Dear 100 Hour Board,
What are your views on independence movements? When should groups be allowed to break away from existing countries and when should they be prevented from breaking away to become independent states?
-Thirteen Colonies, Confederate States of America, Scotland, Catalonia, Kurdistan, the State of Jefferson, my neighbors Joe and Larry.
Dear Joe and Larry's neighbor,
One of my main questions for groups trying to break away is what is their reason for leaving? Is it because there are truly legitimate issues with the government they're currently part of, and that they're systematically facing problems, or because they dislike the current leader? If they've truly been facing oppression from the government, I'm much more sympathetic to their cause than if they just decide they dislike some of the current policies or something. I think it's also important to look at the official reason they give for leaving vs their internal motivation, because they might have some sort of reason that looks good on paper, but their actual motivation for leaving is different. Take the Confederacy, for example. They said they were mad about their states not having enough power/rights, but ultimately they wanted their states to be more powerful so they could continue to practice slavery. So I guess if a group is trying to break away because they're being oppressed, I'm more sympathetic to them than if they're trying to break away in order to become some sort of dictatorial regime, or a country that regularly abuses human rights, or just start a new country with a leader they like more.
Going along with that, I want to say something about what sort of government they're planning on setting up, but I don't think it's very realistic that we would always be able to predict whether they would create an equitable, non-authoritarian form of government after gaining independence. I mean, intentions matter when they make their bid for freedom, but I don't think they should be everything, just because that discounts the process of states evolving over time.
I think another important factor is how many people support leaving. I mean, just from a practical point of view, they need support in order to stage some sort of successful revolution. But I also feel like looking at the number of people who support a certain movement may sometimes be indicative of how valid their concerns are. If a tiny group of people are the only ones who want to break away, they may be overreacting. That's obviously not always the case, because it may be that the vast majority of people are oppressive, but usually if there's actually some sort of systemic problem, it would affect at least a decently sized group.
And finally, for practical reasons, I think that if somewhere is trying to break away from a country that they're still totally surrounded by on all sides, it's less likely that they'll be successful. The pre-existing state could just cut off their access to resources, especially if the independence movement is pretty small.
In the period of about four months last year I visited Transnistria (a breakaway from Moldova), Abkhazia (separated from Georgia), Nagorno-Karavakh (comprising portions of Azerbaijan and historical Armenia), Kosovo (on former Serbian territory) Kurdistan (you know, in Iraq), and Northern Cyprus (Cyprus, lol) Some of these, like Transnistria and Abkhazia, enjoy considerable Russian influence. Others enjoy backing from the United States, the UN, or a nation ethnically and historically related to theirs.
Kosovo currently has 114 diplomatic recognitions as an independent state. Serbia, from which Kosovo was more or less carved, does not recognize it as a sovereign state, but has begun to normalize diplomatic relations with its government per the Brussels Agreement of 2013.
Most of the people I spoke to in Kosovo identify themselves as being Albanian (the nation state of Albania is adjacent to Kosovo's western border) and indeed, 88% of the country is ethnically Albanian. The border passing from Albania to Kosovo was pretty much just a checkpoint with some amiable guards.
Transnistria, or officially the Priendestrovian Moldavian Republic, is recognized only by the partially-recognized states of Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It's the most Soviet place I've ever been, with various Soviet symbols and decorations present throughout. Although it's not officially recognized by Russia, there are most certainly Russian troops and tanks posted on the road from Tiraspol to the Moldovan capital of Chișinău, and are apparently in Transistria as "peacekeepers."
Hey, I'm sorry. This is a really interesting question and one I've been struggling with for months now. But I have significantly underestimated the huge political and historical complexity of many of these places seeking to be recognized as independent nations and I won't be able to do the proper research for a long while, because I have managed my time poorly as of late.
Despite having visited these places, I'm only equipped with a rudimentary opinion of how to address this question. If you re-asked it during Alumni week, you'd definitely get opinions. But don't do that, necessarily, unless you want like, a paskillion answers. Maybe.
But here's a couple of my thoughts (prepare to insert foot in mouth):
I would have liked Kurdistan to have become an independent. Why does the Sykes-Picot agreement of WWI, over 100 years ago, dictate the freedoms of current groups? That's not really that helpful.
I think places like Abkhazia and Transnistria should be recognized as independent entities. Do I condone the bloody wars and, in some cases genocide, that have aided these coming into being? No, but they are currently autonomous, whether or not the Euro-centric European Union for political purposes has decided to recognized them as such. Also, the UN is sometimes viewed as being, like, impartial, but they are punks too in many cases.
It's interesting that Kosovo didn't have much backing from the UN until the USA decided to official-ize them.
Taiwan is totally a country. They don't consider themselves part of the People's Republic of China, regardless of whether or not they are claimed by their powerful neighbor.
For Nagorno-Karabakh, now Republic of Artsakh, I feel they have some legitimate claims to land they occupy. Azerbaijan also has legitimate claims to a lot of that land. Both sides have done some pretty bad stuff trying to get it or keep it, like when Armenian (ethnically) people completely destroyed and depopulated Agdam, a city once inhabited by 39,000 people, mostly Azeri. It's probably the largest ghost city in the world, twice the size of Chernobyl.
Anyways. I'm just rambling, not really answering. It's really fun to read Wikipedia's list of states with limited recognition and then start delving into the history of each. There's some interesting stuff happening in this world.
Finally, I don't think All People will agree on the political legitimacy of one nation over another. Case in point: the Holy Land. Also, any Facebook or Youtube comment zone about any of the places I have mentioned. There's a lot of strong feelings and the answer is rarely simple.
For some discussions of this that address it better than I, you might enjoy:
- NPR:What are the Rules for Changing a Country's Borders?
- Wikipedia: List of national border changes since World War I
- Quartz:Here are the 32 countries Google Maps won’t draw borders around
- The Conversation: Back to the 19th century: how language is being used to mark national borders
P.S. Wikipedia's list of ghost towns and cities of the world is another good time.
In reality, at the end of the day, who gets to be independent depends on who can use more force to make others recognize them as independent.
But you didn't ask that, you asked when they should be able to form independent nations. This is tricky, because it requires balancing consistency, law, and order with a people's right to self-determination. The Declaration of Independence says that constantly changing governmental systems is imprudent, but that when a government becomes consistently destructive to the preservation of the inalienable rights of the people (including but not limited to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), it is necessary alter or abolish it.
In the case of U.S. states that want to secede, there is nothing that I'm aware of in the Constitution that prohibits or acknowledges the possibility of secession from the Union. Many scholars consider the question of sovereignty to be extra-legal, as it depends (as I said in the first paragraph) on whether a seceding region is successful in establishing a permanent nation.
In the case of Catalonia, secession is clearly prohibited by the Spanish Constitution. However, to what extent do we consider it right that a people should be bound to the system of government established decades or centuries ago, without our consent?
One possible solution that would require some major amendments to our Constitution would be to institute statehood as a renewable contractual agreement between each individual state and the federal government. I haven't thought this through very well; in fact, I only just thought of it when I first put a placeholder on this question. I realize that there would be many practical issues. But I think maybe we could give each state more autonomy and sovereignty and then set up the U.S. like an American version of the E.U.