Devolution, Secession, and Democracy

By John Bacher and Metta Spencer, in ed. Mitja Žagar, Boris Jesih, and Romana Bešter, The Constitutional and Political Regulation of Ethnic Relations and Conflicts. Ljubljana: Institute for Ethnic Studies, 1999.
Abstract in Slovenian; main text in English.


Članek se ukvarja s problemom treh principov ali načel, ki so postala zelo aktualna po razpadu bivših komunističnih držav v vzhodni in srednji Evropi. Gre za principe demokracije, samoodločbe in odcepitve. Pogosto se zdi, da princip demokracije že po definiciji obsega tudi princip; samoodločbe – doktrino, po kateri ima vsak narod pravico, da nadzoruje svojo vlado in da se odcepi, če ni zadovoljen z državo, znotraj katere živi. Avtorja poudarjata, da je omenjena pojma oziroma principa potrebno ločevati seboj, zato v članku najprej pojasnita enega in drugega ter nas seznanita z njunimi značilnostmi, ki so bolj ali manj splošno sprejete. V nadaljevanju pa je članek posvečen trem konkretnim primerom: a) razpadu Sovjetske zveze (ki ga večina udeleženih smatra za tragedijo); b) razpadu Češkoslovaške (ki ga večina udeleženih obžaluje, preostali svet pa gleda nanj kot na zgodbo o uspehu); in c) Grenlandiji (edinstveni zgodbi o uspehu, v kateri “narod” nikdar ni razvil pomembnejše zahteve po samoodločbi, čeprav lahko predpostaljamo, da so bili za to dani ustrezni pogoji).

Devolution, Secession and Democracy

By Metta Spencer and John Bacher

The collapse of the Communist bloc is one aspect of a broader historical trend that could be discerned as early as the 1970s — a world-wide tendency toward democratizing systems of governance. One can see parallels between the breakdown of the Soviet empire and the breakdown of European empires earlier in the century, when the former colonies seized the opportunity to choose their own forms of government. Just as decolonization launched a period of democratization (by no means all of it orderly or even substantitively democratic), so too the collapse of the Communist bloc has augmented another phase of democratization. To make sense of these processes we must first sharpen the conceptual distinction between two principles: self-determination and democracy.

Unless examined closely, the principle of democracy may seem to entail, by definition, the principle of “self-determination,” the doctrine that every people is entitled to control its own government and to secede if it dislikes the state in which it exists.

Empirically, also, it seems that wherever and whenever a major spree of democratization takes place, it is accompanied by an upsurge of independence movements, as one group after another asserts its right to secede from the state by which it has previously been governed. This has been going on at least since thirteen British colonies in America declared their independence from the crown and devised their own democracy.

In fact, however, serious practical problems result from the conflation of the concepts of democracy and self-determination. Much can be gained by disentangling the two notions.

Democracy: What is Universal and What Varies?

Let us identify the universal, defining features of democracy. The first criterion is that the citizens must somehow shape the policies of their state. Though this is universal among democracies, the specific methods by which this is accomplished can vary endlessly and with great consequence. The principal method involves multi-party politics and elections. However, one voting system can produce outcomes exactly opposite to those of another system that is also democratic. Citizens should not be satisfied, therefore, with the knowledge that their government is democratic; they should pay far more attention to the particular kind of democratic procedures that it uses.

A second universal principle of democracy is that (a) when a vote is taken, the majority wins and the minority accepts that outcome. However, (b) no elite should be in a position to win all disputes, for the citizenry should comprise a shifting plurality of interests such that everyone wins some conflicts and loses others. Moreover, regardless of its size, © __no majority should be able to infringe on certain human rights for which all citizens, including minorities, are guaranteed protection.__

In all democratic countries, of course, real situations vary considerably, creating many exceptions to these principles. Thus sometimes a small group can acquire enough power to keep issues from ever coming to a vote, so the majority never has a chance to win. At other times public opinion on an issue is so fragmented that no platform appeals to the majority of voters, and so a small plurality wins. Sometimes individuals forever find themselves in the minority, losing every time a vote is taken. Sometimes a minority cannot protect its rights against the domination of a small powerful elite or against mass public opinion. Nevertheless, despite the exceptions, these universal principles are the democratic standards against which societies can properly be measured.

A third universal criterion of democracy is that the qualifications for membership must not be discriminatory. Persons should not be excluded from full citizenship on the basis of gender, race, creed, national origin, or other ascribed attributes.

Here, too, the reality is that wide variations exist. Discrimination exists in all states, including liberal democracies, and in fact the greatest levels of economic equality attained in modern times probably have not occurred in democracies but in totalitarian communist regimes. Nevertheless, if a society officially extends the full rights of citizenship only to members of specific ethnic communities, that fact means ipso facto that the country does not measure up as a proper democracy.

Since the 1970s, and especially since 1989, most states have come to acknowledge the desirability of democracy and have been implementing it with at least some success. The first universal criterion of democracy is generally accepted almost everywhere: that citizens must somehow shape the policies of their state. Unfortunately, the means may not be available to accomplish this. Usually a newly-liberalizing state simply adopts the voting system of one of the existing democracies, however poor a choice it may be for a country that is experiencing the nationalistic upsurge that always accompanies democratization. Moreover, such a state also is likely to accept the legitimacy of self-determination as a principle, thereby exacerbating the challenge of democratizing.

Self-Determination and its Problems

Self-determination, as it is generally understood, almost inevitably clashes with the other universal democratic standards identified above — especially the protection of minority rights against the demands of an expansive chauvinism whose adherents identify themselves as “a people” — a “nation.” Such an ethnic group issues demands that contravene the third universal principle — that qualifications for citizenship must not be discriminatory. A “people” is always a discriminatory ethnic category, unless it refers to all citizens of a country, regardless of their national origin.

