Kosovo, Donbass and Catalonia are famous examples, but do you realize how many countries have problems with separatism?
In February of 2008, Kosovo’s parliament – dominated by Albanian separatists – declared the province’s independence from Serbia. Belgrade objected to the move, but it the new "state" was recognized the very next day by the United States, Britain, France, Türkiye, and Albania. More than 50 countries followed by the end of that year.
As of now, almost 100 UN member states have recognized Kosovo’s sovereignty. However, this figure is in constant flux, as some countries have withdrawn their support due to Belgrade’s diplomatic efforts. Nevertheless, Pristina continues to claim that 117 countries support its "independence."
In fact, more than half of the countries belonging to the UN do not recognize Kosovo’s independence. Among these are China, India, most of the post-Soviet countries, as well as several EU members, namely Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Romania, and Slovakia.
Russia is one of the main opponents of Kosovo’s declaration of independence and has been consistent about the consequences for the world order. Upon closer examination, it turns out that the vast majority of global states are dealing with some form of separatist issues, ranging from significant to very minor.
A Balkan Patchwork Quilt
The disputed status of Kosovo is only the latest instance of separatism resulting in the emergence of a new state-like entity in the Balkans. The disintegration of the region has been dubbed ‘Balkanization’, and deservedly so.
At the end of the last century, most of the Balkans were incorporated into a united country called Yugoslavia. Today, there are seven independent countries in its place, but this is by no means where it might end.
Serbia was the first to face the problem of Albanian separatism, but there are Albanian communities in other nations throughout the region – including Montenegro, Greece, and Northern Macedonia. In the latter, the threat is especially acute, since Albanians, who account for 25% of the country’s total population, live in the country’s western regions adjacent to Kosovo.
In addition to the Kosovo problem, Serbia has potential issues with Vojvodina – an autonomous region inhabited not only by Serbs, but also Hungarians, who have a very strong regional identity.
Kosovo also has its own internal challenges. In the northern part of the province, there is an enclave populated mainly by Serbs, who do not like the prospect of being isolated from their larger homeland. Likewise, problems with separatism have inevitably arisen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Republika Srpska, which is part of it, looks towards independence or reunification with Serbia and has increasingly expressed views on the future that contradict those of the central government.
The same problem, though less acute, can be found in Croatian enclaves of Bosnia, as well as Croatia itself, where there are enclaves of Serbs.
Iberian Peninsula: Two Countries Aren’t Enough
If there wasn’t a king sitting in Madrid who still unites most of the peninsula, ‘Balkanization’ might well have been called ‘Iberization’ – there are more separatist movements in Spain than any other Western European country.
The whole world is well aware of the problem of Catalonia. Just five years ago, in October 2017, the local authorities there held a referendum on independence, which ended in failure, despite the fact that more than 90% of those who voted supported the separation of the region from Spain. Madrid refused to recognize this expression of the people’s will. In the aftermath, some of the leaders of the Catalan separatist movement were arrested, while others managed to flee the country. However, this has hardly quashed the desire of local residents.
In addition to the Catalan issue, there is also Basque separatism, which, unlike the Catalonian variety, often takes on more radical forms. Radical nationalists from ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna – Basque Country and Freedom) fought for independence from Spain and the Spanish crown for more than 40 years, killing 800 people. In 2018, the group announced its self-dissolution, but this doesn’t mean that the problem has gone away. One of the largest parties in the region, the Basque Nationalist Party, still supports the idea of independence from Madrid.
Spain is divided into 17 autonomous communities, or regions. While not reaching the level of separatism, the idea of regional autonomy flourishes in each of them to one degree or another. In local elections, candidates who call for more independence and autonomy regularly garner a large percentage of the vote in Aragon, Andalusia, Castile, Asturias, Cantabria, and Galicia, as well as other autonomous communities.
And not all is sweetness and light in the Iberian peninsula’s other country, Portugal, either… though it’s true that the regions seeking to free themselves from the power of Lisbon are separated from that metropolis by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean: we’re talking the archipelago of Madeira and the Azores.
