The Politics of Time Zones

What time is it? Photo: ToniVC/flickr

Last weekend Fareed Zakaria devoted a short segment of his program, Global Public Square, to some startling news: in the Pacific island nation of Samoa, there will be no 30th of December this year. Samoans will go to sleep on Thursday the 29th and awake on Saturday the 31st. The country is set to hop the International Date Line, moving from 11 hours behind Greenwich to 13 hours ahead of it.

Samoa’s Prime Minister noted in May that the move would be good for tourism—as, since neighboring American Samoa will remain on the other side of the line, “people wanting two birthdays or two wedding anniversaries can travel to Samoa and have them.”

More significant benefits are associated with the underlying shift that the move reflects. As Zakaria tells us, while the east side of the date line was originally preferred for its closeness to the Americas, Samoa now conducts most of its trade with Australia and New Zealand, which at present are almost a full day ahead—an inconvenience indeed. Hopping the date-line is an attempt to adjust to this new economic reality.

But ever since the need for a Line was demonstrated on a Thursday afternoon in 1522 – when Magellan’s Victoria sailed into Cape Verde with a ship’s log showing Wednesday – many countries have seen the benefits of toying with the Line.


From 11 to 5

Nixie clock / Photo: Public domain, Wikipedia
Nixie clock / Photo: Public domain, Wikipedia

Russia is the largest country on the planet and as such faces special challenges. Who else has to organize such a vast territory that at the moment spans over 11 time zones? Did you know that the difference between Omsk Time and Magadan Time is exactly 5 hours?

To ease the burden of space and time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev proposed to actually reduce the number of time zones in the country from 11 to 5. Pointing to the economic advantages of the reduction, he underlined benefits for communication and traveling. It’s definitely an organizational challenge if a businessman in Kaliningrad in Russia’s far west is calling a business partner in Vladivostok, which is in the far east.

Yet, time is not only in Russia a political issue – also China decided after the Communist Revolution of 1949 to abolish the up until then existing 5 time zones in favor of only one zone, of course that of Beijing. Whether or not this has helped to strengthen the central leadership and to unify the national political movements no one can say, but one can imagine what that means for the inhabitants of western China.

Changing time and its measurement goes over the powers of most politicians, as the fate of the Soviet calendar as well as of its French Republican counterpart proves. So it remains to be seen how far Medvedev’s proposal will get.