According to the notion of “national self-determination” every “nation” has a right to choose its own form of governance and to secede from the existing state. “Secede” means, not only to emigrate from the state where they live, but to take their land with them and establish an independent polity.1

Any separatist movement immediately must confront such conundrums as this: Empirically, how do we identify a “people” — that group of citizens who are entitled to secede? How can we know whether any given individual belongs to the relevant “people” or “nation” that should supposedly enjoy this privilege? Can officials of the state ascertain membership in this group unerringly, so as to sort people into members and non-members? Can geneticists identify members on the basis of heredity? Or in case of a dispute, should everyone be accepted who wants to be considered a member? Or should the group’s leaders determine who shall be accepted as full members and who are merely pretenders or unwelcome interlopers? Can an individual belong to two different categories, as for example the child of a mixed marriage or a spouse who acquired membership by marriage?

Why, indeed, should only a “nation” or a “people” be entitled to self-determination and to the privilege of seceding and forming their own state? Why do not other groups have the same right: such as all the faculty members and students in a given university? Or all citizens with Type O blood?

How do we identify the specific portion of land that “a nation” is entitled take with them when quitting the existing state? What is the nature of this entitlement? Is it based on historical occupancy? If so, what proportion of that land must have been occupied by bona fide members of “the people” and for what length of time? If they inhabited the land at two different periods can two different “nations” both be entitled to the same tract?

According to the simplest version self-determination, even if a particular “people” lives in a state with highly developed democratic institutions, participating fully as citizens, with ample protection of their human rights, it is nevertheless entitled to secede and form a state of its own ruled by a dictator. The contrast between two possible situations — a truly democratic self-government on the one hand or, on the other, a tyranny brought about by secession — shows the distinction between “self-determination” and democracy.

Why, then, is self-determination considered so important that the recent upsurge in democratization has sharply increased the demand for secession all around the world? When people feel powerless, it may be because of the actual absence of democracy or it may be because they feel themselves to be “small frogs in a big pond” — too remote from the democratic decision-makers in the capitol to make their preferences count. The current spate of separatist movements has, I think, less to do with any commitment to democracy than with the increasing preference for localized governance instead of remote, centralized governments.

The extent of democracy and the extent of decentralization actually are two distinct factors that can vary independently. Democracy is virtually always the most promising direction in which a state should move (despite the costs and instability it may bring in the short-term) but the benefits and disadvantages of decentralization are mixed. Certainly there is a widespread assumption (and not only on the part of anarchists) that democracy and freedom are more compatible with a system of smaller-scale, local governments than with the remotely-controlled administrations of a huge empire or superpower. Indeed, even the rulers of huge empires and superpowers sometimes choose, for their own good reasons, to devolve much of administrative responsibility to decentralized entities.

On the other hand, precisely when states are fragmenting into smaller ones through secession, other transnational and global forms of governance are also emerging to manage a multiplicity of economic, demographic, and ecological problems. The old world order based on distinct, sovereign states is being replaced, though it is too early to say what the alternative will (or should) be.

One popular recommendation today invokes the principle of “subsidiarity”; it envisages levels of government along a federal model, with smaller entities existing inside larger ones like a set of wooden Russian dolls, and proposes that each type of decision be assigned to the smallest or most local level practicable in this system. Thus municipalities would decide about their own sewers and subways, while the World Trade Organization would decide issues affecting international trade. Whether or not subsidiarity is a sound theory, it is anyway only a slogan, offering no specific guidelines for ascertaining which jurisdictional level is most appropriate for handling any particular type of decision. We are not close to resolving the debate between those who favor a large, centralized state and those who would devolve power to decentralized autonomous regions or independent states.

Nevertheless, every new case of democratization seems to bring with it demands for political devolution — and not just any type of decentralized governance, but one based on the principle of “national self-determination,” the assertion of sovereignty by ethnic separatists in the name of “a people.” The widespread acceptance of this norm as some kind of basic “human right” is a curious phenomenon in a world otherwise marked by so much ideological diversity, especially since adherents to the principle could be found in virtually every major, mutually antagonistic camp after World War II — especially Communists and liberal democrats. Its popularity must be ascribed to two otherwise dissimilar political leaders, V.I. Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, who promoted it during World War I for the same reason — to provide a political argument for anti-colonial movements that would support the breakup of old empires. Both men treated the right to national self-determination as a corollary of the right to democratic representation. Oddly, not even the dissidents against communism from within challenged the notion. Human rights advocates in the former Soviet bloc believed (and still believe) in its legitimacy. In general, they were delighted to witness the breakup of the Soviet Union, which they saw as a liberation of captive peoples of perhaps even greater importance than the institutionalization of multi-party elections and the other features of democratic constitutions.

Preemptive Devolution or Secession?

On the other hand, among the political theorists who have promoted decentralization with greatest enthusiasm are some who actually oppose the partition of states. They maintain that the best way to keep a state from breaking up is to grant partial autonomy to all internal nationalistic movements as soon as they request it. Since ordinarily such movements begin by enunciating limited demands, it may be possible to satisfy them by acceding to their requests right away, before their frustration mounts and they begin to ask for full independence. Other political observers claim that to take such a small step toward decentralization is to move onto a slippery slope on which there can be no stopping. Although a complete comparative analysis of such “preventive devolutions” would be an immensely valuable project (please hurry and do it, someone!) it is far beyond the scope of this paper.

In the post-Cold War period, at least, there are several cases in which European states have given a stronger voice to a regional or national population and thereby have prevented (so far!) further moves toward secession. Britain, Russia, Germany, France, and Spain have all devolved considerable power to regional entities and, except for Chechnya, have not broken up as a result.2 Ukraine has devolved much power to Crimea, without losing it. Switzerland has always been decentralized democracy, with each canton making many of its own decisions, and it shows no prospect of breaking apart. On the other hand, Yugoslavia had also increased its decentralization in 1974, and Czechoslovakia devolved much power to its two constituent provinces after the “Velvet Revolution” of 1989; both of these countries did break up, so one can reach no absolute generalizations about the merits of devolution as a preventive measure.

