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date: 17 February 2018

Ethnicity and Nationalism in Wars of Secession

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For some time, scholars have noticed that ethnic groups that are geographically concentrated or possess a “regional base” tend to become embroiled in anti-state rebellion at a much higher rate than other ethnic groups. Countries with higher numbers of geographically concentrated ethnic minorities and self-determination movements tend to see more internal violence. Furthermore, if popular demands for independence exist, they may or may not reach serious political expression, and that expression may take various forms, from electoral action to protest or outright rebellion. The form of expression depends on institutional constraints and various factors that generate reasons for conflict; however, not all attempts at secession are done with violence. Many secessionist organizations have in fact refrained from violence, and some governments permit secessionists to organize, to contest elections, and even to pursue independence through the political process. Recently, scholarship has begun to move away from the determinants of popular demands for sovereignty to the dynamics of secessionist mobilization, including collective protest and rebellion. This research sees the struggle between nationalists and the state in the context of game theory, particularly deterrence models, and generally stresses concepts such as capability, information, and credibility. Secessionism overall remains a research frontier in both comparative politics and international relations.

Keywords: secessionism, secessions, secessionists, sovereignty, secessionist movements, secessionist conflicts, comparative politics, autonomy, secessionist mobilization


In the political context, “secession” is the withdrawal of a people and their territory from the sovereignty of an existing state and the establishment of a new, independent state with sovereignty over that territory. The social science literature on secessionism exploded after the well-known secessions of the early 1990s: the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia and the secession of Eritrea from Ethiopia. At the time, many observers worried about the fragility of the nation-state, particularly in an era of economic globalization. However, actual secession has remained an exceedingly rare phenomenon. Since the 1990–3 wave, only a handful of additional countries have gained independence: Palau in 1994, East Timor in 2002, Montenegro and Serbia in 2006, and Kosovo (disputed) in 2008. Nevertheless, movements for independence or extensive autonomy remain prevalent in states with geographically concentrated ethnic minorities.

Because secessionist aims strike at the territorial integrity of the state, governments tend to resist such movements fiercely. Directly, secession causes an effectively permanent loss of territory and resources for the rump state. Indirectly, a successful secession can also signal weakness on the part of the government losing territory to other governments and minority groups. Because governments rarely concede secessionist demands peacefully, ethnic organizations that develop such demands are far more likely to use violence to achieve their aims than are other sorts of ethnic organizations.

For some time, scholars have noticed that ethnic groups that are geographically concentrated or possess a “regional base” tend to become embroiled in anti-state rebellion at a much higher rate than other ethnic groups (Gurr 2000; Saideman et al. 2002). Countries with higher numbers of geographically concentrated ethnic minorities (Toft 2003) and self-determination movements (Sambanis and Zinn 2005) tend to see more internal violence. The reason for this is presumably that geographic concentration of the ethnic group is a necessary condition for secession. Without a territorial base, a state controlled by group members is impossible.

Nevertheless, many secessionist organizations have refrained from violence, and some governments permit secessionists to organize, to contest elections, and even to pursue independence through the political process. Therefore, understanding the reasons why some secessionists become violent and others do not, and why some governments tolerate secession and others do not, remains an important task.

This essay has five parts. The first part examines research on popular demands for independence, as expressed through votes for secessionist parties. It points to structural factors and international-systemic dynamics as affecting the prevalence of secessionist sentiment in a region. The second section of the essay examines secessionist mobilization and warfare. If popular demands for independence exist, they may or may not reach serious political expression, and that expression may take various forms, from electoral action to protest or rebellion. The form of expression depends on institutional constraints and various factors that generate reasons for conflict. The third section examines the literature on the relationship between decentralization and secessionism, and the fourth reviews the debate over alternative international responses to secessionist warfare: recognition, partition, and “benign neglect.” The fifth section concludes.

The Demand for Sovereignty: Structural and Systemic Explanations

To understand the causes of secessionist warfare, we must first understand why people would support a self-determination movement in the first place. Secessionist movements are not necessarily violent, nor do they invariably reject the normal political process. Examining the determinants of “grassroots” support for peaceful secessionist movements helps to understand where and why violent secessionism might arise as well.

Political scientists have used the traditional tools of both institutionalist and behavioralist comparative politics to explain the emergence and strength of secessionist movements. There is a large literature on “ethnoregional,” “ethnonationalist,” and “minority nationalist” political parties in advanced democracies (e.g., Smith 1981; Tiryakian and Rogowski 1985; Watson 1990; Connor 1994; Keating 1996; Newman 1996; de Winter and Türsan 1998; Keating and McGarry 2001). Many of these parties are secessionist, and most are seeking independence or wide-ranging autonomy through the political process. Some minority-nationalist parties in Western democracies, particularly countries without strong federal systems, try to obfuscate their position on independence in order to appeal to both “moderate” and “radical” nationalists. Classic examples would include the largest parties of the Basque and Catalan regions, the Basque National Party (PNV) and Convergence and Unity (CiU), respectively. The PNV has endorsed a scheme of “free association,” under which Spain would retain powers over defense, foreign policy, interregional trade, and little else. The CiU has been even more moderate, endorsing a gradual enlargement of autonomous powers while voting in favor of resolutions advocating a “right of self-determination” for Catalonia. Rudolph and Thompson (1985) find that more moderate nationalist parties have had more influence on institutional change than radical parties, but have often lost electoral support by making compromises with the political establishment. Although secessionist movements are common in advanced democracies, there has not been an actual secession in western Europe since 1944, when Iceland gained independence from Denmark. Many voters in democracies tend to be risk-averse, reluctant to support any radical changes from the status quo – a fact that has made it difficult for secessionist movements to obtain majority support in their home territory (Dion 1996).

