European Affairs

Until recently, his view would have been dismissed as an unacceptable heresy: for centuries, Europe (and its erstwhile colonies) have lived by the doctrine of national sovereignty as a barrier of stability against the threats of conquest from without and separatism from within.

But this axiom of stability is now undergoing a multi-faceted re-appraisal, as governments and public opinion are starting to rethink the advantages of self-determination and the emergence of new states as an alternative to the enduring bloodshed and stalemates of trying to maintain “established borders” at any cost. The intellectual and political crucible of this new thinking is a deliberately discreet discussion among the U.S. and EU member states. Coming up in many different guises, the core goal of this muffled debate is a common stance about how and when to legitimize a breakaway region seeking to become a new state in its own right.

Border changes in Europe in the wake of the break-up of the Soviet Union certainly heralded the emergence of such re-thinking. A soft example is the velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia – a break-up effected in accordance with the terms of the Helsinki Final Act. A harsher is the forcible separation of Kosovo and Serbia, which is cited by Russia in defending its military intervention in Georgia to support similar breakaway claims rights for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In Asia, there is the example of UN-sanctioned military intervention to permit East Timor’s emergence from Portuguese colonization and subsequent Indonesian conquest as a new nation, Timor-Leste. Looming on the horizon now is the possible emergence of Africa’s newest state in south Sudan. That secession could become inevitable after a referendum there next month, and it could well become a precedent for other moves elsewhere in the continent to redraw old borders laid down in the colonial era with little regard to ethnic homogeneity or economic viability. Even in the Middle East, where modern borders remain a volatile issue of war or peace, there has been extended, heated discussion about the possibility of a “soft partition” of Iraq into three regions devolving local autonomy to the country’s main groups -- Shi’a, Sunni and Kurds.
Ironically, such questions about secession and partition were supposed to have been answered by the example of the European Union, where a process of gradual integration and ceding of national sovereignty was structured in order to reduce the importance of national borders. That vision has largely succeeded in the sense of eliminating the risk of war between EU member states and promoting a “globalizing” era in which national borders matter less and less to the lives and livelihoods of citizens in the member states.
Despite that notable success, secession and partition remain a hot-button issue for EU member governments, whether inside their borders, on their doorsteps or even at great distance. But this sense of alarm – which is shared to a lesser degree by the U.S. – has not produced a consistent stance on concrete manifestations of secession or the threat of secession.
Clearly, there is an increasing willingness of Western governments to tolerate or accept secession beyond their borders. What has caused this change? A key factor has been the emergence in the past decade of a “responsibility to protect” doctrine, according to which the duty of countries to prevent genocide and mass atrocities overrides their traditional obligation to respect the integrity of another’s national borders. This new doctrine is widely considered to be the creation of Bernard Kouchner, the founder of “Doctors Without Borders” and former French Foreign Minister. Responsibility to Protect was explicitly invoked by Tony Blair when, as British prime minister, he sought a justification for the NATO military intervention in Kosovo in 1999.
This principle did not crystallize in a political vacuum: it was the international response to terrible atrocities that occurred in the 1990s, notably the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica. When Serbs began to ethnically cleanse Albanians from Kosovo in 1999, the U.K, the U.S. and other countries - many of which felt guilt over not having prevented the slaughter in Srebrenica - were determined that Kosovo would not be another Bosnia.
The success of that NATO military intervention – to protect the Albanian Kosovars – laid the groundwork for secession by the Serbian province’s ethnic Albanian majority. Once control of Kosovo had been wrested from Serb hands, the Kosovar Albanians were determined not to allow it return to Serb control, and their campaign for self-determination proved successful. But problems remain: in addition to the Serbian refusal to recognize Kosovo's secession, there are five EU governments that have not extended national recognition to the new country. Another problem is the fact that seven percent of Kosovo's inhabitants are ethnic Serbs who remain passionately opposed to being governed an ethnic-Albanian-dominated government in Pristina. Their rights need to be protected by the very same governments, starting with the U.S. and major EU nations, that recognized Kosovo’s independence.