Britain: A disunited Kingdom
Scottish separatism has been haunting London for the past few years. After independence supporters won the last regional elections, they announced their intention to hold a second referendum on seceding from the United Kingdom. The first was held in 2014, when 55% opposed the divorce, and 45% supported it. Confident in the results of the vote, London didn’t interfere with the will of the Scots at that time.
However, two years later, the UK voted to leave the European Union, and Edinburgh demanded a new referendum, as Scots clearly wanted to stay in the EU, having voted against by a landslide 62%. The Scottish authorities had wanted to hold a new referendum in October 2023, but, last November, Great Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that plebiscites on independence cannot be held without London’s consent. This time the Tory-controlled parliament does not intend to grant it. Edinburgh has no intention of giving up, with the former head of the Scottish government, Nicola Sturgeon promising “Scottish democracy will not be denied.”
Last week, Sturgeon announced her resignation as Scotland’s first minister, but still, speaking of her successor, she expressed confidence that the person “will lead Scotland to independence.”
Relations with Northern Ireland are no less problematic for London. In local elections in the spring of 2022, the Sinn Fein party, which advocates for reuniting with the Republic of Ireland and seceding from the Uk, won regional elections for the first time. The Northern Ireland Protocol, signed between London and the EU during Brexit, probably contributed to the separatists’ growing popularity. The document calls for preserving a single customs space between Dublin and Belfast, while actually introducing customs between Britain and Northern Ireland.
London's issues don’t stop there with varying degrees of separatist activity in Cornwall, Mercia (the West Midlands and East Midlands regions), Northumberland, Yorkshire, Jersey, and Wales, and even talk of England itself exiting the UK. However, these appear to be trite compared to the Scottish and Irish questions.
Western Europe: Countries Within Countries
For the most part, the countries of Western Europe seem to be exemplary unitary states, and generally that is what they are. However, there are also strong regional identities, as well as desires for more autonomy and separatist leanings.
In France, for example, there is the problem of the Occitans, who occupy a huge area in the south of the country – as many as seven regions. Even an aggressive Francization policy wasn’t sufficient to solve this problem definitively: all signs in the region are regularly duplicated in Occitanian.
Brittany, in the northwest of the country, also has a strong regional identity. Its inhabitants have their own Celtic language and prefer to call themselves Bretons, rather than French. In the last half of the 20th century, the Breton Liberation Front, which is the armed wing of the Breton Revolutionary Army, carried out terrorist attacks, while barking out slogans advocating independence for their homeland. In Corsica, radical groups haven’t shied away from employing violent means to achieve independence, even in this century.
Each of these separatist communities boasts a political wing – the Occitan Party, the Breton Party, and the Free Corsica Party – whose programs range from demanding greater autonomy to calling for full independence. The last instance of violence occurred in the summer of last year, when the Corsican National Liberation Front (FLNC) claimed responsibility for 16 arson attacks and took credit for bombing summer residences owned by non-Corsicans, as well as construction companies and police cars.
The EU’s economic locomotive, Germany, has a problem in Bavaria – a rich region that occupies about 20% of the total area of the country bordering the Czech Republic and Austria. Bavarians are significantly different from other Germans. Their dialect is actually considered to be a separate language, if not officially recognized as such. Although regional identity is extremely strong, Bavarians rarely speak about separatism, at least publicly. But even in the absence of conflict, Berlin keeps its eye on Munich.
One of Germany’s main parties, the Christian Democratic Union, whose representatives have repeatedly been selected as Germany’s Chancellor, does not contest elections in Bavaria. Instead, it works in an alliance with the purely Bavarian Christian Social Union party, which has absorbed most of the separatist and radical nationalist Bavarian parties over time.
