Secessionist And Autonomist Movements To Gain Major Momentum

BMI View: More countries will face separatist or autonomist pressures over the coming decade, and central versus federal tensions will remain a major source of political risk worldwide. However, significant obstacles to independence mean that few new sovereign states will emerge.

We expect many more countries to experience separatist pressures over the coming decade. Even in countries where secessionist movements do not exist or will fail, there will be demands for greater regional autonomy. This will be the case in virtually every region in the world.

There are scores of ethnic groups lacking their own sovereign states, as well as groups seeking autonomous regions in which they can better preserve their cultures, traditions, or relative wealth. One of the most powerful drivers of autonomy-seeking movements is the perception in relatively wealthy regions that they are having to sibsidise poorer regions, or that the central government is transferring resource-based wealth out of the region. There are also many ethnic populations that reside in countries adjacent to their titular 'homeland', to which they would like to belong. Even in homogenous countries where ethnic differences are not the issue, there will be more demands to decentralise power.

BMI View: More countries will face separatist or autonomist pressures over the coming decade, and central versus federal tensions will remain a major source of political risk worldwide. However, significant obstacles to independence mean that few new sovereign states will emerge.

We expect many more countries to experience separatist pressures over the coming decade. Even in countries where secessionist movements do not exist or will fail, there will be demands for greater regional autonomy. This will be the case in virtually every region in the world.

There are scores of ethnic groups lacking their own sovereign states, as well as groups seeking autonomous regions in which they can better preserve their cultures, traditions, or relative wealth. One of the most powerful drivers of autonomy-seeking movements is the perception in relatively wealthy regions that they are having to sibsidise poorer regions, or that the central government is transferring resource-based wealth out of the region. There are also many ethnic populations that reside in countries adjacent to their titular 'homeland', to which they would like to belong. Even in homogenous countries where ethnic differences are not the issue, there will be more demands to decentralise power.

No Country Wishes To Give Up Territory

The biggest fundamental obstacle to separatism is that very few countries, no matter how large, are willing to give up territory. National borders are generally considered sacrosanct, and peaceful separation requires a great deal of political maturity (in the case of Czechoslovakia's 'divorce' in 1993) or political bankruptcy (in the case of the Soviet Union in 1991) that is usually lacking. Most other national separations followed wars of independence. Most governments - correctly - regard the loss of territory as a loss of national power, or strategic depth, to the possible advantage of its rival states.

Governments' reluctance to give up territory is especially strong if the separatist territory has some strategic value or is rich in natural resources. That is why Russia fought so hard in the 1990s and 2000s to prevent tiny Chechnya from seceding; an independent Chechnya would have raised question marks about Russia's position in the energy-rich Caucasus region, not to mention its ability to control other parts of the Russian Federation. For similar reasons, China will not countenance independence for Tibet and Xinjiang. Beijing fears that an independent Tibet would align itself with its rival India. For its part, Xinjiang's proximity to Central Asia means that it is an essential gateway to a region rich in the resources that China so desperately needs. Meanwhile, small countries are by no means immune to separatism. Georgia, with a population of five million, has battled against several separatist regions since the 1990s, two of which - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - declared independence with Russian support in 2008. Some autonomist regions are surprisingly small, numbering tens of thousands of people.

Seven Drivers Of Separatism

In order for secessionist or autonomist movements to gain momentum or win independence, several conditions must be met.

Firstly, the separatist group needs to distinguish its population from that of the larger country. This can be emphasised through cultural, linguistic or religious characteristics. Whether outsiders recognise these distinctions is not the issue; so long as the separatist-minded community perceives itself as different, that is what matters. In some cases, suppressed national identities can reawaken after decades of quiet as a result of political change, internet activism, and diaspora support. Even very similar peoples, such as Serbs and Montenegrins, can end up splitting from a common state (in 2006).

A further source of internal instability emerges when the cultural identity of the country comes to be contested. For example, if the largest ethnic group comprises a plurality but not a majority of the population, and if there are other groups that alone make up more than 20% (for example), then there is scope for severe tensions and a move to war. Bosnia in the early 1990s was a case in point, with the Bosnian Muslims making up 45% of the population, Serbs 30%, and Croats 17%. Afghanistan is another example, with ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras having fought against the predominantly Pashtun Taliban movement. Thus, birth rates among different population groups need to be watched carefully for signs that demographic balances will be upset.

