Crimea leaving Ukraine, Scotland gaining independence from Britain and Catalonia seceding from Spain. Why are previously stable political entities falling apart? Usually, a nation state that wants to gain independence from a larger governing region falls into one of the four following categories.
Globalization promotes a Westernized consumer culture, causing an identity crisis among ordinary citizens, who then seek a new sense of belonging in a small, newly independent country. When globalization takes over, the culture of a country tends to change, however the political and economic environments remain the same, creating dissenting identities.
Until 1954, Crimea was part of the Russian Empire. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Crimea ended up in Ukraine despite 60 percent of Crimeans identifying themselves as Russians. With more than half of Crimeans feeling like they don’t belong in Russia, the country wants to secede and create its own government.
The failure of national governments to deliver on their electoral promises forces them to be kicked out of office by popular vote. Some people respond to a corrupt government by seeking independence in a place where there are like-minded individuals who are also opponents of the central regime. This is representative of what happened in the U.S. Civil War.
In many of the nation states that are breaking apart, there are ethnic minorities that feel oppressed and seek to secede from their country and create a new nation where they will be the majority. Opponents of secession argue that these countries would not be economically stable if they were to secede from the larger region. They also argue that globalization will soon blur borders and boundaries in Europe, so it is not the time to create new borders.
In September 2014, Scotland scheduled an independence referendum from Britain. The small country is ready to be taken off the world stage and create an autonomous, local government. Like Scots, Catalans consider themselves an independent nation rather than a part of a larger region, and therefore they want full political independence. Catalan culture and language is not widely understood in Spain; secession would give Catalonia an opportunity to be independently governed according to the needs of Catalan people and culture rather than according to a larger Spanish culture that does not match up to Catalonia.
Rich provinces, which are obliged to help poorer ones, may want to break off and form their own nation, keeping all the money to themselves. For example, Quebec has a referendum on independence from Canada because of its resource-rich land.
After gaining independence, the questions remains if the newly independent state will succeed. If all the separatist movements in the world succeeded, there would more than 1,000 countries, all with an equal seat at the United Nations. The balance of power would be uneven, and voting on anything in the UN would be nearly impossible. In today’s world, nation states must evaluate whether secession is necessary and whether there are other options, such as new forms of federalism.
“Sovereignty is an illusion except if you are a superpower,” says Kimon Valaskakis, former OECD Ambassador of Canada. “The problems are too big while the means available to the new so-called ‘sovereign’ government are too small.”