Looking back, it is clear that the 1975 signing of the Helsinki Final Act by the U.S., Canadian, Soviet and European governments – among an array of signatories that included communist, capitalist and non-aligned countries – unleashed a flood of consequences that quickly swelled beyond the expectations of many policy-makers. Article VIII of that accord on the right to self-determination stipulated that "all peoples always have the right, in full freedom, to determine, when and as they wish, their internal and external political status, without external interference." The clause essentially lay dormant until the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe from 1989-1991. While many in the West viewed the end of the Cold War as an ideological victory for capitalism over communism, often overlooked is that it was also a victory for ethnic-based secessionism. Out of the ashes of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia - two multi-ethnic entities - some twenty new ethnically-based countries emerged. And the process did not end there. Some ethnic minorities in these new countries - for example Abkhazians and South Ossetians in Georgia, Crimean Russians in Ukraine - firmly resisted their place in the new array of nations, triggering further secessionist conflict.
It was precisely this phenomenon of “suicidal nationalism” that President George H. W. Bush warned against in a controversial speech in Kiev in August 1991 to Ukrainian parliamentarians. At the time, Bush was criticized for urging caution at a moment when there was such eager anticipation of sweeping political changes, with one commentator dubbing it his speech “Chicken Kiev” – a pun on the poultry dish and the alleged tendency of the U.S. leader to hang back instead of pushing for all-out change. The messy - and in places very bloody - collapse of the Soviet Union months after he gave the speech, and the intractable conflicts that have ensued, are a mark of Bush's prescience on the issue. As the former President noted, "freedom is not the same as independence."
This problem is well illustrated by the case-study of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in February 2008. Although Serbia was (and is) a United Nations member-state whose borders, encompassing Kosovo, had been internationally recognized, the U.S. and most EU governments immediately recognized Kosovo’s secession – a stance stemming from its support for the NATO military intervention there in 1999. A July 2010 International Court of Justice ruling, which found that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law, has added some legal weight to its pro-independence position.
While the U.S. government, which has been Kosovo’s staunchest defender, proclaims that Kosovo’s independence is a fait accompli and no longer a matter for debate, the facts tell a slightly different story. While some seventy countries have recognized Kosovo’s independence, well over a hundred have not. Moreover, the initial flood of recognitions has slowed to a trickle, with only a handful recognizing it in the past year. Intense lobbying from Serbia, which inherited the diplomatic corps left over from the former Yugoslavia, has been quite effective in persuading countries not to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. In Europe, the non-recognizers include five EU member states: Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain. The anti-secession stance of these EU states is mostly due to their having to contend with separatist movements inside their borders. They are wary of the pro-secession precedent that recognizing Kosovo might set. Greece’s refusal to recognize Kosovo is done in solidarity with the Greek Cypriot government in Nicosia, which is determined to prevent any international recognition of the Turkish Cypriot enclave that occupies one-third of the island under military protection of Ankara
Kosovo’s Balkan neighbor Bosnia has also refused to recognize Kosovo. The Bosnian government is extremely nervous about the threat of secession by the Serb minority inits own country. Bosnian Serbs have extensive autonomy in the enclave they carved out for themselves in the early 1990s called Republic Srpska, where they expelled non-Serbs who were living there to make it ethnically homogenous. The EU and the U.S., in stark contrast to their attitudes on Kosovo, are firmly opposed to any move by Republica Srpska to secede. Indeed, even Serbia does not support secession by the Bosnian Serbs. All are mindful of the not-so-distant war in Bosnia (1992-1995) in which hundreds of thousands were killed, several million people were displaced and where Europe witnessed its first genocide since World War II .
The next secession the world is likely to see is that of the South Sudanese people from Sudan. A referendum is scheduled to take place from January 9-15, 201l, in which southerners will decide if they want to establish their own country – which might be named “South Sudan.”   Readers who have read the map will realize that this putative new country will not include the war-torn region of Darfur, which is part of northern Sudan. The Darfur conflict, which has attracted huge attention in the U.S., has been fought between the northerners and the Darfurians who are Muslims, like the Khartoum regime, but are set apart as “black Africans” in Sudan. In the north-south conflict, which is the division at the heart of the referendum, Northern Sudanese are predominantly Muslim and ethnically Arab. The southerners are a mix of Christians and animists - an indigenous religion - and are mostly black Africans ethnically, albeit comprising many ethnic sub-groups. (For example, the planned referendum actually involves several related referenda, notably a vote on the fate of the small but oil-rich Abyei region located on the frontier between north and south Sudan and claimed by each.) 