Secondly, the separatist community must perceive itself to be discriminated against, suppressed, or perhaps economically constrained by the state in which it lives, and must perceive itself as being better off through autonomy, independence, or merger with a neighbouring state. For example, Kurds in Turkey have long bemoaned the suppression of their language and culture by the state. As regards economic factors, ethnic separatist pressure in Yugoslavia was augmented by the fact that the wealthier republics of Slovenia and Croatia grew weary of subsidising poorer republics such as Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia, especially after Yugoslavia's financial crisis in the 1980s. Similarly, Italy's Northern League does not wish to pay for the development of poorer southern Italy. Elsewhere, Bolivia's resource-rich eastern regions nearly seceded in 2008, because they felt that they would be better off, economically. Scottish nationalists feel that their putative state would be richer if independence means control over North Sea oil resources.

Thirdly, control over resources can be a driver of separatism. All too often, commodity-rich regions feel that the central government is taking the lion's share of their wealth and not spending it in the region of extraction. This is evident in Angola's Cabinda exclave, Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta, various regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan's Baluchistan province, China's Xinjiang province and several Indonesian provinces, among others. Unsurprisingly, the presence of natural resources makes the central government less willing to let the region go its own way.

Fourthly, there must be popular support for separation, ideally proven by a referendum. Of the world's newest sovereign states, East Timor (2002), Montenegro (2006), and South Sudan (2011) all held referenda, while in the case of Kosovo, there was no need for one, because public support for independence was overwhelming and undisputed. Attempts at secessionism failed in Quebec (1980 and 1995) and are likely to fail in Scotland in September 2014, because public support is insufficient. In the vast majority of the separatist regions we examined, anecdotal reports suggested that locals preferred greater autonomy to outright independence.  

Fifthly, the separatists may have to wage an armed struggle - one that could last for years, if not decades - if they wish to break away from a repressive state. To this end, they may also need covert or overt backing from an external power. Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo all waged wars to secede from Yugoslavia in the 1990s and received military and intelligence support from the West, while South Sudan had to fight for many years for independence from Sudan.  

Sixthly, the separatists will need the diplomatic support of the 'Great Powers', if their state is to be recognised as a sovereign entity. 'Great Power' recognition is typically arbitrary, often reflecting their strategic interests. Former Yugoslav republics quickly won backing from Western states, but the international community has not recognised Somalia's breakaway republic of Somaliland, Georgia's breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Crimea's secession from Ukraine. This contradiction has raised ire in Russia, and in places where separatism does not suit Western interests - for example, in northern Iraq, where many Kurds favour independence, and in the Palestinian territories.

A seventh factor, albeit rare, is for the host state to collapse, thereby conferring separation on a territory. Although most Soviet republics favoured independence from Moscow in 1991, attitudes were more cautious in Belarus and several Central Asian republics in 1991. The Soviet Union's collapse thus forced independence upon them. Similarly, the collapse of Iraq could force independence on its constituent parts.

Below, we have published a table of most of the world's known autonomist or separatist movements. Many of them have been active to varying degrees for decades, reflecting the fact that post-colonial national or internal borders were not drawn with local communities in mind. Many of the groups are also little known outside their own countries. Overall, we have sought to avoid including extremely fringe movements (for example, Mexican-American separatists). Nonetheless, we caution that there is scope for more separatist movements to emerge, especially as the growing use of the internet is allowing 'forgotten' peoples to rediscover their identities and better organise themselves.

