Separatism and Its Discontents

Separatism and Its Discontents


Separatism and Its Discontents


Separatism, autonomy and nationalism have seemed like excellent ideas at various times in history, too often they have also gone in some very bad directions. Everywhere we look today, an important group wants their separate state: the Kurds, the Scots, the Catalans, the Ukrainians, the Palestinians, the Irish, the Flemish and the Walloons, the Quebecois, the Tamils, the Northern League of Italy and the different components of the ex-Yugoslavia to name a few. It is partly related to language, religious and cultural differences, partly due to economics, resources and financial disputes, and partly rooted in long histories of political, religious and linguistic oppression. These conflicts can and do get out of control and can lead to terribly destructive civil wars with long tails. Our own nation still reverberates from the unresolved echoes of the Civil War in the 1860s as demonstrated by the white supremacist rallies in Virginia last summer and Tennessee today. President Trump and his troops are picking at and inflaming divisions in our country. In other nations these divisive issues are resolved somewhat more peacefully; in others not.

Originally nation states were defined by shared language, culture, economy, ethnicity,  and religion. Cohesion was achieved by common ethnicity, language and religion; Japan is a perfect modern day examplar. Then consider the devastation wrought by the Hundred Years War fought between France and England, the endless wars of religion between the Protestants and the Catholics, the expulsions of the Jews and Moors from Spain.

Over many centuries, larger and larger nation states became necessary both for economic growth and for protection from enemies. Certain nations conquered other peoples and incorporated them or sometimes slaughtered them, genocide. The largest nation states developed huge internal markets and vast economic resources – think the US, but also China and the USSR. And they developed huge armed forces both to protect themselves and threaten other nations.

The US and the USSR lacked a common culture, ethnicity and religion. Their cohesion was achieved with a common vision and founding principles. In the US, our founding document states “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” We have freedom of speech, assembly, religion and many other important individual rights. We have not always been true to principles of our founders with respect to women, African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans and Asian American, but they abide.

In the USSR, which was founded pursuant to the Communist Manifesto, the Constitution guaranteed political rights and liberties as the US Constitution did, as well as social and economic rights, such as work, leisure, health, social security, housing and education. It enshrined the leading role of the Communist Party, which has had some well-known difficulties recognizing political and human rights. 

National cohesion can be achieved (but not maintained) by force; “you must speak as I speak, believe as I believe, worship as I worship, and behave as I behave.” Stalin and Hitler were prime exponents of thought cohesion, enforced by the gulag or the concentration camp. ISIS is the latest and most heartily reviled in a long line of efforts to develop and achieve thought and behavioral cohesion through force; North Korea and Saudia Arabia are also practitioners of thought control. Most all nations rely on force to some degree to secure conformity and cohesion. This has meant suppressing linguistic, cultural, artistic and religious differences to varying degrees.

Empires are the opposite of nation states; they bring together many disparate peoples into a common form of governance and economic interdependence. The Roman Empire and the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) endured for centuries. In more recent history, we have seen the rise and the fall of the British and French Empires, which were partially created in response to the vast Spanish Empire, its wealth and its mercantilism (exclusive internal markets) and then took on their own life.  Empire building took the historic French and British rivalries in Europe and expanded these conflicts around the globe. Empires and empire building reached their zenith in the late 19th century in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East and then slowly imploded and were replaced during the 20th Century.

The rise of a dynamic Germany, which united many smaller German nation states, threatened France and led to three major European wars, the destruction of huge swaths of Europe, and the collapse of imperialism and of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. The post World War One order was built on the recognition of many small nation states that had previously been portions of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; these states were often based on shared language, ethnicity and religion. In the wake of the First World War, the outlines of independence began to be sketched out for imperial colonies.

The unfinished business of developing a stable and peaceful Europe gave way to the rise of Hitler, Fascism and then World War Two. Hitler, Mussolini and Togo sought to create new Empires in Eastern Europe, Northern Africa and Asia. The massive global conflagration destroyed all three leaders as well as undermined and eventually ended the British and French Empires.

