A World of Selfistans?

Reflecting on the absurdity of ever newer claims around the world for self-determination and separate statehood, novelist Salman Rushdie wrote sarcastically in Shalimar the Clown, “Why don’t we just draw a circle around our own two feet and call it Selfistan?” The recent Western-backed declaration of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and its ramifications are making Rushdie sound prophetic. Despite Washington’s assertion that Kosovo is an exceptional case that does not set precedents, demands for self-rule have received a shot in the arm from this latest act of dissecting the Balkans. Sensing that the international climate is favorable, fresh demands based on reinvented identities may also crop up in the future among populations that feel alienated from their respective nation-states.

Russia, which has much to lose from Kosovo’s statehood, just lifted sanctions on Abkhazia. This allows the breakaway region of Georgia to open a diplomatic mission in Moscow and become a proto-state. The message from the Russian leadership of Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev is that Moscow can try to “do a Kosovo” on American allies like Georgia. Taiwan’s upcoming referendum on joining the UN as a sovereign entity is, likewise, colored by its warm welcome of Kosovo’s statehood. The knowledge that a secessionist province can “make it” at an appropriate moment would certainly galvanize aspirants to statehood.

Separatists in Indian Kashmir announced that Kosovo’s unilateral freedom was a “ray of hope and inspiration” for their struggle to quit India. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who have been fighting for separation from Sri Lanka for 25 years, commented that Montenegro, East Timor, and Kosovo’s successes in gaining freedom “indicate that the independence of ethnic communities is the only assurance for world peace and security.” The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has been challenging the sovereignty of the government of the Philippines for 27 years, issued a statement after Kosovo’s reincarnation that “What is prohibited for decades is now a virtual part of international law.” Basque and Catalan secessionists in Spain virtually echoed the same sentiment.

If the earlier feeling was that rebel movements should be accommodated within the parameters of the constitutions of the states they are warring with – through devolution of power or internal autonomy – the mood in separatist camps is now going to be more maximal. The reactions to Kosovo’s independence indicate that appeals for the creation of new micro-states or Selfistans will grow in lung power and number.

Factors against Selfistans

Not all claims to statehood, however, will be consummated. There are three factors that work against the indiscriminate mushrooming of new states.

First of all, politically stable and militarily strong states have almost no chance of being deprived of their territories through Kosovo-style humanitarian interventions. One need go no further than Russia’s Chechnya region for illustration. Human rights activists and agitators are aghast at the failure of the United States and the European Union to condemn the suppression of the Chechen bid for statehood by the Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin governments. Why did the Western powers turn a blind eye on Chechnya when its self-determination war was advancing? It was because NATO could not take on Russia on its own turf the way it could pulverize Serbia in 1999. Large and powerful countries with stable polities such as Russia, China, and India can defend their territorial integrity and are unlikely to become candidates for Kosovo-type challenges. Should large states implode through internal contradictions, however, the door is wide open for separatists.

Also militating against the proliferation of Selfistans is insurance against damage that status quo-defending nation-states get from having great-power allies. As long as General Suharto was necessary for the West’s Cold War agenda, the United States, Britain, and Australia helped Indonesia to annex and control East Timor. Once Indonesia lost the support of the great powers, these same states ganged up to recognize East Timor’s right to self-determination and acted as midwives for its birth as an independent state. In contrast, Turkey has continued to ward off claims of a separate Kurdistan, thanks to Ankara’s six-decades-long closeness to Washington. States like Israel and Turkey are proving that, as long as they enjoy American blessings, they can see through secessionism and even undertake cross-border raids on militants threatening their sovereignty.

Finally, not all states mishandle separatist insurgencies through one-dimensional, strong-arm tactics. Pakistan’s brutal military clampdown on the people of its eastern wing in 1970-’71, described by many as a genocide, had a costly price in the form of independent Bangladesh. Indonesian treatment of East Timorese or Serbian treatment of ethnic Albanians were also excessively harsh and met the same fate of eventual break-up. However, if one compares these failures to the way South Africa managed to prevent Zulu separatism through nationalism and autonomy packages in the mid-1990s, judicious management of secessionism emerges as a prudent strategy for status-quo defending states. Of particular import are local institutions in separatist regions and incentives to divert public alienation toward the state into non-violent and democratic channels.

If a state is not politically stable and militarily strong (first factor) and also lacks diplomatic alliances with great powers (second factor), the only option by which it can prevent secessions is a policy of carrot-and-stick accommodation. Recent history suggests that large-scale punitive responses by these kinds of states backfire.

“Rights and Wrongs” of Secession

After the liberation of Asian and African countries from Western colonial rule in the second half of the 20th century, determining the legitimacy of a self-determination struggle is akin to walking on hot coals. What is the moral criterion that allows Kosovars or East Timorese to have their own states but not the Shans, Karens, or Karennis of Burma? Is there much of a difference between ethnic cleansing committed by the Serbs in Kosovo and the coercive demographic invasion of Tibet that China has engineered over the last 40 years? Is there a human casualty threshold beyond which one can decide that the case for a separate state is justified? The relative uprightness of different secessionist movements is a subjective and highly biased issue. It is a battlefield of ideas that leads to little agreement because of the well-proven dictum that one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

The state’s accommodation and cooptation of dissatisfied minorities, identified above as one option against secession, is more likely to happen if it is democratic. The outcome of a self-determination project need not take on a partition-like hue if the state against which the claims are made has the capacity to involve separatist leaders and their constituencies in processes like elections that can improve local governance. Demands for new states within a reasonably well-governed state that offers avenues for justice will be very difficult to sustain because solutions exist without disturbing territorial integrity. However, if the state in question is undemocratic in substance and allows loose rein to its security machinery over separatist regions, as was the case of Indonesia vis-à-vis East Timor, there might be a logic in seeking more drastic demands.

The good news for self-determinists is that Kosovo’s severance from an unwilling Serbia has given them added confidence that their day of glory may also come. The bad news for them is that nation-states facing separatist clamor have feasible options to parry threats to their territorial integrity. If “freedom struggles” pick up momentum after Kosovo, so will the determination of states seeking to contain ethnicity-based atomization. A world of Selfistans with 300 or 400 mini-states is a hypothetical possibility. But realistically, it is a chimera.

Sreeram Chaulia is a researcher on international affairs at the Maxwell School of Citizenship in Syracuse, New York, and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org). His many articles and reviews are accessible at www.sreeramchaulia.net