How widespread is separatist sentiment?
It’s a global phenomenon, with about 200 territories or ethnic groups seeking independence from their mother countries. In Europe, the ethnic Albanians who largely populate Kosovo last month declared their independence from Serbia, after more than a decade of animosity. Tibetan monks protesting Chinese rule last week had violent clashes with security forces. In Iraq, the Kurds have achieved a large measure of independence, and the country may be devolving into semi-autonomous Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni states. Belgium is now fracturing along linguistic and ethnic lines, and nearing a split into two entities, Wallonia and Flanders (see below). In 2006, Quebec renewed its quest to form its own, French-speaking nation within a larger Canada. In Scotland, there’s growing public sentiment to break away from the United Kingdom. The Basque Country and Catalonia have long wanted independence from Spain; so have Corsica and Brittany from France.
Is this movement limited to larger nations?
No. Separatist fever has emerged in some very small, obscure parts of the globe. There’s a movement afoot in a sliver of land called Transdniestria to leave Moldova behind. Georgia is trying to keep a grip on two tiny regions called Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In Bosnia, which itself broke from Yugoslavia, ethnic Serbs who occupy a small region called Republic of Srpska want to break off.
Why is this happening?
A confluence of several factors is driving the quest for independence. The borders of many modern nations (such as Iraq) were forged decades or centuries ago by war and power politics, with conquerors and ruling powers drawing arbitrary lines around populations that didn’t have much in common. In some cases, these new countrymen even had a long history of hating one another. Today, these old national borders are becoming less important because of globalization and the growing importance of such transnational groups as the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund. External threats and ideologies that also once served to hold modern nation-states together have faded since the end of the Cold War, enabling ethnic and religious identities to surge in importance. In Europe alone, 18 new countries have emerged since the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989.
Is this movement a bad thing?
Not necessarily. But a nation’s disintegration is almost always messy. Historically, mother countries seldom let their wayward constituencies go without a fight; witness our own American Revolution and Civil War. On a practical level, it’s rare that populations seeking independence live within neat geographic divisions. The Balkans, for example, are a riot of ethnic and religious enclaves; the Kurds are spread out over Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. Trying to carve new nations from these jigsaw puzzles has proved a nightmare. With mother nations often objecting to separatist movements, other nations are frequently drawn into intractable international controversies. Some 30 nations have so far recognized Kosovo, for example, but many more have not, causing further ill will between the U.S. (which endorses the breakaway) and Russia (which finds it threatening). The international ramifications of the dozens of separatist movements are just beginning.
Are the current movements violent?
Some of them are. It’s estimated that some 200,000 people were killed in the genocide that resulted when Bosnia bolted from Serbia in the 1990s. The two wars that Chechnya recently fought in trying to wrest itself from Russia cost more than 50,000 lives. In Iraq, of course, the murderous enmity between Shiites and Sunnis has led to tens of thousands of gruesome deaths. On the other hand, the worst thing that Belgium’s two main ethnic groups, the Walloons and the Flemings, do to each other is tell nasty jokes.
Is all separatism legitimate?
That is the crux of the dilemma now facing the international community. Many political scientists argue that if a population votes for self-determination, its will should prevail. Other scholars say, however, that secession by ballot could too easily bring about chaos. They contend that it is better to reserve independence for groups that have historically suffered brutal persecution in their existing nations. On that basis, the Kurds and Kosovars would have a good argument for statehood, while the Scots and the Quebecois wouldn’t. Of course, when one takes the long view, almost any group can say it has been oppressed. “This is the great hole in democratic theory,” said Marc Plattner, co-editor of the Washington-based Journal of Democracy. “There isn’t a sound theoretical or moral answer. One simply looks at the individual cases.”
What’s the alternative to separatism?
Many countries are offering restless regions and tribes some form of local political autonomy or special recognition in hopes that it will deter a complete and acrimonious break. Scotland, for example, formed its own parliament in 1999. The Basques now enjoy sweeping autonomy from Madrid, and Catalan is an official language, along with Spanish, in Catalonia. But whether such approaches are permanent solutions is another matter. If history is any guide, nationalism will always be with us, and mapmakers will never go jobless. “We live in a world which is based around states,” said Florian Bieber, who teaches international relations at the University of Kent in the U.K. “New states will emerge, and states will disappear, like East Germany. It’s going to continue to happen.”
Goodbye to Belgium?
Belgium has always had two regions that are so distinct as to be separate nations: French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders. In recent years, their uneasy marriage has fallen prey to discord and resentment, with the Flemish seeking a divorce. The Flemish, located in the north, have a booming economy, busy ports, and a thriving chemical industry, and resent the transfer of wealth to the Walloons, who currently suffer from 11 percent unemployment and run their region as a social welfare state. Walloons and Flemings watch different TV, go to different universities, and have separate versions of the same political parties. Asked what unites them, Belgians are hard-pressed to name anything beyond Brussels, beer, and King Albert II. Last year, Belgians took six months to form a government, amid rampant talk of splitting into two countries. A recent poll found that 66 percent of Flemings want independence, and though the urge to stay together is stronger among Walloons, many are convinced that Belgium is beginning to fade inexorably into history. “There’s no Belgian sentiment,” said Filip Dewinter, leader of the ultra-nationalist Flemish party Vlaams Belang. “There’s no Belgian language. There’s no Belgian nation. There’s no Belgian anything.”
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Who are the real gay marriage bigots?
- Sorry Belle Knox, porn still oppresses women
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- What the collapse of the Ming Dynasty can tell us about American decline
- Religious liberty should be a liberal value, too
- Watch The Daily Show mock Fox News' confused man-crush on Vladimir Putin
- 10 things you need to know today: March 8, 2014
- Why is American internet so slow?
- Why states should stop limiting the alcohol content in your beer
- Is the Republican Party in danger of dying out?
Subscribe to the Week