The post World War Two order was built on free trade and global treaties like the UN to assure peaceful resolution of national rivalries; the US played a vital role in creating these international bodies to restrain future conflict, and it helped to rebuild Germany and Japan. Germany’s economic dynamism continues to dominate Europe, but now harnessed to more peaceful pursuits.

World War II’s aftermath led to the Common Market, the EU and the Euro-zone that transformed a century of French-German rivalries into collaboration and opened up a new era of economic prosperity and national security to smaller nations within the free trade European bloc. Think about the prosperity unlocked for the Netherlands and the Benelux countries, for Norway, Denmark and the Scandinavian countries, which were no longer battlegrounds for their far larger French, German and British neighbors and instead became competitive participants in European and global markets.

The aftermath of the Second World War also helped to set the stage and framework for independence movements to decolonize Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Many Asian nations and markets have prospered. Progress in large segments of the Middle East has bogged down in un-reconciled national, religious and ethnic rivalries.

In the aftermath of World War Two, a bi-polar world emerged with two great ideologically based superpowers, one characterized by democratic capitalism and the other by authoritarian communism. They viewed and sought to constrain a multi-polar world through the lens and rivalries of their respective worldviews, which competed everywhere but also constrained local conflicts, lest they escalate towards nuclear conflagration.

In the late 1980’s and early ‘90s, the Soviet Union’s empire collapsed. Many of its disparate autonomous republics declared their independence and went their separate ways, including the Baltics, the Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. This was their right under the Soviet Constitution, but would not have been a practical reality except in this chaotic transitional period. Russia was now half its previous population and missing portions of its industrial heartland and oil and natural gas resources. It was bedeviled by separatism whether from the Baltics, the Georgians and the Ukraine which wanted to become a part of the Western economic prosperity and political liberties, following the same path of many former Soviet satellite nations in Eastern, Central and Southern Europe, or from its Muslim populations in Chechnya and Dagestan who sought to follow a different religious path from the re-emergent Russian Orthodox Church.

With the collapse and then break-up of the Soviet Union, the historian Frances Fukuyama predicted the end of history. By that he meant that the liberal democracies with some form of market economy were likely to become the dominant form of government. He believed that Common Markets and continent wide collaboration along the European Union model were the likely future form of regional governance and collaboration for much of the world.

Contrary to his predictions, the last thirty years have seen the rise of China (an authoritarian mixed market economy), the resurrection of Russia (also an authoritarian mixed market economy with elements of a kleptocracy), and the aspirations for a medieval theocratic state (ISIS, Al Quaeda, certain Iranian leaders, and possibly Jerry Falwell Jr.). It has also seen the rise of separatism, the breaking up and reconfiguration of nation states along religious, ethnic, economic or linguistic coherence.


The Catalans: In Catalonia, there is a thriving local economy combined with ancient historical grievances, most recently the severe political and linguistic oppression of the region during the dictatorship of General Franco. Catalonia has been an essential but restive part of Spain since the wedding of Ferdinand and Isabella back in the late 15th century; it enjoys substantial self-governing autonomy. Barcelona, its capital, is the thriving and exciting second city of Spain. The Supreme Court of Spain in 2010 cut back on the autonomy of the Catalonian regional government in a law suit supported the leading conservative party. The same governing conservative party in Madrid has been in conflict with the more progressive parties of Catalonia for some time. That reawakens political memories of Franco’s military oppression of the Catalonian region during and after the Spanish Civil War where he overthrew the elected republican government. 

Spain’s modern economy was badly damaged in the Great Recession and has recovered slowly. The wealthier regions of Spain like Catalonia and other coastal regions have been heavily subsidizing the weaker economies of inland Spain as the nation recovers. This confluence of grievances led to a Catalan vote for independence last month and the very recent takeover of the Catalan government by Spanish authorities and charges of sedition against the local elected Catalonian President.


Kurdistan: The 40 million or more Kurds inhabit portions of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. They are a distinct ethnic minority in each country. They were promised their own independent state after the First World War; Turkey, Iran and Iraq all agreed that the Kurds would not have their independence.

