Secessionists On The March, From Scotland And Catalonia To Eastern Ukraine And Iraq… And Beyond

How many new countries are likely to emerge over the next 10 years? Since 2000, we have seen only four that have been widely recognised, namely East Timor (Timor Leste) in 2002, Montenegro in 2006, Kosovo in 2008, and South Sudan in 2011. However, it is quite possible that we will see at least as many over the next 10 years. Scotland is unlikely to be one of them, but Catalonia has a better chance. The Catalans aim to hold a non-binding independence referendum in November 2014, only two months after the Scottish referendum. Elsewhere, there are many secessionist movements active around the world. Perhaps the most geopolitically pressing is the future of the Kurds, who are one of the world's largest ethnic groups without their own sovereign state, as they are spread across Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. There is widespread opposition amongst the world powers and Middle Eastern states to the emergence of a Kurdish state, but that doesn't mean that one will not emerge, especially if Iraq or Syria fragments further.

Six Drivers Of Secessionism

Overall, in order for secessionist movements to gain momentum, several conditions must be met.

  • Firstly, the separatist group needs to distinguish its population from that of the host country. This can be emphasised through cultural, linguistic or religious characteristics. Whether outsiders recognise these distinctions is not the issue; so long as the separatists perceive themselves as different, that is what matters.
  • Secondly, the separatist community must perceive itself to be discriminated against or suppressed by the state in which it lives, and must perceive itself as being politically or economically better off through independence or merger with a neighbouring state.
  • Thirdly, there must be popular support for separation, ideally proven by a referendum.
  • Fourthly, if the separatists seek to break away from a repressive state, they may have to wage an armed struggle. To this end, they may also need covert backing from an external power.
  • Fifthly, the separatists will need the diplomatic support of the Great Powers, if their state is to be recognised as a sovereign entity.
  • A sixth factor, albeit rare, is for the host state to collapse, thereby conferring separation on a territory. This was the case with Belarus and several Central Asian republics in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.

Most of the dozens of separatist movements worldwide meet only a few of the above conditions, and we consequently see only a low likelihood of a large number of new states emerging over the coming decade.

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). Meanwhile, democratic Czechoslovakia did not fight to stay together, and the democratic UK would be unlikely to resort to military measures to prevent Scotland 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.

The possible emergence of new states is a topic that we will be exploring in more detail in Business Monitor Online over the coming weeks.