World

The two faces of global separatism

By Michael Schmidt 22 September 2014

My father, until very recently, lived in a stone house on the wild outer reaches of Scotland, on South Uist, the southernmost island in the remote, Atlantic-lashed chain called the Outer Hebrides. He appealed to me to visit, but my cynical response was that I'd have to be on a cod-fishing trawler headed from the Danish Faroe archipelago to Iceland and get blown off course by a storm to wind up in South Uist, it is that far off the charts. By MICHAEL SCHMIDT.

For four fractious centuries, the Outer Hebrides formed part of the inconsistent Norse Kingdom of the Isles that included the Inner Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney and the Isle of Man, and it only became a part of Scotland in 1266. It has more than 50 uninhabited islands, has barely any trees, and until fairly recently could only be reached by ferry from the mainland. So if the Scottish referendum on dividing the two old sovereignties had gone in favour of independence, the bucolic wastes of the Outer Hebrides would have receded further from the world we know.

I like to joke that the Romans, having conquered the known world, reached the plains of Caledonia, and on being confronted with wild Picts who dyed their skin blue with woad, spiked their hair with lime and ran naked, screaming into battle, decided, “To hell with them, this is the end of civilisation as we know it!” and threw up Hadrian’s Wall.

In all seriousness, many South Africans have sympathy for the cause of Scottish separatism as many Scots fought on the side of the Boers against the British Empire a century ago.

But separatism has a chequered history, here and around the world. Some acts of ‘national’ reassertion, often on cultural/linguistic/ethnic grounds, have descended into appalling blood-letting, as was the case in ex-Somalia, which has been without a unitary identity since 1991, being torn between rival regionalist tribes, Salafist fanatics, expat wannabe authorities, and foreign interventionists. And such tribal feuding is not the exclusive preserve of fractious societies, as was sadly proved in the heart of Europe by the case of ex-Yugoslavia, which rapidly descended into fratricidal war in 1990-1999, stuttering on until 2001 in Macedonia and Preševo.

Earlier this year, I visited beautiful Slovenia, which was the most fortunate of the statelets that emerged from the wreckage of Yugoslavia, having only experienced 10 days of war in their battle for independence in 1991, and with only 19 killed. But can one really call a land with only two million people a country? Does it have the requisite critical mass in industry, finance, hell, even the arts, to be truly sovereign? Is separatism a necessary surgical response to an increasingly bland monocultural world? Would an independent Palestine not in truth remain an economic vassal of Israel? A resident of the Slovenian capital Ljubljana boasted that her country had led a charmed existence, surviving the Napoleonic Wars, the Balkan Wars, World Wars I and II, and the break with Yugoslavia, almost unscathed.

This was not entirely true, for the darkest (and mostly unacknowledged) part of Slovenian history was the massacres of Serbian ?etniks by Tito’s communist partisans in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Ironically, this bloody backlash against the very concept of nationalism which, once the liberal dream of Woodrow Wilson, had become warped and tainted by six years of Nazi rule, resulted in four Cold War decades of an Eastern Europe consisting of states with the most ethnically homogenous populations ever.

During its painful dissolution, parts of ex-Yugoslavia saw a descent into barbarism unseen in Europe since the Nazi era. There was a deliberate evocation by Croatian extremists of the genocidal WWII regime of Ante Pavelic, whose Ustaše (Insurgent Croatian Revolutionary Movement) clerical fascist regime’s pogroms and concentration camps killed around 29,000 Roma, 30,000 Jews and perhaps 600,000 Orthodox Serbs.

In the 1990s, European neo-Nazis proudly took the opportunity to sign up as neo-Ustaše irregulars, and the world was once again faced with images of skeletal creatures hanging on barbed wire in concentration camps. Forensic scientists poked around mass graves, and a chilly new term, ‘ethnic cleansing’, entered common parlance. The amoral slaughter was powerfully captured in books such as Madness Visible by Italian war correspondent Janine di Giovanni, and films such as Oliver Stone’s deeply unnerving, almost unwatchable Saviour (1998).

There is a nasty threat of a reprise of that time in the current separatist versus anti-imperialist war in the eastern Ukrainian oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the confused situation precipitated by the barely-disguised Russian annexation of Crimea in the wake of the Maidan and Anti-Maidan protests for and against Ukraine’s toenadering with the European Union, has seen Kiev, desperate to stave off the loss of more of its Russophone eastern territories, allowing the formation of the neo-fascist Azov Battalion to fight the pro-Russian separatists.

At 300-strong, armed with tanks and heavy weapons, and with historical inspirations from ultra-nationalist one-time Nazi allies the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, Azov is a force to be reckoned with and has also attracted foreign white supremacist volunteers. While claims of atrocities committed by its soldiers against civilians appear to be the stuff of Russian propaganda, there remains a serious question of what role these fascists will legitimately be able to claim they deserve to play in Ukrainian public life after the battles are over, for having defended Ukraine’s sovereignty.

While the disputed ‘yes’ vote in the March 2014 referendum for Crimea to separate from Ukraine – to which it was only added by Khrushchev in 1954 – may have been the legitimate expression of most Crimeans’ desire for reunification with Russia, it was hardly the result of a process as legislatively clean as that playing out in Scotland right now because the choices were loaded between joining Russia and quasi-sovereignty, both of which meant a degree of separation from Ukraine. But it was certainly more legitimate than the clandestinely-armed separatist war underway in Donetsk and Luhansk. Separatism can be a painful, even murderous, business.