Scholarly interest in ethnonationalism took off in the 1970s with the electoral successes of nationalist parties in Scotland, Wales, and Quebec. The dominant theoretical paradigm in this research was modernization theory. Scholars argued that urbanization and industrialization made ethnic groups more likely to “rub shoulders” and to organize collectively for economic competition (Melson and Wolpe 1970; Bates 1974; Brass 1976). Some also argued that modernization posed a threat to local identities, generating nationalism as a kind of reactionary attempt to turn back the clock (Zirakzadeh 1989). Economic-reductionist theories of a Marxist or rational-choice vein also began to come to the fore. Hechter (1975) argued that the Celtic periphery of Britain represented “internal colonies,” and that the intersection between ethnicity and low class status gave rise to progressive nationalism. Levi and Hechter (1985) later tried to expand the argument to the rest of western Europe, by stressing the “ethnic division of labor” in the professions as a source of national identity. Gellner (1983) and Anderson (1983) stressed, respectively, industrialization and print capitalism as prerequisites for the development of national consciousness and nationalist ideology in the Americas and Europe.

Horowitz (1985) mustered a number of compelling arguments against all such economic-reductionist theories – or at any rate, against their usefulness as predictive tools in the study of ethnic conflict. He noted that the traditional modernization hypothesis and the ethnic division of labor hypothesis are actually contradictory, because the ethnic division of labor decreases interethnic competition for the same positions. While urbanization may have helped people from traditional villages develop broader, truly “ethnic” identities to supersede old tribal loyalties, ethnic conflict actually seemed (and still does seem) to be fiercer and less tractable in poorer, less modernized countries. By contrast, Horowitz’s “ethno-symbolist” theory of conflict stresses the importance of ethnic groups’ potentially incompatible assertions of “ownership” over territory or the state itself.

In an early article, Horowitz (1981) argued that “backward groups in backward regions” develop secessionism early. Examples such as the southern Sudanese, Karens in Burma, and Moros in the Philippines support this observation. In his theory, backward groups generally seek sovereignty as a way of protecting their culture and territory from “aggressive,” advanced groups.

By the late 1980s, work on minority nationalism had diminished greatly. One noteworthy exception is Laitin’s (1989) work on the politics of linguistic revival. Laitin’s work was not reductionist, but it was instrumentalist in that it stressed the rational origins of nationalist movements that aimed to thwart linguistic assimilation. Only with the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia did the interest in secessionism return. The new literature often strove to apply rigorous methods of scientific inference to the testing of competing hypotheses about the comparative strength and radicalism of minority nationalist movements, and much of it focused on western Europe and the post-Communist states.

One advantage of studying secessionism in advanced democracies is that the researcher can use vote shares for secessionist parties as proxies for popular demand for sovereignty. Using regions as the units of analysis, Sorens (2005; 2008) finds that regions with higher per capita incomes relative to the country as a whole, higher populations, larger party-ideological differences from the country as a whole, multiparty systems, more speakers of a regional language, lack of geographic proximity to another country where the regional language is the majority language (“irredentist potential”), geographic distance from the rest of their own country, and a history of independence tend to give greater electoral support to parties demanding independence or far-reaching autonomy. Some of these results confirm earlier findings on regional leaders’ policy assertiveness (Van Houten 2001): namely, that rich, larger regions where more nationalist parties compete at elections see their leaders make stronger demands on the state, particularly for regional tax-raising powers. In a study of the former Soviet republics, Emizet and Hesli (1995) also find that richer republics, not necessarily those more “culturally distant” from Russians, were more likely to declare sovereignty early.

The findings that richer regions are more secessionist appears to contradict Horowitz’s (1981) classic argument, and to support to some degree the findings of Gourevitch (1979) in Europe, that politically weak but economically powerful regions are more nationalist. Related research has shown that regionalist parties, which do not demand independence or even substantial autonomy, tend to be stronger in poorer regions that are also culturally distinct (Sorens 2008). However, most of Horowitz’s cases are drawn from developing countries and non-democracies. In democracies, richer regions will tend to subsidize poorer regions because of the median voter’s position in the income distribution, and they would therefore stand to gain financially from independence (Bolton and Roland 1997). In dictatorships, by contrast, the “selectorate” will generally tend to be richer than average, and redistribution should be lower, allowing richer regions to keep more of their own resources without secession. Thus, it may be the case that in dictatorships poorer regions are more secessionist than richer ones, while in democracies the reverse is true.

Bartkus (1999) uses comparative case studies, chiefly of post-Communist secessions, to argue that secessionism is more likely when the central government’s authority is in decline, and when minority groups are fearful about the future preservation of their culture and collective welfare in a united state. Giuliano (2006) argues in a similar vein that democratization stimulates secessionism in ethnic federations by forcing regional leaders to adapt to the preferences of nationalist electorates that had previously been powerless.

Ayres and Saideman (2000) undertake a quantitative analysis of the determinants of secessionism worldwide. Their data come from the Minorities at Risk (MAR) dataset of approximately 270 “ethnopolitical minorities,” and the dependent variable is “active separatism” in the 1990s, which includes irredentist claims as well as demands for self-determination. They find that separatism does not spread easily across borders, except in one class of cases: cross-border kin groups. Otherwise, separatism depends on domestic factors: discrimination, which actually reduces separatism; relative size of the group, which increases separatism; and political dominance, which virtually eliminates separatism. Unlike Horowitz (1981), they find that economically worse-off groups are less separatist. Nevertheless, their study does suffer from some problems. They use rebellion in the early 1990s as a predictor of separatism in the same decade, despite the fact that separatism is a major cause of rebellion (Toft 2003; Sambanis and Zinn 2005). Not surprisingly, this endogenous variable is highly statistically significant, and its inclusion may bias the coefficients on the other independent variables. Also, the MAR dataset has come under fire for selection bias, because it includes only groups that are either discriminated against or support political organizations promoting group interests (Fearon 2003). On the other hand, some research that attempts to quantify the selection bias in MAR has found little or no difference (Sorens 2009).

