Crimea and the State of Secessionism

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May 22, 2014 19:35 EDT

Recent events in Crimea are indicative of a larger phenomenon: the rise of independence movements by distinct identity groups across the globe.

No one has any illusions regarding Russia’s frequent intrusions into its neighbors’ affairs. The Kremlin considers all post-Soviet states — with the possible exception of NATO member Baltic states — to be within its sphere of influence.

Therefore, when first Georgia, and now Ukraine, began cozying up to the West, Moscow found it within its national interest to meddle, destabilize and weaken its neighbors enough to maintain its dominance.

This is all part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambition to create a rejuvenated “Eurasian Union” of post-Soviet states, led by Russia, meant to counter the European Union’s (EU) influence in eastern Europe and act as a bloc that is powerful enough to rival the US, EU or China on the global stage.

But what is happening in the Crimea, beyond bald-faced Russian bellicosity, is also emblematic of a broader shift toward the empowerment of local identities and subsequent drives for independence. Following decolonization in Asia and Africa and, later, the end of the Cold War, a bevy of secessionist movements emerged around the globe, from Kurdistan to Kosovo. Many groups that self-identified as distinct from a larger sociopolitical identity or a central government began to demand independence on the basis of self-determination, underpinned by shared injustice, history or unique cultural, religious, ethnic and linguistic factors.

A people’s will to self-govern, or tribalism in another age, has existed as long as people have taken upon themselves to organize, but until recently independence was simply not viable for most separatist groups. With the dramatic decline in bilateral conflict in the post-Cold War era and the expansion of democracy, many social groups that had before been too small to defend themselves if independent, have renewed calls for self-governance. This was done with the knowledge that their sovereignty is protected, in theory, by international law and the great powers who wish to uphold such laws and the borders which are treated as sacrosanct.

Today, Kurds remains the largest distinct ethnic group of people without their own state. China disavows separatism for fear that Tibetans or Uyghur will take heart. Western Sahara, in what the UN describes as a non-self governing territory, remains cut off from the rest of Morocco, while many people in resource-rich Balochistan want independence from Islamabad. 

It remains to be seen what happens in Ukraine, whether intermittent calls for reunion in the predominately Russian-speaking eastern areas will be heeded by Moscow or not. Nevertheless, it is a fitting time to explore the rise in identity politics and the upsurge in secessionist tendencies around the globe — many of which may be looking to the Crimea as a precedent for their cause.

Woodrow Wilson’s Determination

Woodrow Wilson is often credited with extending self-determination to Europe’s marginalized peoples after the close of World War I. Following the disintegration of the Russian, German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, a variegated patchwork of ethnic groups emerged from the folds of empire. Wilson was resolved to allow people to freely determine their own political status, ideally by referendum.

Six new European nations were formed from the carcass of empire. Unfortunately, President Wilson’s generosity did not extend to Ukrainian nationhood, nor did it extend to the Asian or African colonies of his allies. In 1919, the architects of the new European territorial arrangements were more concerned with the threat of Bolshevism in the east and of German, Austrian and Hungarian revanchism than with strictly following the doctrine of self-determination.

This was reflected in their decision-making as many communities never got a chance to choose where they thought they belonged. In the case of Ukraine, buoyed by his continental allies, Wilson believed a unified Russia would be more likely to reverse the tide of Bolshevism — it didn’t, and the Soviet Union was founded in 1922.

Disregarding Wilson’s selective application of self-determination, peacemakers in Paris unwittingly laid the seeds for future independence movements through their endorsement of a people’s right to self-rule, including one that would haunt three of the US president’s successors many years later in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

After World War II, the splintering of the old European colonial empires led to an explosion of new countries. This transition was enshrined in the United Nation’s “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” intended to smooth the transition to self-governance.

However, due to the arbitrary nature of colonial cartography, many of the new nations were formed with latent divisions. When these cleavages became too deep, secession or independence movements became the next logical solution. This eventually led to a number of “territorial adjustments” to compensate for the capricious borders formed by colonial enterprises. This occurred, for example, in Bangladesh in 1971, East Timor in 2002 and South Sudan in 2011. This trend looks to be far from complete.

Kukes, Albania. Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

Kukes, Albania. Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

The Post-Cold War Era

When the Cold War ended, two of Wilson’s states of convenience quickly disintegrated when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia lost the glue that had bound them together: communism. Yugoslavia, which means the Land of Southern Slavs (a cruel irony for the embattled ethnic Albanian population who are not Slavic), dissolved in a series of bloody civil wars that led to the creation of seven successor states as well as the term “Balkanization” to describe such events.

