With violence in Xinjiang continuing and tensions in Chechnya and Dagestan back in the public consciousness, it seems almost cliché to say the end of the sprawling, imperial nation-state is here, or at least not far off. Hell, a couple thousand signatures for an independent Texas got the foreign press questioning if even the U.S. wasn’t immune from secessionist conflict.
Now, have the massive, multi-ethnic superpowers of the modern world really reached their breaking point? The answer's a big, emphatic no. While there’s certainly no shortage of secessionist claims in Russia, China, and the surrounding geopolitical region they dabble in, it's unlikely we’ll see any new (internationally recognized) countries emerge from the Caucuses or Central Asia. A major precedent — any one secessionist success story — could set off new fervor in any number of independence-minded areas that could radically undermine the neighborhood superpowers’ international standing. For the leaders of Russia and China, maintaining their borders against secessionist challenges is an essential part of maintaining their political legitimacy. Sorry, Tibet.
But that's not to say altogether new countries aren’t on the horizon. With a spate of referendums on the way in several advanced democracies and increasingly-loud secessionist calls in younger, less stable countries, a handful of very different states may be breaking on to the international scene in the near future. Here are a handful of the potential contenders for newest kid on the international block.
As far as independence movements go, Scotland has it made — the Scottish National Party, the country's largest political party, already has cleared out its calender for a September 18, 2014 referendum.
But what makes the Scottish case unique isn't just the planning ahead. It's that the state they may be separating from, the United Kingdom, is actually OK with the whole idea of an independent Scotland. Prime Minister David Cameron signed off on a legal framework for referendum to take place alongside First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond last fall. With the biggest obstacle to succession — the ability to secede — taken care of, the Scottish question becomes one of nuts and bolts: can the Scottish economy be self-sustaining? How will an independent Scotland relate to the UK? The EU? What about military and foreign issues?
On some of these grounds Scotland may very well be better off on its own. An independent military coupled with close UK relations would cost Scots significantly less than they're paying now to support the British force. Greater authority over tax and fiscal policy could help Scottish lawmakers better tackle distinctly Scottish social problems like education inequality — the disparity in educational attainment between the rest of the UK and Scotland is equivalent to that of Hong Kong and Turkey, according to LSE economists. But independence isn't utopia: pensions could be squeezed, inheritance of a portion of the UK’s national debt is still up in the air, and, even then, independence-minded Scots are polling behind their unity minded neighbors by a significant, though shrinking, margin, about 9%. But with this case, one thing is rather certain: it is going to be the people that decide.
With Spain's economy in shambles and PM Mariano Rajoy increasingly mired in scandal, it's no wonder calls for Catalan independence have grown stronger (and maybe even more compelling) as Catalonia rumbles toward the controversial 2014 referendum. Home to one of Europe's biggest metropolitan areas, Barcelona, Catalonia has seen hundreds of thousands of citizens turn out for protests in favor of independence despite the Spanish constitution's ban on secession.
An independent Catalonia could be sustainable too: the region, about the size of Belgium, accounts for a quarter of Spain’s total exports, and Spain takes more than it gives, spending only 57 cents in the region for every dollar of taxes collected there. Ban Ki-Moon and David Cameron have offered some support for Catalan self-determination. It’s been suggested that about 60% of Catalan citizens support secession, but hard-line opposition to independence in the rest of the country may hamper what would seem like a done deal in many other nations.
3. Republika Srpska
Milorad Dodick "has no faith in Bosnia-Herzegovina." The downright Putin-esque leader of the Republika Srpska (or Serb Republic), one of two political entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina, has made no secret of his general contempt for the rest of the state of which he’s ostensibly a part. And while his claim the "Nobody can prevent us from holding a referendum" may seem bold, with Serbian-Kosovo relations on the up and up, there's a legitimate precedent set for successful (albeit bloody) succession in the Balkans.
Foreign investment in Republika Srpska is relatively high given its endowments, and its precedents — Kosovo and Montenegro — were arguably worse off at the time of independence. Heck, Dodick has claimed he doesn't even need a UN seat. Given that Srpska is already more or less autonomous and that its people view themselves as fundamentally separate from the Bosnian Muslims of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a referendum may be just the spark to start the fire.
Quebec will be watching the results of the Scottish and Catalan referendums particularly closely next year. If successful, they’ll provide a framework for how the majority French-speaking Canadian province goes forward with its long and tortuous efforts to become a sovereign state. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's approval ratings have plummeted as his administration has become embroiled in scandal, which has only served to bolster the separatist Parti Quebecois — a situation not too dissimilar from Catalonia's.
Close shaves with independence in a 1995 referendum and earlier granted Quebec with a great deal of autonomy over internal dealings — immigration, health care, and education — but monetary and foreign policy remain squarely in Ottawa. But while the separatist PQ holds a majority in the Quebec legislature, it has had to backtrack on promises and water down its agenda in order to gain opposition support. Independence, for the next few years at the very least, may be off the table. But Catalonia and Scotland could reignite this smoldering debate.
Somaliland, tucked in between Ethiopia and the southern coast of the Gulf of Aden, takes the expected secessionist paradigm and flips it on its head: a relatively stable, moderate democracy looking for independence from a country synonymous with failed governance, Somalia. And while Somaliland certainly has its reputation as an oasis of peace in the Horn of Africa going for it, little progress toward recognition as a sovereign state has been made since it declared independence during the Somali Civil War in 1991— so far, no states recognize the region of 3.5 million.
But that may be changing. The state of Somalia is been cautiously improving in recent years, meaning a formal diplomatic solution could be more likely, while the EU and the African Union set precedent in 2007 by meeting with the breakaway government to discuss the region's future. There’s some debate as to the economic viability of an independent Somaliland — like much of Somalia, it's devastatingly poor — but foreign investment brought on by formal recognition could help reverse the pattern. But until someone's state department takes the plunge, independence may be a long ways off.