In his admirable 1990 book, Warpaths,3 Robert Schaeffer did not explore the effects of partial devolution as an alternative to secession. When he mentions devolution, he seems to mean it as a synonym for secession, the outcomes of which are invariably portrayed as disastrous (since 1945 resulting in nearly 13 million deaths at the time of his writing).4

Schaeffer’s cases of secession are all ones in which the world’s great powers broke up the state, with or without the approval of its citizens. His sample includes Ireland (divided after World War I) as well as Korea, China, Vietnam, India, Palestine, and Germany — all divided in the decade following World War II. In addition, he refers to the division of Pakistan and Cyprus, which took place in the early 1970s, and to the separatist movements in Lebanon, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Israel/Palestine, which were looming but far from resolved when he was writing in the late 1980s. At that point, the breakup of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia were not even on the horizon.

The main reason for partitioning these states was to settle conflicts between political groups that each wanted state power, such as Communists versus non-communists in Korea, and Hindus versus Muslims in India. Each of these communities received a territory and the opportunity to form its own state, which the great powers hoped would put an end to their disputes.

Instead, partition created three new problems. The first was social disruption. Huge migrations took place between the two new countries, with people leaving behind families, businesses, and family graves, and often encountering violence along the road or in their new homes. The new sibling states both tended to be less democratic than before.

The second problem was an increase in discrimination. Even after the migrants left, many members of the minority population were left in a country run by a group hostile to their own. For instance, Communist rulers tended to discriminate against non-Communists, and Muslim rulers tended to discriminate against Hindus, justifying their actions by saying that if the minorities did not like it, they could emigrate to settle in the adjacent country among “people of their own kind.” The abuses led to more violence, such as the Korean War; what had started as civil strife turned into an international war.5

The third problem was that most of the new states did not like the way they had been divided or the fact that they were divided at all, and in their constitutions they claimed the right to rule the other half of their former country. Once a partition has taken place, frequently there are also new demands within the successor states for additional secessions. These conflicts, in addition to the original dispute that led to the initial secession, have become permanent international issues and have not been resolved even by the numerous wars that have followed partition. Besides the Korean War there have been numerous wars between North and South Vietnam, between India and Pakistan, and near-wars between Taiwan and China. In some of these cases, the nuclear superpowers took sides and their threats prompted the other sibling state to begin building nuclear weapons of its own.6

Since Schaeffer’s study was published, the world has undergone its largest wave of separatism yet. The breakup of the huge Soviet Union accounted in itself for the majority of these cases, along with the breakups of other countries in the Soviet bloc, but there were also scattered instances in such other places as Eritrea and Yemen. Although there are exceptions, one must be impressed by the extent to which Schaeffer’s observations of past secessions also apply to the new ones. The wars in Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Chechnya, and the former Yugoslavia especially conform to his generalizations. Those which have not experienced actual warfare are the Baltic states, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine, though even in these cases there have been social disruptions, economic penalties (mostly resulting from broken trade relations), migrations, refugees, and ongoing ethnic conflicts. We must conclude, along with Schaeffer, that partition is a failed policy, generally bringing more negative consequences than favorable ones, and often bringing catastrophe. During the 1990s, approximately half of all the wars being fought were wars of secession. One must increase Schaeffer’s estimate of 13 million deaths by one or two million as a result of these post-1989 conflicts. The lesson is clear: The international community should consider new, effective measures to prevent further cases of secession.

With this objective in mind, most of this paper will be devoted to a review of three cases: (a) the breakup of the Soviet Union (which most of the participants today consider a tragedy); (b) the breakup of Czechoslovakia (which most of the participants regret, but the rest of the world regards as a success story), and © Greenland, a genuine success story in which a “nation” has never developed a significant claim for self-determination, though one might suppose that the conditions are appropriate for it.

The Breakup of the Soviet Union

When Mikhail Gorbachev assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985, he was aware that a host of problems had fallen upon his shoulders, but he was unaware that the most fateful one was the long-suppressed nationalism of those Soviet peoples who are not ethnically Russian. He first became aware of the growing ethnic consciousness when in December 1986, riots caused deaths and injuries in Kazakhstan where he had appointed a new first secretary who was not Kazakh but Russian.7 Then, beginning in 1987, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian people began to express their bitterness over having been forcibly annexed to the Soviet Union through a secret agreement between Hitler and Stalin, of which the Soviet government denied the existence. As the truth gradually emerged that the Baltic states had never consented to become part of the Soviet Union, everyone could see some justification in their desire for independence. In each of these three countries, popular movements emerged and began to win political victories. From then on, the Baltic states led the way for the other nationalist movements. In retrospect, many of Gorbachev’s strongest admirers believe he made a serious mistake by not treating the Baltic states as a special case, [8] but he clearly believed that to permit their secession would only encourage the remaining republics to assert their independence as well.

In February 1988, demonstrations began in Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan whose citizens demanded to secede from Azerbaijan and become part of Armenia. In response, mass meetings against Armenia were organized in Azerbaijan. Gorbachev tried to get a dialogue going between the two states, and the politburo sent representatives to mediate, but violence broke out and a massacre of Armenians took place in Sumgait, Azerbaijan. Soviet troops were brought in to prevent further bloodshed. Gorbachev claims that in both republics, there were corrupt high officials who feared that perestroika was going to result in their exposure and dismissal and that, for motives of self-preservation, they deliberately tried to provoke ethnic conflicts.9 (A similar explanation has been suggested by knowledgeable people, time after time, for nationalist movements throughout the formerly Communist world.)

For a time, the most promising solution seemed to be to give Karabakh the status of an autonomous republic inside Azerbaijan. However, before this could be implemented, the Armenian parliament enacted a resolution to incorporate Nagorno Karabakh as part of their country.10 This only exacerbated the conflict, which culminated in riots by Azerbaijanis and the mobilization in January 1990 by both Armenia and Azerbaijan for full-scale fighting. Soviet troops were sent to restore order, but no real solution has ever yet been reached.

In that same month, a new hot-spot developed in Moldavia (now Moldova), whose citizens are ethnically Romanian, and who began to demonstrate to demand unification with Romania. This conflict became a medium-sized war.

By early 1989, the Baltic states, and then other non-Russian republics, enacted legislation giving precedence to their own languages. During the elections to the new Congress of People’s Deputies that spring, the pro-independence parties won in the Baltic states, which shortly aterward declared their sovereignty. In this they were followed by Ukraine, Armenia, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan. Initially this was only a declaratory gesture, but real political consequences ensued. The Communist Party of Lithuania, for example, declared itself independent of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and Russia and Ukraine declared that their laws took precedence over all-union laws. By January 1990 Gorbachev traveled to Lithuania to discuss the proposed separation of the republic from the Soviet Union. He failed to sway public opinion there, and in March the Lithuanian parliament declared independence, then suspended that declaration.

