Understanding Secessionism In The Era Of Globalization — An Eco-Socialist View


In September 2014, I had occasion to write an article entitled Unity or Separation? – Did the Scots Decide Sensibly?1 In that year, the provincial government of Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and a large part of the Scottish people, who wanted to secede from the United Kingdom, held a referendum on the question. A majority voted No. The secessionists were disappointed, but the SNP is still governing Scotland.

This year, 2017, between September and October, three referenda took place that have a roughly similar character: two in Europe and one in the Middle East. And we know that in Europe alone several other regions have their own independence/separatist movement. In this article, I would like to take up the issue once more, in order to elaborate on some basic points.

In a referendum that took place on October 1, 2017, the Catalans declared their wish to secede from Spain and make out of their autonomous region an independent state. Separatist leaders claim that a good 90 percent of the Catalans voted for secession. But that was the result of a referendum in which only 42 percent of the eligible voters voted (or could vote), because the Spanish central government had declared it illegal and had tried to prevent voting by means of police violence.

Also the Kurds of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq held a nonbinding independence referendum in September of this year. Also in this case,  more than 90 percent of the voters voted in favor of independence.

  These are the minimal facts required for an introduction to this text. My readers, I assume, have been following the current events as much as I. My purpose here is mainly to try to give a tentative answer to the question why, in recent times – in the era of globalization, in which the world is said to have become a global village – large sections of many peoples living in certain regions have been trying to secede from a larger state or a union of states to which they belong(ed) till now? Some examples are the Basques and Catalans in Spain, the Baltic peoples in the erstwhile Soviet Union, Scots in the UK, the Corsicans in France, the English people (not all the peoples of the UK) in the European Union, the peoples of the erstwhile Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia  etc. I think it is possible to indicate an answer and briefly discuss it and some evidences for it.

The Right Of Peoples To Self-determination

There are some contradictions in human nature. We are gregarious animals, we love to, but also must for the sake of security, live in bands and societies and states. But we also cherish independence and self-determination and hate compulsion to live in undesired unions with other people. In chapter 1, article 2 of the charter of the United Nations it is written that its purpose is “to develop friendly relations among nationsbased on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, ….” . This principle is what secessionists everywhere invoke in support of their right to self-determination. But the trouble is, it is only a declaration of respect for a principle. Although widely used in formal and informal political speeches and writings, this right mostly doesn’t have the status of a statute law, that is, it is not always a written law passed by a legislative body such as a parliament or a constituent assembly. Another trouble is, there is no clear definition of the terms “nation” and “people”. It seems, the UN charter is saying that a people is not a nation, but it can become one if it can, by exercising its right to self-determination, create its own state. Then it can be recognized by the UN as a nation.

  In the case of the European Union, it has been made clear in its statute that it is possible for a member state to leave the Union, Brexit being a good example. In the constitution of the erstwhile Soviet Union, there was a clear article that gave the constituent republics the right to secede (although the procedural details thereof were left undecided). It was this constitutional provision that the Baltic republics invoked when they wanted to be independent in the late 1980s. In the case of the Scottish independence referendum (2014), a law was passed in the British parliament that allowed the referendum to be held. If the majority of the voters had voted in the affirmative, Scotland would today be an independent state. These cases of (attempted) secession were undisputedly legal.

But does that mean that a people, minority or not, that happens to live with other peoples in a state whose constitution does not expressly give the possibility of secession, can never become independent? That exactly is the argument of the Spanish and the Iraqi governments. They say it is unconstitutional to strive for independence, therefore it is illegal. It is a tricky question. Firstly, such a people can indeed become independent, and that even peacefully, if the other people(s) living in the concerned state agree to the idea. Thus the Czechs and the Slovaks separated by mutual agreement and two independent states were made out of the former Czechoslovakia (1993). Also the dissolution of the former Soviet Union took place (1991) by mutual agreement, although in this case, the above mentioned imprecise provision in the constitution of the USSR and, effectively, the will of the then leaders of the Russian Federation to get rid of the burden, were very helpful. In the opposite case, the armed forces of the USSR could have violently suppressed such processes. (But later, Russia refused to let Chechnya become independent).

Here we see that two conflicting principles are being invoked by the opposing parties. For the Catalan and Kurd secessionists, it is the right of self-determination of peoples, which, they seem to say, is a fundamental right that stands above any constitution. But for the central governments of Spain and Iraq, the constitution of a sovereign state is sacrosanct. In fact, as stated above, the latter is a statute law, whereas the former is only a principle, at best a common law.

