The Five Biggest Myths About Secession

With the ongoing tension over Russia’s annexation of Crimea, now would be a good time to talk about the biggest myths people believe about the origins of secessionist movements around the world (even though Crimea is a case of irredentism not secessionism).

  1. Myth: Secession is contagious. Back in the 1990s, journalists worried a lot that the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Ethiopia heralded some broader worldwide trend toward the splintering of the state. Even some scholars indulged talk of our “neomedieval” future of microstates. Now, with secession referendums in Scotland and Catalonia on the docket, a secessionist party gaining support in Quebec, that online referendum in Veneto, and recent events in the post-Soviet space, I’m seeing similar questions about whether this is a new “trend.”

    Fact: Secession happens because of particular circumstances, not contagion. Scholars have looked at the evidence every which way, and in no case have they found evidence that secessionism spreads from country to country. The classic piece here is Ayres and Saideman (2000). I have also looked at the data in detail. The most one can say is that: 1) if a country has more secessionist movements, then any given ethnic group or region in that same country is more likely to become secessionist; 2) if an ethnic kin group in a neighboring country is secessionist, then an ethnic group is more likely to become secessionist (e.g., Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, & Syria); and 3) governments may worry somewhat about the precedents they establish when recognizing successful secessions (see Coggins (2011) – one example is Spain’s refusal to recognize Kosovo).

  2. Myth: Secession is an exercise of the right to self-determination enshrined in international law. Would-be secessionists sometimes point to the UN Charter’s statements on self-determination to argue that their central governments are legally bound to recognize their claims.

    Fact: The right of self-determination was never meant to apply to secessionists in the classic sense. The UN Charter did not originally affirm a right to self-determination as against existing states. Only in 1960 did the UN General Assembly pass a resolution authorizing independence for colonial peoples. Since that date, the UN has maintained a list of “non-self-governing territories” with a right to self-determination, that is, a right to determine their own status by plebiscite, whether independence or autonomy. Some of these, like Puerto Rico, have opted for autonomy. Still, the right to self-determination in the UN Charter and in international law was meant only to apply to cases of decolonization, and to cases of secession in which the right to colonial self-determination had not been recognized (as in East Timor, which Indonesia had conquered after its withdrawal from the Portuguese Empire). What counts as a colony? The “salt water test” applies: a territory is a colony/non-self-governing territory only if it is separated from its metropole by sea. According to UN Resolution 1541, a colony is “a territory which is geographically separate and is distinct ethnically and/or culturally from the country administering it.” This may be an arbitrary criterion from many perspectives, but it is the standard in international law.

  3. Myth: A distinct ethnic or cultural identity is what determines whether a region will host a secessionist movement. I cannot count the number of times I have seen Internet commenters casually assert that because Crimea is majority ethnic Russian, it must have a majority in support of joining Russia. The notion that a separate ethnic identity in a region causes secessionism there is widespread among laypersons.

    Fact: Although a separate ethnic identity is close to a necessary condition, the economic and political benefits of independence are what determine whether a region will host a secessionist movement. Plenty of ethnically distinctive regions do not host secessionist movements. In Belgium, Dutch-speaking Flanders is fairly secessionist, but hardly anyone in French-speaking Wallonia wants to secede. Flanders would benefit economically from independence; Wallonia would not. In India, hardly anyone in the Dravidian states of the south wants to secede, even though they are different linguistically, phenotypically (“racially”), and even religiously from the Hindi-speaking Hindus of the north who constitute the “ethnic core” of the Indian state. In the former Soviet Union, ethnocultural distance from the Russian majority was inversely related to strength of secessionism, with secessionism weakest in the majority-Muslim central Asian republics and strongest in the Baltics, Armenia, and Georgia. Not coincidentally, the central Asian republics were heavily dependent on Soviet subsidies.

  4. Myth: If every ethnic group had a right to secede, we would very quickly end up in a world with 10,000 independent microstates. This misconception is even common among academics.

    Fact: The vast majority of ethnic minorities around the world have no interest in seceding from their existing governments. This one is a myth for the same reasons that #3 is a myth. Even when we look solely at populous ethnocultural minority groups regionally concentrated in a historic homeland, of which the Minorities at Risk dataset counts 283 in the world, only about 38% of them have a secessionist movement of any kind, and most of those are small. Very few ethnonational minorities would vote for independence even if they were allowed to do so. In India, secessionists call for boycotts of federal elections. Yet in only one state with a secessionist movement, Jammu and Kashmir, do a majority of eligible voters actually fail to vote — and even in that state, my own research suggests a ceiling on secessionist support of about 20% of the population.

  5. Myth: Federalism is a good alternative to secession. Scholars and politicians in Western democracies often propose federalism or decentralization as a solution to secessionist pressures or conflicts. And indeed, a secessionist rebel group is unlikely to lay down arms without some kind of compromise on regional autonomy. But does federalism actually work well to prevent growth in secessionism?

    Fact: There is no solid evidence that decentralization reduces secessionism or the future risk of conflict, and federalism in the developing world is often very poorly designed. Will Kymlicka’s piece, “Is Federalism a Viable Alternative to Secession?,” is a useful starting point on this question. Even though Kymlicka is not an empirical political scientist, his comparative reflections on Canada and the U.S. get him a long way. The quantitative literature does not support any general relationship between federalism and ethnic conflict or secessionism, even though one can find individual pieces on one side or the other of this issue. The basic problem is that both secessionists and central governments face incentives to undermine federalism, and as a result, neither side will trust the other. Federalism is a particularly beside-the-point proposal in situations in which an ethnic minority faces off against a highly nationalistic and chauvinist ethnic majority, as in Sri Lanka, or in dictatorships in which constitutional bonds are particularly flimsy, as in Serbia under Milosevic or China today. Federal institutions will be unstable, and the ethnic minority will not trust them. Independence may be the only solution for preventing future conflict in such cases.

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