Oct 22, 2017

The independence movements around the world

Protesters hold signs reading 'Freedom for the two Jordis' during a march to protest against the National Court's decision to imprison civil society leaders, in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Emilio Morenatti / AP

Catalonia's push for independence from Spain seized headlines this month, capturing international attention as a potentially successful separatist push within the relatively stable confines of Western Europe. Catalonia's secession would raise a whole host of questions for a range of international bodies — most notably, the European Union — that they'd prefer to ignore.

Why it matters: There are separatist movements all around the globe — even in most U.S. states — but the world tends to focus on those that have the potential to upend our understanding of the world and reshape geopolitics as we know it.


Already an autonomous region within Spain with its own government and language, Catalonia held a contested independence referendum on October 1. Spain had previously declared the referendum illegal, and Spanish police raided polling stations in an attempt to disrupt the vote. 43% of Catalans turned out — those against independence abstained from voting — with 92% voting for independence. Catalonia's president later declared independence for a matter of seconds before suspending his declaration with the hope of jumpstarting negotiations with Spain. Catalonia's refusal to back down from independence has led Spain to begin to invoke constitutionally-allowed procedures this weekend aimed at taking control of Catalonia's regional government.


After Iraqi forces moved in to oil-rich Kirkuk mid-October, Kurds started fleeing the disputed area, some heading for the Kurdish capital of Erbil, 60 miles to the north. Reports of clashes came about a month after Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence, a vote Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said was unconstitutional and said sending in troops was necessary to "protect the unity of the country." The backstory here is that the Kurdish forces, knows as Peshmerga, took over Kirkuk in 2014 after ISIS knocked out the Iraqi army in the area, and now Iraq can say is returning the territory to the status quo before ISIS while the Kurds boast majority support. The takeaway: instead of a statehood, the Kurds got a conflict. Kurds have been trying to forge an autonomous region in northern Iraq since 2003, and now there's a chance civil war could erupt.


Scotland roundly rejected the possibility of independence during a 2014 referendum, choosing to remain part of the United Kingdom by a 55-45 margin. However, last year's Brexit vote again stoked tensions as Scotland — the only constituent portion of the U.K. to choose to remain — pondered its place outside the European Union. Proposals by the Scottish National Party, which heads Scotland's devolved regional parliament, to hold a second independence referendum were discarded by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who in March declared that "now is not the time" to reconsider independence. The SNP's push for a second referendum may have caused the party to lose seats in the U.K.'s 2017 general election, further imperiling the possibility of Scottish independence.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia

These separatist movements in Georgia were borne out of Soviet-era tensions: Soviet troops moved in to crush a demonstration in Georgia in April 1989 and by 1991, Georgia had held a referendum on independence. And yet, Abkhaz and South Ossetians wanted to remain within the Soviet Union. Ethnic tensions erupted into full-on conflict between 1989 and 1990, including the deadly "March on Tskhinvali," in which tens of thousands of Georgians moved in to the South Ossetian capital. Georgia then effectively denied both regions' independence and ran an economic blockade, followed by open violence, guerilla-style resistance, and some cease fire agreements. Russia got involved, too, and claims its actions in the 2008 Georgian-Russian war were on behalf of its citizens. Georgia has expressed concern Russia is seeking to annex both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.


Cameroon's Anglophone-majority western provinces have begun calling for independence after the Francophone government began a series of crackdowns against English speakers over the past year. Earlier in 2017, the government instituted a 93-day Internet blackout in Cameroon's English-speaking regions in an attempt to crack down on political dissent. Earlier this month, some Anglophone Cameroonians declared themselves to be the independent region of Ambazonia, prompting the government to ban public gatherings, deploy military forces, and allegedly restarted the Internet blackout, per Al Jazeera.

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