It is not possible here to examine the constitutions of all the concerned states where an independence movement of this type has been an issue. But it is a fact that the independence struggles of Bangladesh, Kosovo, and South Sudan could only succeed through military struggle. De facto, then, it is also possible for a people living in a clearly delineated province or region of any state to win its independence irrespective of the articles of the constitution of the concerned country – through an uprising, military victory, and/or support of powerful allies.

Factors involved in secession Conflicts

Economic Interest

Catalan secessionists have two problems with remaining a part of Spain. They say they are not Spaniards, but Catalans. They say they are a nation, they have their own language with a developed literature. So why can’t a nation have a state, the most normal thing in the world? That may appear to be their main argument for secession, but they have another strong reason for desiring independence, namely economic interest, and they say that openly. Catalonia is the most prosperous region in Spain. It produces 20 percent of Spain’s GDP and raises 20 percent of the state’s revenue, but gets back from the centre much less than that, which they find to be unfair.

Similar is the argument of Lombardy and Veneto (Venetia) for demanding more autonomy, particularly over the revenue raised in their own province. These two northern provinces are economically the most developed in Italy. In a process similar to that in Catalonia, they have to de facto subsidize the relatively underdeveloped South. Lombardy claims it has to give away 45 percent of its tax revenue to the South. They do not say they are a separate nation, nor are they now striving for independence. They all speak Italian, yet they have their own regional party, the Lega Nord, the main point of the program of which was at the beginning independence.

Let me lay stress on   this factor, the economic reasons for secession, with a telling example from the recent past. 26 years ago, Slovenia and Croatia, then constituent republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, wanted to break away from Yugoslavia and become fully independent. In the process, they let loose a devastating war that broke up Yugoslavia. In those days, ordinary readers/viewers of popular media used to think of this war as an ethnic war in which the Croats and Slovenes (later also the Kosovans) fought against the Serbs who dominated over all the other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. But a passage quoted below from a book written by an expert on the Balkan region shows that it was mainly for economic reasons that the Croats and Slovenes wanted to break away from Yugoslavia. Misha Glenny, the author, summarizes his interview (in 1992) with Mate Babic, a professor of economics at the University of Zagreb and a former deputy prime minister responsible for the economy in the Croatian government, as follows:

“Yugoslavia … was constructed in the wake of the Great War [WWII] as a political imperative without regard to the region’s economic requirements. In the post-war communist federation, the imbalance between Slovene sophistication and the developing world conditions in Kosovo, southern Serbia and Macedonia could only be rectified by massive state control of the economy. This created resentment in the prosperous north, the fruits of whose productivity were transferred to the dusty climates of the south where they rotted in the sun. Above all, a taut mistrust grew up between Slovenia and Croatia [on the one side], where a more industrious work ethic was the tradition, and Serbia [on the other], the borderland of the Ottoman empire’s corrupt economic values. Being inextricably involved with the Serbian economy, which appears to be fueled by lotus leaves, had a damaging long-term effect on the Croat and Slovene economies. When the political decay in Yugoslavia accelerated, following the multi-party elections in the [constituent] republics, the economic tensions ensured that this mistrust would deepen.”3

    However, there are also cases in which economic interest led people to decide against independence. The best known recent case is of course that of the Scottish independence referendum (2014). A majority of the voters (55% ) rejected the independence drive of the SNP. A nationalist Scot said in bewilderment: “I cannot understand that the majority of a people refuses to be independent.” He had underestimated the power of the factor economic interest

I can give two more little known examples. In the Indian Ocean, situated north of Madagascar, there is a group of islands called the Comoro Archipelago. They had been for long colonies of France. In 1974, France asked the people whether they wished to have independence. In the referendum held on this question, three of the bigger four islands decided to be independent. But 63 percent of the inhabitants of Mayotte voted against. In another referendum two years later, 99 percent of the people repeated their decision to forgo independence and retain their status as a French colony. Today, Mayotte is a fully integrated part of France, its residents are French citizens.

