The Politics of Separatism and Violent Conflict

“Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and then it turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.” – William Morris

sudan-referendum-2011

A Southern Sudanese voter casts her ballot on 9 January 2011, the first day of independence referendum that led to the creation of UN’s 193rd member state (Photo: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Wars, not much peace

Have you noticed that we live in the age of continuous violent conflict fought simultaneously under various banners in different places? Virtually there is no a single day when we do not hear news about small, big, short or long wars (mostly about attacks and casualties, much rear so about successful peace deals). And this trend has been in making for quite a long time; modern time globalisation and technology advances made information about them readily available but also made the wars more intense and devastating, and rapidly escalating.

These are staggering facts, but in the course of past two centuries (from 1816) more than three hundred civil wars have been fought across the globe. Consider now that vast majority of them take months and years, and some last for decades (and this does not mean that the conflict is settled once and for all)—and you will realise that the humanity has not lived in even a short peace period for at least two hundred years.

Separatism as political manifestation

More than one-fifth of civil wars have been conflicts related to or originating from separatist demands. It does not come as surprise though—the very process of state creation and nation building over centuries, which left many cultural groups and nations stateless or residing as minority on the territories controlled by other groups, made it unavoidable. Political process of the 20th century, especially the collapse of empires, redrawing borders and creating new states after both World Wars, and decolonisation have both created conditions for tensions between various groups within newly formed states and boosted the nationalist and separatist ideas and movements.

The results of most of those state creation and recreation experiments are irreversible, for various reasons ranging from the resistance (or resilience) of internal political structures to regional and global security considerations and international law provisions and practices (which are not unambiguous, in turn). Therefore separatism is here to stay, and each generation of those groups seeking autonomy will take up their fight, as has been the case all along. If so, it makes sense taking a close look at separatism—to understand why it results in violent conflicts and what could be done to prevent it from turning into civil wars, and what could be done to end those wars once they occur.

“Separatist conflict is inherently political but not necessarily violent. Better we understand the interplay between its agents and their ideas, the underlying institutions and structures, and appreciate the role of externalities and contingencies at given point in time—higher the chances to prevent it from turning violent or to end the war once it occurred.”

First, separatism is an inherently political movement. Politically organised distinct cultural groups (for example, ethnic, racial, religious, tribal) advocate and act upon their claims for greater autonomy or independence from the state on which territory they reside in compact, as a minority. Material incentives play small, if any, role in this kind of contest: that is why greed and grievances of political economy analysis fall short of explaining the drivers of separatist conflict.

Second, separatism means conflict, but not necessarily violent. There are many separatist groups which pursue their goals of greater autonomy by peaceful means. And there are many states which engage in talks and concessions to meet those demands, instead of resorting to repressions outright. A lot depends on political culture and tradition of a given country and a combination of various contexts at a given time. And finally there are also various external actors which, in pursuit of their own agendas, may calm down or fuel the violent conflict.

[*On a related but separate note: the end of hostilities and eventual secession does not necessarily or immediately mean peace and prosperity for newly established states. From one civil war they may move into another war–this time within their borders and driven by another political struggle, separatist or otherwise. Think of South Sudan.]

Basics of separatism

All the above, backed by recent literature and evidence on the ground bring us to conclusion that separatism-inspired or driven civil wars shall be understood, studied and dealt with in terms of political science, by employing such categories as institutions, contexts, structures, agents, ideas, and contingency. Below is a summary of basics on contemporary separatist conflict, as informed by evidence:

  • There are different types of separatist groups and movements (or agents)
  • There are different kinds of separatist demands (or ideas)
  • There are different local contexts (or institutions and structures)
  • There are different exogenous factors (or externalities)
  • There are numerous points in time when individual decisions randomly coincide to produce unpredictable outcomes (or contingency ).

This post is first in a series where I will look at each of these statements separately.

1- Different types of (including potentially) separatist groups and movements (or agents)

Most of research conducted on separatism use the most complete database operated by Minorities at Risk (MAR) project of the University of Maryland. According to generally accepted definitions, there are six ethnopolitical groups identified in terms of their potential relevance to separatism. Under relevance it is meant that those groups have a potential for seeking autonomy, due to their historical past or current conditions.

As of 2006, there were estimated 283 such ethnopolitical groups across the globe (out of estimated 1,200 ethnic minorities recorded):

politics-separatism-violent-conflict_fig-1

Ethnonationalists are regionally concentrated peoples with a history of organized political autonomy with their own state, traditional ruler, or regional government, who have supported political movements for autonomy at some time since 1945.

Examples include: Kashmiris in India; Jews in Argentina; Kurds in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey; Turk Cypriots; Tatars in Russia; Zanzibaris in Tanzania; Scotts and Northern Ireland Catholics in the UK; Sardinians in Italy; Basques in Spain.

Indigenous groups are conquered descendants of earlier inhabitants of a region who live mainly in conformity with traditional social, economic, and cultural customs that are sharply distinct from those of dominant groups.

Examples include: Rohingya in Myanmar; Mayas in Mexico; Berbers in Morocco; Chechens in Russia; Nuba in Sudan; Native Americans in the US and First Nations in Canada; Maori in New Zealand.

National minorities are segments of a trans-state people with a history of organised political autonomy whose kindred control an adjacent state, but who now constitute a minority in the state in which they reside.

Examples include: Biharis in Bangladesh; Azerbaijanis in Iran; Crimean Russians; Catalans in Spain; Serbs and Croats in Bosnia; Baluchis in Pakistan.

Religious sects are communal groups that differ from others principally in their religious beliefs and related cultural practices, and whose political status and activities are centered on the defense of their beliefs.

Examples include: Ahmadis in Pakistan; Copts in Egypt; Shi’a in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Communal contenders are culturally distinct peoples, tribes, or clans in heterogeneous societies who hold or seek a share in state power. Disadvantaged communal contenders are subject to some degree of political, economic, or cultural discrimination but lack offsetting advantages. Advantaged communal contenders are those with political advantages over other groups in their society. Dominant communal contenders are those with a preponderance of both political and economic power.

Examples include: Hazaras in Afghanistan; Druze in Lebanon; Zulus in South Africa; Hutus in Burundi; Ashanti in Ghana.

Ethnoclasses are ethnically or culturally distinct peoples, usually descended from slaves or immigrants, most of whom occupy a distinct social and economic stratum or niche.

Examples include: Sri Lankan Tamilis; Roma in Romania, Hungary, Serbia; Tutsis in Congo (DRC); Hispanics in the US; Turks in Germany; Koreans in Japan; Chinese in Vietnam and Thailand.

*                  *                  *

Each of these groups has its own identity and shared history, present-day circumstances, and ideas about their future as political entity. I will explore them in the next piece.

This article was first published on PolicyLabs

This entry was posted in conflict, War and Peace and tagged , , on by .

About PolicyLabs

Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in conflict affected situations. He has worked in Iraq (with USAID), Afghanistan (with UNDP), Bosnia and Herzegovina (with OSCE), and Azerbaijan (in academia and think tanks). He has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide policy initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels. Holds PhD in Contemporary History/Political Science. @ElbayPolicyLabs

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