Colombo Telegraph

Recent European Self-Determination Exercises

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

This essay, except in the two introductory paragraphs and in one irrepressible comment, avoids reference to Lanka; readers can draw their own inferences. Had I attempted a comparative discussion with Lanka, a document three times longer would have snapped my editor’s forbearance. Folks in Lanka are emotional and irrational, hence every time one approaches this topic the rudiments of self-determination theory have to be restated. A barebones summary is: (a) if a reasonable sized group, forming a goodly majority in a territory, wishes to secede; it has the moral and political right to do so. Nevertheless (b) a person who accepts (a) has the right to campaign for or against secession, depending on judgement of benefits and losses.

Now to Lanka; if folks in the North plus Baticaloa wish to exercise this right what do I say? I say, OK you have the right to secede or not to secede, but I also say: Taking into account contingent social, economic and international factors at this time, the Tamils, in their own interest, would be fools to secede. If circumstances change, for example if this regime persists in disrupting, damaging and obstructing the Northern Provincial Administration and grinds it into the dust, then it’s hopeless. The conclusion that the Tamils will never be permitted self administration, devolution and material improvement would be irrefutable. They would then need to ponder if they could be better off in a state of their own; it may not be foolish to secede.

Recent European self-determination drives

I will touch on Bosnia-Herzegovina (1991 and 1995–Dayton Accords), Kosovo (2008) and Scotland (2014) and comment on the hot topic of the day, Crimea (2014). To keep it manageable I will pass up Papua New Guinea (1975), Slovenia (June 1991), Croatia (October 1991), Macedonia (1993), East Timor (2002), South Sudan (2005) and Montenegro (2006). The independence date is in brackets, except Scotland where a referendum is due in September. Some in this list are politically stable and making economic progress; others are struggling – drowning would be too strong a word.


The British are setting about it in a civilised way; there has been no mayhem and the demand by the Scottish Independence Party for a referendum has been accepted by society and the political establishment. This is not because secession is likely to be defeated; it was not obvious when a date was agreed. More interesting is that more English are glad to be rid of Scotland than the Scots are to go. It costs more to retain Scotland (population 5.2 million) in the union than the revenue it brings in, and most North Sea Oil has been pumped out. Asymmetrical devolution (Scotland Act of 1998) assures the Scottish Parliament and Administration space to manage its affairs and collect a sizable net subsidy from the Exchequer in London. A Scottish vote for independence would be like “a turkey voting for Christmas” James Callaghan quipped. The Scots would be worse off and have to give up sterling and establish its own currency. Alternatively they could join the EU and adopt the Euro, but what would Scottish identity gain by exchanging one union for another? Most opinion polls show the turkey saying no to Christmas by a hefty majority of about 20%.

Montenegro, Kosovo and Macedonia are now separate countries
Albania was always separate

The significance of the issue for this essay is not the outcome (it will not make much difference to the rest of the UK or to Europe) but the civilised way in which society is going about it. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there is support for holding the referendum. In Scotland itself 70% support holding a referendum though only 30% in that sample say they will vote yes. There is a mature understanding of the right of the Scottish people to self-determination.

Yugoslavia and India

Why did Yugoslavia fly apart while the Indian Union has increased its cohesion in the last half-century?  The answer lies in history, material rationality and consciousness. Much of India was in a single empire in the Maurya and Gupta periods, but more crucially, the entire subcontinent was unified by the British Raj. “Britain carried through the only social revolution in the history of India”. A unified administration, judiciary and legal code, industry and railways, currency, a national market, a modern education system, and the pervasiveness of a language that trickled down from the elite into all-India embrace, formed the bedrock of a modern bourgeois-democratic nation. Ah, did I say democratic? Yes without democracy and all its messy clutter modern India cannot hold together. These factors were not strong enough to hold Pakistan in the union or satisfy Kashmir and Jammu though fissiparous trends in Madras State and the Punjab have abated and now Tamil Nadu and Haryana are firmly wedded to the India concept. In mythology and culture there has always been a notion of one-India and the swaraj movement shrewdly tapped into this sentiment.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was created in 1918, at the end of the war, and succeeded by Tito’s Socialist Yugoslavia when by 1944 his partisans had driven out the Axis powers. Yugoslavia had been overrun by the Germans, Italians and Hungarians in 1941, later joined by Bulgaria in the carrion fest. The country was torn up and fragmented and local fascists set up a state in Croatia. There was no 200 year British Raj to institutionally underwrite a modern nation state, nor was the regions ancient history cohesive in comparion to the mythology of a single India. Tito’s nation was neither institutionally nor materially as unified as independent India. It is true that ethnically the people are all Southern Slavs and all their languages derive from a common Serbo-Croatian root, but this was not enough to withstand the ravages of history. Tito’s death in 1980 loosed ties, but the coup de grace was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Yugoslavia fragmented because of its historical, material and institutional desiderata; the past and the present are a palimpsest.

Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH)

The significance of BH (population 3.8 million) is that a bitter three and a half year civil war was brought to an end by the Dayton Accords of late 1995. Following the declaration of independence in 1991 (opposed by the Serb minority) war broke out between the Bosniaks (48%), Serbs (37%) and Croats (15%); the Bosniaks are Muslims, Serbs Orthodox and Croats Catholics. In BH, previously a Serbian province bitter fighting erupted among the denizens of the new state after it seceded, though Belgrade too poured fuel on the fire and armed the Serb minority. This is an example of the messiness of forcibly forming a separate state; ‘external’ war was followed by internal war within the infant state. There was even a period of NATO bombing in March 1995.

Bosnian Serbs were accused of genocide in Bosnia and General Ratko Mladic was charged in 2011 before the international courts. The Serbian state was acquitted of genocide but accused of crimes against humanity. Serbian president Slobodan Milosovik was charged in 1999 with genocide in Kosovo but a year later charges of genocide in Bosnia were added. The 1990s was an execrable decade in Balkan history as new nations sprouted forth from a hellish cauldron of fire.


In 1989 Milošević amputated Serbia’s Kosovo Province’s autonomous rights (I am biting my tongue not to say Rajapakse and the Northern Province!). Kosovo Albanians responded with a non-violent separatist movement, civil disobedience and created parallel structures in education, medical care, and taxation, with the goal of achieving independence. Kosovo (population 1.8 million) declared unilateral independence in 1991. A bitter civil war with Serbia (population 7.2 million excluding Kosovo) broke out. Kosovo’s population is over 90% Albanian Muslims and less than 5% Serb. Tensions between the Albanian and Serb populations resulted in inter-ethnic violence and the brutal 1999 Kosovo War.

In 2008 Serbia sought an opinion was sought from the International Court of Justice on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The ICJ ruled that it did not violate international law which contains no “prohibition on declarations of independence”. Serbia and Russia do not recognise Kosovo’s independence and only 86 of 193 UN members do. The Security Council has not ratified independence.


The reason Russia annexed Crimea was not in deference to Crimean self-determination; it was concern about the security of Russia; Putin’s sharp reaction was a response to fears that Russia’s security was at risk. The overthrow of kleptocratic but democratically elected president Viktor Yanukovych by popular protests, hijacked at the last stage by ultra right-wing fascistic paramilitary, and the prospect of NATO expansion left Putin no choice.

Nazi snipers, anti-Semitic violence, and inclusion of the ultra-right Svoboda Party in the new government created a fearsome scenario. Grassroots fascists and German and/or American clandestine units may have been involved. NATO has been pushing ever closer to Russia’s near-abroad for two decades; Ukrainian NATO membership would have been intolerable. None of this is an apology for ex-KGB Putin’s autocratic regime or an excuse for kleptocratic oligarchs surrounding his throne.

Did the Crimean people want to secede and join Russia? International observes present during the referendum made no reports of electoral fraud. The yes vote was 95%, the turnout 80%, which means 75% of the population supported change. True, Ukrainian and Cossack minorities boycotted, the presence of Russian forces would persuade many to join the winning side, there was irrational euphoria and a rushed referendum, not preceded by a campaign and debate, would bias the result. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that a properly organised referendum would also have shown a sizable majority in favour of seceding from the Ukraine and joining Russia.

My objective today is to state that while finally bowing to people’s right to self-determination, including secession, whether one should campaign for or against secession up to a referendum, depends case by case. Facing a secessionist choice people need to consider the prosperity of the hypothesised state (democratic prospects, economic outlook, international relationships) and whether its birth will be peaceful (Slovenia, the Czech-Slovak velvet divorce, Crimea, Scotland if it goes that way) or blood soaked (East Timor, ex-Yugoslavia except Slovenia, South Sudan).

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