Metta Spencer

Separatism, Democracy, and Disintegration

Introduction to Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998)

Metta Spencer

The late 1980s and 1990s have been marked by two mutually contradictory trends. The first is an increasing cultural, economic, environmental, and political integration transnationally through "globalization" and the formation of international political structures, such as the European Union. The second is the upsurge in separatist movements that aspire, sometimes with success, to partition states. There are far more such movements attempting separation than seem likely ever to be accomplished. Nevertheless, even the aspiration to divide states seems puzzling, when juxtaposed to the opposing trend toward unification.

Few of the contributors to this book have met or discussed their views of separatism. However, most of us share misgivings about the trend toward the splintering of states. Most of us believe that the most urgent emerging political issues must be handled at the transnational level and that local issues will continue to diminish in relative importance. We also believe that states are losing much of their sovereignty and that ethnic communities therefore are pursuing false dreams in demanding statehood.

Even as a myth, national sovereignty fails to inspire these whose political values are inclusive and who regard ethnicity as an accident of birth instead of a basis for pride. However, the purpose of this book is not to polemicize against separatism but to analyze its causes and consequences.

Most chapters are case studies of separatist movements. The countries that we shall examine include some historic cases (Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires), as well as some recent ones (Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union) and four that, at this writing, have not accomplished their desired secession (Sri Lanka, Canada, Tatarstan, and Chechnya).

Every contemporary separatist movement is based on a sense of grievance on the part of an ethnic group (whose members may refer to it as "a nation" or "a people"). Numerous studies have sought to explain nationalism or "identity politics." It may be useful for a reader to approach this collection of cases with a checklist that identifies some of the possible causes and consequences of nationalistic separatism.

Sources of Nationalist Separatism

The following list, which is by no means exhaustive, consists of causal factors that have been proposed in various accounts of nationalism and separatism. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

  • Emotional resentment. Some analysts depict the social psychology of nationalism as rooted in an emotional sentiment -- including the envy of a rival community, even when the feeling is irrational and baseless.
  • The justified resistance of victims. Other writers portray the nationalists as victims finally rebelling after suffering prolonged violations of their human rights and the denigration of their language, culture, or religion.
  • Propaganda orchestrated for political gain. Still other writers blame conniving political leaders for deliberately whipping up intergroup hatred by propaganda campaigns for their own purposes. Thus some analysts say that it makes logical sense that nationalism became resurgent just when Communism declined; they show that former Communist leaders schemed to retain their dominance by promoting nationalism to replace the newly rejected ideology.
  • The power of a dominant ethnic group. Some analysts attribute nationalistic hatreds to the primacy of an ethnic group in a multicultural state that refuses to share power or privilege on a more egalitarian basis.
  • Economic motivations. Often the separatist group is portrayed as economically deprived and exploited by the richer part of the population. This is "the worm finally turns" thesis, but it does not stand up as a generalization, since the separatists often are not the poorer but the richer part of the population, as in the case of Slovenians desiring to secede from Yugoslavia.
    An alternative economic theory portrays the contested territory as possessing some valuable resource that both the local group and the national government wish to control. (Examples: an oil pipeline and probable oil reserves desired both by the Chechens and the Russians.) There are several variants of the economic explanation. For instance, separatists in the Baltic states and Ukraine believed that only their regions' ties to Russia kept them below the economic level of Western Europe. Again, the weakness of this theory is that usually there is more to be gained financially from remaining unified than from secession.
  • Preservation of a threatened culture. Sometimes the separatists believe, rightly or mistakenly, that they must win independence in order to preserve their religion, language, or other traditions. (Quebec is an example.)
  • Commitment to modernization. Sometimes the breakup of a state can be attributed to the revolutionaries' desire to establish a universalistic regime that would bring all ethnic or religious communities under the same unified rule of law. The breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires can be seen as instances of this tendency. In the post-cold war period modernization has come to mean democracy, and many analysts see the breakup of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia as resulting from the introduction of decision-making by majority vote.

Structural Contributing Factors

The above list includes most of the theorized proximate causes of separatist movements. However, we can also identify a list of contributing factors that have been said to affect the probability that separatism will emerge. Among them are the following:

