Research Political Sciences

The Theory of Secession

, by Massimo Morelli - professore di Political Science
From the Roman Empire to Catalonia, from the Soviet Union to Kurdistan: what we can understand by studying the evolution (violent or peaceful) of states

The Roman Empire voluntarily and peacefully split into two similarly large and similarly rich halves marked by some salient differences in social and religious norms. Or to take a contemporary case after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Czechoslovakia was split peacefully into two similarly large and rich halves, marked by ethnic differences. Peaceful secessions are likely to occur precisely in situations like in these two examples, i.e. similar size and productivity of the splitting groups, together with significant differences in preferences over cultural public goods, as is argued in a recent working paper.

On the other hand, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia broke down violently, and in those cases both sizes and productivities varied widely, with smaller and richer communities being the most interested in secession. This tendency has been even clearer in contexts in which there are natural resource-rich ethnic minorities, which often have a relatively high propensity to engage in separatist conflict. The rebellion of the Aceh Freedom Movement in Indonesia starting in 1976, and the Sudan People's Liberation Army struggle beginning in 1983 are only a couple of examples.

If a country has a clearly identified group (or coalition of groups) in power, typically the members of such group(s) are happy with the status quo, whereas groups out of power may be discriminated or receive unfair surplus shares, hence the first place to look in terms of incentives is the situation of the strongest among the groups out of power – call it minority group for simplicity. If the minority group is relatively small but very important in terms of contribution to total surplus (either because of natural resources or fertility of land or alike), then such a minority group has a potential incentive to secede. When the mismatch between size (small) and productivity (large) is high, bargaining does not work, and conflict may arise, and last potentially a long time.

At the opposite extreme, i.e. when the minority group is very large and very poor in terms of contributions, it is the group in power that would like to "push them out", which determines first a discrimination strategy followed by a separatist war. When size and productivity are more proportional, on the other hand, either staying together is particularly valuable because public good sharing is important, in which case the State will function as a peaceful union of groups, or else, if the cultural differences determine significant differences in cultural preferences, then a peaceful split should be expected.

Catalonia and Kurdistan are important recent examples of situations in which an incentive to secede exists (minority size but productive group) and where the bargaining process is trying to avert the risk of conflict. In advanced democracies, there are more legal enforcements and commitment power by States, which make it more likely to transform a secession incentive in a quest for renegotiation of autonomy levels or federal structures. In weaker States like Iraq the most important difference is the difficulty in making credible commitments to surplus sharing, which makes the probability of conflict slightly higher.

Most of the literature on the size of nations concerns the trade-off between the preference heterogeneity of citizens and increasing returns to country size. We point out that remaining united implies that the public decisions will have to be negotiated every period by groups with different preferences and priorities, while secession entails a cost today but no need to bargain with the other group ever again. This inter-temporal argument, in our view, is an essential factor in the reasoning for or against secession. One can appreciate its critical importance also by considering the complementary problem of union formation: we should expect such a decision to be guided by the expected future payoffs from the interaction within the union, not by any immediate gains.

Read more about this topic:
At the Center of Political Workings, article by Lanny Martin
The New Silk Road Can Be Understood by Looking at the Past. Article by Andrea Colli
Why the Multinationals that Influence the World Are Born
Behind Western Intervention in the Fall of Regimes
In Europe the obstacle is not culture
How a Sentence Can Affect International Agreements