Friday, February 22, 2008

Canadians Again, This Time Compared to Serbians

It's hardly surprising that Serbia would reject as unlawful the declaration of independence by Kosovo. Countries with restive minority populations almost invariably resist separatist movements---and sometimes with good reason. For example, where the national majority (here Serbs) forms a substantial minority in the would-be breakaway nation, the larger nation may legitimately worry that independence will bring persecution of those of their group in the new country. The larger country may also worry that the very tensions that lead to an independence movement in the first place will continue post-independence, with a risk of war thereafter. More problematically but not irrationally, the would-be breakaway may have natural resources that the larger country does not wish to lose.

But sometimes resistance to independence may be irrational, simply a reflexive nationalism. Surely there are circumstances in which holding onto the would-be separatists is itself the source of much of the animosity. Certainly that is how many Russians feel about Chechnya, for example.

Conversely, the one true success story is the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak Republics. As is frequently the case, so too here, the ethnic group that was less materially successful (the Slovaks) wanted out, and as so rarely occurs, the Czechs had the good sense to let them go. Both countries---but especially the Czech Republic---have done well since.

Where the country from which severance is sought is a non-democratic state, it's hard to see that any tears should be shed when the smaller unit leaves. But in a democracy, the desire of an ethnically-based majority of a geographic sub-unit to part ways can be experienced by the larger polity as a shock or even an insult. This, I think, may explain the Canadian dynamic. It is by no means clear that Canada would be worse off if Quebec (and perhaps the maritimes) were to become a separate nation. But Anglophone Canadians experience Quebec separatism (such as it is) as a challenge to their conception of Canada as multicultural country in which nationality is not ethnically based.

Posted by Mike Dorf

12 comments:

xiaohong said...

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Jean said...

I think you make a good point about a democracy not wanting to lose an area that helps to make it more diverse and representative of multiple groups. But with Serbia, that's not really the case (as I'm sure you know). From what I can tell, the Serbs would be quite happy if all the Albanians in Kosovo went to Albania and left the physical land of Kosovo to Serbia. I think it's often hard for Americans, who are used to a fairly heterogeneous society built (at times shakily) on the idea that all people have equal rights, to understand what goes on somewhere like the Balkans. But when identity is so deeply tied into religion, language, culture and history, it can get really messy. I'm pretty sure Kosovo doesn't have any major resources Serbia doesn't want to lose. But it's the ancient seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, so they see it as fundamentally unjust that it doesn't belong to "their" country anymore. Russia has always sided with Serbia - good thing they both have separatist situations to keep them together in modern times.

egarber said...

The hope is that the embassy attacks yesterday are more about general frustration than a return to ultra-nationalism. As I understand it, Serbia is a mess economically (21 percent unemployment), and many young people would happily trade Kosovo for EU inclusion and trade growth. Most of them have never even been to Kosovo.

So it's possible the recent tension is more a last gasp expression of the old guard than anything else. Then again, these things are hard to predict.

Sobek said...

Jean said: "But when identity is so deeply tied into religion, language, culture and history, it can get really messy."

Hence conservative rejection of identity politics, and identity focus in academia.


I used to live in Italy, which has two interesting separatist movements (that I know of). One seeks to split the country in half, north and south, because the north is the nation's economic powerhouse, and some northerners don't see any reason to drag southern Italy along into modernity. I can understand the sentiment, even if I disagree with it.

The other is more puzzling. Sardinia is a very poor island, with few natural resources (other than absolutely gorgeous Mediterranean beaches). Some Sardi want their island to be independent from the continent, even though it receives far more benefit from its association with the rest of Italy than Italy could possibly gain from Sardegna. I can't understand that impulse.

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