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Past Special Report
European disintegration? Separatist movements across the continent are gaining momentum
November 24, 2014
Scotland's narrowly lost campaign for independence has emboldened similar struggles for self-determination across Europe, in places like Catalonia, Flanders, and Transnistria. Thomas Wagner-Nagy asks what this trend could mean for Europe, where a complex history of disputed cultural and territorial borders continues to unfold.
In September, 2014 the political world's attention was drawn to a small European nation that rarely makes it to international news headlines. But when some four million Scots were invited to determine their country's future path in a referendum, world leaders and independence-minded peoples around the globe must have been watching with great interest.
British prime minister David Cameron was "delighted" about the Scottish vote to remain part of the United Kingdom and celebrated it as "a clear result". He praised the vivid democratic process that stood before the referendum and defended the decision to allow a definitive yes-or-no question, "because now, the debate is settled for a generation or [...] perhaps for a lifetime", as he said.
Scotland as the trailblazer for others?
But while the British government and monarchy along with many world leaders and economists were celebrating and sugarcoating an in fact quite narrow 55-to-45 per cent victory, separatist leaders across Europe interpreted the Scottish Independence Referendum in an entirely different way. Some feel more emboldened now than ever, using the Scottish example as a springboard to push for their own independence.
Based on this broad definition and range of ambitions, there are several dozen active separatist movements in Europe, most of which, however, remain very low-key and barely noticed due to lack of public support. But recent examples like the independence of Kosovo, the Russian annexation of Crimea and Scotland's close referendum are strong reminders that the borders of post-war Europe are all but carved in stone. Who might try next for independence? Are dwarf-sized breakaway states a viable solution and why would anybody want more borders while the EU is trying to reduce them?
A look at three prominent yet very different cases in the continent's East, West and South.
Catalonia in Spain - constitutional skirmish versus real dialogue
Spain's North-Eastern region of Catalonia has its own languages, a distinctive culture, a stronger economy than the rest of the motherland, and receives less federal spending than it contributes in tax revenues. Thus, it combines the core elements that typically constitute breeding grounds for separatist movements - and the idea of creating an autonomous or independent state is not new in the region.
For the third consecutive year, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets on September 11th 2014, Catalan national day. The crowd gathered mainly in Barcelona, the region's capital and powerhouse, to demand a referendum on independence.
Unlike David Cameron, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has chosen a tougher stance on his country's most pressing independence issue. He staunchly opposes the vote, saying it is unconstitutional. "A referendum that challenges the Spanish people's sovereignty and unity will not be successful", Rajoy said on Spanish television. "I can guarantee that as long as I am prime minister [...] no Spanish territory will become independent", he added.
Until the court’s decision, the legal limbo surrounding the referendum had allowed the campaign to begin. Ballot boxes and ballots were prepared along with a referendum website and a framework plan on the steps an independent Catalonia would have to take in key sectors such as defence, social security and financial viability.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government has strongly condemned the vote. In a statement Justice Minister Rafael Catala referred to the poll as "political propaganda organised by pro-independence forces and devoid of any kind of democratic validity" as well as "a sterile and useless sham" designed to heighten political tensions and divisions.
Flanders in Belgium - forced marriage with a painful divorce?
"An accident of history", "artificial state" or "not a real country" are only a few of the cynically derisive terms some political analysts have used to describe Belgium. While some of this criticism might be polemic and over-the-top, the question of national identity in the Western European kingdom is indeed a very delicate one.
The creation of the modern state of Belgium began in 1830 during the Belgian revolution. Until then, what is now Belgium and Luxembourg was part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Along with religious and language-related differences, the main cause of the Belgian Revolution was the resentment due to the Dutch dominance over the Belgian population which was larger than the Dutch at that time. Since the revolution was motivated by hatred of the ruling House of Orange, the newly created Republic did not split along ethnic lines.
That is why until today the country is culturally and linguistically clearly divided between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders in the north and the poorer French-speaking industrial region of Wallonia in the south, with Brussels, the capital of both Belgium and the European Union, as a bilingual international city right in the middle.
Despite notable differences, the idea of a possible partition of Belgium is relatively new and it was mainly the growing wealth gap between the North and South that has created separatist sentiments in Flanders where its supporters think they would be better off without Wallonia. The 2008 financial crisis has further boosted separatism. For years, the political climate in Brussels has been poisoned and marked by mutual animosities and the inability of the rivaling parties to cooperate.
Between 2010 and 2011, for example, Belgium's political leaders became the ridicule of the international press as they broke the record for time taken to form a new democratic government after an election with 589 days, held until then by Cambodia with 353 days. The tough negotiations led to a severe government crisis and further fueled the speculation about a possible partition of Belgium.
These tensions last reached a temporary climax when ex-Prime minister and then-premier of Flanders Yves Leterme caused outrage by stating the nation was an "accident of history" with "no intrinsic value" and that the kingdom was at a point where it amounted to nothing more than the "king, the national football team and certain brands of beer". While Leterme was quick to backpedal on his strong words, he had touched upon some painful truths about a nation in the heart of Europe that is increasingly divided.
Tom van Grieken is an MP of the Flemish independence party Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interests). In an interview he summed up why he thinks his region needs to be independent:
"We are the only party in Belgium who are for Flemish independence. We think Belgium is dead, it is from the beginning in 1830 an artificial state, where two different people are forced to live together. Although we are only 60 percent of the population of Belgium, we produce 80 percent of our economy. Independent Flanders with Brussels as its capital will be the best for the Flemish people."