In early January 1991, tensions reached the crisis point in the Baltics. Soviet troops seized a newspaper plant in Riga, Latvia. In Lithuania, demonstrations against price increases were taking place and Prime Minister Prunskiene had to resign. The Lithuanian Communist Party requested that Gorbachev impose presidential rule to restore order, but instead he appealed for the restoration of the Soviet Constitution, which the Lithuanian parliament had suspended in March 1990. This was not done.11 By order of the Soviet Minister of Interior and the Director of the KGB (the same hardliners who would become putschists against Gorbachev) the Soviet troops opened fire on a printing press and took over the television station in Vilnius, Lithuania. The local Communists who remained loyal to the Soviet state announced the formation of an unconstitutional “national committee of salvation” and declared themselves willing to assume full powers in reaction against the separatists. According to Gorbachev, the separatist parties had been able to seize power “only because they enjoyed the backing of the Russian leadership,”12 namely President Boris Yeltsin, who flew to meet the leaders of the Baltic republics and signed a document recognizing their sovereignty. Certainly it would ultimately be Yeltsin’s initiative that would put an end to the Soviet Union.

He undertook this action only a few months after the failed putsch of August 1991, when he had blocked the plot that would have prevented the devolution of power to the republics. Evidently he had no plan to end the Soviet Union even a month before doing so.13 He attributes his change of heart to the resistance of Ukraine.

In the aftermath of that coup attempt, some of the republics had showed an increased reluctance to remain part of the Soviet Union, but Gorbachev renewed the negotiations on a new version of the Union Treaty. He pursued this goal tirelessly and patiently, and with a flexibility that very nearly succeeded. This version of the new Union Treaty would have devolved even more power to the republics than the versions proposed before the coup attempt, [14] and it was acceptable to all those leaders except Leonid Kravchuk of Ukraine, where a second referendum was scheduled on the question for 1 December 1991. Whereas in March most Ukrainians had voted (along with most other Soviet citizens) to remain in the Soviet Union, in their December referendum, some 90 percent voted for independence.15

Yeltsin claims that this was a critical factor, for he believed that the Soviet Union could not continue without Ukraine. He therefore invited the leaders of two other republics — Leonid Kravchuk, of Ukraine, and Stanislav Shushkevich, of Belorussia — to a forest lodge, Belovezhskaya Puscha in Belorussia, where on 12 December 1991, they signed a document seceding from the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was forced to announce his resignation, since the post that he occupied would no longer exist at the end of the year. Ironically, despite the extraordinary efforts that he had made to hold the country together, he would incur the heaviest blame for its collapse. For many, this was the fault of his reforms, perestroika, which had already devolved too much power to provincial, incompetent, nationalistic elites, who reversed many of the victories of perestroika.16 For others, his fault was in failing to devolve power to the republics even earlier, before nationalistic fervor had become overwhelming.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is still reverberating, but some conclusions can be stated about its outcome. The benefits are outweighed by disadvantages for almost all stakeholders. Separatist wars in Chechnya, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Ossetia, Moldova, and Tajikistan caused immense devastation, deaths and injuries.17 The economies collapsed in all the former republics, though the Baltic states are faring reasonably well. Half a million war refugees still live in Azerbaijan. Twenty-five million Russians live outside Russia in the former Soviet states,18 where they often experience discrimination. Public opinion now reflects a widespread regret that the Soviet Union broke up, and a desire to restore some new federation in its place.


One cannot say that Czechoslovakia ended by secession; instead, the federal state dissolved and left its two components intact and sovereign. The Czech Republic comprises Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, while the Slovak Republic comprises the traditionally Slovak lands and part of Ruthenia. Czechoslovakia had been created in 1918 when the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismantled and parcelled out.

Czechs and Slovaks, whose languages are closely related, had maintained friendly relations over the centuries, though their histories and cultures had differed considerably. The Slovaks were the more agrarian society. They had been ruled by Hungary while the Bohemians of the more industrialized and urban Czech lands had been in the Austrian part of the empire.

Except for an inter-war period of democracy, Czechoslovakia’s fate had been a hard one — especially after a communist coup imposed totalitarian rule in 1947-48. In 1968, there was a period of liberalization, famously known as Prague Spring, that was followed by a Soviet-led invasion of troops from surrounding Communist societies and the renewed harshness of a period called “normalization.” Only at the end of 1989, buoyed by the experiences of other neighboring countries, did Eastern Europeans generally feel confident enough to try again to oust the Party. Faced with this popular, nonviolent uprising, the old government officials acquiesced and welcomed the new temporary ones, who were overwhelmingly confirmed by free elections six months later.

Political differences between the Slovak and Czech halves of the country appeared immediately after the “Velvet Revolution.” Vaclav Klaus, the new, avowedly right-wing, finance minister of the federal state, launched a fast transition to capitalism that would not be equally painful in the two republics. The Slovak Republic, which had experienced significant industrialization and economic development under communism, was the center of a booming military-industrial complex with an extensive export trade that was suddenly lost. The Czech Republic, on the other hand, found its industries easier to privatize and its unemployment levels acceptably low.

Moreover, the two republics did not have an exactly symmetrical relationship. The Czechs tended to think of their territory and their city, Prague, as the centre of a unitary Czechoslovakia, rather than as one of two equal (or even unequal) parts. Without recognizing themselves as arrogant, they dismissed Slovak regional concerns as quaintly parochial and Slovak desires to retain a social safety net as stubbornly backward. It was indeed difficult for Czechoslovakia, as a united country, to find a single economic policy acceptable to both republics.

Moreover, it was clear that the revisions were needed in the federal constitution, and that the two republics needed their own constitutions. President Vaclav Havel also pointed out the need for a constitutional court, and that a provision needed to be made for holding referendums.

