When looking for the reasons of the recent separatist developments in Eastern Ukraine, it is obvious that geostrategic and economical interests (Russia vs. the West) play an important role. It is clear which sides within Ukraine are backed by which outside powers. However, while separatist efforts can be fueled by foreign powers, there is no way of succeeding with an externally imposed separatism. In any case successful separatism requires a critical mass of will for separatism amongst the people in a region that is subject to separatist tendencies. There must be a reason why separatism could be considered as attractive aim for the inhabitants of a region. Often separatism can be triggered by nationalistic or economical motivations, more generally by the hope for what is subjectively considered as a better life or future.
Ukraine: alienation within the nation
In the case of Eastern Ukraine many media reports state that a certain quantity of this region’s (Russian speaking) population was long before Euromaidan orientated more towards Russia than to the central government in Kiev. After the government change in Kiev in early 2014 reports about governmental plans to devalue Russian language and heritage in Ukraine deepened an obviously already existing alienation of some Eastern Ukraine parts from the rest. False reports in a media war, the actual war and the propaganda war around it seemed to strengthen separatist opinions and tendencies among certain parts of the population or whats left of it in Eastern Ukraine.
Currently there are no numbers to back this, but it seems that separation of Eastern parts of Ukraine in some sort of independent New Russia (Novorossiya) is likely. In such a case it is highly probable that the dependency on Russia would increase in a way that might lead to absorption to Russia. Since an independent Novorossiya would be never accepted by Kiev and the West, which would also mean that there wouldn’t be any serious diplomatic and economical relationships there would be only Russia left. Until facts make the reality this is naturally only speculation. In any case every scenario requires a critical mass among the population in favor for it. This must no necessarily be a majority in form of opinions or votes, but it can also be the majority of accumulated power that shows the way into future.
Free trade agreements fuel separatism
Separatist tendencies also exist in Western Europe as the recent referendum in Scotland showed that however resulted in a loss for the party in favor of separation. The next region planning a referendum is Catalonia in Spain. There a vote for separation from Spain is planned for 9th November.
More regions striving for independence might be coming especially since highly criticized free trade agreements with Canada (CETA) and the USA (TTIP) seem inevitable and not to be stopped by ordinary people who are greatly disappointed by their political leaders. Both agreements that are negotiated without public participation contain the so called investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) that in the frames of these agreements should enable private corporations to sue states in front of private arbitral tribunals in secret. The CETA pact already has been signed by the European Union.
The way how these free trade agreements has been established as well as their contents are considered by many in Western Europe as highly undemocratic and undermining national laws. Especially the possibility for private investors to sue states in a nontransparent procedure raise fear that the modern state looses its ability to protect its citizens. For example a state could establish a law prohibiting certain methods to produce electricity, any company or investor affected by it could sue the state in front of a secret arbitral tribunal where according to media reports states mostly loose against private investors resulting in heavy compensation payments by the sued state and in the end that state’s tax payers.
Separatism for more democracy
Exactly this feeling of being powerless and at the mercy of big corporations can increase an already existing alienation of people and citizens in general as well as certain regions from their political class and the (central) government. Many might ask, what sense is there in a state or in a supranational institution as the European Union when one can’t participate in decision making on such a big topic and is not protected or represented by his or her political representatives who silently agree to an act considered as undermining democracy. It appears almost certain that such apparently undemocratic developments will trigger even more separatist tendencies and opinions that are currently popularly known.
Risks and chances of separatism
While separatism appears to open chances and fulfill economic and nationalistic dreams, there are also risks. Nationalism can be a central motivation for separatism and nationalism is located dangerously close to xenophobia and racism. Determining a people or separatist region by national identity and/or descent can result into exclusion of everyone who is different from descent, ultimately leading to racism. While there were no such signs around the referendum in Scotland where everyone living in Scotland despite their descent was allowed to vote (when in the right age), there is always a risk of extreme nationalism being involved. However, there could be signs that in multicultural societies in modern democracies this might be not a big topic anymore.
The second big risk is economy and the question how a separatist region could economically survive when being independent and especially when it is being cut off from the outside world/economy by a revengeful central government and its allies. Successful separatism requires a certain economical quality and power. In fact the region should be already economically self-sufficient when opting for separatism, naturally external allies – as in the case of Eastern Ukraine – could help. On the first glimpse most important seem to be an already independent production of sufficient food (including drinking water), own electricity production (today more feasible through renewable energy) and access to certain raw materials.
Many different countries wouldn’t be something new for Europe. A few hundred years ago Europe consisted of many small kingdoms having their own ruler, an own currency and so on. The big question would be, how a Europe of many small (democratic) states maybe united under the roof of a different European Union would look like today. Would it enhance democracy and participation of citizens in political decision making or would it in fact create the opposite? Time will tell whether separatism really is a trend of the 21st century that is fueled by free trade agreements considered as undemocratic.