Rhetoric like this has left Wallonia particularly concerned by the possible partition of Belgium. To a point where its main political party has suggested the region might join France if Belgium falls apart.
Transnistria in Moldova - the next Crimea?
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Transnistria unilaterally split from the newly created and internationally recognized Republic of Moldova. This led to a war between the two states in March 1992 during which the pro-Transnistria forces, who didn’t wish to separate from the Soviet Union, were supported by the Russian 14th Army.
After some bloody fighting and about 1000 casualties mainly on the Transnistrian side, a truce agreement was eventually reached. Russian forces separated the two sides and stayed in the territory East of the Dniester river to maintain the ceasefire. Since then, Transnistria - officially: Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic - is a de-facto sovereign state while its official status remains in limbo. The situation between Moldova and Transnistria is considered a "frozen conflict", meaning that while active armed confrontation has ceased, there is still no peace treaty or other political framework in place.
Most Transnistrians speak Russian and feel affiliated to Russia whereas most Moldovans West of the Dniester know Russian but use Romanian as their first language and wish for their poverty-stricken country's quick integration into Europe. Whether this can be achieved with Moldova as a sovereign state or through a long-standing unification plan with Romania is a much-debated topic in both countries. So far, a clear majority of Moldovans along with key political leaders opposed their state's incorporation into Romania, which could be an extraordinary shortcut to an otherwise very distant EU membership. Given Russia's aggression against Ukraine and newly discovered expansionist ambitions, it will be interesting to monitor if the current events caused a shift in public opinion on the topic in Moldova.
Regardless of the approach chosen, the fate and future of Transnistria in this power shifting game cannot be ignored. The sliver of land with its half a million inhabitants is roughly a third of the size of Kosovo or Jamaica and entirely jammed by Moldova to the West and Ukraine to the East. It has its own government and currency, yet no international passenger airport and it is not recognized by any UN member state. The Transnistrian economy is battered by corruption und smuggling designed to evade Moldovan and Ukrainian import taxes and heavily dependent on Russian loans, direct subsidies, and low-cost natural gas.
Russia has pledged to withdraw its military presence of some two thousand troops from the territory on an OSCE summit in 1999 but has not done so since. In a 1995 referendum, more than 90 per cent of Transnistrian voters, many of which also hold Russian citizenship, supported a stay of Russian troops in the breakaway state. In another referendum in 2006, voters were asked whether they approved the possibility of renouncing independence and potential future integration into Moldova, or alternatively independence and potential future integration into the Russian Federation. The vast majority of some 97 per cent voted for Russia and against Moldova.
Given this historical and demographic background it is no surprise that many Transnistrians were worried about their future when Moldova along with Ukraine and Georgia signed an association agreement with the EU. Russian and Western political analysts alike have stated that the deal that binds the three countries more closely to the West both economically and politically is at the heart of the crisis in Ukraine as Russia fears losing grip and influence in the region.
In the same week when President Putin formalized his country's annexation of Crimea in March 2014, Transnistrian lawmakers filed a request to join the Russian Federation in a similar way.
In October 2014, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gave an insight into his country's stance over Transnistria. "If Moldova loses its sovereignty and gets annexed by another country, or if Moldova changes its military-political non-bloc status, the people of Transnistria have the right to decide their future independently. We will insist on this position", Lavrov said.
In response, the small state of Moldova could do little more than warning Russia that annexing Transnistria would be a "mistake". The situation is particularly precarious because Moldova - with or without Transnistria - is one of Europe's poorest countries and risks being crushed in what seems to be a renewed power game between Russia and the West. Indeed, the small country has already experienced a sample of how this game plays out: After Moldova signed the EU Association Agreement, Russia imposed de-facto sanctions against the state by banning imports of Moldovan wine, spirits and pork products, allegedly for health reasons. The EU responded by abolishing quotas that it had placed on its imports of Moldovan wine.
Perhaps the most precarious aspect of the Transnistrian question is that the fate of both Moldova and Transnistria will probably not be decided in either of the two states but rather be controlled by outside forces and depend on the outcome of the Ukraine conflict.
Back to the Middle Ages - European disintegration?
The three examples for separatism in Europe mentioned above are certainly just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other regions that might want to use the momentum of the Scottish referendum to give their independence ambitions a try. If all of them got their way, the map of Europe would become an unrecognizable rag rug. It would look like one of the middle ages. This doom scenario, however, is not to be feared yet.
While they share some patterns and concerns in common, it is important to note that these separatist conflicts are all very different. Thus, they always have to be viewed case-by-case. While some movements see complete independence as the only way, others would be satisfied with more autonomy and self-determination. In addition to that, some regions would barely be able to survive without massive international aid and/or the union with the bigger country they belong to. Therefore, all the Scottish referendum has proven is that even in a united Europe growing together at a remarkable pace, people want to have a say in political processes that determine their future yet often compromise their interests. No democratic political leaders who are committed to peace and stability can afford to simply ignore these voices, no matter what the solution in their country's specific case may be. The continent's common challenge in the years ahead will be to make all efforts to maintain peace rather than all of its historically dynamic borders.
Woehrel, Steven: Moldova: Background and U.S. Policy. Congressional Research Service Report, April 23, 2014.
Thomas Wagner-Nagy is a freelance journalist currently based in Germany. He holds a BA in Science Journalism with a minor in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Dortmund. Born in Transylvania/Romania and raised in Germany, his work has taken him to France, Cameroon and Costa Rica. He graduated from the United Nations-mandated University for Peace in June 2014 with an MA in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies. Thomas is currently working to establish his own NGO which aims to provide schooling and a leisure program for children in refugee camps.