They were terribly oppressed by the Turks and by Saddam Hussein in Iraq as they have revolted and fought for their local autonomy and independence. They are the most stable and prosperous region of today’s Iraq, have been a bulwark in the fight against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria and have substantial autonomy within Iraq. They just voted in a referendum for independence and were then attacked by the Iraqi government, which is trying to keep the nation whole. A temporary ceasefire has just been declared, and Kurdish regional President Barzani has stepped down to promote a peaceful resolution of differences within a fragile Iraq.


Scotland: England and Scotland were fairly constantly at war throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance until the 17th Century when James 1, the King of Scotland became King of England as well. There were significant differences of language (Gaelic was spoken in Scotland) and religion (the Church of England was not recognized in Scotland) that separated the two countries as well. Scotland was often allied with France in the wars against the English.

In the early 18th Century, Union was agreed to between England, Wales and Scotland, creating Great Britain. Scotland retained much local autonomy. It flourished economically and intellectually. After a long period of industrial decline in the 20th Century, the discovery of North Sea oil helped revive Scotland’s economy, and greater regional autonomy was negotiated for Scotland. Like Catalonia, the political parties in Scotland are much further to the left than the British government in London led by the Conservative Party. Like Catalans, the Scots are a linguistic and cultural minority with vivid memories of past oppression.

In 2014 a referendum for independence failed to get sufficient voter support. Then to the surprise and the consternation of many in Scotland and Northern Ireland, Brexit was approved. Scotland is now considering yet another referendum for independence to maintain its ties and relationship with the rest of Europe. It would prefer to retain membership in the EU while the English majority would prefer to sever.  To be seen how this works out.


Ukraine: The 42 million Ukrainians speak a different language and have a somewhat different culture than Russia. They stem from the same tribe of Kievan Rus. They experienced the same conversion to Byzantine Christianity, and they developed a flourishing civilization and trade up and down its great rivers to the Black Sea. Ukraine was formed earlier than Russia. It was a rich and fertile agricultural state, but it was invaded, taken over and settled in turn by the Tatars, the Mongols, the Poles, the Lithuanians, and eventually the Russians under Peter the Great.  It was then incorporated into Russia under Peter the Great and endured partitions with Poland and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

For a time, the Cossacks of the Ukraine were a formidable military force, and a democratic republic emerged in Ukraine surrounded by the Russian, Polish, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. They were a combination of runaway serfs from the surrounding Empires and local leaders; they had one of the first written constitutions and elected leadership. Their independence and autonomy were destroyed by Catherine the Great in 1775, and they were fully incorporated into the Russian Empire at just about the same time that the American Revolution was brewing. The memories of the Cossack Republic have remained at the center of Ukrainian nationalism from the mid 19th Century to the present day.

During the Russian Revolution and the aftermath of the First World War, some Ukrainians fought for the White Army, some for the Red Army and others for a local Black (anarchist) Army during the Russian Civil War. An independent Ukrainian Socialist Republic emerged as the second most important component of the USSR and thrived under Lenin.

In the 1930s, its population suffered a terrible famine and large population loss under Stalinist collectivization of the farms and Stalin and Beria’s Great Terror. Ukrainians consider this Stalinist period to be national genocide.

Before, during and after the Second World War, large numbers (20 million) of Russian citizens were forced from their homes and communities and killed or resettled to Siberia, creating further distrust and hatred of Moscow, the Kremlin and the Soviet system in many communities.

Ukraine (and the rest of Russia) was invaded by Germany in 1941 and lost a huge portion of its population fighting the Nazis. Massive populations of Ukrainian Jews were rounded up and slaughtered. Kiev was destroyed by the Germans.

Some groups from the Western Ukraine fought with the Nazis against the Red Army. This betrayal is at the heart of many hostile attitudes between Russia and the citizens of Western Ukraine. 

After the Second World War, Ukraine recovered and became a breadbasket of Russia and a center of advanced heavy industry. Khrushchev and Brezhnev both had far better relations with and respect for Ukraine and its citizens than had Stalin.

