With the separatist sentiments becoming popular in Europe, there are concerns about their implications for Russia. But are these fears well-grounded?
Supporters of the independence of the Catalonia region of Spain, stand under a huge estelada or pro independence flag, as they gather in Catalonia square during a rally in Spain's Barcelona on October 19, 2014. Photo: AP
In 2014, separatist movements in various countries of Western Europe seemed to have peaked. This became most apparent this past autumn during independence referendums in Scotland and Catalonia.
Despite the defeat of those seeking statehood for Scotland (45 percent of the people in the region voted for independence) and the legal blockage of the will of Catalans (although more than 1.8 million people voted for independence), one cannot talk about European separatism dying out any time soon.
The European Free Alliance, which unites dozens of separatist and autonomist parties, promises to continue its struggle for the “right of peoples to self-determination” in 2015, that is, the movement of territories and regions of various countries to full independence.
In this connection, it is interesting to analyze how separatist tendencies may affect individual EU member states in 2015 and what are their implications for Russia. First of all, in the United Kingdom and Spain – two countries that in 2014 were already “exposed to the strength” of secessionists.
Separatism in the UK after the Scottish referendum
The “Scottish Threat” to the unity of the United Kingdom seems to have recessed into the shadows, although the majority of British political scientists admit that it is very likely that the party ruling Scotland – the Scottish National Party (SNP) - will win the next elections. And this party has no intentions of giving up its main strategic goal – achieving full national sovereignty for Scotland.
Meanwhile, in recent years, the voices of supporters for Northern Irish counties (Ulster) to join Ireland have been growing louder. Thus, the leader of the left-socialist party Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, is calling on London to hold an official referendum in Northern Ireland on the status of this British region.
Chances are that, even if the separatists manage to convince London of the need for such a referendum, the outcome would nevertheless be in favor of the United Kingdom. Protestant voters, who favor retaining their union with England, in Ulster alone still exceed the number of Catholics in Northern Ireland. However, every year the number of Catholics, in percentage terms, keeps increasing.
Catalan separatists have not lost hope
As for Catalonia, the regional government headed by the president of that region, Arthur Maas, is not about to give up. Most of the members of the Catalan Parliament are determined to achieve full independence, and will continue demanding that Madrid allow them to hold a legitimate Catalonia-wide referendum.
However, the current Conservative government of Spain is not prepared to make any new concessions to Catalan politicians. It has recently launched a legal challenge against the leaders of separatism. In the meanwhile, Spain will be holding parliamentary elections at the end of 2015, and perhaps forces will come to power that are more inclined to reach a compromise with the Catalan autonomous government.
Maas recently announced early legislative elections in Catalonia, scheduled for this September. The party, seeking to separate from Spain, will be considering this vote as a kind of a “national referendum” approving the course its leadership has chosen.
Separatist sentiments in other EU countries
In addition to Spain and the UK, other countries will be facing challenges from separatists this year. For example, there is Belgium. Here, after the parliamentary and regional elections held in May 2014, the leading positions in the governments of Belgium and Flanders were taken by members of a new party – the New Flemish Alliance (NFA), which is in favor of a “soft” conversion of the decentralized kingdom into full independence for Wallonia and Flanders.
The NFA, which runs several key ministries in the federal cabinet, will do everything possible to take advantage of the upcoming reforms of the Belgian state to expand the political, economic, and financial rights of the Flemish region.
Not all is quiet in the state of Denmark either. Following the November 2014 regional elections in a land distant from continental Europe, but still part of the Danish kingdom – Greenland, the majority of seats in the regional legislature were won by representatives of local left-wing parties, basically seeking complete independence for this sparsely populated “green island.”
Given that it is thanks to Greenland that Denmark is considered an Arctic power, it is very likely that Copenhagen will make economic concessions in the future to Greenland’s authorities, which are betting on the fact that global warming could well turn this largest island in the world into an “El Dorado of the North.”
It seems obvious that the year 2015 will not be calm for the French authorities either. Regionalist parties, active in Brittany and Alsace, have already begun organizing campaigns against a law adopted at the end of 2014 by the French National Assembly, calling for the reduction in the number of regions. As a result of this new law, Brittany and Alsace risk being forcefully united with a number of neighboring regions, something local autonomists and separatists are categorically opposed to.
Apparently, Italy’s Northern League will continue on its “federalist” strategy path, given that today it controls the most industrialized and wealthy regions of the country, and finds itself in irreconcilable opposition to the central government in Rome.
Therefore, the announcement by Franus Alfonsi, the current President of the European Free Alliance and the representative of the Corsican separatist movement, that “the forces of national liberation in Europe will take to a new offensive” in 2015, may be far from just rhetorical posturing.
Another question is whether the “Euro Separatists” can make this new “offensive” more effective than in 2014.
The answer to this question depends not only on the separatists, but also on how confident and effective will be the reaction of nation-states to these new challenges.
Prospects for strengthening of separatism in Russia
Does “European Separatism” find its reflection in Russia? According to members of European Free Alliance parties, there appear to be various autonomist and secessionist forces active in the post-Soviet space. However, there is not a strong trend in this direction. It must be borne in mind that Russian legislation excludes the possibility of openly functioning separatist parties and movements, which objectively makes their activities difficult.
The well-known manifestations of Islamic extremism are closely connected with Chechen nationalism and separatism. Terrorism from this “source” has not been fully overcome yet, as evidenced by the recent attacks in Grozny.
As for the peaceful manifestations of separatist sentiment in Tatarstan, Northwest Russia (Leningrad and Kaliningrad Oblasts) or in the Far East, so far they have not enjoyed widespread support among the local population.
However, as in the EU, the supporters of separatism in some regions of Russia are pinning their hopes on the financial and economic crisis becoming more severe, believing that this will strengthen the hand of opponents of centralized states. Nevertheless, today there is no reason to talk about the prospects of a large-scale growth of separatist sentiment and movements in Russia.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.