arton18529-947abA striking feature of the conflict between northern and southern Sudanese is the outspoken support that the U.S. and EU are providing for the secessionist referendum. The joint statement adopted at the EU-U.S. summit in Lisbon in November pledged that both sides would “to work to ensure that the upcoming referenda reflect the will of the populations concerned." Already, the EU and the U.S. have spent millions of dollars helping the Sudanese organize the referendum vote and are dispatching hundreds of observers, including some who are on the ground at this current crucial stage of registering the South Sudanese to vote. (Seven registration sites have been set up in the US, where Sudanese residents can register to vote.)

While neither Europe nor the U.S. is actually calling on the South Sudanese to vote “yes,” they are making it clear that no one should obstruct the path to an independent South Sudan if that is what the South Sudanese want. They are expending major diplomatic efforts on persuading Sudan’s central government in Khartoum, which is dominated by northern Sudanese, to accept the outcome of the referendum.
Again, precedent is the key. In the 1990s and 2000s, the international community invested heavily in a peace process aimed at ending decades of bloody fighting between the northerners and southerners that had devastated parts of the country. These efforts ultimately bore fruit in a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005 that included the promise of a referendum in which southern Sudanese could opt for independence. The EU and U.S. are now determined to deliver on that commitment.
An outcome favoring secession and partition in Sudan could fuel similar efforts elsewhere in Africa, where post-colonial governments have fought to maintain the old frontiers drawn by colonial powers as a preferable alternative to the Pandora’s box of ethnic and tribal self-determination. Now a peaceful Sudanese break-up could be a catalyst for wider change. Take the case of Somalia that has a breakaway enclave, Somaliland, which seceded in 1991 as Somalia was sinking into civil war. In the two decades since then, the people of Somaliland have succeeded in creating relative peace, stability and even elements of democracy, in contrast to the rest of Somalia which has been ravaged by bloody factionalism, insecurity and lawlessness. The U.S. and European governments have not taken a firm stance on Somaliland, as they are waiting to see if Somalia can reestablish itself as a functioning state. Somaliland’s African neighbors are reluctant to recognize the enclave, as many of them are multi-ethnic countries where the risk of a secession occurring within their own borders is relatively high. But as reported in European Affairs, American and European policy-makers are now considering more support for Somaliland as a country that would be resolutely ready to assist in eradicating Somali piracy in the Gulf of Aden.
Turning to the Middle East, the U.S. has played a pivotal role in increasing the likelihood of the formation of an independent state for the Kurds. The U.S.-led wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003 have spurred the emergence of a well-functioning, autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Millions of Kurds living in neighboring Iran, Syria and Turkey are paying close attention to what happens in Kurdish Iraq, as are their governments. The U.S. role has put a strain on Washington’s relations with Turkey, the latter having criticized Washington in the past for not preventing militant Kurds from using Iraq as a base to stage attacks in Turkey. Europe has helped the Kurds too, not by military intervention, but by the EU success in pressuring Turkey to enhance the Kurds’ cultural rights as a precondition for Turkey joining the EU.
In Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, the EU and U.S. adamantly oppose independence for four secessionist enclaves that formed in the early 1990s out of the ashes of the former Soviet Union. These are Transnistria in Moldova, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. With the Transnistrians, Abkhazians and South Ossetians, the opposition stems from their belief that these enclaves are puppets of Russia that Moscow manipulates to destabilize Moldova and, even more so, Georgia. Russia only recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries after its August 2008 war with Georgia. It still does not recognize Transnistria’s independence, although it has troops stationed there. Neither the EU, U.S. nor Russia recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. They are working together to broker a resolution to the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Karabakhs being mostly ethnic Armenian.    
As both Europe and the U.S. seek to respond to these diverse movements across the globe, a common theme seems to be emerging. The default stance is to oppose secessionism in principle but to support it in ‘exceptional’ or ‘unique’ cases. The irony is that when all these so-called unique cases are added together, the result suggests a growing Western readiness to entertain secession and partition – as a preferable alternative to war.
Brian Beary is the author of a forthcoming book ‘Separatist Movements – A Global Reference,’ to be published by CQ Press in February 2011.