  • Deep cleavages between segments of the population. Ethnicity is the most common basis for secession in the post-cold war period. (Previously, ideologically based partitions took place, as in the case of communist and non-communist Korea, both parts of which shared a common ethnicity.)
    More generally, when two or more communities in a population see themselves as permanently divided and as having different interests, then relations between them cannot easily be resolved through regular democratic means, since even in democratic governments one of the groups may be permanently outvoted. However, in particular cases the cleavage between the various communities may not be as long-standing or irreconcilable as the separatists claim.
  • Centralization or decentralization of government. Policy makers who seek to hold their federal state together sometimes propose devolutionary reforms, transferring decisions to the provincial or local levels and reducing the power of the central government to a bare minimum. By meeting the weak demands of separatists by adopting a confederation or commonwealth structure, it is hoped that the ultimate breakup can be avoided. Other analysts assert the contrary: that decentralization jeopardizes federal states, since the progressive devolution of power brings secession even closer and allows the eventual breakup to be carried out with minimal disruption.
    One can adduce cases as evidence of both. Canada and Russia have devolved much decision making to provinces or republics in the hope that this will save the federal government. In his chapter, Edward Walker predicts that this adaptation will contain the separatism of Tatarstan. Within the next decade, he may be proved either correct or incorrect, but the case studies presented in this book probably cannot definitively answer this important question.
  • The size of the prospective new states. Presumably, states benefit materially from economies of scale. Even the cost of maintaining embassies around the world can prove daunting for a small state, not to mention the cost of maintaining an army. However, there are small states (Liechtenstein, Monaco, etc.) that have survived for a long time. Therefore the crucial factor may not be the size of the breakaway state, but rather the process of breaking up any ongoing economic and political system, regardless of its size.
  • A history of political annexation or demographic manipulation.In some cases, states have been annexed against the wishes of their populations, who remain resentful thereafter and seize the first opportunity to proclaim their independence. (Example: The Baltic republics in the Soviet Union, whose arguments for secession had more merit than the claims of republics that had not previously been independent.)
    Sometimes the indigenous population of a region (e.g., the Tatars and Chechens) had been deported from their homeland. Moreover, a government may try to dilute the political impact of a minority population by moving large numbers of the majority group into their area. Naturally, this action intensifies the resentment of the original population, especially if it had originally had a distinctive culture or language. (Examples: Such demographic dilution was carried out in the formerly Tamil parts of Sri Lanka, in the Baltic states, and in Tibet.)
  • The newly democratic nature of the federal state. Separatist movements seem to occur in waves, with one such wave taking place now, in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism. One plausible partial explanation is that communism repressed nationalism by punishing anyone who promoted it; a new commitment to democracy meant allowing people to express particularistic values that were previously suppressed.
  • Ambiguities of international law. Many separatists believe that international law assures each ethnic group the right to "self- determination" -- i.e., to secede at will. However, a new group claiming sovereign status may or may not be recognized abroad. That unpredictability encourages separatists to assert their independence as a way of finding out the results. (Examples: Germany, Austria, and Hungary were quick to recognize Slovenia and Croatia when they declared themselves no longer republics of Yugoslavia. Many observers blame this premature recognition for the warfare that immediately followed.)

Political Consequences of Partitioning States

Among the commonly observed consequences of secession are the following:

  • Declining status of minorities. Secessions never leave the newly divided countries ethnically homogeneous. Minorities are often pressed to emigrate or are deported against their will. Those who remain anyway are usually subjected to worse treatment than in the previous, more inclusive state. (Examples: Israel's Palestinian minorities are second-class citizens, as are the Croatians, Serbs, and Bosniacs who remain as minority populations in the divided parts of the former Yugoslavia.)
  • Destabilization. The assertion of political autonomy brings a breakaway region into considerable upheaval until its new institutions have been established. Civil war is a regular consequence of separating a state in two. (Rare exceptions are the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993 and of Norway/Sweden in 1905.)
  • Geopolitical power vacuum. When states break up, the new states, being smaller and divided, ordinarily are regarded less as an obstacle by neighboring states with aggressive intentions. The breakup may even seem to invite invasion. (Examples: The breakup of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires created a power vacuum in Europe; indeed, World War II can be interpreted largely as a contest between the Soviet Union and Germany to gain control of the fragments of those empires.)
  • Continuing fragmentation. One secession typically seems to invite other groups within the same larger federal society to arrange for their own departure as well. (Examples: When the Soviet Union broke up, several regions inside Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Russia tried to secede in their turn. Likewise, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (which were created from the fragments of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires) continued the fragmentation process at a later date.

Proposed Solutions for States Facing Separatist Movements

When a unitary or federal government finds itself challenged by a separatist organization, there are various ways of responding, some of which may minimize either the risk of secession or of the negative consequences that typically accompany secession. The following list is not exhaustive, and some of the items are incompatible with the others.

  • Give up immediately and accede to the separatists' demands. For the sake of preventing bloodshed, some analysts recommend that, when challenged by separatists, the officials of a union should quickly divide their state up in an amicable and orderly fashion. This recommendation assumes that separatists are entitled to an ethnically homogeneous state of their own or to a state in which they can constitute the majority. (Examples: Malaysia acceded quickly to Singapore's demand for independence, and Sweden permitted the secession of Norway without bloodshed.)
  • Improve the circumstances of disadvantaged minorities. This approach, if it is to succeed, must be implemented as soon as the minority population begins to protest. Legislation can correct their disadvantages and guarantee their right to use their own language and practice their own faith. This move may reduce the sense of grievance, but it is not certain to do so. (Example: Canada authorized a "bilingualism and biculturalism" commission during the "Quiet Revolution" of Quebec. Its recommendations improved the opportunities for francophone Canadians without, however, preventing the rise of Quebec separatism.) A court system that protects the human rights of all citizens should, in principle, reduce the alienation of all subgroups.
  • Adopt asymmetric federalism. Some writers who seek to preserve the union of a particular state recommend a special constitutional arrangement with the region in which separatism is growing. This would mean that different provinces or republics might each have a unique relationship with the center -- hence the term "asymmetric." (Examples: Russia has given Tatarstan more autonomy than other provinces of Russia; Quebec has sought an asymmetric relationship with the rest of Canada reflecting its unique nature as a "distinct society.")
  • Let minorities win under certain circumstances. When a community regards itself as a permanently distinct entity within a society, and when it is nevertheless a minority in political terms, it will be outvoted regularly. Even so, certain unusual constitutional arrangements are possible that do allow such a minority to win a political contest about which it feels especially strongly. One such arrangement would be to provide a simple veto for elected minority group leaders. Other alternatives include non-territorially based constituencies (as practiced in Malta and the Irish senate) and referendums in which voters are able to distribute their voting power according to the strength of their feelings about particular issues. The type of democracy that assures minorities a share of the power in governance (as contrasted to the simple principle of majority-rule) is sometimes called "consensus democracy" or "consociational democracy."
  • Settle for a confederation or commonwealth relationship. When a rupture seems likely, total separation may be prevented by acceptance of a half-way measure (e.g., a confederation or a commonwealth) for the republics or provinces that would like to break away. (Examples: Russia and Puerto Rico.) However, there are many debates as to whether such a plan is a promising solution. The pages ahead will provide some evidence for evaluating these factors.