Countries Facing Secessionist Or Autonomy Movements
Country Separatist Region/Group Present Status Likelihood Of Secession
Angola Cabinda Peace deal signed in August 2006; Cabinda granted special status Low
Cameroon Southern Cameroons Anglophones in south-west favour own state Low
Central African Rep. Northern region Muslim fighters favour separate homeland Medium
Congo, Dem. Rep. North and South Kivu (autonomy) Ongoing violence, which is more gang-like than political Low
  Katanga province Decades-old separatist movement, still active Low
Cote d'Ivoire Northern region North-South divisions aimed at controlling state rather than secession Low
Ethiopia Afar (autonomy) Ongoing low-level conflict for autonomy Low
  Ogaden (autonomy) Ogaden National Liberation Front waging long-term low-level insurgency since 1984; region has ethnic Somalis Low
  Oromia Rising Oromo nationalism; Oromos seeking greater rights; protests in May 2014 Low
Kenya Mombasa (Mombasa Republican Council) MRC pursuing ongoing separatist campaign Low
Mali Touareg rebels/'Azawad' (autonomy) Algeria hosting negotiations Low
Nigeria Bakassi (autonomy) Bakassi people reject plan to be transferred to Cameroon; declared autonomy in Aug 2012 Low
  Biafra (autonomy) Remnants of short-lived Biafran Republic (1967-70) still favour separatism Low
  Efik (autonomy) Efik people in Cross River state seek own unit Low
  Niger Delta Region (autonomy) Ongoing low-level conflict involving Ijaw and Ogoni people Low
  Yoruba states/'Oduduwa' (autonomy) Six Yoruba states in southwest favour merging into larger federal entity Low
Senegal Casamance Unilateral rebel ceasefire since April 2014 Low
Somalia Central State (autonomy) Galmudug declared autonomy in 2006; Govt endorsed Central State in July 2014 Low
  Jubaland (autonomy) Declared autonomy Low
  Puntland (autonomy) Declared autonomy in 1998 Low
  Somaliland Declared independence in 1991; unrecognised De facto separated
Sudan Darfur (autonomy) Ongoing violence Low
Tanzania Zanzibar Uamsho (Awakening) Islamic group seeks independence Low
Uganda Buganda (autonomy, land, power) Memorandum of Understanding signed in Aug. 2013, but tensions linger Low
Zambia Barotseland/Western Province (autonomy) Decades-old autonomous movement; key leaders tried in court in 2013 Low
Afghanistan Northern Afghanistan Ongoing tensions between Tajiks and Uzbeks in north and Pashtuns in south; no formal moves towards partition Low
Bangladesh Bangabhumi Hindu separatists declared symbolic republic in 2003; no activity since then Low
  Chittagong Hill Tracts (autonomy) Peace accord signed in 1997; ongoing violence between Bengali settlers and local tribespeople Low
China Taiwan China regards Taiwan as breakaway province; most Taiwanese favour status quo; recent years have seen major improvement in relations De facto separated
  Tibet Occasional clashes; post-Dalai Lama generation could be more militant Low
  Xinjiang Ongoing terror campaign; occasional major ethnic clashes Low
India Assam Ongoing low-level separatist conflict Low
  Bodoland Ongoing low-level separatist conflict Low
  Kashmir Occasional tensions with Pakistan; India will not allow Kashmir to secede Low
  Khalistan (Sikh homeland) Sikh separatists largely marginalised since early 1990s; some diaspora support Low
  Nagaland Ongoing low-level separatist conflict Low
Indonesia Aceh Insurgency ended with peace deal in Aug. 2005 Low
  Kalimantan Major ethnic violence in 1999-2000; subsequently quiet Low
  Maluku/'South Maluku Republic' Decades-old separatist movement, mainly exiled in Netherlands Low
  Riau Short-lived separatist conflict in 1999-2000; subsequently dormant Low
  West Papua Ongoing low-level separatist conflict Low
Kazakhstan Russian-populated northern region No sign of secessionism; possible unrest under post-Nazarbayev nationalist regime Low
Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan Fergana valley Ethnically divided region could face border conflicts once current leaders leave office Low
Myanmar Arakan, Kachin, Karen, Shan, Wa groups (autonomy) Decades-old ethnic separatist movements; ceasefire in place with government; no drive towards independence Low
Nepal Various regions (autonomy) Plans under way to adopt federal system following end of civil war in 2006 Low
New Caledonia (France) New Caledonia Referendum expected in 2014-2018 High
Pakistan Baluchistan Ongoing low-level separatist conflict Low
  Pashtunistan' Unofficial movement to merge Pakistan and Afghan Pashtuns into single state Low
  Sindhudesh' Largely dormant separatist movement Low
  Waziristan, North & South Ongoing Islamist insurgency; government offensives against militants Low
Papua New Guinea Bougainville Peace deal signed in 2001; independence referendum planned for 2015-2020 High
Philippines Bangsamoro (autonomy) Peace deal signed in March 2014 after decades of conflict Low