The new governments at all three levels were composed of former dissidents, with some conspicuous exceptions, such as the federal finance minister, Klaus, and the prime minister of the Slovak Republic, Vladimir Meciar, whose views sharply diverged on many matters. Meciar split his political movement, then briefly lost his office because his opponent, Jan Carnogursky, began winning favor with a nationalist line. When Meciar regained his position in the June 1992 elections, he had learned from his experience and thenceforth promoted Slovakian nationalism with increasing success, while Carnogursky dropped the idea and lost popularity.

For his part, Klaus was making some political adjustments as well. By the June 1992 elections, he foresaw declining importance in the federal state, and realized that it would become more important to head the Czech Republic, which was actually (instead of the federal Czechoslovak government) the appropriate counterpart of the Slovak republic. Instead of seeking to continue guiding the Czechoslovak economic restructuring, he ran for election to the National Assembly of the Czech Republic, and soon became Prime Minister of that republic, replacing the conciliatory Petr Pithart.

It was an astute move. During that year, the federal government almost “withered away” as the locus of power devolved to the two competing republics. Meciar and Klaus were left alone on the stage of history, in a sense collaborating in demolishing their shared country. Meciar, the shorter-sighted of the two, wanted to have his cake and eat it too; he wanted the benefits (including financial ones) of federalism, while also having recognition as a sovereign state. Klaus, knowing that the two are incompatible, allowed Meciar to continue demanding international recognition, then shut the trap upon his adversary with this challenge: Are you sure that’s what you want? Then you shall have it! But of course, you will lose your connection to the Czech Republic!

President Havel had already come to regard secession as inevitable, though he opposed it and kept trying to find an acceptable compromise. When the inevitability of the outcome became apparent, he resigned from the presidency, which remained unfilled until the country was dissolved, then became president of the newly sovereign Czech Republic. The Federal Assembly had not even discussed the issue of separation until September 11, 1992. By November 25, it had ratified the proposal to dissolve the country, without holding a referendum. According to public opinion polls, if one had been held, it would have been defeated in both republics, and even more decisively in Slovakia than in Czechia. The decision was applauded by nationalists in other countries, who took the unusual nonviolent Czechoslovak secession as proof that they too could separate without pain.

But the dissolution of the state was neither painless nor democratic. In economic terms alone, the Czech Republic fared better than Slovakia, which had to create its own currency and lost the subsidies that had accompanied their status within the federal country. New worries emerged in Czechia about Germany’s power and in Slovakia about Hungary’s power, since neither of the sibling states alone had much geopolitical significance anymore. In Slovakia the Hungarian and Romany minorities encountered new repressions. Many Roma people wished to move from the Slovak side to the more prosperous Czech side, but, apprehensive about this possibility, the Czechs decided against allowing dual citizenship with their former Slovak countrymen. After the separation, relations between the two states soured and official contacts almost ceased. Czech and Slovak citizens alike regret the dissolution that came upon them against their will, but it is a permanent split and the two countries will not meet again until both are admitted to membership within the European Union.

Denmark and The Inuit of Greenland

Greenland’s constitutional arrangements with Denmark provide a living model showing how two distinctive nations can live together. Although Greenland’s Inuit are a nation with a separate homeland and language from the Danes, they do not demand their own state or organize separatist movements among the Inuit communities in Canada and Alaska.

An Inuit nation state straddling the pole would be among the world’s largest countries and, with Alaska’s oil wealth, would be economically viable. However, rapid development of oil resources would pose a risk to a distinctive culture orientated around the sustainability of wildlife. Inuit cultural survival has been better secured through arrangements for autonomy than independence.

Denmark, along with Japan, is generally named as an ideal cohesive linguistic group, or nation, having its own state. In reality, however, Denmark is a multicultural federation that encompasses not only Greenland, the world’s largest island, but also the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic. Ethnic Danes live in Greenland and there is a Greenlandic minority in Denmark.

Denmark has a history of progressive accommodation to multiculturalism. Greenland’s long avoidance of secession has been closely linked to Denmark’s success in respecting the rights and culture of native Americans. One of the most surprising combination of European and native ways has been its system of land tenure. Land is leased, not privately owned. Land leases, and profits from mining are sources of revenue for the Inuit controlled home rule administration.

Greenland’s four centuries of control by the Danish crown worked in favor of the Inuit majority. The island’s non-native settler population’s activities were minutely regulated by the Danish imperial government, unlike the experience of any other Euro-American colony. Apart from their ownership of enslaved blacks, what distinguished the various Euro-American colonists from their relations in Europe was the fact that they ruled, largely through superior military force, over an aboriginal population.

However, Denmark also had colonies in the Bay of Bengal and in Africa until they were sold to Britain in 1850, and its tropical colonies were all involved in the infamous slave trade. Denmark’s only claim to virtue in its southern colonies is that it was the first European power to abolish this trade, a move made in 1792. A similar abolition was not followed by Great Britain and the United States until 1807.19

A clergyman, Hans Egede, was responsible for the establishment of Danish governance in Greenland. He quickly brought under supervision the activities of Scandinavian whalers, who had been previously exploiting the Inuit through such actions as kidnapping them for exhibition in Europe.20

Egede’s missionary activities differed from the white supremacist norms of the European colonial experience. Missionaries trained from youth in a royal school in Denmark were ordered to marry Inuit women. By 1737 a special training school for missionaries and traders was established to teach them the language of the Inuit of west Greenland. The Danes developed it in a written form and subsequently established Greenlandic throughout the whole island. By 1825 universal literacy in Greenlandic had been achieved by Denmark in all areas subject to European contact. In 1845 two teachers colleges were founded and soon the majority of teachers in Greenland’s schools were Inuit.