One may ask: how is it possible that a population of 213 000, the vast majority of which are Muslims and of African origin refuse to become independent and live with their ethnically and religiously similar neighbors in one state? Here too, the answer is: economic interest. Although Mayotte is the poorest of all the departments of France, it is still, thanks to its being a part of France and the EU, much more prosperous than the other countries of the Mozambique Channel, so much so that it is a major destination of illegal migrants. Many come with women in advanced stage of pregnancy, who want to deliver their babies here, so that the latter (the babies) automatically get French citizenship. Compared to Mayotte’s relative prosperity, the Union of the Comoros, consisting of the other three bigger islands and some smaller ones, is one of the so-called least developed countries (LDC), more than 20 percent of whose population of working age are unemployed.

Another such example is the island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean Sea, also a former French Colony, and since 1946 a part of the French state. Here too there is an independence movement. But the majority does not want to be independent.

Unforgettable Historical Memories 

We may call them whatever we like – ethnic group, nation, sub-nation, nationality – the concerned aggrieved people that are today striving for independence and their own state, have some unforgettable historical memories of subjugation, oppression, exploitation, military defeat, betrayal or broken promises perpetrated against them by some superior power. That is mostly enough to give rise to protracted rebellions aiming at independence.

The struggle of the Kurdish people for independence and a state of their own is a telling example of this factor. Until exportable quantities of oil were found in the Iraqi Kurdish region, economic interest did not play any role in the conflict. On the contrary. Living as they do in a land-locked territory, they have many good economic reasons to maintain good relations with their neighbors. Yet they are fighting and dying for independence. Why?

 Let us take a cursory glance at Kurdish history in search of an answer. Rulers of the states in which the Kurdish majority areas lie, generally avoided using the term Kurd, or even prohibited its use. For long, even the existence of this people with an identity was denied. The official Turkish denomination for them was hill Turks (Bergtürken in German).

After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War, the victorious powers had granted the Kurds the right to self-determination (1920). During the Turkish resistance against the occupation powers and formation of the new Turkish state, Kemal Atatürk had promised to build a state of both people (Turks and Kurds) and so received the support of Kurdish chiefs and sheikhs. But then, after victory, he refused to honor the promise of self-determination given to the Kurdish people by the victorious powers. Nor was there any question of a state of both peoples. Instead, he built up a centralist, unitary, national state of Turkey on the pattern of the French state – following the motto “one state, one nation, one language, one identity”. The various nationalities and minorities were called upon to become one nation in a melting pot. But the Kurds did not accept the idea. Since then, they have attempted several rebellions, in 1925, 1930, and 1938. But every time, the much stronger Turkish army could suppress them. The recent history of guerilla actions led by PKK is well known. Similar has been the case in Iraq and Syria.

The Catalans too cannot forget and forgive their grievances against Spain. Their desire for independence is not based only on financial injustice. They also argue that they are not Spaniards, that they have been a nation through several centuries of history and have been oppressed and exploited by their neighboring nations: first, asthe principality of Catalonia under the crown of Aragon and later, since the early 18thcentury, as a conquered territory of the kingdom of Spain that came into existence through the forced unification of the crown of Aragon with the crown of Castile. The Spanish crown abolished all non-Castilian institutions, and Catalan, along with all otherlanguages, was replaced with Spanish in government and legal matters. During the Second Spanish Republic (1931–1939)a typical Catalan institution, the Generalitat of Catalonia, an autonomous form of government, was restoredAfter the Spanish Civil War, the Franco dictatorship enacted repressive measures abolishing Catalan institutions and banning again the official use of the Catalan language. To sum up, Catalonia was, of course, a part of Spain for over three centuries, but it never was unified with Castile or Spain in a peaceful process and of the Catalans’ own free will.

These are actually also examples of struggles of smaller and weaker peoples to assert their ethnic/group identity against attempts to assimilate them into a bigger political entity (nation, federal state or union of states).

Hurt Cultural identity

A group identity can also form around a language. In that case it had better be called language identity categorized under cultural identity. In Turkey, for a long time, the Kurdish language was suppressed, could not be used in government, and was not allowed to be taught in schools. In 1945 even their national dress for men, the Sal Sapik, was prohibited. In 1967, the Turkish government once more banned the Kurdish language and, along with it, Kurdish music, literature and newspapers.

  The concept cultural identity should also include identity formed around a religion as it happened among Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. We have seen above that both the Kurds and the Catalans complain that in the past their cultural identity was sought to be suppressed by the Turks and the Spaniards respectively. But they had no grievance in regard to their religion. The best example, however, of secessionism purely on the basis of language-identity is the formation of Bangladesh.

