A nation is like a marriage, or so Lenin imagined it to be, with each partner or province having a right to get out if things go horribly wrong. The Soviet constitution of 1918 provided this right to each of the republics. It wasn't an innovation that many other countries followed. And yet, constitutional provisions or not, the S word -- secession -- has occasionally brought nations to the brink of dissolution.
Sometimes these separations are amicable. Drawing a line down the middle of its name and its territory, Czechoslovakia dissolved its union without much fuss. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was a very ugly divorce indeed.
Generally, "secession" is a very bad word in international relations. During the Cold War, many peoples -- Biafrans, Basques, Kurds -- uttered the word only to be severely punished for their transgressions. Bangladesh managed to break off from West Pakistan to form a new country - but probably only because a thousand miles of Indian territory already separated the two. After the Cold War, secession briefly became more popular, as the Soviet republics tipped their hat to Lenin as they went their separate ways. Elsewhere, Eritrea severed relations with Ethiopia, Namibia split from South Africa, and East Timor broke away from Indonesia. Yugoslavia was more than 15 years in the unmaking.
With so many post-Cold War precedents, you'd think secession wouldn't be dirty word today. For some, that's certainly the case. When voters went to the polls last month in Southern Sudan, nearly 99 percent opted for independence. The government in Khartoum has given its okay, so in July, Africa's largest country will formally split in two. Of course, this separation comes only after a 22-year-long civil war that left two million dead and four million displaced. That's an enormous price to pay. But many peoples in the world make comparable sacrifices and never get their own state.
Consider Chechnya. It fought two wars against Russia, lost 75,000 civilians, suffered through kidnappings and torture and the leveling of the capital Grozny. Not only have they not achieved independence, the Chechens must now put up with a Russian-installed dictator, Ramzan Kadyrov. A few years ago, one of Kadyrov's bodyguards ran away to Europe and testified about his employer's propensity for abduction and torture. At the beginning of 2009, in a botched kidnapping, several of Kadyrov's lackeys shot the whistleblower to death in Vienna.
In Chechnya's north Caucasus neighbors -- Dagestan, Ingushetia -- there's more talk about exiting Russia. The recent suicide bombing at the Moscow airport was organized by one of the factions pushing for independence. Putin has vowed to eliminate the "nest of bandits" responsible for the crime.
For every successful South Sudan, there are several suppressed Chechnyas. And every leader like Putin who aspires to crush secessionist movements has been looking with awe at Sri Lanka and its leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In May 2009, Rajapaksa orchestrated the eradication of the movement for Tamil independence, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This terrifying culmination of a three-year offensive, according to the former UN spokesperson in Colombo, left as many as 40,000 civilians dead. A number of countries denounced the actions of the Sri Lankan military, and the UN Human Rights Council, with U.S. support, began to look into war crimes. The government has denied the allegations. "I will not allow any investigation by the United Nations or any other country," said Rajapaksa's brother, who also happens to be the defense minister.
The official condemnations from governments contrast rather sharply with the reactions of military personnel involved in counter-terrorism operations. They've treated Sri Lankan military leaders like rock stars. The New Yorker's Jon Lee Anderson attended a recent conference on maritime security in Sri Lanka, where the formal agenda included discussions of piracy and other matters. "But mostly the conference was an opportunity for Sri Lanka's military leaders to boast to their colleagues about beating the Tigers," he writes. "The foreign speakers congratulated them on their achievement, and asked eagerly about the techniques they had used. Brigadier General Stanley Osserman, of the U.S. Navy's Pacific Command, said, 'Sri Lanka has a lot to offer in the field of terrorism prevention and maritime security.'"
The Sri Lankan "solution" of massive firepower and unrestrained ruthlessness was nothing particularly new. The Sri Lankan military might even have picked up some pointers from General William Tecumseh Sherman, who cut a swath to the sea in 1864 in a bid to make sure that the American south would never utter the S-word again. What made the campaign against the LTTE unusual was that it took place in the Internet age. Other countries are studying the Sri Lankan case not so much for how they did it, but how they got away with it.
Of course a third possibility lies between the success of Sudan and the failure of the Tamil Tigers, the Chechens, and most everyone else. Many states exist in a kind of limbo. Taiwan functions like an independent country and can stay that way as long as it doesn't make any formal declarations that would irk Mainland China. Kosovo has been recognized by 75 countries and last July the International Court of Justice upheld its declaration of independence. But Russia, China, and Spain -- which have their own problems with the S word -- have still barred entrance to the club of independent countries.
But Taiwan and Kosovo are still pretty lucky. They at least have gotten some recognition. Somaliland seceded from Somalia back in 1991. Yet no other country has recognized it. That's like throwing a party, inviting the world, and then sitting all night by yourself with all the chips and punch.
Last month, another section of Somalia filed for divorce. Puntland, like Somaliland, has been relatively stable, at least compared to the rest of the troubled country. Puntland's uttering of the S-word may simply be tactical, however. "It is willing to be part of a federal Somalia, so its secession is not irrevocable," writes Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) contributor Hussein Yusuf in Puntland Splits. "Rather, it made its declaration as a kind of wake-up call to the international community. It wanted to call attention to the TFG leadership's inability and unwillingness to cooperate with the rest of Somalia."
The fate of these would-be countries is being closely watched. Many Walloons, Basques, Corsicans, Western Saharans, Acehnese, Naga, Karen, Tibetans, Kurds, Baluchis, Vermonters, and many, many others are wondering whether they will be able to say the S word and see it happen. With South Sudan leading the way, divorce might become a great deal more popular in the near future. They might just have to knock down some walls in the UN General Assembly to accommodate all the new seats.
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