  Federal units (autonomy) Ongoing discussions to establish federal government system Low
Sri Lanka Tamil region (autonomy) LTTE rebellion crushed in 2009; negotiations continue over devolution of powers Low
Thailand Southern provinces (autonomy) Low-level Muslim insurgency since 2004; no end in sight Low
Uzbekistan Karakalpakstan Separatism could emerge, once Pres. Karimov leaves office Low
Vietnam Central Highlands (land rights) Large presence of ethnic minorities; land disputes, but no unrest since 2001 and 2004 Low
  Northwestern region (autonomy) Government quashed gathering of Hmong Christian separatists in May 2011 Low
Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh Under Armenian occupation since 1994; periodic tensions and skirmishes De facto separated
Belgium Flemish and Walloon regions Flemish parties saw big gains in 2014 election; some favour merger with Netherlands Low
Bosnia Republika Srpska Widespread support for RS independence, but US and EU will not allow secession Low
Cyprus Northern Cyprus Occupied by Turkey since 1974; unrecognised Low
Denmark Greenland Locals voted for greater autonomy in 2008; Prime Minister favours eventual sovereignty Medium
Georgia Abkhazia Declared independence in 2008; unrecognised De facto separated
  South Ossetia Declared independence in 2008; unrecognised De facto separated
  Javakheti (autonomy) Ethnic Armenian region seeks autonomy Low
Italy Northern League (autonomy) Wealthier northern regions increasingly fed up of subsidising under-developed south Low
  South Tyrol Culturally Germanic region; Italy's fiscal crisis boosting nationalist sentiment Low
Kosovo Northern Kosovo (autonomy) Ethnic Serbs favour autonomy or separation Low
Macedonia Ethnic Albanian regions Insurgency in 2001; ethnic tensions persist Low
Moldova Gagauzia (autonomy) Turkic Christian region; referendum held in Feb 2014 on political preferences Low
  Taraclia county (autonomy) Ethnic Bulgarian-majority district sought greater political and cultural autonomy in early 2014 Low
  Transnistria De facto independent since 1992; Transnistria has full Russian backing De facto separated
Poland Silesia (autonomy) Rising (though still low) demands for autonomy Low
Romania Transylvania (autonomy) Ongoing calls for autonomy by ethnic Hungarians; no formal separatist movement Low
Russia North Caucasus republics/Caucasus Emirate Active Islamist insurgency since 1990s in Chechnya, Dagestan, and since late 2000s in Ingushetia, Kabardino Balkaria; local Circassians favour unified titular republic Low
  Tatarstan (autonomy) Fears of Islamisation of Tatar nationalists Low
Serbia Presevo Valley (autonomy) Ethnic Albanian-majority region; ongoing separatist sentiment Low
  Sandzak (autonomy) Muslim-majority region; ongoing calls for autonomy Low
  Vojvodina (autonomy) Ongoing campaign for more autonomy Low
Spain Basque region Ongoing separatist campaign; ETA terrorism has faded Low
  Catalonia Eurozone crisis boosting separatism; referendum (non-binding) due in November 2014 Low
Turkey Kurdish region (autonomy) PKK insurgency since 1980s on pause; Govt has been negotiating with PKK to improve Kurdish rights Low
Ukraine Crimea Seceded from Ukraine in March 2014; annexed by Russia Secession unrecognised internationally
  Eastern region (autonomy) Russian-backed insurgency since April 2014 Medium
  Subcarpathian Rus Small Rusyn (Ruthene) separatist movement Low
United Kingdom Northern Ireland Largely peaceful since Good Friday Agreement in 1998 Low
  Scotland Referendum in Sep 2014; 'No' vote likely to prevail Low
Bolivia Santa Cruz (autonomy) Bolivia was on brink of civil war in 2008; stable since then Low
Chile Araucania/Mapuche homeland Indigenous Mapuches seek return of ancestral lands; Bachelet administration has promised more conciliatory approach Low
Iran Azerbaijani regions North West Iran has substantial Azeri population; little separatist sentiment Low
  Khuzestan Ethnic Arab region has seen unrest; last incident was 2011 Low
Iraq Kurdistan Regional Government Kurdistan has long been de facto independent; Iraq break-up could yield new Kurdish state Medium
  Islamic State Islamic State's caliphate declaration in 2014 threatens Iraq's survival Medium
Israel Palestinian Territories Israel, backed by US, refuses to accept Palestinian statehood Low
Libya Cyrenaica, Fezzan (autonomy) Libya on brink of civil war Medium
Morocco Western Sahara Under Moroccan occupation since 1970s; ongoing deadlock Low
Saudia Arabia Eastern Arabia Shi'a East could see future uprising, backed by Iran Low
Syria Islamic State-held regions Government has lost de facto control of some regions to rebels Medium
  Alawite state Speculation about Alawites seceding, if Assad regime falls Low
Yemen Southern region National Dialogue Conference agreed to federalisation, but no single entity for South Medium
Canada Quebec Separatism is at low ebb Low
Source: BMI, international media. N/A = Not Applicable/Not Available.