The publication of Greenlandic books helped the Inuit culture adapt to new circumstances without culture shock. A Greenlandic intelligentsia of authors, poets, musicians and painters emerged. Canadians visiting Greenland during World War II were astonished to find Inuit transmitting official radiograms.21

A royal decree of 1776 protected the Inuit from settler exploitation. In contrast with the American Declaration of Independence of the same year, this measure established a government trading monopoly and dependence on the crown. It also restricted European immigration into Greenland to authorized persons. The trade in alcohol was banned and poor relief was provided. The controls of 1776 permitted the Inuit to maintain and adapt their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyle. Competition from non-native hunters and fishermen for limited renewable resources was outlawed, with settlers confined to a trading and administrative role.22

These controls have been compared to a “Magna Carta” protecting the Inuit from exploitation by Europeans. White fathers of illegitimate children were required to pay child support until the age of twelve. Restrictions against unauthorized visits to Greenland protected the island from the incidence of epidemics.

The importation of fossil fuel was largely prohibited until the American occupation during World War Two. Automobiles, tractors, and planes all were kept out of Greenland. All trading profits were used for the benefit of Greenlanders.23

The American occupation of Greenland during World War II set the stage for a short lived, industrialized Fordist era in which the former colony attempted to integrate more closely with Denmark. This was recognized in an act of union of 1953, which gave it for the first time parliamentary representation in the Danish parliament. Although two seats appear to be insignificant, in Denmark’s multiparty system involving fragile coalition governments this often gives Greenland’s representatives considerable political leverage. The 1953 act gave Greenland a status similar to a Danish regional municipal government or county. While mechanized, high-technology fishing was kept out of the north for concern over its ecological impacts, Danish policies allowed the Inuit to achieve the same standard of living as Europeans of an affluent Scandinavian nation through the development of an industrialized, wage economy.

A growing left wing political movement in Denmark following World War II, critiquing the impacts of imperialism, made such generosity from Denmark to Greenland politically possible for the first time. These new public expenditures significantly improved health and shelter, eliminated tuberculosis, and cut the death rate, thus doubling the island’s population. However, other aspects of the island’s post-war economic transitions were more disruptive. Villages were closed down as residents moved to towns where fish processing factories were concentrated. Between 1960 and 1978 about a third of the island’s villages were abandoned.24

The Fordist style of integration into Denmark also posed a threat to the Inuit’s cultural survival. Inuit were not trained during the 1950s as construction tradesmen, so all the rapid building in this era of industrialization was done by immigrant Danes. Danes also alone possessed the key skills at the top level of the new industrialized fishing economy. Consequently ethnic Danes increased from five percent to 20 percent of the island’s population. Ethnic tensions were compounded by the practice of paying Danes higher salaries in order to induce them to relocate to Greenland. Education for the new high tech economy tended toward training in the Danish language.

By the early 1970s, the Fordist, modernist norms of rapid industrialization and European integration were being challenged by the Inuit. The lure of equality with industrialized Europe had lost much of its appeal in the face of growing concern about social pathology and the environment. The Inuits’ concerns over the tempo of change found political expression in the growing movement for home rule. This gave autonomy to Greenland except for the areas of the financial system, defence and foreign affairs. Home rule was followed with new measures to ensure Inuit cultural survival, sustainable development, and environmental protection.

Discontent with the tight integration of Greenland with Denmark became expressed in 1971 when representatives of the social democratic “forward” or Siumut movement were elected to the Greenland Provincial Council advocating home rule. This resulted in the establishment of a Home Rule Commission. It drew up the legislation which was passed by the Danish parliament in 1978, granting autonomy to Greenland.

The Home Rule legislation defined Greenlandic as “the principal language” of the province. Through emergency programs in the 1970s the numbers of Greenlandic speaking teachers had been greatly increased. Requirements for training in Denmark were quickly dropped after the achievement of home rule.

The biggest political debate over the Greenland Home Rule bill concerned ownership of the island’s non-renewable mining and petroleum resources. This dispute was resolved through a compromise. A joint Danish-Greenland Mineral Resources Commission was established. It allows both the Danish and Greenlander representatives to veto any proposal for mining development or oil exploration and development. The right of veto gives the Inuit majority of the Greenland Assembly the power to prevent any proposed resource development. Greenland has also been able to escape integration into the European Union. It has an associate member status that gives Greenland the power to control immigration and fishing, unlike full member states.25Greenland’s model shows that rational alternatives to the simple notion of “one nation, one state” do exist.

What are the Lessons?

It should be possible at this point to reach some conclusions from the mass of historical cases accessible for review. I shall try to answer three questions.

1. Does secession solve problems? The short answer is no. The long answer is not much longer, since it is difficult to think of any problems that have been solved by secession, despite the expectation of nationalists before the event that ethnic relations will become easier, their financial situation will improve, and their community will recover their long-suppressed spirit and energy. They discover instead that they still have to get along with their neighbors, and that this has become more difficult because of mass migrations, new borders, disrupted trade relations, and new currencies — and often warfare.

The question is not “is secession beneficial?” but rather, “how harmful is secession?” And to that question, the answer must vary from one case to another. The Czechs have suffered the least of any nationality after a recent secession, certainly less than the Slovaks, who initiated the enthusiasm for partitioning their common state. In financial terms, the Baltic states have suffered less than Ukraine or any of the new Central Asian countries of the former Soviet Union. The Tajiks, Georgians, Abkhazians, Armenians, Azeris, Moldovans, and especially Chechens, have suffered enormously because of warfare.

2. Does secession lead to warfare? Usually. War also precedes secession in many cases, allowing the exhausted negotiators to hope that secession will bring peace, but this rarely happens. (Eritrea is one of the unusual cases in which independence did bring peace.)

3. Does devolution of power to smaller regional entities tend to prevent secession or instead increase its likelihood? The answer seems to depend on several factors, including the following:

(a) The nature of the ethnic stratification system in the republic or province. Where the entity is populated by two or more nationalities whose relations are painful, neither devolution nor centralization will resolve the problem. The case of Greenland is telling in this regard because of the Danes’ unusual record of respecting Inuit culture and developing favorable social policies in consultation with them. At some points the Inuit have chosen to integrate politically with Denmark, and at other times they have chosen home rule. Both policies succeeded because of the mutually satisfactory relations between the two communities; at no time have the Inuit considered secession.

The case of Czechoslovakia is less successful, since it did result in secession, but on the other hand not a drop of blood was spilled over the issue. The two communities had better relations than in some other separatist cases (President Havel described the Czech attitude as the “arrogance of the elder brother”) which meant that they would have preferred to remain united, but when the partition became unavoidable, both sides managed it with decency.

