How Ukraine’s crisis could give momentum to Europe’s separatists

The conflict in Ukraine is a classic example of competing aspirations and identities – a description that could be applied to most separatist quarrels in Europe.

Pro-independence supporters wave the Saltire as they gather in Edinburgh for a march and rally in support of a Scottish independence referendum to be held in September. AFP / September 21, 2013
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MARSEILLE, FRANCE // The dramatic upheaval in Ukraine, its population split between the attractions of Europe and loyalty to Russia, has thrown into focus the stubborn clamour for self-determination in many areas of the world.

From the shores of Scottish lochs to the elegant waterways of Venice, from Canada’s French-speaking province of Quebec to the far west Chinese region of Xinjiang, the desire for freedom from central power often runs deep.

Throughout history, the world map has presented a changing face. Civil insurrection, warfare and popular pressure have all helped to shift territorial boundaries, creating new states or just defining autonomous areas.

People engaged in struggles for separatism act on differing motives. Tradition and culture, religion or language, economic imbalances and current or deep-rooted fears and grievances can all be factors.

“It is difficult to try to link what drives the different separatist movements around the world,” says Sir Andrew Wood, a retired British diplomat and now an associate fellow in the Russian and Eurasian programme of the London-based think tank, Chatham House.

“But it broadly narrows down to language, religion and history – and even, in certain cases, a fondly remembered insult.”

The conflict in Ukraine is a classic example of competing aspirations and identities. The description could be applied to most separatist quarrels in Europe.

The so-called Euromaidan protests began late last year to register Ukrainian opposition to the president Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to abandon proposed links with Europe and instead strengthen ties with Moscow. He was driven from the country in February as violence escalated and formally removed from office by the Ukraine parliament.

In exile he portrays himself as the legitimately elected head of state. Russia refuses to accept the validity of the interim government that replaced him and has used military power to support the overwhelmingly pro-Moscow Crimean peninsular in its rejection of the fledgling Ukraine administration.

Despite Russia’s view that Ukraine has been the victim of an illegal coup, the interim government has duly signed the association agreement with the EU that the ousted president snubbed. To meet the terms of that agreement and qualify for International Monetary Fund loans, it has promised wholesale reforms of the judiciary, political system and economic policy.

Sir Andrew believes it is the desire for such reform – and an insistence on being treated with respect in a country free of institutionalised corruption with a fair code of law – that most strongly motivates those calling for change.

The scale of violence used by and against protesters during the Ukraine revolution – an interim government report puts deaths at 75, mostly civilians – is at odds with the notions of peace and stability that underpin the expanding European Union. Successive enlargement has raised the number of member states to 28, with five more currently considered candidates.

But even within the existing EU territories, examples of domestic pressure for separate sovereignty, autonomy or boundary changes are easy to find.

Scotland will vote on independence from the UK in a referendum on September 18.

Led by the Scottish National Party, which already has a majority in the devolved parliament established in 1999, "Yes" campaigners believe Scotland can have a viable future as a sovereign state. They are buoyed by a Financial Times report this year suggesting the economy, based on GDP per capita, is greater than France's with oil and gas reserves included – and bigger than Italy's even without them.

In contrast, leading business and industrial voices have spoken against independence and the major British political parties have ruled out the form of currency union Scottish nationalists favour.

John Curtice, a professor of politics at Scotland’s Strathclyde university, says the opinion polls “just don’t agree with each other” but sees the “No” camp ahead on most analysis, with no sign yet of “a nationalist bandwagon moving continuously and relentlessly towards the 50 per cent”.

It may even come down to a gender divide, he says, one poll putting support for independence among men at 56 per cent against 40 per cent of women once "Don't Knows" are excluded. "It seems women continue to stand between nationalists and [their dream] of independence," he writes at the What Scotland Thinks website.

To Scotland’s immediate west, the peace process in Northern Ireland has failed to eliminate completely the use of violence by elements opposed to the province’s status within the UK.

Dissident republicans reject the compromises made by Sinn Fein, traditionally the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, in what a British government minister once called “a flawed peace” that was better than none.

The number of activists willing to use force in support of their objective – a united Ireland – is small while representing a continuing threat to security.

Elsewhere in Europe, separatist movements have also used violence in their efforts to break away from central rule.

In northern Spain, the Basque group Eta was created in 1959 and began what evolved into an armed rebellion in pursuit of independence from Madrid.

More than 800 deaths in 45 years were blamed on the organisation, whose title translates as “Basque Homeland and Freedom”.

After a string of ceasefires, with hundreds of its members jailed mainly in Spain and France, Eta announced a “definitive end” to armed operations in 2011. That pledge has held; Basques continue to campaign for autonomy while renouncing the violence of the past.

To the east of Spain’s Basque county, Catalonian separatists have doggedly, but peacefully, pursued demands for partial or total independence since the early years of the 20th century.

Support increased during the repressive 36-year dictatorship of General Francisco Franco. Catalonia’s performance as a strong, dynamic exception to Spain’s deep economic malaise, along with anger at hefty contributions to debt-ridden central government, has reinforced the separatist movement.

Opinion polls vary according to their sources. An official Spanish institute found only 36 per cent support, but its poll is 13 years out of date. Much higher levels are found in surveys carried out by Catalan bodies and newspapers.

A survey last year by a Catalan research institute, the Centre for Opinion Studies (CEO), found 48.5 per cent favouring full independence, 21.3 per cent a federal state and 18.6 per cent an autonomous region.

To the anger of Madrid, which rejects any form of independence, Catalonia’s regional parliament is planning to hold a referendum.

On the Mediterranean island of Corsica, birthplace of the 19th century French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, calls for independence from France have been accompanied by bombings and shootings since the 1970s.

As headquarters for such international institutions as Nato and the European Union, Brussels might be expected to be above internal squabbles. But Belgium, with its irreconcilable Flemish and French-speaking Walloons communities, is hardly a model of harmonious coexistence.

The New Flemish Alliance (N-VA) is the country’s largest political party and wants the peaceful secession of the Dutch-speaking Flanders region. After a four-year crisis of governance between 2007 and 2011, a coalition led by the French-speaking social democrat Elio Di Rupo and excluding the N-VA took power in Belgium. But this fudge leaves the future in doubt.

At first glance, Europe’s quirkiest independence movement is centred in Venice. In fact, the beautiful lagoon city was a republican state from the seventh century until it was occupied by Napoleon in 1797 before passing into Austrian hands and finally being absorbed into the new kingdom of Italy in 1866.

As northern Italian separatists seek a break with the poorer south, so Venetian nationalists within that northern region dream of the restoration of their republic.

On April 2, Italian police detained 24 militants accused of storing weapons and planning acts of violence – including, bizarrely, an assault on St Mark’s Square – including an armoured bull dozer.

In Europe, as in the Arab Spring, demands for independence or just democratic advancement are spread by social media, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube as well as by natural grievances.

In this climate, existing struggles may intensify, others peter out. But after centuries of change, it would take a confident man or woman to predict the shape of the continent 50 years from now.