New nations have lessons for Catalonia
Throughout history, maps have been redrawn as countries have been founded, empires have fallen, and borders have shifted. And soon, if two would-be nations have their way, we will be redrawing maps once again.
Catalonians plan to vote on their independence from Spain on Sunday.
Remarkably, it will be the second independence vote in just one week: Iraqi Kurds held their referendum on independence on Monday, where secession from Iraq won 93 percent approval.
However, cartographers may not be needed quite yet. Both Iraqi Kurds and Catalonians are facing widespread international opposition to their independence.
There is no legal right to secession under international law, and, in many cases, the path to independence can be bloody and its results inconclusive.
Over the past quarter-century, there have been nine new countries created out of a little less than 200 total. And the experiences of these countries produce some mixed lessons for others hoping to follow their path:
♦ South Sudan: South Sudan declared independence from Sudan on July 9, 2011, after a war with the ethnically Arab north that had lasted decades.
♦ Kosovo: Kosovo declared independence from Serbia on Feb. 17, 2008.
♦ Montenegro and Serbia: The single nation of Serbia and Montenegro, formed after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, changed into the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro in 2003, and finally into the two states of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006.
♦ East Timor: East Timor, now also known as TimorLeste, achieved independence on May 20, 2002, but the country had effectively voted for independence years before. After that referendum, there was violence in the region with pro-Indonesian militias attacking citizens, and a special U.N. force had to be deployed to the country.
♦ Palau: Palau became independent on Oct. 1, 1994, 15 years after it had decided against becoming part of Micronesia due to cultural and linguistic differences.
♦ Eritrea: The United Nations established Eritrea as an autonomous region within the Ethiopian federation in 1952. However, when Ethiopia, under emperor Haile Selassie, annexed the region in 1962, it sparked a civil war that lasted 30 years. In 1991, the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) ousted the Ethiopian forces, and on April 27, 1993, the country declared independence after a referendum.
♦ The Czech Republic and Slovakia: On Jan. 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was dissolved by parliament into two countries: The Czech Republic and Slovakia.
What lessons can be learned?
There has been no easy path to independence in recent years. Of the nine nations above, four were formed as a direct result of civil war.
Five were the result of the collapse of communism in Europe — a unique historical watershed and one that produced all sorts of upheaval. A number remain troubled states: Eritrea has been dubbed the “North Korea of Africa.”
But it isn’t just Catalonians or Iraqi Kurds who should study history — Spanish leaders in Madrid or Iraqi leaders in Baghdad should pay attention, too.
In many of the above cases, it takes decades for the demand for independence to reach a tipping point. And as the still-lingering hopes of Scottish independence after the failed 2015 referendum have shown London, once the genie is out of the bottle, it is very difficult to put it back in.