In the Soviet Union, devolution might have kept most of the country intact if it had been carried out as negotiated under the terms of the new Union Treaty in any of its several versions. The Baltic states would have seceded anyway because of popular pressure. Ukraine would have stayed if the coup of August had not taken place and emboldened separatist spirits. The other union republics, including Russia, would have remained together if the treaty had been signed and, if we can believe Yeltsin, this failed to happen only because Ukraine decided to separate.

In the period since the Soviet breakup, considerable devolution has taken place in a number of republics, except for Chechnya, and has proved successful in preventing further separatist moves — so far. Tatarstan, for example, enjoys very great autonomy, and with tact the Chechens might have been able to negotiate an equally satisfactory arrangement.26 The Russian constitution that Yeltsin introduced permits “asymmetrical federalism,” in which each republic can negotiate for special rights in relation to the center.

(b) The clarity of mutual understandings between ethnic groups regarding land rights and the locations of borders. If there are two or more nationalities living in the same or adjacent areas, each claiming some of the same territory, a decision to devolve power to that territory is likely to exacerbate conflict.

Again, the cases of Greenland and Czechoslovakia are instructive. The Danes always treated Greenland as Inuit territory, even when they were there as colonizers. Moreover, the border between Moravia and Slovakia is one of the most stable, uncontested frontiers in Europe. The devolution of power to the republics did not prevent the breakup of Czechoslovakia, but it did make that breakup relatively painless because the circumstances there were unusually favorable: there was no dispute over territory between the two republics.

Turning to the case of the Soviet breakup, we find significant differences between particular republics. In the Baltic states, it had become plain to everyone that the Soviet Union had stolen the territories and that the people had a legitimate grievance. There were Russians and other Soviet citizens living in the Baltic region, and their situation has been painful since the secession, but not even those Russians could pretend that the land had been theirs a generation ago; the clarity of this fact enabled the secession to be carried out with little violence.

The situations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea, and Yugoslavia were far more problematic. In all those places, territory was claimed by more than one nationality, and this made solutions difficult. Karabakh might have been solved by devolution, had it been made into an autonomous province early in the struggle, but after a certain point that option no longer existed. (The problem was exacerbated by the history of the massacre of Armenians by Turks, close ethnic relatives of the Azeris.) Yugoslavia certainly was not saved by devolution but was plunged into warfare over numerous territorial disputes. Finally, Crimea seems to be a successful case of devolution. Although the Russians who constitute the majority of the population want their land to be transferred from Ukraine back to Russia, they have acquiesced because of the autonomy they enjoy. It also helps that the boundaries of Crimea are clear and there are no nationality groups seeking to tear it apart from inside, as some groups in Tajikistan, for example, have done with so much violence.

© The existence of legitimate, fully-respected, effective methods of revising the constitution. A vital principle when devolution is being undertaken is that the procedures for making this change must be incontestable, and further, that equally incontestable procedures should be retained for reversing that devolution. This means that the constitution’s amendment formula should not be compromised by giving any seceding entity a veto by which to block the restoration of the federal state. (This can happen, for example, if the constitution guarantees each component province’s right to secede.)

In most cases of secession, the citizens have not chosen to break their state apart but they simply have lacked an institutional means of holding it together or resolving disputes over amending its constitution. The Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia all “dissolved” because no prior agreements were in place to regulate the revision of the constitution, and no new consensus emerged.

This is an area in which international law could be helpful. If a state is on the verge of failing because of a constitutional impasse, the international community should be able to intervene and stipulate the terms for a secession or for a revision of the constitution. If no new, workable government can be formed (as happened, for example in Bosnia-Herzegovina after the Dayton Accords) there should be a mechanism for administering that state as a protectorate under the U.N. Trusteeship Council.

Alternatives to Devolution or Secession

To a nationalist caught up in the reckless enthusiasm of nation-building, probably nothing short of sovereignty can satisfy. However, sometimes devolution is prompted by other, more ordinary political interests, such as the desire for representation by accessible, familiar deputies from one’s own community instead of “faceless bureaucrats” ruling from a remote place. When this is the motive, there are non-localized types of community that offer the possibility of solidarity based on factors other than territorial claims. For example, millions of people scattered around the globe “inhabit” communities in “cyberspace” arising from their interest in chess, vegetarianism, the imaginary world of Hobbits, organic farming, the safe disposal of nuclear waste, or the advancement of Ukrainian culture. Not everyone regards her “nation” or village as the most meaningful of her communities. When devolution is intended only to empower communities, a different voting system might offer each voter the option of having one of these non-territorial identities be represented instead of only her ethnic identity.27

In a traditional or authoritarian society, voting is unimportant, but when a society becomes democratic, voting begins to have consequences and demands increase for the autonomy of particular territories. This is primarily because territories constitute catchment areas within which votes are aggregated. Each politician is accountable to her constituency — that group of voters inhabiting her geographical district. Under this system, if an ethnic group is to be well-represented in parliament or to control the government, its members must be distributed in an optimum concentration across particular districts. If they are scattered too thinly across several districts, they may be unable to elect any member of their community. Sometimes politicians in democratic states resort to gerrymandering, the redrawing of electoral districts to optimize the representation of a particular group.

When a group constitutes a majority within a particular province or district, but a minority within the larger federal state, its leaders may recognize the possibility of becoming a majority in their own sovereign state simply by seceding. (“Why should I be a minority in your country, when you can be a minority in mine?”) Instead of being perpetually outvoted, they could be winning every election. An alternative voting system can allow such aspirations to be fulfilled — at least partially — without their resorting to secession.

