Independence — so longed-for and so difficult to reach

Around the world, separatist movements are dreaming of their own governments. However, secession is a difficult project and rarely successful. Soon, nation states may be challenged by separatists of a new breed, as major cities are demanding increasing amounts of political authority and economic autonomy.

Last autumn saw two major referendums on independence. Both were held without consent from the state, both saw landslide victories for the separatists, and both referendums evoked protests both inside and outside the region in question.

The referendums were held for Catalonia and Kurdistan in Iraq, regions that have little in common –except that neither are likely to gain their independence in the foreseeable future.

For years, there has been talk of globalisation eroding national borders and making areas culturally homogenous. Nevertheless, the desire to establish new states based on ethnicity, language or culture has not disappeared. There are separatist sentiments on all continents.

 “The nation state has become increasingly popular, even though global allegiances are narrowing its authority,” states Pauli Kettunen, professor of political history.

The 19th century gave rise to nationalism, which proposes that the existence of a nation is justified by being a specific region occupied by a specific people. Most existing states are based on this idea.

However, nationalism has a serious flaw.

 “There are very few places in the world where the border of a nation and a people can be drawn neatly and without conflict,” says Kettunen.

When the borders for a state are determined, they almost always encompass several nationalities, which in turn generates new desires for independence.


We need to look no further than historical maps to see that the world could look different. Drawing borders brings us to fundamental questions: Who lives here and with whom? Who is considered to be a member of a people? Who is in the majority, who in the minority? Who is in power?

States are usually loyal to each other and will only recognise seceded areas once the official government has accepted them. Governments rarely regard separatists kindly.

For this reason, the best moments to gain independence are major turning points in world history, when the status quo collapses. This happened three times during the past century, and each time brought forth several new states.

Finland seized its opportunity just over a hundred years ago, and was not the only one. At the end of World War I, the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires collapsed, with as many as 23 new states emerging from the rubble.

The end of World War II brought the end of colonialism with it, resulting in most colonies in Asia and Africa gaining their independence during the 1950s and 1960s.


During the 1990s, the fall of communism gave rise to another group of new countries. According to Kettunen, the collapse of the Soviet Union was surprisingly peaceable, despite a nationalistic trend that rose as the political system changed.

Even more painless was the split of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while the breakup of Yugoslavia came at the cost of terrible wars.

Kettunen attributes the reason for this to differences in what was hoped to be gained with the change of the system. In Czechoslovakia, nationalism did not dominate the change and turn it into a violent revolution, while in Yugoslavia, ethnicity was placed at the core of its political system – even though most of the fledgling states contained several ethnicities.

 “The wars surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia traumatised many countries,” believes Sami Moisio, professor of geography.

The international community is hesitant to support the pursuit of independence based on language or culture, as ethnic nationalism harbours the risk of major violent conflict.


According to Moisio, who has studied state formation and change, separatism also reveals the true nature of a government.

 “At the end of the day, a government is a political institution based on a monopoly of physical violence in a certain geographical area. The political administration is unlikely to be receptive towards separatist leanings,” says Moisio.

Russia is an unusual case, as it likes to encourage separatists in other countries, but tolerates no such sentiments within its own borders. Russia’s influence has led to the establishment of several separatist states, which few other countries have recognised, around its borders, such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.

Russia’s latest tools include social media and online trolls, which also had a major role in the separatist movement in Catalonia.


The United Nations is based on the concept of non-intervention: states cannot interfere in each other’s internal matters. On the other hand, it also emphasises human rights and the principle of self-government.

If human rights are being infringed, other countries may recognise a separatist nation despite the opinions of the official government. Kosovo has been recognised by 110 UN member states, even though Serbia still considers the area to be its autonomous territory.

From the perspective of international law, separation is seen as justified if the region is a colony or otherwise under intense oppression, believes Jukka Kekkonen, professor of legal history.

But sometimes that’s not enough. The Kurds, for example, have suffered many forms of oppression over the years, but they have received no support for their struggle for independence.

According to Kekkonen, there are legal justifications for a Kurdish state, but not necessarily political ones.

 “The line between law and politics is not stable. The emphasis is up to interpretation. Economic interests often overshadow humanitarian concerns.”

The Kurdish people live in areas governed by Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. The separatist desires of the Iraqi Kurds are feared to spread to neighbouring countries, compromising the stability of the region.

 “The Kurds have for decades been at the mercy of major international powers. There will never be a Kurdish state unless a bigger window of opportunity opens in global politics,” believes Sami Moisio.


Not all separatists are oppressed. Many of them live in wealthy democratic states, some even in their most affluent areas, such as in Catalonia and northern Italy.

The distribution of public investment within the country causes friction and questions regarding the necessity of solidarity with less privileged areas. Nation states have traditionally been built through income transfers. As a result, wealthy areas may feel that they are being sucked dry for the benefit of others.

 “One could call this a rebellion of the wealthy,” quips Jukka Kekkonen.