In relative isolation from the rest of this literature, economists have studied economic factors that affect popular demands for independence (for an early overview, see Bolton et al. 1996). Bolton and Roland (1997) examine theoretically the effects of regional economic differences on support for secession. The central point is that, if regions have different ideological orientations toward redistribution because of different income inequalities (Meltzer and Richard 1981), then secession is politically desirable, because it can give regions the power to set their own redistributive tax and spending policies. Additionally, richer regions should be more secessionist because of the interregional income redistribution effect discussed above. The most unrealistic assumption of the model is that voters’ redistributionist preferences are bifurcated, potentially hewing to one extreme when the national context is considered and to the other when the regional context is considered. For instance, a moderately well-off person in an extremely wealthy region would be anti-redistributionist in the country context but pro-redistributionist in the regional context. As any political psychologist knows, voters’ ideological perspectives are much deeper and less flexible than this model assumes. The unrealism of the argument could be overlooked if the empirical implications were supported by evidence, but the authors do not test them. The posited effects of regional ideology and relative income on secessionism are indeed supported in the electoral data, but the notion that differences in regional income inequalities explain any substantial part of regional ideological differences – the key original claim of the theory – is doubtful. The hypothesis is difficult to test because of the poverty and paucity of income distribution data, especially at the regional level (but see Mahler 2002), and as of this writing no one has attempted to do so.

In another set of papers, Alesina and Spolaore (1997), Alesina and Wacziarg (1998), and Alesina et al. (2000) explore the effects of country size and economic integration on secession. They argue that, because of economies of scale in public goods provision and large internal markets, larger countries in terms of population will grow faster than smaller ones, all else equal. However, small countries have a stronger incentive than large ones to open their markets to international trade in order to obtain the benefits of specialization in their comparative advantage. Trade openness will increase growth, but its impact on growth will be larger for small countries than large ones. Finally, as international economic integration increases, average country size should decline as the efficiency disadvantages of small country size disappear. (In the model, there is a “heterogeneity” cost to having countries of larger size.) In these articles and in Alesina and Spolaore’s (2003) book, The Size of Nations, these economists find evidence for all these propositions. However, their evidence for the impact of globalization on average country size, presented in the 2000 article, is problematic. They chart the progress of world trade as a percentage of world production over time against the number of independent countries over time, and find a strong positive relationship (Figure 1). The problem with this evidence is that the number of countries in the world increased mostly for two reasons: (1) decolonization in Asia, Africa, and the Pacific after World War II, when trade was also increasing; and (2) the breakup of former Communist countries in eastern Europe, which also happened during a period of rising trade. One might reasonably argue that globalization played a role of some sort in facilitating decolonization and the fall of Communism in different ways, but clearly this evidence does not demonstrate that secessionist movements have gained in popular support and political power because globalization has made political actors more comfortable with the idea of smaller countries.

Political scientists have looked more closely at secessionist movements’ political uses of globalization and multilateral institutions. Meadwell and Martin (1996) argue that secessionists stress international-institutional guarantees of economic integration and security assistance as means of reducing transition costs and risks involved with future independence. They contrast “institutionalized interdependence” in arrangements such as NAFTA and the European Union (EU) to the balance of power system that prevailed during nineteenth century globalization. Indeed, the overall trend of political scale was increasing, not decreasing, during that earlier period of economic integration. Meadwell and Martin’s evidence is consistent with polling data that consistently show that voters in places like Quebec and Scotland prefer formulations such as “sovereignty-association” and “independence in Europe” to “complete independence.” Shulman (2000) has noted that globalization can prove useful even to “state-nationalists” like the BJP in India, because it allows a country to diversify its international economic ties and reduce its dependence on any one external power.

Van Houten (2003) finds that regions in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy that saw greater increases in their own integration into the international economy did not necessarily develop stronger nationalist movements. However, those regions that had preexisting nationalist movements developed stronger demands on the state when regional openness to international trade increased.

Sorens (2004) argues that years in which world trade openness is higher see larger secessionist electoral successes, even when a year counter is used as a control variable. However, like the Alesina, Spolaore, and Wacziarg evidence, this finding depends on a correlation with a systemic globalization variable that does not vary across cross-sections (regions in this case). It is possible that other global trends account for the rise in secessionist electoral success in advanced democracies in the mid- and late-1990s. Furthermore, Sorens’ data end in 2000, but after that point several secessionist parties have stagnated or declined (e.g., those in northern Italy and Quebec), even as world trade openness continues to rise.

Ethnicity and Nationalism in Wars of SecessionClick to view larger

Figure 1 World trade openness and number of countries, 1870–2000

Source: Alesina et al. (2000:1277)

Arguably, the evidence that secessionist movements stress support for multilateral institutions in which they would like their future governments to participate is stronger than the evidence for a more general, automatic effect of economic globalization on political disintegration.

