that when the sun never sets on the British Empire, it makes it that much harder to know what is inside it. In fact, the British were so busy running the world that it took another thirty years to revise the terms of the Treaty of Paris with the USA, this time with a legitimate map.
The revised agreement created the border that exists today. The American negotiators were going to give up a lot of land to the British and needed something in return, lest they would appear to be weak to their constituents back home. Thus, they fought hard to keep the Lake of the Woods within the USA. In order to keep the entire lake and still have a somewhat workable border, however, they had to take the north shore along with it. Thus, the tiny exclave known as the Northwest Angle was born.
The Northwest Angle lives on today; it is still part of the USA but isolated from the rest of the country by the Lake of the Woods. According to the 2010 US Census, only 117 people live there; many of them are fishermen and part-time residents. To get to the Angle, you can walk over the lake when it is frozen, or you can drive through Canada. If you do the latter, you have to check in with the US Border Patrol when you arrive. There is a videophone inside of Jim’s Corner, the local general store, which you can use. Just show your passport to the camera and smile.
In 1997, the few Americans living in the Angle were frustrated with federal laws governing fishing quotas. So, they did what any good citizen would do and asked their Congressman to intervene. When that failed, they asked their Congressman to propose an amendment to the US Constitution that would allow the Northwest Angle to vote on secession. The motion died in committee. If it had passed, though, it would have been an unprecedented move. I like to think that the newly independent country would have called itself Franklin and its motto would have been In Bogus Maps We Trust.
International relations can be strange; borders are no exception. Whether it is a border that goes through the middle of a bar, or a piece of India inside Bangladesh within India inside of Bangladesh, the lines that help shape who we are, who gets our taxes, and who we root for at the Olympics can exist for reasons that defy common sense. Indeed, it is a strange world out there. I might not have been thinking about counter-counter enclaves when I was watching James Bond ski across the Austrian frontier on a cello, but I think I was on to something back in 1986.
For Further Reflection
To what extent is a border the result of a rational decision-making process?
If states are self-interested, why would they knowingly pass up an opportunity to maximize territory?
Why would some people accept illogical or inconvenient borders, especially when all of the states involved are democracies?
What do illogical borders indicate about the health of a bilateral relationship?
Renata Jambresic Kirin and Domagoj Racic. “Claiming and Crossing Borders: A View on the Slovene-Croatian Border Dispute/Teritorijalna Razgranicenja: Pogled Na Slovensko-Hrvatski Granicni Spor,” Drustvena Istrazivanja 25, no. 4 (2016): 436.
Perhaps a coincidence, but these two microstates have some of the coolest formal names in the world today: The Holy See and the Most Serene Republic of San Marino. In my opinion, the only country with a more badass name is Montenegro, which means “Black Mountain.”
By the way, they did not.
In case you are wondering, Hawaii is not an exclave. It is just an island that is really far away. What makes Alaska an exclave and Hawaii not is the fact that the former abuts one foreign country while the latter borders nothing but international waters.
For more details and a link to the sweet music, see “Small Border Traffic,” Economist, October 8, 2013, https://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2013/10/poland-and-kaliningrad.
Strangely enough, there are other myths of origin based on nobles swapping territories though games of skill and chance.
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- “The Land that Maps Forgot,” The Economist, February 15, 2011, https://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/02/enclaves_between_india_and_bangladesh.
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