Oxford’s Place of the Year 2008: Kosovo
Coordinates: 42 30 N 21 0 E
Population: Around 2 Million
Welcome to Geography Awareness week, the perfect time to announce another Place of the Year. In all honesty, I struggled with my decision this time, and sought the advice of several mapmakers and geographers. Looking back on 2008—well, most of it anyway—I found it difficult to settle on a single location because I didn’t want to make my selection based solely on its ability to stay in the headlines. Should I pick Naypyidaw because of what happened in Burma? One of my colleagues proposed Honolulu, the birthplace of the first African American president of the United States. But perhaps Darfur, Wall Street, or the pirate-plagued Gulf of Aden would be more interesting? Above all, what I really needed was a place where changes had occurred that would be observable on a map.
In the end, I chose Kosovo for a few different reasons. First of all, by declaring their independence from Serbia, the roughly two million Kosovars occupying this small part of southeastern Europe have forced cartographers to contend with their new (albeit still contested) status as a sovereign state. Secondly, as I mentioned in my original post back in February and as recent events in the Caucasus emphasized, Kosovo serves as a current reminder that our map of the world continues to evolve. Geography is by no means static.
To me, Kosovo deserves the distinction of Place of the Year because it represents several types of shifting geographies: social (Will the ethnic Serbs living in northern Kosovo find acceptance in this new country?), political (Can the government of President Fatmir Sejdiu successfully—and peaceably—chart a course to eventual admission into the EU?) and historical (Will the new boundaries hold or again be altered by events in the future?). Finally, I took physical location into account; Kosovo isn’t far from the heart of Europe.
Other examples of separatist movements and border disputes abound around the globe, and pose nearly as many challenges for atlas publishers as they do for policy-makers and politicians. Last year I remarked that global warming will likely keep mapmakers busy by altering the extent of sea ice or exposing new landmasses long hidden beneath glaciers. Yet as the socio-cultural complexities of areas such as the Balkans demonstrate, the environment isn’t the only force with the power to reshape our planet. So what are the cartographic appearances or disappearances you think we’ll be talking about in 2009?
Ben Keene is the editor of Oxford Atlas of the World. Check out some of his previous places of the week.