After the collapse of the USSR in the late 80’s, Ukraine declared independence and has since sought to develop better relations with NATO and the European community. This did not sit well with Russia. Paul Manafort and Rick Gates with Russian support helped engineer the election of pro-Russian President Victor Yanukovich.  He proved to be hopelessly corrupt and in the pockets of the pro-Russian kleptocracy. He was ousted in the Maidan Revolution and replaced by Petruschenko.

Russia then invaded Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine. Since then there has been a civil war -- with some populations in the Eastern and Russian-speaking region of the country more closely allied with Russia and the populations in the Central and Western regions favoring stronger ties with the rest of Europe. Eastern Ukraine is more industrialized, more prosperous, but more dependent on heavy industries in their sunset stages, while Western Ukraine is more agricultural and less wealthy, lacking the kleptocratic elements that dominate industry in Russia and eastern Ukraine

The Ukrainian economy has been in terrible shape since the early 90s due to poor economic decisions and widespread corruption, the birth rate has been very low and the death rate has been very high due to alcoholism, smoking, obesity and social despair. Its population is declining and aging. Ukraine depends on immigration to offset its low birth rate and high death rates.


Belgium is divided between the Southern (French speaking) and the Northern (Dutch speaking). While prosperous, it has been the centerpiece for intra-European battles for many centuries due to its central location. Now it is the Center of European Union governance and a peaceful Europe, yet plagued by its own separatist movements.

The Southerners are sometimes referred to as Walloons, and they live in Wallonia. The Northerners are known as Flemish; they live in Flanders. The linguistic division of the region dates back to the times of the Romans who conquered Southern Belgium, which became a part of Gaul, but not the Germanic tribes of the north.

The modern country of Belgium is quite recent. It dates back to 1830, when the Belgians revolted against and separated from the Netherlands, which was Protestant but ruled by the Hapsburgs. Belgium was mostly Roman Catholic. It was a bourgeois revolution that promptly selected its own king.

For many years, the economy was far stronger in the South and the Walloons had the upper hand in governing the nation and assured their own linguistic and cultural dominance. Now the economy and demography is stronger in the North, and the shoe is on the other foot. The Flemish region has supported separation at times because they do not like to economically support the now less economically advanced Wallonian region, which earlier had been the continental leader in iron, coal and steel. Some Wallooons would like to separate and join the French state, which more closely mirrors their own language and customs. This makes the country very difficult to govern. There are three separate and largely autonomous regions: Flanders, Wallonia and the bi-lingual Brussels region. Some politicians in the Flanders region are now strongly supporting Charles Puigdemont, who recently declared Catalonian independence and is now seeking political asylum in Belgium from prosecution by the Spanish government.


Separatism in the US. As a nation of 50 states, we have ample local and regional autonomy, and we have had an electoral and governing system that is full of checks and balances that reward political stasis rather than dynamic changes. The Civil War lingers in our national identity as an unresolved scar and scandal on the national psyche. Unlike post-war Germany, there was never an acknowledgement nationally of the horrors of slavery. Unlike the general repudiation of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany, too many with Confederate sympathies remained largely unrepentant of its horrid past, and in fact many continued to repress black men and women across the nation because of the color of their skin.

In the 50’s and 60’s the promises of the US Constitution began to be enforced for all citizens regardless of their race or national origin. There has been some back sliding under Presidents Nixon and Reagan, but never the full throated roar of President Trump and his troops against racial, ethnic, religious minorities, recent immigrants and those who dissent from his views and beliefs (even including those of his own party). He and his allies now seek to roll back the important advances made by states for their citizenry. He has broken our bonds and cancelled our treaties with allies in Europe and Asia and fractured our friendships with nations in our own hemisphere.

This is a stern test of our national character, which will play out every day over the next electoral cycles. It’s a pass/fail test; wish us all luck, we must not, we cannot fail. He may be indicted; he may be impeached, but it is far more important that his extreme right wing agenda and crass personal behaviors be roundly and soundly defeated in election after election. This is the crucible of our times; our children and grand children may well ask “where were you, what were you doing?”


Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin


Dated: November 5, 2017







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