The Dynamics of Secessionist Mobilization

Recently, scholarship has begun to move away from the determinants of popular demands for sovereignty to the dynamics of secessionist mobilization, including collective protest and rebellion. This research sees the struggle between nationalists and the state in the context of game theory, particularly deterrence models, and generally stresses concepts such as capability, information, and credibility. In the limit, Cetinyan (2002), Jenne (2004), and Jenne et al. (2007) argue that secessionist demands will only find expression when the minority group finds itself in a strong enough position to press its claims against the central government, usually due to the support of some external power. More powerful groups press more radical demands. Kosovo pressed an uncompromising position on independence, not because Kosovo Albanians were particularly oppressed compared to other groups in the region, but because they enjoyed the political and material support of the Albanian government, and later of the European Union and United States. Vojvodina Hungarians, on the other hand, never enjoyed international support for independence. (However, unlike Kosovo Albanians, they also do not come close to constituting a majority in their region, a fact that probably explains more than anything else why secessionism has never become an issue there.) One can make similar comparisons of international support and secessionism between Transnistria Slavs and Gagauz in Moldova and between Abkhazians and Ossetians on the one hand and Ajarians on the other in Georgia.

“Capability” is a particularly important prerequisite for secessionists outside the advanced democracies, for within the advanced democracies even a tiny movement is free to announce its demands, however radical, and initiate an electoral and political campaign for them. In most of the world, however, supporting secession openly is explicitly or implicitly defined as treason or unconstitutional. Article 123A of Pakistan’s Penal Code provides for prison sentences up to ten years for anyone who condemns in speech or writing the historical creation of Pakistan (Ali 2002:260). The Sixteenth Amendment to the Indian Constitution, adopted in 1963, makes secessionist statements illegal and requires that all candidates for office swear an oath of loyalty to the state. Despite the importance of the dynamic capability concept outside the advanced democracies, we should not overlook the structural factors discussed in the previous section, such as geography, historical memory of independence, and the economic feasibility of independence. Group strength or external support is not an absolute prerequisite for radical claims-making, even in developing countries. The Massob movement in Nigeria advocates an independent Biafra for the Ibo group and undertakes demonstrations and rallies despite the fact that its leaders have been arrested and charged with treason, and even though they have no discernible support from the international community or any other country. Secessionists in places such as Kawthoolei (Burma’s Karen-land), East Caprivi, Cabinda, and Xinjiang (“East Turkestan”) soldier on despite overwhelming odds. In addition, there are some regions or groups that might succeed at secession were they to attempt it, but there is little popular demand for it due to broad satisfaction with the economic and political status quo (e.g., Dravidians in southern India, California, Afro-Brazilians, Visayans in the Philippines, Sundanese in Indonesia, etc.).

To explain secessionist warfare, most recent work draws on the rationalist explanations of war literature, which holds that the causes of war are to be found principally in three sources: (1) asymmetric information, (2) non-credible commitment, and (3) indivisible goals (Fearon 1995; Powell 2006). (But see Benson and Saxton (2009), who find support for Gurr’s grievance model of protest and rebellion.) Because war always destroys resources, it is always inefficient, and there is always some solution to the dispute ex post that both parties would have preferred to war. War can yet be rational for both parties ex ante if one of the three conditions above holds. Economists working on civil war have broadened our understanding of the rationality of war by showing that fighters can have a direct stake in perpetuating conflict, in order to control lootable resources, to build public support for an incumbent government (diversionary war), or to provide an excuse for larger military budgets (Collier and Hoeffler 2004). These “economic explanations for war” usually have an underlying credibility logic (peaceful expropriation of a future stream of rents is possible only if the threat of force remains just as daunting in the future, which is costly to maintain), but they demonstrate that we sometimes need to look beyond the warring parties themselves to find the source of the conflict.

Economic theorists of civil war have expressly downplayed earlier theories of rebellion that emphasized psychological grievance (Gurr 1970) and symbolism (Horowitz 1985), or that modeled rebellion as just another form of collective action directed against the state (Lichbach 1995; Weingast 1997). (Psychological and collective-action theories still play a large role in the literature in on “spontaneous” ethnic violence, riots, etc. (Horowitz 2001).) For Collier and Hoeffler, greed, not grievance, explains civil war. This displacement is not, fortunately, complete, for although the earlier theories failed to explain why violence might erupt between a state and an organized group of malcontents, they do help to explain, as rationalist theories of war cannot, why malcontents exist and how they organize in the first place. Another limitation of the “greed” models of civil war in the context of secessionism is that they apparently cannot explain the many examples of “no-hope” secessionist rebellions, particularly those that meticulously avoid involvement in the drug trade or looting of resources, such as the Karen insurgency. Finally, merely finding that natural resource dependence is correlated with civil war does not necessarily imply that looting is the objective (Ross 2004). To test “greed” explanations of conflict satisfactorily, we would need to study the dynamics of civil war at the “micro” level.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to discuss in detail various theoretical models of war, rebellion, and ethnic conflict. However, it is important to note that most of the initial applications of these theories did not treat secessionist warfare as being sui generis. Scholars used the theories to explain ethnic conflict or civil war in general (ethnic conflict: Horowitz 1985; Gurr 1993; Posen 1993; Lake and Rothchild 1996; Gurr 2000; Saideman et al. 2002; civil war: Walter 1997; Hartzell 1999; Elbadawi and Sambanis 2002; Sambanis 2002; Fearon and Laitin 2003; Collier and Hoeffler 2004; Fearon 2004). As a type of insurgency, secessionist rebellion shares some features with other insurgencies, including wider prevalence in poor, rural, resource-dependent countries. Recently, however, scholars have noticed that secessionist conflicts seem more intractable than other types of ethnic conflict. The correlations between geographic concentration of an ethnic minority and likelihood of rebellion referenced at the start of this essay suggest that governments and secessionists face special problems resolving their differences. Studies of the effects of political institutions on ethnic protest and rebellion recognize in theory that different types of ethnic demands can be accommodated with different solutions: power sharing might appease widely dispersed minorities concerned about representation, while decentralization is the usual tool of compromise with secessionists (Saideman et al. 2002; Lustick et al. 2004).

