James Ker-Lindsay: We are living in an era when boundaries are increasingly coming into question

Interview with James Ker-LindsaySenior Research Fellow on the Politics of South East Europe, London School of Economics and Political Science

1. In an interview at Belgrade Security Forum two years ago you have told me that the borders are not sacred. With the Scottish referendum (I think, whatever the result) and with Crimea it seems you are very much right. What are the reasons the borders are less sacred that they used to be?

Indeed, we are living in an era when boundaries are increasingly coming into question. However, the picture that emerges is in fact rather complicated. Crimea is in many ways proof of the enduring power of the principle of the inviolability of borders. Russia clearly broke international law and countries have lined up to say that they will not accept boundary changes under such circumstances. The trouble is that nothing can really be done to change the situation. No one wants to go to war with Russia, as they did with Iraq following its annexation of Kuwait in 1990. This sends out a dangerous message to other states, especially powerful ones. They can now pursue territorial claims by force. This is obviously extremely dangerous.

In contrast, Scotland stands as an example of how States can face up to separatism and be willing to enter into a dialogue with movements and territories seeking to break away. The United Kingdom and Scotland, following the example of Canada and Quebec, have also shown that there are legitimate ways for territories to pursue independence.

So, for very different reasons and in wholly contrasting ways, the principle of the territorial integrity of states is indeed no longer sacred.

2. Scottish referendum and Crimea annexation are two different different events, but what are the lessons learned for the future in terms of separatists and nationalistic movements?

I think that the main lessons come from Scotland. It has shown that states can engage in open, free and democratic debates about secession and self-determination and that such processes do not need to lead to the break up of states or changes in borders. When given a chance to express their grievances, it is possible for people to decide that they are ‘better together’; as the pro-Union slogan in Scotland proclaimed.

The problem is that far too few states are willing to allow an open discussion about separatism. I think that countries should engage in open debates with separatist movements. In many cases, there are clearly identifiable reasons why people want to break away that can actually be resolved without secession. However, by refusing to engage in such discussion, the state in fact drives up separatist sentiment. We see this time and time again. The current situation in Catalonia has been driven by the steadfast unwillingness of the Spanish Government to allow people to have a say on independence. Ironically, Russia is one of the worst offenders. It seems quite happy to actively support Russian speaking separatists in other countries, but takes an uncompromising stand towards any secessionist sentiment within its own borders.

3.With Scottish referendum we are witnessing speculations who could be the next (I even saw the case of Bavaria). Would you say there is any chance we will redraw maps pretty drastically in a next few decades?

In terms of secession, I think the chances of this happening in Europe are actually rather lower now than they were a week ago. I think that Scotland was in many ways an important test case. Many separatist movements were looking at it with a lot of interest. If it had decided in favour of independence, I think we would have seen a considerably increase in separatist sentiment elsewhere in Europe that could have been hard for democratic states to resist. However, the fact that it chose to stay in the UK may well have reduced the momentum of pro-independence pressures in many places. That said, there are numerous groups in Europe and elsewhere that are still pressing for statehood. Obviously, the next big example to watch is Catalonia. It plans to hold a referendum on 9 November without the consent of the Spanish Government. This vote, and the subsequent developments, will be watched with a lot of interest.

In general terms, it is also worth noting that the process of state creation has slowed dramatically in the past two decades. After the process of decolonisation in the 1950s and 1960s, and following the turbulence of the end of the Cold War, very few new States have been created from the mid-1990s. Still, I think that there are a number of changes on the horizon. An obvious example is Kurdistan. Some other examples to watch out for include Somaliland, Bougainville and Greenland.

Then there are is the question of border changes arising from outside intervention. Will Russia’s steps in Crimea lead to further steps elsewhere, or be copied by other states? This is a far more dangerous and destabilising possibility, and a much more difficult prediction to make.

4. Should Slovakia be worried if we are talking about the maps redrawing?

It depends. Like many other countries, it faces internal pressures. However, as Scotland has amply shown, these need not lead to the break up of states. Again, to my mind, the problem arises when the central government does not engage with discontented communities and try to understand and address their concerns. Scotland has shown that giving more powers to territories is not a slippery slope towards independence, but may in fact be the best insurance policy against it.

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