In Italy, the issue of independence is being discussed in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto. And these discussions are rather unpleasant for Rome. For example, Venetian politicians have managed to have Venetic recognized as an official language in their region, along with Italian. In March of 2014, 89% of respondents in an online poll conducted in the region supported creating a sovereign Federal Republic of Veneto. However, it hasn’t advanced to a referendum yet. The desire to achieve greater independence in these areas mainly stems from economic factors, but in South Tyrol, the national question also plays a role. This rich German-speaking region, which became part of Italy only after the First World War, has been striving to reunify with Austria for more than a century.
The most likely candidate for disintegration in Western Europe is undoubtedly Belgium. It consists of two regions inhabited by very different peoples: Dutch-speaking Flemings, who make up about 60% of the country’s population, and French-speaking Walloons, who account for 40%. The linguistic division is aggravated by serious economic inequality between the regions – the Flemings have every reason to believe that their southern neighbors in Wallonia, whose unemployment rate is twice as high and GDP per capita a third lower, are living at their expense. Thirty years ago, Flanders’ dissatisfaction with this situation contributed to transforming a unified Belgium into a federation. Now the Flemings are fighting to extend their autonomy further, while the Walloons attempt to repulse their efforts.
And so on, and so forth…
The problem of separatism is even more acute in Eastern Europe, especially in post-Soviet space, where wars have often broken out due to the inability of central and regional authorities to reach agreements. These regions include Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and eastern Ukraine.
But separatist aspirations are not confined to Europe. They can also be found in Asia, Africa, and even Oceania. This is especially true in countries with a colonial past, where borders were often drawn under external pressure without regard to local factors and the traditional homelands of tribes and peoples.
The strongest non-European powers today are not without this problem either. The world is well aware of the separatist threats facing China. The United States has recently been increasingly touting claims for independence from Taiwan, Tibet, the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Hong Kong, and Macau. A little more than half a century ago, Beijing was also fighting separatism in Inner Mongolia, but demographic trends have rendered this problem less relevant.
That said, even the US itself, which from the outside appears to be one of the most monolithic nations in the word, could easily be divided into 11 smaller nations. Stories about Americans pushing for the independence of individual states – California and Texas, for example – pop up in the media from time to time, while more exotic movements advocating the independence of entire regions, such as Cascadia or the Republic of New Africa, also exist.
At any rate, a complete list of all the separatist movements around the world would occupy a separate room in a library.
Is there a solution?
Timofey Bordachev, program director at the Valdai Club, in Moscow, believes that “Globally, separatism is a reaction to disassociation, the construction of new fences, and the rise of nationalism.”
“If there was real globalization, there would be no separatism. Borders would be transparent, and people wouldn’t care where they live.
Separatism is a struggle against the nationalism of the titular nation.
Why do residents of Donbass and Eastern Ukraine want to get out from under Kiev’s power? The reason is Ukrainian nationalism. Why did separatists wanting to break with Georgia appear in South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Because Tbilisi tried to impose Georgian nationalism on these regions. That’s it. The reason behind separatism always stems from the nationalism of the larger nation,” the expert told RT.
Nikolay Topornin, associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations’ Department of European Law, has a slightly different point of view. According to him, “There is no clear relation between separatist tendencies and global integration processes.”
“Each case has its own history, its own characteristics, its own roots. But yes, most often a whole complex of historical, cultural, religious, linguistic, educational, and economic reasons lies behind each example of separatism,” he pointed out.
In some sense, globalization has contributed to the growth of separatism, according to the expert. One of its consequences has been the appearance of glocalization, with regional differences strengthening, rather than disappearing as expected. “Instead of merging and unifying, trends in the opposite direction are emerging and gaining strength: separatist leanings, increased attention on local differences, heightened interest in ancient traditions, and the revival of dialects,” he said.
Under these conditions, there are only two ways to fight separatism: repression and concessions. Countries often employ both of these methods simultaneously by persecuting separatist-minded activists, while granting separatist regions more autonomy at the same time. However, according to Timofey Bordachev, there is a more universal prescription:
“Is there a theoretical solution to the problem of separatism? Yes. It’s an empire. The only prescription for separatism is an empire: large multinational, multi-confessional countries, such as Russia, China, and, to some extent, the United States.”