Recently, therefore, scholars have begun to look at secessionist warfare as a distinct problem with origins and dynamics that are different in part from those of other intrastate conflicts. Toft (2003) argues that ultimate sovereignty over a given piece of land is an indivisible goal, and thus when sovereignty is at issue, no compromise is possible, and violence is virtually inevitable. Geographic concentration of ethnic groups is associated with rebellion because such concentration allows groups to make territorial-sovereignty claims, and because states do not wish to concede secession for fear of appearing weak to other states and future minority challengers. She finds that states with three or more concentrated minority groups are more likely to have ethnic violence than other states.

Walter (2006a; 2006b) picks up Toft’s reputational logic for governmental resistance to secession. In her theory, governments that accommodate the first secessionist challenger send a signal of low capability to other potential challengers within the same state. Other minority groups are then more likely to launch their own campaigns for independence, in the heightened expectation of either winning a violent conflict or obtaining a favorable compromise from the government. By contrast, if the central government fights the first challenger, they send a signal of strength and deter future challenges. Walter accordingly finds evidence that governments are less likely to accommodate secessionist movements the more geographically concentrated ethnic groups exist in the country, and that an ethnic group is more likely to rebel (which Walter interprets as a secession attempt) if previous challengers have been accommodated.

Fearon (2004) examines the duration of civil wars, finding that coups and revolutions are shorter than other civil wars, which are mostly ethnic in nature. Additionally, “sons of the soil” conflicts, defined as conflicts originating between an indigenous regional minority and a growing immigrant group (most of these conflicts become explicitly secessionist), last longer than other civil wars. He explains this finding with a model of credible commitment, in which government promises to respect autonomy are undermined by resource endowments that encourage immigration of ethnic strangers. Knowing that autonomy cannot be guaranteed in such situations, rebel organizations are unlikely to come to terms with the government in the first place.

If secessionist conflicts last longer than other civil wars, the most plausible explanation lies in the realm of credible commitment rather than asymmetric information. (The argument that sovereignty is indivisible actually seems to break down into either the commitment or informational argument. The point of regional autonomy or federalism is precisely to divide sovereignty.) Uncertainty about the government’s and rebels’ relative capabilities should be quickly resolved on the battlefield (Fearon 1995; Powell 2004). The unavailability of a credible compromise to resolve the conflict could, however, cause it to drag on indefinitely even when both parties would be better off with a compromise that could be credibly enforced (Fearon 2004). There is also a theoretical difficulty in Walter’s (2006a) reputational argument. If accommodating secessionists causes more of them to emerge and fight, then weak governments should be unwilling to send such a signal. Instead, weak governments should fight the first challenge just as strong governments would. But if that is the case, then fighting the first challenger no longer sends a signal of weakness, and it is no longer necessarily irrational for secessionists to fight a government that has fought a previous challenger. Those governments that have accommodated secessionist movements then must be viewed as having acted irrationally.

These theoretical difficulties are not insuperable. A partially separating equilibrium (weak governments accommodate secessionists more often than strong ones, and accommodation therefore conveys an informative signal to secessionists) is possible only if even strong governments sometimes prefer accommodating secessionists to fighting them (on credibility problems in interstate conflict, see Powell 2006). This fact implies that it would be useful to incorporate credibility and asymmetric information in the same model, because a strong government will be willing to accommodate secessionists rather than crush them only if accommodation does not increase the risk that secessionists could threaten the government with new costs in the future. Structural factors such as natural resources can play a role here. Fearon (2004) suggests that natural resource abundance in a region increases the likelihood that the central government will later undermine autonomy. However, as Ross (2004) notes, resources could make secession more economically attractive for a regional group, especially when resource revenues are otherwise controlled by the central government. If this is true, then minority ethnoregional movements face a credibility problem in resource-rich regions. If the central government offers them autonomy, they could later find full independence attractive as a means of asserting full control over revenues derived from local resources.

In summary, current research suggests that secessionist rebellions are peculiarly intractable due to problems in establishing a credible autonomy compromise.

Solving Secessionist Conflicts: The Puzzle of Autonomy

What makes autonomy work? There remains no scholarly consensus on the effectiveness of regional autonomy or federalism in reducing secessionist mobilization, including violent secessionist conflict. In theory, decentralization reduces popular demand for full independence by making the alternative more attractive. A competing argument is that autonomous political institutions foster distinct identities in the long run, making secession more likely. Post-Communist scholars have noted that after the fall of Communism, only federal countries broke up: Yugoslavia, the USSR, and Czechoslovakia (Roeder 1991; Dorff 1994; Treisman 1997; Bunce 1999; Leff 1999; Kraus and Stanger 2000; Cornell 2002; Gorenburg 2003). In Yugoslavia and the USSR, some of the component republics had not developed strong nationalist movements and did not seek independence until the secession of other republics either dramatically changed the relevant political calculations (Bosnia) or simply caused the central government to disappear (the central Asian republics of the Soviet Union). We should be careful about generalizing from the experience of these countries, however, since the actual operation of federal institutions there only truly began in the 1980s following the softening of the internal centralization of the national Communist parties (Soviet nationalities policies were probably more responsible for the persistence and strengthening of national identities in that country than was a federalism that had long been purely symbolic), and since the collapse of a total economic and ideological system is unlikely to be replicated in many other countries.

