Argument

If at First You Don’t Secede…

If at First You Don’t Secede…

Every time one blinks, the situation in eastern Ukraine gets worse. In a game of chicken reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause, Kiev and Moscow are tooling toward the cliff’s edge over the region’s pro-Russian insurgency.

The April 17 Geneva pact to de-escalate the situation has had zero effect. Ukraine’s "anti-terrorism" operation is zooming in on Sloviansk, where troops under Kiev’s command have killed five pro-Russian activists while clearing roadblocks. Thousands more pro-Russian separatists are holed up in the city, occupying government buildings. And the insurgents have now seized a busload of OECD and Ukrainian observers — "NATO spies," in the parlance of the city’s pro-Russian mayor. 

In response, Russia is ramping up military exercises just across the border, and U.S. sources claim Russian fighter jets have entered Ukrainian airspace on several occasions over the last few days — leading Ukraine’s prime minister to accuse Russia of wanting to "start World War III."

At the center of the escalating crisis is the so-called "People’s Republic of Donetsk," the breakaway republic declared in eastern Ukraine on April 7. That was the day local activists first stormed government buildings in the cities of Kharkov, Lugansk, and Donetsk while brandishing black, blue, and red tricolors. The three horizontal stripes seem an easy, if somewhat sinister reference to the Russian flag (the top band of which is white instead of black), but the activists’ flag is not a recent, random invention. Nor is the republic for which it stands entirely new.

Like earthquakes, secessions occur along ancient fault lines — and often in quick succession. Are the events in eastern Ukraine the second stage of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan to carve up that country? Protesters there seem to be reading from the same script as those in Crimea a few weeks earlier. First: Declare independence. Then: Organize a referendum on joining Russia. Meanwhile: Threaten to invite Russian troops in for protection.

History — and secessionist history in particular — has a way of repeating itself. The ground rule, here and elsewhere: If at first you don’t secede, try again. Will this be the Summer of Separatism for Europe?

The ambition to break away, be it to or from Russia, is likely to remain strong, with regions as far flung as Transnistria and northern Kazakhstan inching closer to Moscow, while Caucasian and Far Eastern areas may drift further away. But separatism is not a uniquely post-Soviet state of mind. Look within the confines of almost any state, and you’ll find a secessionist movement dreaming of recapturing ancient glories or winning new freedoms.

Even though separatism is endemic in much of the world, any discussion of the subject always throws up the same shortlist of candidates: the Basque Country (seceding from Spain and France), Catalonia (from Spain), Flanders (from Belgium), Quebec (from Canada), and Scotland (from the United Kingdom). All have been inching toward independence for decades, gaining large degrees of autonomy. None have actually made the break, neither via the bullet nor via the ballot — perhaps because their autonomy has reduced the payoff of going it alone. Perversely, one could argue that these secession movements are so well known because they’re so inconclusive.

In their slow march toward statehood, they may be overtaken by some of the dark horses stalking the field. Take Venice, for instance. From the seventh century until its annexation into Napoleon’s empire in 1797, that lagoon city was the center of an independent mercantile state, with territorial holdings at one point stretching all the way to Cyprus.

The independence movement of what was formerly known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice provides a framework for regional anger and frustration. Staple secessionist complaints, in Venice and elsewhere, are: that the central government siphons off too much in taxes, squandering it (either on corruption or on the undeserving) rather than investing it back in the region; that the central government is stupidly unable or actively unwilling to respect and promote the regional language, culture, and/or religion; and that history shows that we’d do better on our own or as part of some other country.

Venetian separatism is imbued with a large dose of opera buffa, the comic style of opera pioneered there. In early April, Italian police arrested two dozen Venetian separatists allegedly involved in a plot to drive a homemade tank onto Venice’s central Piazza San Marco. The plan was to proclaim independence from Italy — exactly how occupying the historical square with a single converted bulldozer would have brought the ultimate goal of an independent Venice any closer is unclear. The aborted stunt was a repeat of a similar maverick action in 1997, when separatists using an equally goofy homemade tank proclaimed Venice’s independence during a seven-hour siege in San Marco’s bell tower.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because Venetians like buffa so much, public support for separatism is at a high. A March poll (suspect for being organized by the independence parties themselves) indicated that 89 percent of the more than 2 million residents who participated favored splitting from Italy.

Venice is by no means Italy’s only secessionist movement with legs. For decades, the German speakers of South Tyrol have been campaigning for more autonomy, a return to Austria, or even independence — anything, really, as long as it means less Italy. The 1.6 million Sardinians, on their Vermont-sized island, almost halfway to Spain, also feel the classic neglect that breeds thoughts of going it alone. Ironically, many Corsicans (just over 300,000 in all, on an island the size of, well, three Rhode Islands, just north of Sardinia) want less France — even if that means more Italy.

France, that supposedly unitary hexagon, suffers from centrifugal forces in five of its six corners. The Bretons recently campaigned to limit the number of friendly kisses on the cheek to just the single one customary in their Celtic peninsula — a not-so-subtle way of differentiating the Bretons from their multi-cheek-pecking Gallic neighbors. Alsace, thoroughly Frenchified after World War II, reverts to history, folklore, and local dialects to claim a separate German (but n
ot too German) identity. Savoy, the seat of a powerful duchy from the 15th century to the 19th, was only annexed to France after a plebiscite in 1860 that was widely reported to have been rigged. The memory of that injustice is one of the sources of the slow-simmering Savoyard separatist movement. And in case you were wondering, the future Federal State of Savoy already has a website.