The people of what is today called Bangladesh, the vast majority of whom were (still are) Muslim, had decided to be a part of Pakistan when India was divided into two states in 1947. This decision violated all principles of economic rationality. It was purely based on their Muslim identity, on the idea of all Muslims of the subcontinent being one nation, the Hindus being the other.

But soon they realized that they were being treated as a colony by the West Pakistanis. The dissatisfaction came to the fore when, in 1948, the central government – with its seat in Karachi in the western part of the country – dictated that Urdu was to be the sole national language of the state. The Diktat sparked off extensive protests and demonstrations among the Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis, who demanded that Bengali be recognized as an official language of the country. They also found thatethnic and linguistic discrimination was common in Pakistan’s civil and military services, in which Bengalis were under-represented. The state also banned Bengali literature and music in state media including the works of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who was a Hindu Bengali, whose works nonetheless were read and sung with great respect by educated Bengali Muslims.

Against the background of these resentments, protests and demands there arose alanguage movement (Bhasa Andolon), in the course of which some students were killed by the police (1952), who since then have been regarded as martyrs for their language. This movement signified a decisive identity shift in the country: From being primarily East-Pakistani Muslims in the 1940s, the people became, after the successful liberation war of 1971, Bengali speaking citizens of a newly founded secular state.

Also in Belgium, the major issue in the conflict between Flanders and Wallonia is language identity – the Flemish people (of Flanders) speak Dutch and the Walloon people are Francophone. However, the other two factors also play a role in it. As in Catalonia, for a long time in the past, French was the dominant language, and the former’s language, Dutch, was suppressed. And today, as opposed to the situation in the past, Flanders is the more prosperous region of Belgium. Many compromises had to be found to keep the two regions together. But a Flemish separatism is still there. In fact, all parties of Belgium are split into two separate parties.


The Reality of the World Situation

Let me make a few points in conclusion – in the sense of an eco-socia.list’s take of the recent trend toward and current events of secessionism.

(1) We cannot ignore feelings of people. They are there. But we should not also ignore the reality. There is no doubt that about half, perhaps even a slight majority, of the Catalans want independence, that because of bad memories from past history, this half does not want to be governed by the Spaniards any longer, they may even hateSpaniards in general. But they have no objection to ceding part of their sovereignty to the EU. Isn’t it a contradiction (if you leave aside the fact of hatred)? The same can be said of the desire of a large part of the Scots to see Scotland break away from the UK but remain a member of the EU. Of somewhat similar character is the desire of a majority of English people to be politically more independent (through Brexit) and at the same time enjoy the economic advantages of being a member of the EU. Reality is, Globalization has today become such a strong economic factor that no people can any longer maintain the attained general standard of living without bowing to it, albeit at the price of losing a large part of its economic freedom.

(2) The argument of the central governments of Spain and Iraq that their constitutionsdo not allow independence of regions is nonsensical. Constitutions and laws are made by people and they can be changed. The state of Iraq itself was artificially created by two imperialist powers. If constitutions were sacrosanct, written down for all future time, no people could ever have become independent, no subjugated or oppressed people would ever be able to push out their oppressors.

Today, the all-important question for us is whether it is not only legally and morally, but also politically good, hence justifiable, that Catalans and Iraqi Kurds unilaterally declare independence. One may say the moral question has been unequivocally answered by the UN principle of right of peoples to self-determination. I do not think that is right. Today, there is hardly any country, any region in the world that is not inhabited by a mix of peoples – a result of past history. To suddenly make many of them foreigners in a country where they have taken roots (e.g. Spaniards in Catalonia, Turkmens in Kurdistan), is not a good decision, neither morally nor politically. Politically, it would be a bad decision, if it were surely to have bad repercussions in the region. I can well understand why many Spaniards, including those who declare themselves to be both Catalans and Spaniards, hate the Catalan secessionists. Firstly, it is not a long time ago that the Basque secessionists tried to achieve their goal of independence by violent means (bombings and killings and all that). And secondly, it would create serious economic problems when Spain hasn’t yet fully recovered from the great crisis of 2008.

(3) It would be a valid moral argument for secessionist efforts if one could say that, in the present set-up, the minority people living in a region of the concerned country are being oppressed or discriminated against as a people. But where was oppression and discrimination in Catalonia before October 1, 2017, when the Guardia Civil used violence to prevent the referendum happening? Where was oppression and discrimination in Scotland and in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq? The only concrete argument that remained for these three cases was an immoral one: The Catalans did not like to share their prosperity with the poorer regions of Spain, and the Scots and the Iraqi Kurds did not want to share their oil wealth.