Hechter (2000) has offered a comprehensive theory of nationalism that yields a clear prediction about the effects of credible federalism or local autonomy on nationalist sentiment. For Hechter, the rise of direct-rule regimes was the historical culprit for the rise of nationalism, and the solution to nationalist conflict is to replicate, to the degree possible, prior indirect-rule regimes, such as the Ottoman empire’s millet system. When local identity groups (“solidary groups” in Hechter’s terminology) enjoy self-government, nationalism is simply no longer relevant. It is the incongruence between the governance unit and national boundaries that generates nationalism. Switzerland’s decentralized political system is perhaps the classic example of such a system: the degree of local autonomy has inhibited the development of narrowly German, French, and Italian nationalisms on Swiss territory. Nevertheless, decentralizing after a nationalist civil war might take some years to have the desired effect, and might it just encourage nationalist challenges in the short run?

Kymlicka (1998) has questioned the value of federalism for reducing secessionist support. He distinguishes between ethnic federalism, which gives self-government to ethnic minorities, and non-ethnic federalism, which does not even attempt to provide self-government to minorities and may even subject them to the tyrannies of chauvinist local majorities. Canada provides an example of ethnic federalism, while the United States is an example of a non-ethnic federation. Ethnic federations may likewise preserve secessionist ideology once it has emerged, since federation encourages culturally distinct jurisdictions to seek asymmetric powers, while those units dominated by the state majority will seek to attain equal powers to those of the minority-dominated units. Kymlicka does not advocate centralization as an alternative but simply notes that creating federalism is unlikely to reduce the frequency of nationalist appeals.

Anderson (2004a; 2004b) distinguishes between “coming-together” federations formed of previously sovereign units and “holding-together” federations created out of unitary states to accommodate national minorities. He argues that secessionism is more likely to emerge in the former because of the availability of compact theory. In coming-together federations, secession is justified as a legitimate response to a central government that has overstepped its constitutional bounds. This appeal to legality and founding myth is unavailable in holding-together federations (see also Brandon 2004).

Mozaffar and Scarritt (2000) have argued that territorial autonomy is not a viable conflict-prevention strategy in most of Africa, because African ethnic groups are generally too small to be able to benefit from a feasible system of federalism: if each group had its own jurisdiction, there would be too many jurisdictions, and they would be too small to work effectively. What their argument amounts to is a recognition of the fact that secessionism or minority nationalism is not the principal problem of ethnic mobilization in Africa. Rather, a competitive struggle for political control at the local and national levels better characterizes ethnic relations in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Federalism may still have some ameliorative effects in these contexts, by breaking up power and dispersing conflict to multiple levels and locations (Horowitz 1985), but that line of argument does not treat federalism as a compromise with already-mobilized secessionist movements.

Lapidoth (1997) and Safran (1999) provide discussions of the differences between territorial and personal or functional autonomy and of particular “success stories” of each kind of autonomy. Functional autonomy (e.g., separate educational systems or family courts) is likely to be a solution only for widely dispersed minorities that have no secessionist ambitions. Since most functions of the modern state remain ineluctably territorial, secessionists are unlikely to settle for personal rather than territorial autonomy.

Lustick et al. (2004) examine the effects of power sharing, autonomy, and repression on secessionism theoretically, using an innovative agent-based simulation technique. Their model places individual agents on a square map and allows them to take on different values representing their identities or allegiances: the bureaucratic core of the state, loyal opposition, mixes of particularist and statist identities, a “disgruntled” regional minority, and a minority within that region opposed to the disgruntled minority’s historic claims. Agents’ active identities and “influence values” affect the likelihood of identity switching by adjacent agents, who can switch among identities present in their repertoires. Secession occurs when agents activated on a minority identity become separated from the rest of the map by agents who have become “border cells” impervious to the state-dominant identity. They model repression as increasing the number of bureaucrats among non-minority members in the disaffected region, power sharing as increasing the share of regime members in the region with active minority affiliations, and semi-autonomous institutions as increasing the share of the regionally dominant minority with regime influence and a latent regime identity. In simulations of regime responses, repression reduced ethnopolitical mobilization (number of agents with active minority identities), while power sharing and autonomy increased it (not surprisingly, since these methods increased the influence of active minority agents on neighboring agents). Repression also slightly reduced the amount of secessionist activity and frequency of actual secessions, but not as effectively as power sharing and especially autonomy.

The agent-based simulation approach is creative and interesting, but it leaves unanswered a number of questions. Does the size and shape of the hypothetical country affect the results? What happens if the assumption that agents are influenced almost exclusively by their neighbors is significantly relaxed? Should agents be better modeled as forward-looking utility maximizers, rather than as switches that turn on and off different identities? The simulations model power sharing and autonomy as exogenous shocks to the system, but the fact that they are endogenous decisions is precisely what creates the durability and credibility problems discussed in the previous section.

Brancati (2006) examines empirically the effects of decentralization and regional party electoral success on ethnic rebellion and intercommunal conflict from 1985 to 2000. The units of analysis are states, and rebellion and communal conflict are taken from the MAR dataset and coded as the maximum value for any group in the state in a particular year. The elimination of data on individual groups raises the possibility of spurious correlations, but Brancati does this to reduce the alleged selection bias problem in MAR data discussed above. Decentralization is measured in several ways: (1) as the existence of a regional government with legislative powers (binary), (2) a continuous measure of autonomy that takes into account local taxing, educational, and police authority, and (3) a continuous measure that also takes into account whether regions have a role in approving constitutional amendments. All measures of regional autonomy are directly negatively associated with both rebellion and communal conflict, while regional party vote share is positively associated with both kinds of violence. Brancati (2008) argues in a separate article that regional autonomy increases the vote share of regional parties. This latter finding suggests competing effects of decentralization: a directly ameliorative effect and an indirectly exacerbating effect, through the creation of regional parties.

