Fragmenting Nations

One of the more interesting questions that have arisen lately is should a region of a country have the right to break away from the country and be independent, and if so, what are the obligations of the participants? The classic way of breaking away is to have a war. The US got its independence from Britain that way, as did Eire. Does nationhood depend on “might makes right?” It can, but surely there are other ways.

It certainly helped Kosovo, and Kosovo is of interest because it was effectively US air power and NATO forces that won the war. Clinton described the activity as “upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace”. Strictly speaking, this action had no UN Security Council approval, therefore it could be regarded as illegal, and it was described as illegal but justified. Whether the Serbs would agree is another matter, and it then becomes interesting that violating the law is fine as long as you think it is justified. Who says so? The guys with the most guns?

The background to Kosovo is of interest. Some in Kosovo wanted independence, particularly those of Albanian origin, and apparently things got out of hand when the Kosovo Liberation Army made four attacks on Serbian security people. The Serbians soon began calling the KLA terrorists (and since they carried out sneak murders, that is probably fair) while the Albanians saw them as “freedom fighters”. Up until 1998, the US government described the KLA as a terrorist group, but suddenly it changed its mind and used NATO to intervene. End of Kosovo Serbians’ hopes. US intervention had another effect: it took the Monica Lewinsky affair off the news table for President Clinton. The US used cluster bombs, and did serious damage and caused considerable civilian casualties, including to Albanians in Kosovo, but the net result was that Kosovo apparently has declared independence. However, not everyone recognizes this, and it remains to some extent under UN administration.

It would seem fair for a split if those leaving did so by winning a referendum that was fairly executed. Scotland had such a vote and decided to stay, so the issue does not arise, however I believe had the vote been yes, London would have agreed. Of course this raises the question that if they keep having votes, sooner or later they will get one result to leave, and that would be irreversible. So maybe there has to be a limit to the number or spacing of referenda.

However, votes can also be rigged in favour of some end. The vote to have a separate Kurdistan would probably win for the Kurds, but would they take Kirkuk? To make sure they would, when the Iraqi army fled from ISIS, a large number of Kurds poured into Kirkuk, and so I guess they would win a vote. But if you pour in the appropriate number of extras to win the vote, is that the right way to go? My guess is no. Then the question is, is the vote fair? When Crimea seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia, this was done with a clear majority vote favouring it, but the Russians had poured in a number of soldiers and they ran the voting system, and as a consequence a number of people do not believe it was fair. My guess is, it probably was because there were a lot of people of Russian descent there, but we cannot be sure. In Crimea, it probably was a case of “might makes right”, but if the Russian military did not come in, the Ukrainians had the might, and as can be seen in eastern Ukraine, they are prepared to use it.

Suppose we look at Catalonia. There have been widespread claims that Catalonia should be independent from Spain, and they held a referendum, which gained 90% in favour. So that is clear evidence, right? Maybe not. Spain declared the referendum illegal and sent in riot police. Those not in favour of independence may well have considered the vote illegal, and they wanted no part in it. It now turns out that only about 40% of those eligible to vote participated, so maybe this was not as conclusive as the enthusiasts claim.

The next question is, why do people want independence? Presumably because they feel they would be better off independent. The Catalans apparently are net donors (tax paid less benefits) to Madrid of about 10 billion euros. However, this might be a little misleading because there are a number of Head Offices of Spanish companies in Barcelona, so company tax from all activities in Spain would be paid from Barcelona. If Barcelona were in a separate country, presumably the activities from Spain would remain taxed by Spain. In Scotland’s case, one can’t help wondering whether the politicians had their eyes on the North Sea oil revenues. In my opinion, in such a breakup, existing royalties and such should be divided between the original members based on population, in which case the returns would be a lot less.

That leaves the Lukansk, Donbass and Donetz oblasts in Eastern Ukraine. Should they have independence? A lot of opinions in the West say yes; territorial integrity should outweigh grumpy citizens. In this case, Western Ukraine has quite different objectives; they want to join the EU while the East wants closer ties with Russia. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this, in my opinion there has been enough shelling and bombing of these oblasts that the citizens there will not accept the Western domination. The West complains about Russian intervention that has helped the Eastern Ukrainians. In doing so, they conveniently forget Kosovo. Also, it is now very doubtful Ukraine could join the EU, and if they did, they would find EU financial impositions on Ukraine would make Greece look somewhat attractive. My guess is, Germany would not be willing to carry an even bigger load.

