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How to Break Up a Country Without Creating Havoc

Catalonia wants independence from Spain, but modern history is littered with cautionary tales about the dangers of partition.

Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Earlier this month, voters in the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia overwhelmingly approved a controversial referendum to secede from the country, though the consequence of the vote remains unclear. In an address to the Catalan Parliament, the region’s president and separatist leader, Carles Puigdemont, simultaneously declared independence and suspended that declaration to pursue negotiations with Spain. Rightly confused, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy gave Puigdemont eight days to clarify his position, threatening to suspend the Catalan Parliament and impose central government authority over the region. That deadline arrives on Monday.

Meanwhile, in Iraq last month, Kurds voted overwhelmingly to pursue an independent state of Kurdistan. Massoud Barzani, the president of the region, warned the Iraqi government against taking measures to block Kurdish independence. The authorities in Bagdad rebuffed these demands and took diplomatic steps to isolate the Kurds. Iraq on Monday seized oil fields near Kirkuk as part of a broader offensive to reclaim the Kurdish-controlled city, The New York Times reported.

These campaigns have raised the prospect of partition in their respective nations. Although the Kurds may have more compelling claims to independence than the Catalans—Kurds already exercise effective political and military control over territory in the region—they both present credible challenges to central governments and promise to transform political landscapes in these countries and across Western Europe and the Middle East. Last-ditch negotiations may still resolve their differences, but if they do not, there will likely be a nasty political—and perhaps even armed—fight for independence. At this crucial moment, it is important for parties on all sides to consider the risks associated with partition, which have been largely dismissed or ignored.

During the last 100 years, great powers and nationalist movements have partitioned states around the world, first in Ireland and then in Korea, China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Palestine, Cyprus, Germany, the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, and mostly recently, Sudan. Diplomats advanced partition as a way to solve emerging conflicts and award state power to deserving movements, which were often willing to use force to achieve their independence. But partition, which the diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien once described as “the expedient of tired statesmen,” rarely settled disputes between different ethnic groups or political adversaries. In fact, it usually created more problems than it solved.

In modern history, the partition of nations has almost always created three problems that kept conflicts boiling. First, it triggered massive migrations across newly drawn borders. The outbreak or threat of violence forced people to leave, particularly if they were anxious about their status as minorities in newly created states. Others were drawn by the opportunities they hope to find among their own people, in states where they might exercise their rights as a majority. Hundreds of thousands fled across borders in Korea, Vietnam, Palestine; millions in Germany and the Soviet Union. In India, 17 million refugees crossed frontiers during the first six months after partition. The violence that drove them claimed one million lives.

Importantly, many people also decided to stay. They clung to their homes and hoped for the best. Millions of Muslims made this choice and remained in India. Today, India counts a larger Muslim population than Pakistan. But officials in many divided states adopted policies that discriminated against resident minorities and privileged members of ethnic-political majorities. They gerrymandered electoral districts, suppressed minority voters, or deprived them of citizenship. They denied minority access to higher education, public service, and armed forces. They adopted official languages that disadvantaged non-native speakers. They passed laws of return (Germany, Israel, Eritrea) that privileged ethnic nationals from diaspora communities over resident minorities who lived in their homelands.

In response to discriminatory practices, resident minorities fought for redress and solicited support from their brethren in neighboring states, as they did in Kashmir and in Ireland. This led to a second problem: conflict within and between divided states. “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland and intifadas in Palestine are symptoms of this problem. In recent years, movements in some divided states have decided to prevent the onset of these problems by forcibly removing all resident minorities from their midst, which in Yugoslavia and Ethiopia/Eritrea led to ethnic cleansing.

Third, officials in divided states quarreled over the division of assets and the borders drawn between them. They claimed territories and people not assigned to them. They challenged the sovereignty, the very existence, of their neighbors. And they waged wars to assert or defend their sovereign claims. This led to the outbreak of major wars in Korea, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia; recurring wars in Ethiopia/Eritrea, India/Pakistan, and Israel/Arab states; and uncivil wars in Ireland, Israel, Pakistan, India, Ukraine, and numerous post-Soviet states. These conflicts in turn triggered superpower interventions that widened wars and, in some cases, resulted in nuclear threats that led directly to the proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel. The current crisis of proliferation in North Korea is a contemporary byproduct of partition.

But partition has not always led to migration, discrimination, conflict and war. If the parties in Spain and Iraq are determined to take steps that might result, willingly or reluctantly, in partition, they might consider how one country managed to get partition right.

In 1992, Václav Klaus and Vladimír Mečiar, the respective leaders of the Czech and Slovak political parties, partitioned Czechoslovakia, but avoided the problems commonly associated with divided states. The “Velvet Divorce” had several important, unique features. First, Klaus and Mečiar agreed that partition was in their mutual interest, though for different reasons. The Czechs wanted to create a free-market economy; the Slovaks wanted to retain a social-welfare state. They were able to negotiate an amicable separation because there was no real constitutional impediment to partition (Czechoslovakia was a federal state made up of constituent “republics” in Bohemia and Slovakia); Czechoslovakian President Václav Havel lacked the political power to deny it; they did not test the agreement with a popular referendum; and legal and military bureaucracies did not obstruct it.

Second, Klaus and Mečiar did not fortify or close the border, restrict trade, or demand that minority ethnic populations decamp for their newly assigned “homelands.” Instead, they kept the frontier open, encouraged business as usual, allowed citizens to move freely across the border, and gave them two years to choose which country they wanted to claim as their own.

Third, they both applied for membership in the European Union and NATO, which both eventually joined. These shared institutions promoted economic development in both countries and provided mutual security as allies in a shared military institution. EU membership also allowed people to migrate freely as workers, tourists, and households across the Czech-Slovak border and around Europe, in effect creating dual citizenships for all. As a result, ethnic-national identities did not harden or diverge after the Velvet Divorce and residual conflicts were resolved without acrimony.

Many of these conditions may not apply in Spain and Iraq. For instance, Spain does not have a constitution that easily accommodates separation and its leaders see little benefit from partition, making it difficult for them to agree to an uncontested divorce. In Iraq, disagreements over oil wealth and territory (such as Kirkuk) make a peaceful divorce unlikely. For these reasons, the leaders of the Kurdish and Catalonian separatist movements might do well to take step a back from the precipice of partition and seek a political solution to addressing their grievances while remaining part of the country from which they seek to secede. If nothing else, the recent declarations of independence in these two regions might provide the necessary leverage to do so.