He believes that Catalonia’s attempts at independence are narrow-minded ethnic nationalism, which should not be welcome in Europe. But neither does Kekkonen fully support Spain in the matter. He believes that Spain should consider a federal structure, or at least offer all areas the same rights as the Basque Country, which currently has the most autonomy in the region.

Sometimes a negotiating approach may be more effective than strict bans on separatism. Britain allowed the Scots to host a referendum on independence in 2014, and they decided to stay. Spain forbade the Catalan to vote, and now it looks like the situation has come to an impasse.


As a linguistic and cultural area, Catalonia spans two countries: Spain and France. The French Catalan have had much less linguistic and cultural freedom than their Spanish counterparts, but they have expressed no interest in having a referendum for independence. Does this mean that integration is the solution to separatism?

This is unlikely. Quite the contrary, separatism is often sparked by efforts towards forced cultural integration. The differences in France and Spain can be traced back to the different histories of the two countries – in the case of Spain, particularly to the burden of the civil war and the Franco regime.

A national identity is surprisingly strong, and it is easy to foment nationalist sentiment. Separatism is a part of daily politics, often accompanied by memories of past wrongs.

 “Such ‘slaves of Egypt’ narratives feed into separatist yearnings,” says Sami Moisio.

 “Separatists are rewriting history through a narrow peephole, forgetting everything except nationality,” states Jukka Kekkonen.


Rather than forced integration, a better way to handle separatism is to give power to the region and allow them more autonomy. Often this is enough. Many separatists are aiming for better autonomy, not full independence.

The Finnish Åland Islands have even been called the best autonomy in the world. But even there, separatist sentiments exist.

On the other hand, Finland’s Sami-dominant areas have had little interest in secession, even though the conditions would be right. The building of the Finnish nation state involved forced integration and restrictions on expressing the Sami culture. However, instead of struggling for independence, Finland’s Sami population have decided to fight to raise the level of indigenous rights in the country to meet the UN’s recommendations.


The nation state may soon be faced with a new kind of separatist challenger.

 “I’ve lately been thinking about urban secession. Not in terms of cities wanting to separate from the state, but regarding the demands to change the ways cities and the government relate to one another,” says Moisio.

In his book, Geopolitics of the Knowledge-Based Economy (out this March from Routledge), he proposes that the global rise of the knowledge-based economy has led to an emphasis on the role of cities at the expense of regional governments. The largest cities are demanding increasing amounts of political authority and economic autonomy.

 “Recent statements by Jan Vapaavuori, the mayor of Helsinki, as well as some other city leaders, are part of this development, which has arrived a little late to Finland,” says Moisio.

Urban secession also connects to identity politics. For example, some emphasise the fact that many urbanites may feel more connected to city dwellers in other countries than the agrarian population of their own country.

Cities, states and economic unions are in fierce economic competition for investments. Even the European Union has turned from a project for peace into an organisation focused primarily on enhancing the competitiveness of its members. European separatists are disappointed in the EU: fundamentally, it is a union of nation states. This was very apparent in the EU’s reactions towards the Catalonian referendum.


The coexistence of several nationalities and identities does not necessarily lead to separatism. There are many stable multinational countries in the world. For example, Switzerland is among the most wealthy and stable countries in the world.

 “I’m slightly suspicious when a group claims they want to govern themselves. The rights and universal privileges of everyone must be respected, whether it’s a majority or minority group,” muses Jukka Kekkonen.

In an ideal situation, every citizen of a country has sufficient access to political participation, the will of the majority is respected, and minorities are protected.

 “The ancient Romans said ubi bene, ibi patria, which roughly translates to ‘home is where the heart is’. This is not dependent on whether that home is an independent state or part of another country,” Kekkonen points out.

Independence is not a quick fix: often it is associated with the risk of violence. Currently, the youngest country in the world is South Sudan, which gained its independence in 2011. It has been engaged in civil war since 2013.

On the other hand, Finland also went through a bloody civil war after its independence. But few Finns today think that it would have been better to not become an independent country. //

Read more about urban secession: Sami Moisio, Geopolitics of the Knowledge-Based Economy (Routledge, 2018)

The article has been published in Finnish in Yliopisto magazine 04/18.

How to gain independence?

1) With consent from the government

The modern world’s process for independence was created more than 200 years ago. The American declaration of independence was followed by a war which ended in 1783 with a treaty in which Britain conceded the independence of the United States. Other countries only recognised the United States after the treaty was signed.

A war may not even be necessary. When Norway gained independence from Sweden in 1905, there was a palpable risk of military conflict. But Sweden chose to let Norway go. This was due both to a referendum organised by the Norwegians as well as general anti-war sentiment in Sweden. It’s hard to say how Sweden would have reacted, had it been aware of Norway’s oil resources at the time.

2) With the collapse of the government

If the official government is weakened, or the political system overthrown, minorities become more eager to secede, and a path to independence opens. This is how Finland gained its independence. Even then, other countries waited for Soviet Russia to recognise Finland first.

3) Without consent from the government

The international community may support the separatists, if the government oppresses a minority and ignores their human rights. Kosovo is an example of this. Sometimes, supporting separatists may be in the interests of major political powers.