But sometimes it evolves from terrorism into democratic dissent. That certainly has been the case with Quebec in Canada, where the violent separatism of the communist Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ) peaked in the October Crisis of 1970 in which an FLQ kidnapping and a murder saw martial law imposed on Quebec – and improved the fortunes of the legalistic route to Québécois independence of the social democratic Parti Québécois, which attained its first of several periods of governance of the province in 1976. And yet, in 1980 and again in 1995, referenda on Quebec separatism were defeated by 60% and 50.6% of the Quebec electorate respectively, so though separatist fortunes cannot be said to be in terminal decline, popular resistance such as last year’s ‘Hot Spring’ in Montreal did not advance a devolutionary agenda.

I have just returned from the Spanish autonomous commune of Catalonia, which, like the Basque Country to the north-west, has a long tradition of separatism and which will be going to the polls to vote on separation from Spain on 9 November in a non-binding referendum that Madrid, terrified of losing its industrial heartland, has vowed to block by any legal means in Spain’s constitutional court. Spanish foreign minister José Manuel García Margallo warned before the referendum that a yes vote in Scotland would set an “awful precedent” for Spain and the European Union, one that would unleash a process of ‘Balkanisation’; Spain vowed to block an independent Scotland’s entry into the EU.

In Barcelona, the separatist movement, buoyed by the closeness of the Scottish vote, is divided along ideological lines, between the bourgeois separatists who want industrial and tax autonomy from the politically dominant yet under-contributing centre, and the socialist separatists who see in an independent Catalonia a chance for leftist reconstruction. In its grandest formulation, it is a vision of a Catalan-speaking country that includes coastal Valencia and the Balearic Isles (but excludes the tiny mountain enclave of Andorra and the Catalan-Occitan southern reaches of France around Perpignan). During the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939, Catalan politics was given a separatist flavour by the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), though the anarcho-syndicalists were overwhelmingly the largest faction in the region.

In the down-at-heel district of Gracia, I revelled in a 16th-century festival that sees each street lavishly decorated, troupes of drumming children dressed as devils unleashing squalls of fireworks, and adults building the teetering human towers known as castells which are recognised by Unesco as a uniquely Catalan ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’.

Here, one can enter a store draped with the Chappie-wrapper yellow-and-red striped Catalan flag and purchase maps of Greater Catalonia and T-shirts in English hailing “Freedom for the Catalan Territories”. In the store, I asked if I could buy something not distinctly Catalan at all, but rather something of from a sister movement, a Basque Ikarruña, its nationalist flag, a Union Jack in red, green and white – and indeed I could, for here even the anarchist movement, today represented by the third-largest trade union federation in Spain, is a staunch supporter of territorial cultural-linguistic autonomy for the likes of the Kurds currently fighting Islamic State fanatics.

The Basque fight for independence, wonderfully told in Mark Kurlansky’s The Basque History of the World (1999), has embraced both the political path of those like the Basque Nationalist Party, and the guerrilla path of clandestine groups such as the left nationalist Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), and its anarchistic splinter of the 1970s-1980s, the Autonomous Anti-capitalist Commandos (KAA), both of which were involved in assassinations, viewed by themselves as legitimate elements of a liberation war, and by their enemies as sheer terrorism.

ETA’s closest international relations have been with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, whose goal is the separation of the entire island of Ireland from British control. Boers certainly loved the 19th Century Irish for their resistance to Britain and for their support during the Boerevryheids Wars, but the  socialist tinge of the Provos scared off the politically conservative Boers in the 20th Century. Now, however, the neo-Boer right such as Front Nasionaal is quite happy to look to national secessionist movements of all political stripes as justification for their renewed calls for the establishment of a Boerestaat, basing its argument on Article 235 of the Constitution and similar self-determination clauses in international conventions such as the United Nations Charter.

The Soutie left also produced a secessionist formation, the Cape Party, which argues for independence for the old Cape Province, basing its argument on the same legal grounds (but not on ethnic hegemony), making a very Catalan-like complaint that the Cape’s tax contribution to the wealth of South Africa is disproportionately spent elsewhere by Pretoria. But neither party won seats in this year’s general election, leaving it to the conservative right Freedom Front Plus to carry the Vierkleur forward – a dubious proposition given that it’s leader was seduced into cabinet by the previous Zuma administration.

Serious separatism involves a lot of shrewd economic and political calculations – and hard realpolitik horse-trading – but ultimately, it rests on mobilising the historically-rooted sentiments of a defined populace, of tapping into their “oral and intangible heritage”. In Scotland and Catalonia, such sentiments have run closer than the Québécois ever attained in favour of independence, though fortunately neither have given rise to extremism of the sort erupting in eastern Ukraine. In South Africa, by contrast, separatism whether by force of arms or by the book appears to have died on the vine. DM

Photo: Protesters for and against (C) independence wait outside the Catalonian Parliament prior to an extraordinary session in Barcelona, Catalonia, north-eastern Spain, 19 September 2014. Catalonian President Artur Mas hailed the Scottish referendum as the parliament in the Spanish region prepared to vote on legislation that would give it permission to hold its own independence vote. EPA/TONI ALBIR

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