So, what are the conditions for breaking up? I rather fancy there is no recipe. The various places have to find their own salvation. Nothing could be worse, however, than encouraging a breakup, and leaving one part without adequate resources, or encouraging them, and then walking away after the event.

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Syria, Iraq and Ukraine: Is Secession right?

Those who have followed this blog for a while will recall a number of posts on some of the issues involved in these countries. What is common to these countries is that all have armed uprisings to achieve either overthrow of the government, or secession. We might also note that many in Scotland want to secede, BUT they are going about it by having the Scots vote on it. Further, my guess is that if Scotland secedes, there will still be a substantial fraction of the Scots who do not wish to. If we think of Ukraine, the question of secession by the East may well be answered differently if only the east votes, or if all Ukraine votes. Majority have to win a vote, but the majority of whom? If there is an armed uprising, for the uprising to end, there has to be a good reason to lay down the arms. So to end the uprising, either concessions have to be made, or the rebels have to be removed from the field, either by arrest or by killing. Now, not everybody can get their way, so why do they want secession? Alternatively, why does Union work?

The most obvious example of where union works is the US. There we have fifty states, many of which would qualify as powerful countries, and they are held together by a Union. The United Kingdom almost works, but is apparently a little creaky at the seams. So what are the differences here? The most obvious one is history. Scotland and England spent many centuries warring. The parts of the UK still consider themselves separate countries within the Union, which makes it different from the US. One important aspect of the US is that the educational system imprints the importance of being United, and the citizens accept that. So, in my opinion, a United system works best when everyone speaks a common language and has no more than location to identify citizens as being different. Notwithstanding that, a Federal system works quite well when there are regions with different languages and different cultures, provided the Federation accepts the differences and shows pride in them. Thus Canada, although occasionally a little creaky, basically works well. In the US there are differences between states, and again these are accepted and praised. The Federal government makes a major effort to see that all states are treated more or less equally. Also, a fair application of fair law is required.

Now if we look at our troublesome regions, Ukraine is plagued by a section that uses a different language, and worse than that, the Western Ukraine has in the past seemed to want to suppress that language, and there is no reason to believe that attitude will change. Poroshenko has promised that suppression will stop, but the problem there is nobody believes him. That gets to the next obvious requirement for a Union: the various parts have to trust the whole to treat them according to agreed rules. Ukraine fails because law is not strongly founded there.

When we look at Syria and Iraq, the problem is reasonably clear: governments based on religion do not work when there is more than one religion. Governments must be secular. It is here that the West has failed these regions. Yes, Saddam and Bashir are not exactly examples of good governance; they have been brutal and of course they are/were anything but democratic. However, provided you obeyed the rules, you were generally safe there, and until the West started bombing Iraq the first time, Iraq was prosperous, secular, safe, and reasonably liberal. Now it is a feeding ground for Jihadis, who cannot wait to get revenge on the West. Now, the Shia government has decided to get revenge on past suppression, and it is actively discriminating against the Sunni minority, which is hardly desirable when that minority provided most of the military class previously. The US hardly helped either by effectively making the Kurdish part a separate entity.

The question now is, what should be done? My view is that everybody else should keep out. Yes, what is going to happen is not going to be pretty, and a lot more blood will be spilt, but this is largely due to outside intervention. There has been no sign of competence so far, other than in bombing, so why does anyone think there will be an improvement? The problem is, politicians visualize the ending they want; they do not seem capable of visualizing what they do not want.

Why should my comments count? I have no special experience that makes my opinion more important than yours, and my one and only experience that is relevant was being caught up in the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, during which I talked to people from both sides. On the other hand, I have thought quite a bit about the issues in general because in the future history novels I write, I have “invented” various forms of governance to support the themes related to abuse of power. After all this thought, I do not know the answers, although I think I can guess what will not work. If you, the reader, feel you can contribute, please do.

Finally, remember the reduced prices on my Mars novels this solstice; see the previous post for details.