Separatism is the ideas or activities advocating separation of a group or a territorial unit from a state (country), state institutions, or a larger group, usually in the form of autonomy or independence. Examination of complex relationships between the intensity of separatism and its goals and motivations cross-nationally or within individual states is one of the central lines of inquiry in social sciences. Systematic analyses of this phenomenon are available in political science, sociology, anthropology, social psychology, and geography.
With regard to intensity, scholars distinguish between latent separatism in the form of beliefs, attitudes, narratives, ideologies, as well as collective memories of past autonomous or independent status, and active separatism that can be peaceful (petitions, noncompliance with national laws, formation of separatist movements, and rallies or demonstrations) or violent (destruction of property, beatings, riots, guerrilla attacks, terrorist acts, and civil wars). The intensity of separatism also relates to the scale and nature of separatist demands. At the lowest end of the scale are group- or community-level demands for a larger share of economic revenues or for enhancing the status of their culture and lifestyle that do not involve changing the constitutions or other legal foundations of a nation-state. Examples are most manifestations of municipal or tribal separatism in the United States; provincial separatism in Europe, China, and the Russian Federation; and sectarian dissidence (e.g., Nation of Islam in the United States, Old Believers in the Russian Orthodox Church). In the latter case, sectarian refers to breaking away from the main arm of the group’s base religion and dissidence refers to these groups seeking to stand apart from society and government in important ways.
At a higher level are demands to change constitutions or other fundamental state laws to decentralize government authority within a state in favor of constituent administrative units (provinces), usually with respect to electoral processes, government appointments, taxation, control over natural resources and principal economic activities, language use, education, regulation of churches, and other cultural and symbolic issues. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries this type of separatist demand was systematically illustrated by the movement known as the “parade of sovereignties” in post-Soviet Russia (1991–1999). This movement resulted in a negotiated federal treaty, a redefinition of the political status of Russia’s eighty-nine constituent units (provinces, republics, and districts) in the Russian constitution, and the signing of power-sharing treaties between the federal government and more than fifty constituent unit governments.
The strongest form of separatism is demand for independent statehood (full secession), complete with granting the separatist units the monopoly on legitimate use of violence within its borders and international recognition of the new state’s sovereignty. Reflecting the drive for self-determination, these demands take the form of civic or ethnic nationalism or, typically, a combination of both. Prominent examples at the global level both past and present are separatist movements in Spain (Basques), Canada (Quebec), Turkey (Kurds), Great Britain (Northern Ireland), the Soviet Union (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia), the Russian Federation (Chechnya), former Yugoslavia (Croatia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Slovenia), Georgia (Abkhazia, South Ossetia), Indonesia (Aceh, East Timor), China (Tibet, Xingjiang), India (Kashmir), Mexico (Chiapas), Nigeria (Biafra), Ethiopia (Eritrea), the United States (the Confederacy), and elsewhere. In the majority of cases where these types of secessionist claims have had strong social support, they have also been accompanied by mass political action, from demonstrations and referenda to the formation of rebel armies and protracted wars.
Most separatist ideologies or movements are complex amalgams of political, ethnic/racial, religious, and socioeconomic separatisms. Only rarely does one find any of these distinct forms of separatism in their pure form. Political separatism represents contestation over the design and control of political systems and their constituent institutions. Mobilized political ideologies are paramount. This was the case of monarchist, socialist, and liberal-democratic separatist movements that seized power in provincial governments and mobilized military forces to unsuccessfully contest the Bolshevik takeover of Russia’s central government in November 1917. The central element of the separatist movements that later galvanized the disintegration of the Soviet Union was anti-communism. The latter enabled the coming together of pro-democracy and nationalist movements that had few reasons to join forces otherwise. Russia’s first elected president, Boris Yeltsin, mobilized a distinctly anti-Soviet separatist movement advocating secession from Soviet institutions, such as the Communist Party, the KGB (the security and intelligence organization of the Soviet Union), and the state planning agency.
Ethnic, racial, and religious separatism presupposes claims for enhanced status, autonomy, or independence of individual ethnic, racial, or religious groups from the state or a larger group. At the center of ethnic/racial movements are claims to cultural and/or linguistic distinctiveness and privilege (as in Quebec, Basque Country, and Corsica). Religious separatist movements arise within major religions (Catholic-Protestant conflict in Northern Island, Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq) or across major religions (Hindu-Muslim conflict over Kashmir, Islam-Christianity distinctions in Bosnia). In their most extreme form these movements claim the need to ensure physical survival of an entire ethnic/racial and/or religious group (Abkhazia, Chechnya, Xingjiang). Separatism of ethnic, racial, and religious minorities may also take a form of resistance to discrimination, oppression, forced resettlement, ethnic cleansing, or mass extermination initiated against them by the politically dominant ethnic or racial groups within a state (i.e., those who control the army, police, security forces, mercenaries, and paramilitaries). In the latter instances, separatist conflicts become particularly intense, brutal, and protracted as action-retaliation patterns escalate, become intractable, and constrain conflict resolution efforts by third parties within or outside the state. One of the prominent empirical questions in social sciences is to what extent the intensity of separatist movements depends on whether ethnic, linguistic, religious, and other identity cleavages in a society are cross-cutting (India) or overlapping (Russia). Economic separatism, on the other hand, is typified by the slogan of the American colonists seeking independence from the British Empire—“no taxation without representation”— but when economic interests are predominant, separatist movements are more likely to end in bargains with central authorities rather than in state disintegration.
Social scientific research identifies three sources of motivation behind separatist movements: (1) structural conditions (macroeconomic performance and intergroup differentials, demographic trends and distribution of ethnic populations, polity type, ethnofederalism, geography and terrain); (2) behavioral microfoundations (intergroup bias, frustration-aggression psychology, cognitive processes, emotions); and (3) interactivity (bargaining or “games” within and outside the state, conflict precedent, demonstration effects). Debates within and across disciplines are predominantly about the relative importance of these factors. Research methodology includes ethnographic accounts; historical case studies; small-group experiments; and statistical analysis of surveys, aggregate statistics, and event data. Examples of the latter are the Minorities at Risk, State Failure Task Force, and Global Events Data Systems projects based in the United States, which draw on large datasets documenting cases of separatism from nation-states or empires throughout the world from 1800 to the early 2000s.
SEE ALSO Autonomy; Decentralization; Ethnic Conflict; Ethnic Fractionalization; Ethnicity; Nationalism and Nationality; Partition; Secession; Segregation; Segregation, Residential; Segregation, School; Self-Determination; Self-Determination Theory; Sovereignty
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Mikhail A. Alexseev
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