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.

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:

Political Consequences of Partitioning States

Among the commonly observed consequences of secession are the following:

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.