One might question whether regional parties per se promote ethnic conflict. Might not regional parties with non-secessionist aims have different effects on conflict than regional parties with secessionist aims? Brancati argues that regional parties promote, over the long term, distinctive, exclusive regional identities. This mechanism has not been tested at the micro-level. An alternative possibility is that the existence of strong regional parties merely reflects unobserved factors that correlate with strength of regional nationalism, which is the true cause of rebellious activity. Finally, it is difficult to generalize from a study covering just 16 years: while the MAR data are superior to the available datasets on civil war in that they have finer-grained measures of ethnic rebellion and communal conflict and cover groups, not countries, the civil war datasets are superior in their temporal coverage.

If decentralization does not necessarily decrease future secessionist mobilization, then why do governments ever decentralize, especially since doing so always entails giving up some power over certain policies? In a study of fiscal decentralization in Latin America, O’Neill (2003) found that parties that were more uncertain about their future success in national elections and that had highly regionally skewed electoral results were more likely to support decentralization. For such parties, decentralization is a way of increasing the power they enjoy at the regional level as a hedge against the day when they lose power at the national level. Although the context is certainly different from countries facing a secessionist insurgency, this finding suggests a political logic that may operate even in those cases.

If the problem with decentralization as a solution to secessionist warfare is credibility, then researchers should also examine institutions that make it more difficult for one side to renege on its agreement, in the spirit of Hartzell (1999) and Saideman et al. (2002). In many developing countries, the executive or the military ignores legal strictures on their actions in peripheral regions. An independent judiciary with judicial review could provide an important check on these types of abuse, but only if their rulings are respected. Unfortunately, no research has yet investigated this possibility in the case of ethnonationalist conflict.

Another issue is that even if the institutions respect autonomy, it can be undermined by the influx of new voters who do not share the values or identities of the existing voters. This is the kernel of Fearon’s “sons of the soil” problem, which was actually anticipated by sociologists’ exploration of the “power threat hypothesis,” usually in the context of racial conflict in the American South (Tolnay et al. 1989; Olzak 1990). The indigenous peoples of Tripura are an example of a group that won autonomy after a hard-fought campaign, only to see it come under threat once illegal immigrants from Bangladesh began to pour over the border. Today Tripuris make up less than a third of the population of the state created for them, and a nativist insurgency seeks to expel the Bengali interlopers. This problem has also cropped up in federal countries like Nigeria and Indonesia, where state and regional governments have tried to discriminate against goods and people from other parts of the country, with harmful economic consequences (Ray and Goodpaster 2002).

International Approaches to Secessionist Conflicts

If domestic solutions to secessionist conflicts are unattainable, what about international intervention? This section discusses scholarly debates over international intervention on two topics: (1) the consequences of partition, understood as physical separation of the warring parties, and (2) standards for the international recognition of secessionists, with all the political and economic benefits that obtain.

Third-party intervention in civil wars is a relatively new but rapidly growing area of research. Generally, researchers have found discouraging results on the effects of third-party military intervention on the resolution of ongoing conflicts but more positive results for diplomatic mediation in ongoing conflicts and for third-party guarantees and peacekeeping after negotiated conclusions to intrastate warfare. Regan (2002) finds that third-party military interventions actually prolong intrastate conflicts, unless the intervening country is a biased party. On the other hand, Hartzell (1999) has found that any third-party guarantee of a negotiated settlement, no matter how weak, increases post-conflict stability; Doyle and Sambanis (2000) find that UN peacekeeping operations increase post-conflict stability; and Regan et al. (2009) find that diplomatic interventions by the Catholic Church dramatically increase post-conflict stability to an estimated average probability of over 90 percent. These pieces are just a small selection of this literature, which is largely outside the scope of this essay as it does not address secessionist conflicts in particular.

Hannum (1996) has analyzed the international legal status of concepts such as the right of self-determination, various forms of sovereignty, and minority rights. In his view, simply enforcing international covenants on human rights would resolve most ethnic conflicts, but going further to recognize a legally enforceable right of autonomy would reduce violence by groups seeking collective self-government.

The strategy of ethnic “partition” has gained a great deal of scholarly and political attention in recent years. Partition is defined as the physical separation of ethnic populations engaged in civil conflict. Even under the best of circumstances, partition is necessarily a dangerous and coercive process. It differs from secession in several respects. First, secession is the outcome of a process sought by activists within an ethnic population, not engineered from outside. Second, secession does not require an ethnically homogeneous state or population transfers, although such transfers sometimes do occur later (e.g., Greece and Turkey after World War I). Third, partition does not necessarily result in a new, independent state for one side of the conflict. The Dayton Agreement ending the Bosnian civil war is an example of an ethnic partition that did not create any new, independent states, but which, through the creation of the two, federated “entities,” did essentially ratify the population transfers (“ethnic cleansing”) that occurred during the civil war.

Partition as a solution to ethnic conflict has been highly controversial, but some scholars have defended it as a regrettable but necessary “last resort.” Drawing on the concept of the ethnic security dilemma, Kaufmann (1996; 1998) advocated partition as a way of reducing fears of imminent annihilation in the context of an ongoing ethnic war. Partition in theory would halt the cascade toward more and more intense ethnic violence by making the survival of each group less dependent on the political and military security of the other. The empirical hypothesis is that partitions that end ethnic conflicts will make future conflict between the same groups less likely.

In a cross-national study of post-World War II civil war, Sambanis (2000) found no evidence that partition decreases the likelihood of future ethnic war or low-level ethnic violence. This evidence has recently come under challenge, however. Johnson (2008) argues that full demographic separation of the warring parties, measured by a continuous variable of post-partition ethnic homogeneity, has always prevented a return to ethnic war or low-level violence in the post-World War II period, but “incomplete partition” has no benefit compared to none at all.