One constructive change in that direction is for voters to form constituencies that are not defined by territory but by some other functional identification, such as a common profession, a common ethnic identity, or conceivably a common zeal for vegetarianism. Such constituencies could be created voluntarily by allowing people to register as a member of any particular grouping that they choose. The number of parliamentarians that any particular constituency elects would be determined by the number of voters who have registered in it. In such a case, a nationalist could register with his preferred constituency and have his votes aggregated with others of his kind, regardless of where he lived. Notice that this system would replace electoral districts, not political parties. As now, a candidate for each party would be listed on each ballot, and normally each voter would vote for only one candidate. This would increase the possibilities for an ethnic group (wherever its members live) to elect representatives of its own — but only if, and only so long as, people register with that ethnic constituency instead of with a constituency of homosexuals, feminists, vegetarians, or environmentalists. Nothing in this system would prevent nationalists from winning elections, but national origin would no longer be privileged as the normal basis for aggregating votes, as it sometimes has been in the past. This method would increase the opportunity of ethnic representation without requiring anyone to move, expel a rival nationality, or secede. Borders and territorial land claims would become less important than at present.

Another approach to devolution without secession is to allow some of these constituencies to control certain aspects of their own lives instead of having to live only by universalistic rules. For example, the Assembly of First Nations in Canada has long demanded the right of self-determination, without however claiming any right to secede from Canada. The Indians want to make many of their own laws and administer education, justice, and social welfare for themselves. For those living in their own reserves, this is largely feasible, but native people living in cities could hardly devise their own traffic laws. Nevertheless, there has been progress in establishing grassroots democratic governance, with special classes being provided in urban schools for students to learn Indian languages, with special social workers serving the indigent native population, and with delinquent youths being judged and sentenced by Indian elders. Thus various ethnic communities can be empowered without fragmenting the single state they all inhabit.

A third innovation should also be mentioned as a non-territorial way of augmenting grass-roots political influence: the weighted referendum. Radical democracy, as opposed to representative parliamentarism, allows citizens to participate directly in establishing laws and policies; the most widespread method of doing this is through the use of the referendum. Unfortunately, referendums have several shortcomings. For example, not all voters know or care equally about all the propositions in a referendum, and an ill-informed, indifferent voter may “cancel out” the vote of someone who cares profoundly about one of the propositions. Likewise a particular ethnic group that is always a minority will often find its concerns disregarded by the majority, so that its frustrated members may eventually want to break away and form their own new state. The weighted referendum avoids this problem by allowing citizens to “spend” their votes in ways that increase their own effectiveness. On a normal referendum composed of 20 propositions, each person will have 20 votes to spend by voting yes or no on each of the 20 items. In a weighted referendum, on the other hand, each person will have 20 votes, but may spend all of them on one proposition, ignoring the 19 others — or five votes on each of four propositions, ignoring the 16 others, and so on. This means that the outcome of each proposition will be determined exclusively by people who care enough about it to spend some of their precious influence on it, instead of equally by the ignorant and the indifferent. Each voter will gain the chance to have a greater impact on the issues she knows and cares about, at the price of having little or no impact on the issues about which she knows and cares little. Everyone benefits. Minorities especially benefit, for with this arrangement if a minority group cares strongly about an issue that is unimportant to others, they can spend their votes on it and increase the probability that they will win. Moreover, if they do win, it will be with the full approval of the majority, who in fact could have blocked the outcome if they had considered it important.

Regrettably, the adoption of these innovations would not immediately abolish all separatist wars and conflicts. By the time a conflict has advanced to the degree that secession is being considered, it is probably too late to introduce these new voting schemes. Only by anticipating problems many years in advance can a society adopt these reforms in time to forestall separatism and keep pressure from building in favor of other, unhelpful forms of devolution, and the worst outcome of all: secession.

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1 Lea Brilmayer, “Secession and Self-Determination: A Territorial Interpretation,” Yale Journal of International Law Vol, 16, 1991. Pp. 177-200.

2 “Devolution can be salvation,” The Economist Sept. 10, 1997, pp. 53-54.

3 Robert Schaeffer, Warpaths: The Politics of Partition (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990).

4 Schaeffer, Warpaths, p. 7.

5 Robert Schaeffer and Metta Spencer, “Secession and its Outcomes,” Peace Magazine May/June 1995, pp. 12-15.

6 Schaeffer and Spencer, pp. 13-14.

7 Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 260.

8 Such as Archie Brown. See The Gorbachev Factor, p. 256.

9 Mikhail Gorbachev, Memoirs (New York: Doubleday, 1995), p. 336.

10 Gorbachev, Memoirs, p. 339.

11 Gorbachev, Memoirs, p.577.

12 Gorbachev, Memoirs, p. 580.

13 Andrei S. Grachev, Final Days: The Inside Story of the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Boulder: Westview, 1995) p. 95.

14 Brown, p. 287.

15 Brown, p. 303.

16 Fedor Burlatsky, “Who or What Broke up the Soviet Union?” in Metta Spencer, ed., Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998)

17 The Russian government never publishes the numbers of war deaths, and no valid estimates are available from the other states involved in these wars. I have heard estimates ranging between 80,000 and 120,000 deaths in the Chechen War, and 30,000 deaths of Soviet soldiers in the Afghan War.

18 Mikhail Gorbachev in a discussion at the University of Toronto, reported in Peace Magazine, June/July 1993, p. 16.

19 Hubert J. C. Schurrman, Canada’s Eastern Neighbour: A View of Change on Greenland (Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services, 1976), p. 18.

20 Schuurman, p. 20.

21 Finn Gad, “Danish Greenland Policies” in Wilcomb Washburn ed., History of Indian-White Relations, (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1988, p.114.

22 Mark Nuttall, __Arctic Homeland (__Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992) pp. 136-170.

23 Gad, p. 114.

24 David Sugden, Arctic and Antarctic (Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes & Noble, 1982), pp. 265, 266.

25 Isi Foighel, “Home Rule in Greenland” in Man & Society, Vol. 1, 1980) pp. 3-18.

26 Cf Edward W. Walker, “Negotiating Autonomy: Tatarstan, Asymmetrical Federation, and Autonomy in Russia,” and Victor Kogan-Iasnyi and Diana Zisserman-Brodsky, “Chechen Separatism,” both papers in Metta Spencer, ed. Separatism: Democracy and Disintegration (Boulder: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998).

27 For an examination of such possible forms of non-territorial constituencies, see David J. Elkins, Beyond Sovereignty: Territory and Political Economy in the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995).

The Russian Quest for Peace and Democracy, by Metta Spencer, published by Lexington Books