The Stateless as Start-Ups – Is There a ‘Right’ Way of Becoming Independent?

The world is full of small political units aspiring to become full-fledged nation-states, with a government, sovereignty, their own currency, anthem, flag, a seat in the U.N. and in other international organizations, new license plates, inherent country extensions, etc.

In Europe alone it is not only proud Catalonia. Scotland is considering a new referendum, and Kosovo is still striving for full sovereignty, as is Macedonia. Northern Italy and southern Tyrol, the components of Belgium, two eastern provinces of Ukraine, three separatist units in Georgia – all of them are exercising Sinatra’s motto of doing it ‘my way’. Beyond Europe, there is the Rakhine state in Myanmar from which the Rohingyas are currently being expelled, as well as Tibet and Xingiang, there is also the issue of Kashmir, of Aceh in Indonesia, of Quebec in Canada, the recent referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, and so on.

With rare exceptions (the dissolution of old Czechoslovakia), these calls for more autonomy or even secession provoke violent reactions from the host state. One reason is that we do not really have clear guidelines as to, if, and under what conditions, such processes can and should be implemented. The right of self-determination – guaranteed by the U.N. – does not provide criteria and procedural recommendations. The respective host state rarely is cooperative. The international community often looks the other way.

What would be good principles to act in cases where culturally defined minorities (mostly inspired by their elites) want to leave their host states?

 Klaus Segbers

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  1. Ivanna Machitidze 1 year ago

    Judging from the events that are now undergoing in Catalonia, to my opinion, the process of divorce (in case it is decided upon) would be peaceful in case dissolution is based on mutually agreed principles, as in case of Czechoslovakia. While ignoring this approach, the host states and minorities will not be able to find the common approach. Taking into account Spain’s history and background of relations between its central government and Catalonia, the Basque country or Galicia, it is of foremost importance to balance the policies envisaging presence of autonomous rights with the preservation of the authority of the constitution. The current government cannot bear full responsibility for the past but it could avoid increase in tensions and violence through establishing dialogue on different levels, system of round tables, people-to-people communication, information campaigns that will contribute in the long run to peaceful coexistence of the host state and its culturally defined minorities.

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  2. Alexei Voskressenski 1 year ago

    We have now a strange and sad situation: instead of thinking how to overcome the crises and make the life of ordinary people better we are witnessing the struggle between different segments and clans of political elite in many countries. Total monopolization of political life by mainstream political establishment which insists on controlling everything without any political compromises on how to change economic and political models can not propose a decent outcome out of economic and political deadlocks. These politics ignite political radicalism in a form of separatism among other populist measures. Ordinary people who are sick of economic and political problems are unable to understand that they are puppets in the hands of certain political groups. The populist recipe of separation that proposes a better future may result in a tragic hang off when ordinary people realise that they are betrayed by these irresponsible political groups. So, the answer lays maybe in a Confucian formula of "correcting the names" (zheng ming) - making politics moral and sincere again? But who among the modern politicians can afford it? Some managed even to win elections but unable to follow their pre election slogans and change the life of the people to the better.

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  3. Thilo Bodenstein 1 year ago

    What is the optimal number and size of nations? Economists Alberto Alesina and Enrico Spolaore published an influential paper where they argue that democracy and trade openness lead to more and smaller nations which is less efficient. Larger countries can more efficiently provide public goods such as law and order, health and welfare systems, and even football leagues. But the benefits of size are reduced by the costs of more (cultural) heterogeneity. There are also global public goods – climate change, global inequality, financial market stability – where states have to deliver solutions. A larger number of states will be less able to deliver these goods. Thus separatists should explain how the delivery of public goods is not harmed by an additional state. As a minimum requirement they should offer compensation to the rest of us who have to pay more for local and global public good provision. The ‘exit tax’ will be prohibitive in many cases, but this only shows that the size of a long-existing democratic state is efficient and concerns over heterogeneity can be solved otherwise. If you don’t believe it, think where FC Barcelona will play in the long run.

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  4. Sergei Medvedev 1 year ago

    Unfortunately there are no good principles for obtaining independence in today's international community, as stressed in the seminal article "Two Concepts of Sovereignty" written in the wake of the Kosovo war by the then UNSG Kofi Annan. The world is split and stalled between the two contravening principles of territorial integrity and the right of self-determination. Each time, the international community rules on the ad hoc basis, judging on the principle of convenience and damage limitation. Significant number of victims in the conflict over independence does play a role, as well as the will of the international community to punish and weaken the host state. Kosovo and East Timor were judged worthy of independence, Catalonia not -- probably because there are no human lives in danger, and Spain is a more respected member of the international community than Indonesia or Milosevic's Serbia. The situation does not look promising for aspiring states in a world ruled by force, custom and cynical calculation rather than by principle.

