Behind the Story: Separatist Movements

by Kathy Koch, Managing Editor, CQ Global Researcher

As I watch news clips of the worldwide protests accompanying the Olympic flame's journey across the globe, I cannot help but enjoy a tiny moment of smugness over the uncanny timeliness of this month's CQ Global Researcher on "Separatist Movements." As I learned while editing the report, Tibet's separatist struggle is only one of 70 such movements – two dozen of which are currently considered "hot spots."

Of course, I had heard about Kosovo's declaration of independence in February and watched as unhappy Serbians reacted angrily by torching the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. But until I read the report, most other separatist movements were just mysterious struggles by ethnic groups I knew almost nothing about – Kurds, Moros, Tamils, Basques, Uyghurs (who the heck are the Uyghurs?) -- living in a slew of unpronounceable regions. Where and what are Transdniestra, Nagorno-Karabakh, Xinjiang, Abkhazia and Republika Srpska?

Who knew a story on separatist movements could turn out to be so interesting? For instance, I soon learned that:

• The international community has no clear, consistent policy on separatist movements. It embraces some, while ignoring others. In fact, international laws take utterly conflicting positions within the same documents – endorsing the right to "self-determination of peoples" on one hand and espousing countries' rights to protect their "territorial integrity" on the other.

• Thanks largely to separatist movements, the number of recognized independent countries worldwide has jumped sixfold since the mid-1800s, including a huge increase just since the end of World War II. The U.N. recognizes 192 countries today -- compared to 51 in 1945.

• If they gave a prize to the country that has disintegrated into the most new nations, the former Soviet Union would win, of course, having produced 15 new countries. But I hadn’t realized that the former Yugoslavia has morphed into seven new countries since 1991. And at least one of those new countries – Bosnia and Herzegovinia (yes, it's a single country) – has a province, Republika Srpska, that's making noises about separating into yet another nation.

• And what's this about staid Belgium splitting into two countries? And who knew there are 36 secessionist organizations now at work inside the United States and that a group of dissident Lakota Indians declared their independence from the United States last December? Will it ever end?

The report delves into a host of questions raised by this proliferation of independence movements. For instance: Is all this ethnic and religious "separateness" a good thing? Could all these tiny countries ever be economically viable? What is driving this disintegration into smaller and smaller, ethnically or religiously homogeneous countries? Coming from such a large, diverse country as the United States, I just want to ask -- a la Rodney King -- "Can't they all just get along?" And what about the other ongoing trend -- towards greater regionalism? After all, isn't the mantra in today's increasingly globalizing world that we are living in a "global community" where advances in air travel and the Internet are rendering borders irrelevant? So why are all these countries splitting into smaller units – while at the same time scrambling to join regional organizations like the European Union, ASEAN, the African Union and a slew of new trading blocks. Aren't these trends counterproductive?

Creating this report was challenging on several fronts. For instance, when we wanted to create a graphic showing the growth of the number of independent countries worldwide over time, we were stumped. Where does one go to find out how many countries existed in the 19th century? We eventually found a State Department historian, who dug up the Stateman's Yearbook, which McMillan began publishing annually in 1864. The book listed only 32 countries in 1864 and 55 countries in 1900 – but with a bunch of interesting caveats. For instance, the 1864 book unabashedly stated that it included only the "states and sovereigns of the civilised world." No nations in Africa -- the interior of which was largely unmapped at that point -- were listed. And the Confederate States were listed as a separate country.

And creating a map and list of the active separatist movements around the world was equally challenging. As far as we could tell, no mainstream media has taken a comprehensive look at ongoing separatist movements as a worldwide phenomenon. Their reporters generally cover only one movement at a time. (That's what makes the CQ Global Researcher such a perfect venue for this story.) So our reporter Brian Beary worked with information from the Unrepresented Nations and People's Organization and CQ's Political Handbook of the World 2007 to draw up a list of the 22 most active separatist movements around the world. It makes interesting reading.

To view the report, click here. [subscription required]