JUDGING by current developments in Kurdistan, Catalonia and Scotland, is the nation-state that became the bedrock of political stability in the aftermath of World War 2 in danger of receding? Or is the concept of nation-state casting further confusion as to what constitutes the political entity of a country? And, how will this play out in the 21st century if more countries become threatened with fragmentation?
Over the last fortnight, secessionist politics has been walking a tightrope in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Kurds and Arabs are in danger of yet another civil war following a referendum held in Kurdistan, where some 92 per cent of those casting votes want an independent nation-state. To Baghdad’s credit, that referendum, albeit unconstitutional, was conducted peacefully.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran, both opposed to an independent Kurdistan, have amassed troops on the border with Iraq, whose Parliament has urged Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to the oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed areas after the Kurdish autonomous government proclaimed independence. Over the weekend, we already saw skirmishes between the Kurds and Iraqi army. If an ultimatum by Baghdad to leave the disputed areas is not heeded, could this result in all-out war?
In Catalonia, in contrast, Spanish national guards, at the request of the central government in Madrid, violently tried to stop the Catalan National Parliament from holding a referendum.
They physically prevented Catalans from voting for independence from Spain, supposedly in a stable European Union (EU). In the end, a referendum of sorts did take place in early this month despite being suspended by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Predictably, the overwhelming majority of those who voted wanted to secede from Spain.
In Barcelona, in a bizarre move, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared an independent republic, but immediately suspended its implementation, prompting Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy to ask the Catalan government to clarify whether or not it has declared actual independence.
This was effectively an ultimatum, which, if the political posturing reached a stalemate, which is potentially likely, then we could see the presence of Spanish “occupation” troops in the streets of Barcelona for the first time since the Spanish civil war of 1936-1939.
In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, last week, in the wake of events in Erbil and Barcelona, could not resist revisiting the ruling Scottish Nationalist Party’s (SNP) near obsession with independence from the United Kingdom. SNP lost an independence referendum in September 2014 and in the UK general election in June, SNP lost 21 seats in the new House of Commons. It lost its majority in last year’s elections also in the devolved Holyrood Parliament in Edinburgh.
In March, Sturgeon forced through a vote in the Scottish Parliament backing her call for a second independence referendum to be held immediately after the completion of the UK government’s negotiations with Brussels on Brexit.
Secessionism is not new in modern political history. The Americans fought a bitter internecine civil war for four years starting in April 1861 to prevent the break-up of the United States. The 13 southern confederate states seceded because the Federal Government in Washington had abolished slavery.
Nearer to home, Singapore, then a British colony, joined the Federation of Malaya, Sabah (North Borneo) and Sarawak in the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, only for founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to declare independence from the Federation of Malaysia two years later.
In more recent times, the ultimate Unilateral Declaration of Independence (albeit, from the British Crown as opposed to being a secessionist region such as Kurdistan and Catalonia) was that of the White government led by rebel Ian Smith in Rhodesia in 1965.
South Sudan and East Timor successfully gained independence from Sudan and Indonesia in 2011 and 2002, respectively, after years of civil strife. The sad reality is that since independence, both countries have seen brutal infighting between various political factions, which has left swathes of the populations starving and displaced.
A more nefarious claim to secession is the self-proclaimed Russian-backed “Republic of Donetsk”, which has been fighting for “independence” from Ukraine. It is alleged that the Donetsk rebels were responsible for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board, according to international prosecutors.
So, why this new surge towards secessionism? US presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who is visiting the UK, interestingly suggested that it was the Brexit vote that paved the way for the likes of Donald Trump and by implication, the further rise of populist parties in Europe. With the benefit of hindsight, I presume she rued the lack of empathy “at the centre of our policy, politics and public lives”.
Some voters call this a disconnect between the ordinary people and the establishment — political, financial, business and the arts. It would be naïve to suggest that the desire and motives for independence or secession of each nation as the Scots, Kurds and Catalans indeed are, must be the same. In most cases, they are tempered by their own specific history, and, in the case of Kurdistan, it is geopolitics, juxtaposed between Turkey, Iran, Russia, Syria and Iraq in arguably one of the world’s most volatile regions.
The traditional definition of the nation-state — “a sovereign state of which most of the citizens or subjects are united also by factors which define a nation, such as language or common descent” is so passé that it creates more confusion than clarity.
Perhaps, the plight of the Kurds is that as a nation, it has been a hostage to history. But, the irony of Scotland and Catalonia is that they seek independence only in pursuit of yearning to belong to a much larger and “all-empowering super state”, the European Union.
MUSHTAK PARKER is an independent London-based economist and writer