By Glen M.E. Duerr, Guest Blogger
Secessionist claims are seemingly widespread these days. From Catalonia to Iraqi Kurdistan to New Caledonia, secessionists across the world are increasingly beating the drumbeats of independence. In particular, two regions of the world are particularly at risk for increased secessionist agitation, and possible schism of some of their national states: Western Europe and the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. But, not only is it possible that one subnational unit will become independent, the likelihood of a contagion effect spreading across the entire region is plausible, and has some historical support.
Although state dissolution, secession, and decolonization are qualitatively different, they are all modes from which former subnational units have become de jure, independent states. Moreover, there are specific points in time when literally dozens of states gained their independence in a short period. Three common components lead to these changes: a galvanizing event in a specific geographic region, increased agitation on the part of numerous independence movements against their state or colonial power, and then a spillover of events from neighboring countries.
For example, from 1991 to 1995, three multinational federations in Eastern Europe splintered into 22 new countries. The galvanizing event was the fall of communism, agitation increased as ethnic identity once again rose to prominence in the backdrop of perestroika and glasnost, and then secessionist activities starting in the Soviet Union also developed in Yugoslavia, and then Czechoslovakia. By the time the dust settled, the 1995 map of Eastern Europe was radically different from 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.
To cite another example, almost all of the countries in northern and central Africa gained their independence from 1956 to 1963. The primary galvanizing event was, in large measure, the Algerian War of independence, which sparked widespread colonial withdrawal from the continent, with the exception of much of southern Africa. Critics might argue that the downfall of colonialism was inevitable, but why did it happen at that time? The end of World War II would have been a much more obvious time to decolonize, but even archaic institutions can muddle through long past their due date. Sometimes a specific galvanizing event can impact an entire region.
Both Western Europe and the MENA region are in similar situations to the aforementioned cases. In Western Europe, Catalonia’s largest political grouping, Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes), along with a smaller, far-left political party, CUP, voted in support of creating an independent Catalan state by 72 votes to 63 last month. Their overarching goal is to exit the Spanish state in 2017. Although the Scottish independence referendum of September 2014 failed, the Scottish National Party then won 56 of 59 seats in the British general election in May, and is currently poised to win another majority in the Scottish Parliament in May 2016. This, coupled with a Brexit from the EU, would likely lead to independence. Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie, a pro-independence political party in Flanders, is currently part of the Belgian coalition government, but has made governing the country very difficult in recent years. At some point, the party will likely demand a seventh state reform in Belgium (since 1970) in exchange for governing the country, which could further weaken the structure of Belgium, and increase the power of the largest regions: Flanders and Wallonia. At some point, Belgium could exist only as a shell of a state. On top of the three most well-known cases, there is a smorgasbord of other examples such as Corsica, Brittany, Veneto, Galicia, and the Basque Country among others. The good news for the national states of Western Europe is that the economic downturn in Europe has not served as a primary galvanizing event. However, given the reverberations of the European Union’s potential demise, or restructuring in light of a Grexit or Brexit, this may lead to the secession of one, which, in turn, will likely vitalize secessionists in neighboring countries.
In the MENA region, the galvanizing event of the Arab Spring, along with the backdrop of the Iraq War, has readied the region for a potential splintering. The independence of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011 might be viewed, in hindsight, as the first step in a major shift of the region. At least three other states are increasingly unstable. For example, in Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan effectively governs itself, and is, for all intents and purposes, a de facto independent state. If ISIS is further debilitated, Iraqi Kurds will be strongly positioned to take credit for this success, and independence could be the prize—especially now that Turkey increasingly views this option as palatable. Further partition between majority Sunni and majority Shia areas might make sense in order to better govern Iraq, and reduce violence by enacting more local governance structures. It might also be the best option for the international community to stop the rise of another ISIS-like group. Libya is currently governed by two different “governments” in different parts of the country, with bases in Tripoli and Tobruk. Although Libya is comprised of a very complex patchwork of tribes, three distinct territories—Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan—existed prior to the creation of the Kingdom of Libya in 1951. The existing borders could be redrawn to reflect the old map. In Syria, the four and a half year civil war has numerous different questions. What will a post-civil war Syria look like? Will Bashar al-Assad maintain power? Since both internal and external actors vehemently disagree on the answers to these questions, the possibility of schism is heightened. In order to save face, it is not outside the realm of possibilities that Russia and the United States will support dividing the country; for Russia, it would keep Bashar al-Assad in power in the west, just as Putin has promised; for the United States, the rest of Syria could move forward without al-Assad as leader. Even though the scenario of formal schism is a challenging conception, in reality, Libya, Iraq, and Syria, are already divided into several different parts, and de facto governed by several different leaders. In some respects, the contagion effect is already underway.
Secession is, unquestionably, a complex event. The basic tenets of separate language, ethnicity and/or religion, combined with increased collective grievances, often start to drive a people group within a bounded territory to push against the existing state structures. These core grievances are often perpetuated by a separatist leader replete with a political party, or larger group of support (in violent cases, a militia). Secessionist aspirations, for the most part, build over time. But, there are also cases wherein a region gains independence somewhat unwittingly, without a war, even without a vote. Several republics in the USSR, for example, did not agitate for the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and wanted its continuation even throughout 1991. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia came without a plebiscite, and was instead decided by a vote in parliament. Sometimes secession can happen almost by accident.
Secession also tends to happen in tandem with other secessions. Rarely do states gain independence without a contagion effect in its region. East Timor’s independence in 2002 is an exception, as is Eritrea in 1993. Even Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008 came on the heels of Montenegro’s independence in 2006. At least in recent decades, most new states are created when the prevailing ideologies and structures of the wider region are also challenged. Buttressed by movements for autonomy and/or independence, new states often emerge together.
Although major world events are in general notoriously difficult predict, including secession, there is a growing ripeness for secession to occur somewhere, and for a contagion effect to take place in both Western Europe and the MENA region. Unless governments better accommodate subnational groups, or restructure to address the grievances, the lingering danger of further secessionist agitation exists; having said that, providing autonomy can also facilitate further secessionist agitation, so governments should be wary of changing prematurely. The key to national unity might be listening to concerns and making enough modest adjustments to pacify secessionist fervor in the short and medium terms; providing autonomy, yet also gluing the country together through shared institutions may be the most optimal. Secessionist agitation is rising around the world, and galvanizing events may already be in progress. In the short term, the MENA region could fracture quite dramatically; in the medium term, older states of Western Europe might splinter in the same way if secessionist demands are not pacified soon—an unexpected galvanizing event might be just around the corner.