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  5. Justas Paleckis 1 year ago

    The dissolution of the old Czechoslovakia is a really good, but a unitary example. The host state was only slightly larger than the smaller political unit, Slovakia, and both nations had roughly the same rights in a democratic state before separation. Other cases are much more complicated. The international community should support the aspirations of autonomy when the hosting state is undemocratic, oppressing minorities. And separation could be maintained only if all other measures were exhausted. The Baltic States have separated themselves from the undemocratic Soviet Union by peaceful means. But now, support for the independence of Catalonia is not high in them. People are aware that Spain is now in a completely different situation compared to the USSR several decades ago.

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  6. Anastasia Wischnewskaja 1 year ago

    The principle of the right of a people to self-determination is one of the hardest disputed and contested constructs in the international law. It is frequently equalized with the right to found an independent state, but this is wrong. The right to self-determination means, that cultural, linguistic and religious rights of peoples must be protected WITHIN a state, no matter how many ethno-cultural groups live within the national borders. On the other hand, most of the separatist movements are not full-fledged secessionist movements i.e. they do not aspire independence, but just a broader autonomy, like the cases of Tibet of Xinjiang show. If these demands are satisfied, problem is solved in some 90% of cases of separatism. Another group of cases is formed by those, where – as it is implied in the question – independence is mostly aspired by the elites, who do not feel integrated into the national elites or want to play a bigger role. This is where formal steps like federalization or creation of minorities’ ministerial position might help to cater to the egos of instigators and common minorities’ people alike. The smallest group is the one, where formal independence is the best solution out of a bunch of terrible ones, like in South Sudan, where bloodshed became unbearable. In order to not make the fate of South Sudan or Kosovo attractive to other regions, the formal principle should be, that in case of proclaimed independence the regions would be put for 50 or so years under external administration by World Bank or UN – this would make independence the least attractive option for restive minorities’ elites.

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  7. Ivanna Didur 1 year ago

    When provinces initiate separation, the reason is usually flavoured with cultural factors. However, usually there is a far more simple reason. Provinces initiating independence are usually wealthy and influential ones willing to have more power. In the recent succession examples Iraqi Kurdistan holds significant oil reserves, and Catalonia is estimated to account for a fifth of Spain’s GDP.

    Hence, it is the state’s interest that movements to succession are handled extremely carefully. It is important to clarify who (what elites and groups) are initiating ‘self-determination’ and what is being determined. Allowing a degree of autonomy in the determination of internal affairs is the first step in the dialogue. Providing considerable cultural, economic, and political autonomy to constitutive groups (examples of Switzerland and Belgium) of the province could help to solve the tensions. Such responses to the challenges of succession will form a new and required type of sovereignty for democracies.

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  1. Alejandro 1 year ago

    This article and the questions it rises are BS and consistent with the double-faced mentality of the German State, and the European Union for that matter. There was no referendum on October 1, but a joke. That you even consider the result of that "referendum" as a binding or at least legitimate result is scary and it shows the lack of solidarity among EU states. Let it all be said, we will see how will your reaction be if tomorrow Babiera was to rise up against the German Constitution and ignore the German law.
    The EU should protect the integrity and unity of its Nations,e specially when we talk about the oldest Nation in Europe.

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  2. Tathagata Sarkar 1 year ago

    The integrity and unity of the EU nations and their protection, though important, is not as important as protecting the right to self-determination when people feel that their culture, language, and way of life is threatened by a state. It is also not the point of this article.
    The article raises a very pertinent question that requires a very nuanced answer from both the international community and the individual state. In any nation of any size there generally is a section of minority that feels left-out or oppressed. Their attempt at righting these wrongs can take many shape including demanding more autonomy, seeking independence through referundum, and even a call to arms.
    Though not perfect, it might be interesting to look at how India deals with such issues where a section of the country demands self-determination for themselves, and I am not talking about Kashmir but rather other parts of India that do not involve other nations supporting and helping such a region. The instance of the creation of the state of Telengana in southern India in the recent past is an example of how a region demanded self-determination and the nation finally allowed the creation of a new autonomous region within the larger state. It did take a long time for the people and the elites of Telengana to get the autonomy that they wanted and there was some violence involved, but the whole process was markedly peaceful.
    There needs to be guidelines for situations like Catalonia, where people and elites are demanding more autonomy, but the EU needs to be aware of issues arising from making the seeking of independence an easy option. A larger nation has more stability than a smaller nation, but it is in the interest of the host nation and the international community that demands for self-determination and the urge to maintain the integrity of the old nation does not lead to a fragmented and unstable nation.

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