Few Separatist Movements Meet The Key Criteria

Most of the dozens of separatist movements worldwide meet only a few of the conditions for separation, and we consequently see only a low likelihood of a significant number of new states emerging over the coming decade. The most probable ones are Bougainville in Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia. Medium-probability new states include Greenland, Iraqi Kurdistan, eastern Libya, and South Yemen.

How a country responds to separatism depends very much on the character of the state. Authoritarian Yugoslavia fought hard to keep parts of Croatia and Bosnia under its control, but democratic Serbia accepted Montenegro's peaceful secession (Belgrade opposed Kosovo's independence in 2008, but did not wish to go to war again after suffering heavy NATO airstrikes on behalf of Kosovo separatists in 1999). Meanwhile, democratic Czechoslovakia did not fight to stay together, and democratic Canada and the UK are unlikely to resort to military measures to prevent Quebec and Scotland, respectively, from becoming independent. However, democracy alone does not guarantee tolerance for separatism, and this is evident from Turkey's attitudes towards its Kurdish population, Sri Lanka's 30-year fight against Tamil separatists, and Israel's opposition to a Palestinian state.

In The Absence Of Separatism, Autonomy Movements Will Gain Momentum

Not all separatist-minded regions or movements will necessarily seek independence. Many are merely demanding greater autonomy, as this would allow them to meet their main needs without the risks associated with establishing a new sovereign state - for example, setting up a new constitution, currency, armed forces, etc, and dividing up national assets and debt.

A major deterrent to establishing sovereignty is that new states often succumb to war, because the terms of their separation may not have been fully resolved at the time of independence, or because new, inexperienced leaders of freshly declared states do not have the political skills to manage outstanding disputes peacefully. Matters are exacerbated if the new states are in the process of democratising and thus politically immature. In such circumstances, electorates may easily be won over by populist, nationalist leaders who deliberately or through ineptitude choose a path of war. This was the case for Armenia and Azerbaijan, which immediately went to war when they became independent from the USSR in 1991. Georgia and Tajikistan both succumbed to civil wars after independence, while Moldova experienced a short separatist conflict in Transnistria. Elsewhere, other new states such as Eritrea, and South Sudan also went to war after becoming independent.

Overall, the desire for local self-government or regional autonomy will increase in times of economic hardship, as local citizens will be tempted to blame the central government for their problems. For example, the severity of the eurozone's economic crisis appears to have bolstered Catalan separatism in Spain, Flemish separatism in Belgium, and fiscal autonomist tendencies in South Tyrol in Austria. Even in homogenous countries such as Japan, one major opposition party has proposed amalgamating Japan's 47 prefectures into around nine super-regions with greater autonomy to spur regional development.

Even in countries which already have a federal model, separatist tendencies can emerge within federal states. For example, in June 2014, India officially created its 29 th state, Telangana, from Andhra Pradesh after years of political lobbying. Other Indian states, such as Uttar Pradesh (India's most populous state with 200mn people), are subject to proposals to break them up into smaller units. Similarly, the US state of California has several lobbying groups that favour splitting the state into at least two entities, ostensibly for the purposes of improving governance. Critics of plans to divide Indian or US states into smaller entities argue that the new states will lead to more bureaucracy. Federalism is also a major political issue in Nigeria, with the National Conference held in early 2014 proposing the creation of 18 new states, bringing the total to 54. However, some states, such as six Yoruba-populated states in southwestern Nigeria, advocate merging into a larger federal entity to better defend Yoruba interests from the federal government.

Mega Urban Regions To Gain Greater Prominence

As the world becomes more urbanised, and as more megacities (cities with more than 10mn people) emerge, we also expect to see greater moves by municipal authorities to acquire more political power, both domestically (i.e. from the national government), and internationally (for example, city leaders will increasingly travel abroad, seeking new business and investment from foreign companies). ( See 'Mega-Urban Regions: Investment Opportunties And Risks', June 23, 2008.) Meanwhile, as large cities become more powerful, they could prompt greater resentment from rural areas. Several world cities, such as London, Paris, Tokyo, and Seoul, have such a dominant position in their economy that their critics argue that their power and prosperity have come at the expense of the rest of their countries. This, in turn, is fuelling demands for greater regional autonomy.

The rise of mega urban regions does not mean that the world is heading for a period of city-states. Rural hinterlands will remain important, and the concept of the nation-state will remain strong, given the lack of viable alternatives.     

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