Among the Occitans of southern France, good-humored animosity toward the northerners could get mixed in with cultural and historical grievances to produce something more potent than mere regionalism. Nice, a French city on the border with Italy, remembers the time when it was still Nizza, an Italian city on the border with France. And then there are the tiny plots of France, on either end of the Pyrenees, that have links to the Basque and Catalan heartlands to the south.

As this map of all separatist movements in the European Union shows, Spain is even more troubled by potential separatisms: only Extremadura, an autonomous community close to Portugal, and a stretch of coastline between Andalucia and the Valencian lands apparently have no better place to be than in Spain. Apart from Spain’s three "main" separatist movements — in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia — minor secessionisms are brewing in Navarra, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Asturias, Andalucia, and even Castile and León.

It gets worse (or better, if you like this sort of thing) in Belgium and Britain, countries consisting almost entirely of separatist movements. In the still-United Kingdom, the Scottish referendum on independence in September could prove a watershed. If the Scots decide to go it alone, what is to stop the 3 million Welsh from doing the same? After all, Ireland seems to be doing fine a century after kicking out the Brits (even without the anti-separatist North). And even if the Welsh don’t, will English resentment against their perceived underappreciation build up to demand an English parliament and English autonomy, just like the other nations within the kingdom? And how would the Cornish feel about that? The Republic of Cornwall has a flag, is reviving its once-dead Celtic language, and is rural enough and far enough from London to feel wronged and misunderstood by the big bad metropolis. The April 24 announcement that the Cornish people will receive official "minority status" within the United Kingdom will put Cornwall on a par with the previously recognized Celtic nations.

Other intra-English regionalisms include Yorkshire, Mercia, and even Wessex — not the "dream country" that serves as the setting for Thomas Hardy’s novels, but a very real, somewhat irked region that has its own Regionalist Party and a cross-party pressure group for devolution.

The rest of Europe is less dense with separatist potential, but that doesn’t mean that it’s less explosive. Slovakia’s southern flank is inhabited by almost half a million ethnic Hungarians who are locked out of Hungary proper by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which divided the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as are members of the Hungarian minority weirdly stranded in the center of Romania. Even after the Czech Republic’s 1993 separation from Slovakia, the former is still a composite of two distinct regions, with Moravia in the east taking over Slovakia’s former role as the slighted partner in a Czech-dominated alliance.

Of all the other secessionist movements, from the Frisians on either side of the Dutch-German border to the Bavarians in Germany’s south and the Silesians in Poland’s south, few are as geographically impressive as Sapmi — the promised land for the descendants of Scandinavia’s original hunter-gatherers (the Sami, formerly known as the Lapps). Sapmi is spread out over large areas of no less than four countries, but the Sami are a minority in each. With the Sami’s ancestral stomping grounds sliced up by a multitude of borders, Sapmi reminds one of Kurdistan: the ephemeral homeland of the Kurds, divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Separatism is tough — but try seceding from four countries at once. 

Speaking of the Kurds, separatism of course doesn’t stop at the borders of Europe. This map of the world’s secessionist movements lists about 600 separatist wet dreams. Kabylia (in Algeria), the Coptic Pharaonic Republic (in Egypt), Caprivi (in Namibia), Gorkhaland (in India), and Patagonia (in Chile and Argentina) are but a handful of an overview that might be a bit too completist. What is Sweden seceding from? And surely, listing all U.S. states feels a bit like padding out the list.

Not that the United States can escape the separatist bug, even after that one disastrous experiment with secession in the 1860s. This map from Mansfield University geography professor Andrew Shears glosses over that attempt, but tallies up all others that could have been: a union of 124 states, with such obscure candidates as the Republic of Indian Stream (on the Canada-New Hampshire border), Absaroka (astride Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana), Cimarron (the Oklahoma Panhandle), and Forgottonia in western Illinois (talk about passive-aggressively daring the government to "ignore us at your own peril").

Would the world be better off if all that separatist resentment were let out of the bag and every frustrated region, amalgamated kingdom, and formerly grand duchy could mind its own business? 

The question is less absurd than it sounds. Just look at that foundering transnational project, the European Union. The bitter irony is that one of the only things uniting the 28 public opinions in the fledgling superstate is their common resentment of their common project. The telegenic figurehead of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, is but one of a new generation of populist politicians across the continent, all popular insofar as they rail against "Brussels" — that symbol of the wasteful, undemocratic, and bureaucratic European behemoth that threatens to crush each member country’s uniqueness.

Some of the European Union’s most vocal opponents scoffingly compare it to the Soviet Union and eagerly anticipate its similar fate. The implosion of the European Union could prove to be just as much of a Pandora’s box of secessionisms as the end of the Soviet Union is still proving to be: today in eastern Ukraine, tomorrow perhaps in France, Spain, and Italy.