Europe's (colonial) ties still bind

Europe's former empires, possessions straddling the globe "on which the sun never sets," as Britain's colonial administrators once liked to boast, are still casting a long shadow, even on the eve of the 21st century.

Today's bloodshed in Africa; America's angry trade dispute with its European Union allies; former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet's detention in Britain; and the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan.

All these contemporary conflicts, radically different in almost every other respect, have one element in common: Their roots lie deep in Europe's imperial past.

Efforts are afoot to redeem that past. Portugal, an imperial power in Asia for 500 years, is working to midwife the independence of former colony East Timor after 25 years of occupation by Indonesia. Britain is belatedly offering full citizenship to the inhabitants of its remaining colonies, scattered around the world's oceans. And every year, European countries provide former possessions with some $28 billion in development aid, even if that accounts for only 0.3 percent of their gross national product.

But these policies, too, bear the imprint of history, molded by events that occurred 50, 100, or more years ago. "The colonial past bubbles up in many different ways in many different places," points out Peter Lyon, a London University historian of Britain's colonial legacy.

It did, brutally, last month in Uganda where marauding Hutu extremists from neighboring Rwanda killed eight English-speaking tourists in a gorilla park but spared the French members of their tour group. They had apparently not forgotten that in the early 1990s, before Hutu murderers went on a genocidal rampage in Rwanda, Paris had supported the Francophone Hutu government there with guns and money against the minority Tutsi, who spoke English and enjoyed backing from the Anglophone Ugandan authorities.

Then-President Franois Mitterrand of France saw his policy simply as a continuation of the old colonial rivalry that his country had maintained with the British since the 19th century.

Nowhere does the colonial burden weigh more heavily than in Africa. The seeds of Zaire's implosion, for example, and of the war that 12 African nations are today waging in what was once Zaire, were sown by the Belgians, who ruled the Congo with a rare disregard for the future.

Where French and British rulers cultivated local elites, the Belgian style of colonialism was "totally paternalistic," says Gerard Prunier, an Africa expert at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris. "The Belgians thought they would be there forever, and when they suddenly withdrew they left a hollowness" that collapsed into civil war, he adds. That civil war has resumed today, after the fall of longtime dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.

Unrest inherent in Africa's borders

But colonial rulers from across Europe - notably from Germany, France, and Britain - left a broader legacy of flashpoints when they drew Africa's current borders at a diplomatic conference in Berlin in 1885, often simply using rulers on the map and showing scant regard for the tribal loyalties of their subjects. Those borders are "the most global and most dangerous results of colonialism," argues Mr. Prunier. Although governments have generally decided that the colonial frontiers should be respected so as not to create an impossible tangle of conflicts, "all kinds of people all over the continent are unhappy with them and intend to change them," Prunier points out.

Afar tribesmen in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Eritrea want to create their own single homeland, the Ewe people in West Africa are seeking to unite with their fellows across national borders, and further south in Namibia, Zambia, and Angola the Lozi have begun to agitate for a common homeland.

Within countries, too, ethnic violence can sometimes be traced back to the "divide and rule" tactics that imperial masters used to keep the peace in their possessions. In Nigeria, for example, the Christianized Ibo people, favored by the British, are at odds with the Muslim Falana.

In Indonesia, where the Dutch converted inhabitants of the Molucca island chain to Christianity and promoted them, an explosion of violence this year between Christians and Muslim migrants on the Moluccan island of Ambon has claimed hundreds of lives. "Sometimes these structural deformities left by the colonialists have become fracture points in post-imperial societies," suggests Mr. Lyon.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, East Timor has been an unresolved colonial problem since 1975, when the Portuguese withdrew hastily and the Indonesian Army marched in to snatch the territory. Today, with Jakarta offering the region independence if its people so choose, Portugal is closely involved with preparations for the handover and with plans to hand its island colony of Macau back to China.

Farther afield, outstanding colonial disputes seem further from a solution. The Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, for example, which Argentines call Las Malvinas and fought a 10-week war with Britain over in 1982, remain in dispute. Officials in London acknowledge privately that the tiny outcrop of inhospitable land, home to more sheep than people, cannot forever remain a British dependency. But Buenos Aires has played down its sovereignty claims for now, in the interests of better economic ties with Britain.

The Rock trips up relations

Spain, on the other hand, has made no bones about its longstanding claim to take back Gibraltar, the strategic rock at the mouth of the Mediterranean, which Britain has occupied since 1704. The dispute has proved a persistent irritant in relations between two countries that ought to be the best of friends, both members of NATO and of the European Union.

Europe's colonial legacy has clearly left its mark even closer to home. People from former overseas dependencies have flooded into the territory of their onetime rulers and transformed their societies. Britain, now home to 2.7 million citizens of Caribbean or Indian subcontinental origin, is a much more cosmopolitan country than it was when it ruled half the world.

And the impact on France of 1.5 million African and Arab immigrants was evident in the multiethnic makeup of the victorious World Cup soccer team last June.

A less welcome impact had been felt only a few years earlier, when Islamic militants from former colony Algeria brought their campaign against the military regime in Algiers to the streets of Paris, planting a series of bombs in public places that killed dozens of passersby. The large Algerian community gave the bombers cover, Paris was a second home to them, and the French government's strong support for the Algerian authorities made France a target.

The large immigrant population in Britain coming from Kashmir, a mountainous province that was split at Indian independence in 1947 by the creation of the Muslim state of Pakistan, is an additional motivation for London to pay special attention to that strife-torn region.

But when British Foreign Minister Robin Cook offered two years ago to mediate in the dispute that has helped fuel two wars between fierce rivals India and Pakistan, New Delhi told him in no uncertain terms to stop meddling in the affairs of former colonies. At the time, both nations were marking 50 years of independence from British rule.

Prosecuting Pinochet

On the other side of the globe, another former colony, Chile, was equally blunt in its accusations of meddling by its former master when it protested a Spanish judge's indictment of former President Augusto Pinochet last November.

But it was no coincidence that it should have been a Spanish magistrate, Baltazar Garzon, who issued an international arrest warrant for General Pinochet, on charges of conspiracy to murder and torture, among others. It was because of Spain's historical links with Chile that so many Spaniards were working in Chile when Pinochet launched his coup in 1973, and because of that that Spaniards made up the largest foreign group of "disappeared" people.

Today, Spain is using its profound linguistic and cultural legacy in Central and South America as a platform for a more active business role on the continent. Spain is now the second-largest investor in Latin America, putting more private money even than US companies into such countries as Argentina, Chile, and Peru. And Madrid is pressing its EU partners to follow its lead.

The Spanish government, for example, is a leading force in preparations for a summit in Rio de Janeiro next June between European and Latin American heads of state. The goal, Spanish officials say, is to arrange a free-trade zone between the two regions. That would constitute a direct challenge to US efforts to build an inter-American free-trade zone on the foundations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), linking the US, Canada, and Mexico.

Thus an old colonial domain becomes a battleground in a new war. But it was the colonial history that shaped the political topography. And there are few signs that the arrival of a new millennium might wipe the historical slate clean, or dim international memories.

"The echoes from the colonial past will diminish with time," predicts Dominique Moisi, an analyst at the Paris-based French Foreign Relations Institute. "But they will still be heard. History is very slow."

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