Scholars from a wide variety of disciplines and approaches have analyzed the effects of legalizing or recognizing secession on desiderata such as intrastate and interstate peace and government repression.

Political theorists have been discussing the question of whether secession should be allowed as a kind of collective or even individual right rather intensively since the publication of Allen Buchanan’s (1991) book, Secession: The Morality of Political Divorce from Fort Sumter to Lithuania and Quebec. While most of this debate has taken place at the level of moral theory, recent work has begun to take into account practical considerations (Coppieters and Sakwa 2003). Buchanan (2003) has argued strongly that secession should be approached as an institutional question, and that institutions dealing with secession should be judged on the basis of the incentives they provide and their likely consequences. His work on international policy toward secessionists argues that countries should recognize or even assist secession when necessary to provide security for a group menaced with serious, systematic violations of basic human rights, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing. He argues that if this norm were established and enforced worldwide, then governments would have a strong incentive to refrain from committing such egregious violations of human rights. By contrast, enforcing a general right of secession would legitimize extensive interference in the domestic affairs of other countries and might even punish countries for adopting federal systems that make secession referendums possible.

Norman (2003) has argued for a broad conception of secession rights in domestic constitutions, on the grounds that permitting secession for any reason, by a clear majority or super-majority in a free and fair referendum, would encourage secessionists to use the political process rather than take up arms. If this logic is correct, then legalizing secession would mostly solve the secessionists’ credibility problem and actually make regional autonomy more stable, especially since secession referendums in democracies usually fail.

However, Horowitz (2003) has argued against recognizing any kind of secession right, domestically or internationally, on the pluralist reasoning that the average scale of the state should become larger, not smaller, in order to diffuse ethnic conflict across multiple political levels and identities. Horowitz believes that highly diverse countries like India and Tanzania suffer less conflict than moderately diverse ones, because it is difficult to form effective ethnic coalitions at the central level when every ethnic group is a small part of the population. Bolton et al. (1996) argue, however, that when forming a federation of previously independent states, the member states should recognize a right of each member to secede in order to encourage broad membership. The logic is straightforward: a state is more likely to join a federation if it will be allowed to leave should the worst happen, than if it will never be allowed to leave. In fact, the European Union has operated on this principle, and the abortive EU Constitution would have explicitly recognized a right of member states to secede from the Union.

Examining relations between post-secession states (the rump state and the new state), Tir (2005) finds that peaceful secession reduces the likelihood of a subsequent “fatal militarized interstate dispute” between the two states. He infers that permitting peaceful secession is better than unilateral imposition of any territorial settlement.

The debate over how or whether to recognize the legal possibility of secession looks set to remain a lively one, in part because the paucity of evidence on the effects of legalized secession remains an obstacle to answering the question definitively.


Secessionism remains a research frontier in both comparative politics and international relations. Comparative politics scholars have especially contributed to our understanding of the emergence and growth of secessionist movements, while the tools of international relations theory have been brought to bear on the study of secessionist violence. These two literatures are ultimately indivisible, however, for several reasons: (1) considerations of future success on the battlefield and at the diplomatic table should affect whether would-be secessionists decide to press their claims in the first place, (2) strength of popular support for self-determination will influence the capability and resolve of secessionist rebels, and (3) domestic institutions will affect the credibility of governments and therefore the willingness of ethnonationalists to fight rather than compromise.

While research has advanced on a number of questions, there remains a fundamental debate over how the treatment of secessionist movements affects propensity for violent conflict across the globe. On the one hand, secessionism is not particularly contagious, at least across borders; peaceful secessions lead to peaceful relations between the resulting states; constitutionalizing secession may reduce the insecurities of ethnic minorities; and complete territorial partition of ethnic groups, if feasible, seems to reduce violence dramatically. On the other hand, political partition without demographic separation does not reduce violence; appeasing secessionists with regional autonomy does not seem to work in the long run; secessionist movements are more rebellious than other types of ethnic mobilization; and governmental suppression of the first secessionist movement to emerge discourages others from organizing. This last finding suggests that even if “legalizing secession” were a useful conflict reduction strategy, few governments would attempt it, since for most governments we may assume that minimizing the risk of territorial dissolution holds greater weight than minimizing the amount of intrastate violence.


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James D. Fearon’s website. At∼jfearon, accessed Jul. 2009. Provides replication data for recent publications, including data on civil war onset and termination and on ethnic populations by country.

Minorities at Risk (MAR) Project. At, accessed Jul. 2009. Provides data and qualitative assessments on more than 300 “ethnopolitical groups” around the world for the years 1940–2003. Includes links to the periodic Peace and Conflict reports on global conflict trends. Provides maps of “hot spots” where groups are facing repression or discrimination and engaging in protest and rebellion. Provides a bibliography of research using MAR data and links to external data based on MAR groups.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Secession.” At http:/, accessed Jul. 2009. A detailed review essay on the normative and philosophical issues involved in secession, including overviews of the major normative theories of secession.

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Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP). At, accessed Jul. 2009. Provides annual data on intra-, inter-, and trans-state armed conflicts, on conflict terminations, on peace agreements, on battle deaths, on third-party interventions in intrastate conflicts, and on intentional attacks on civilians. Also includes replication data for published articles and links to periodic data publications such as States in Armed Conflict. A bibliography of research using UCDP data is available.

Wikipedia, “List of active autonomist and secessionist movements.” At, accessed Jul. 2009. A comprehensive, global listing of currently active autonomist and secessionist movements, with links to Wikipedia pages of individual movements, movements’ websites, and other references. Contains some unverified movements.