The most recent independent state to emerge from the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, once an autonomous Serbian province, declared independence in 2008 after suffering years of violence at the hands of Serbs under Slobodan Milosevic. Putin now uses Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence as a precedent for the independence of several post-Soviet breakaway republics locked in frozen conflicts.

After the ideologically-fueled Cold War ended, identity politics, through the consolidation of nations of distinct peoples, were able to take root in common culture, language and history. The map of the world was no longer frozen by superpower conflict, and sub-national identities were able to come to the fore.

Today, the United Nations (UN) has 193 member states. As context, 51 countries joined the UN when it was founded in 1945. The surge in the number of independent nation states, now in the UN, was largely the result of decolonization and subsequent nationalist movements that arose in the wake of World War II.

The vast majority of these countries are democracies that have embraced political pluralism and have found some form of accommodation for regional minority groups. Usually this can be achieved through federalism, greater local autonomy or other power-sharing agreements. However, when accommodation fails, be it due to outright discrimination, historical sociopolitical differences or economic grievances, secession has become a commonly touted solution. Even in the United States, Texas has threatened secession over the way it perceived the federal government was running the country.

Secessionist Tendencies

Today, two parallel counterintuitive phenomena are taking place. One is the increasing self-realization of independence for small nations of people, in a world where conventional war between nation-states now rarely takes place and where borders can be protected by international law rather than solely a powerful central government. Secondly, states are binding themselves together in supranational organizations like the EU or Mercosur.

Therein lies the paradox: the demand for self-rule whilst recognizing that, if achieved, sovereignty will quickly be surrendered to supranational or global institutions via globalization and free trade. But culture, religion and history do matter and, as such, sub-nationalization is finally achievable in an age where threats are fewer (externally as well as internally) and these distinct identities are able to flourish, even as economic ties become stronger than ever.

Scotland, which will be voting on independence from the United Kingdom this September, wishes to still keep a common currency while binding itself to its former partner through the EU. Likewise, if Parti Québécois had gained a majority in the National Assembly of Québec, the province’s premier, Pauline Marois, would have liked to call for an independence referendum.

Calls for secession can be heard in Flanders, Catalan and northern Italy (Padania), as nationalists in these rich communities wish to sever ties with their mother states, whom they are tired of subsidizing, and break out on their own. Similar sentiments are found throughout Europe: in the Basque Country, Bavaria, Silesia, Corsica, Veneto, Sardinia and even Greenland.

Devolution has granted many of these regions the autonomy that is meant to provide greater self-rule and cultural preservation. However, autonomy is being used to set the stage for potential divorces across the globe. Identity may be a social construction, but shared history, politics, language and cultural ties to a strip of land, no matter how small — just ask Palestinians — are genuine to those who share them.

While this is taking place today in the Western world where peace and relative prosperity is fairly ensured, more contentious movements have emerged as disenfranchised peoples across the globe struggle for their independence. Both Somaliland and Puntland wish to separate from the fractured central government in Mogadishu. South Yemen, once an independent socialist state, is again the site of a burgeoning independence movement.

Today, Kurds remains the largest distinct ethnic group of people without their own state. China disavows separatism for fear that Tibetans or Uyghur will take heart. Western Sahara, in what the UN describes as a non-self governing territory, remains cut off from the rest of Morocco, while many people in resource-rich Balochistan want independence from Islamabad.

As national governments decline in importance due to shifting economic realities, the rise of identity politics, along with the spread of post-national institutions and peaceful coexistence, separatist movements will only become more frequent — as evidenced by the rise of regional independence movements.

Ultimately, and hopefully, it will be up to the people to decide their future (pending ad hoc international recognition based on the circumstances surrounding the case or mutual severing of ties approved by the parent state), whether they break out on their own.

This is a complex question beyond identity or economics, but it boils down to whether people feel part of a broader social community or if they feel the strongest ties at local levels. It should be noted, the number of countries in the global community has only had one trajectory since the end of colonization: up. For now, the trend toward secession looks to continue, but one rarely hears the phrase “amicable secession” used to describe such movements. One just needs to look at the Crimea, where there was never much doubt which way the people would vote, to see how divisive secessionism can become.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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