(4) I have much understanding for the emotional sensibility of people to their native country (in German, Heimat) and their native language. I can understand that today, some three decades after the beginning of the era of globalization, in some countries of Europe and in the USA many among the native people fear they are losing their country, fear they will soon become a minority in their own country – for instance, in England (Brexit supporters), Netherlands (supports of Geert Wilders’ party), Germany (supporters of the AFD party), France (supporters of FN), and in the US (Trump supporters). The Serbs feel they have already lost their province Kosovo to the Albanians. Human nature hasn’t changed yet. We and the others, that is still how most people think.

What is to be done in regard to these trends?

I cannot find secessionism good, nor even OK, unless a people is really being oppressed and/or badly exploited as a whole, as under an imperialist/colonial rule or by another people living in the same state. The existence of an abstract and unclear principle in the UN charter should not be regarded as sufficient ground for starting a secessionist movement. Recent history as well as the current world situation shows that any such movement, if it gathers momentum, may cause enormous damage to the peoples concerned and, in general, to the world. In the Bangladesh liberation war, according to Bangladeshi estimates, some three million people were killed, and a few million had to seek refuge in India. Some other examples are the struggle of the ETA to free Basque Country from Spain, the struggle of the Kashmiri Muslims and that of the Punjabi Sikhs (in the 1980s) to effect secession of their respective provinces from India, the liberation war of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. All these efforts, except that of the Bangladeshis, failed, causing huge loss of life and other associated sufferings. Today, without a successful war it is nearly impossible, at least enormously difficult for a region to secede from a state that has become established. No ruling politician would agree to break up a state that she was elected to govern, nor would politicians of other states like to rock the boat. The two cases of tolerance, Scotland and Czechoslovakia, are exceptions and would probably remain exceptions until and unless human civilization starts collapsing. We are today getting a foretaste of this latter scenario in Somalia, where a separate, but internationally unrecognized state has come up, namely Somaliland.

Today, we are suffering from so many great crises and problems that urgently need to be addressed by the whole humanity – ecology crises, climate crisis, finance crisis, global illegal migration, large-scale poverty, huge inequality, danger of wars etc. So no new small crises and problems should be created in the name of self-determination of people, least of all because of prosperity-separatism. True, all individuals and all peoples love independence, but all also need cooperation and help from the others. Today, secessionist movements are only distractions from the main tasks. In regions like Catalonia, Kashmir etc. right to self-determination should take a back seat behind realizing all human rights for all and peaceful coexistence of peoples in multi-ethnic, multi-lingual states. The latter goal can be achieved through federal constitutions that guarantee minority rights. An example thereof is India, a federal republic, which is the home of 1.3 billion people with 22 official languages. Even the PKK was once ready to make peace on the basis of regional autonomy within Turkey. Maybe new state names can be introduced to replace problematic ones, e.g. United Republic of Anatolia in place of Turkey, United Kingdom of Iberian peoples in place of Spain.

So far as language identity is concerned, there is no need to fight for it any more. No people in the world is nowadays being punished for speaking and writing its own language, not even the Kurds in Turkey. And English as lingua franca of the world is increasingly pulling down all the language barriers between peoples. Take again India as an example.

Saral Sarkar was born in 1936 in West Bengal, India. After graduating from the University of Calcutta, he studied German language and literature for 5 years in India and Germany. From 1966 to 1981, Sarkar taught German at the Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institute), Hyderabad, India. Sarkar is living in Germany since 1982. He is the author of 5 political books(see list in Wikipedia/German) that have appeared in English, German, Chinese, Japanese and (in internet for free downloading) French and Spanish. Sarkar has also published many articles and essays in several journals in India, USA, Germany, UK, Holland, China, Spain. He also writes regularly in two blogs of his own (see Wikipedia/German).


1.Sarkar, Saral (2014) Unity or Separation? – Did the Scots Decide Sensibly?

2. See for example:
“This map shows the European regions fighting to achieve independence.”
Jun. 17, 2017, in RT(online).
http://www.businessinsider.com/map-of-european-independence-movements-2017-6?IR=T and

“Spain, Italy, Belgium: Battle lines drawn for independence after Scottish vote.”
Published time: September 19, 2014, in RT News (online).

3. Glenny, Misha (1996) The Fall of Yugoslavia. London: Penguin.

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