Relocations: The vexing question of secession

The percentage of ethnic Ukrainians according to the census of 2001 by regions (there haven’t been more recent censuses). Source: Wikipedia, edited by Euromaidan Press.
April 7, 2022

What happens when some people wish to secede from their state and form a new one?

By Herbert Rothschild

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another ….”

Herbert Rothschild

This column explores what happens when some people wish to secede from their state and form a new one. Its contemporary relevance is that, in southeastern Ukraine, two areas in a region called the Donbas, Luhansk and Donetsk, declared themselves independent states in May 2014. Those declarations and their aftermaths are a significant part of the story of Russian’s armed interference in Ukrainian affairs.

For reasons that will become apparent, I’ll be using the words “nation” and “state” in different senses although they are usually used synonymously. “Nation” will refer to a group of people with a shared ethnic, linguistic and/or cultural identity, regardless of their geographical location, e.g. the Kurds. “State” will refer to a sovereign governmental unit, such as Nigeria, however many nations live within its jurisdiction.

On January 1, 1993, the split of the Federal Republic of Czechoslovakia into two separate states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, became official. The split was dubbed the “Velvet Divorce” because it was bloodless.

Like every state, Czechoslovakia was created — in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of all places. Prior to World War I, Czechs and Slovaks were among the many nations in the ethnically diverse Austro-Hungarian Empire. That empire lost the war and was dissolved. In 1918, representatives of the two nations agreed to form a common state, but with equal national autonomy within it. Soon, though, the larger and stronger Czech nation increased centralized control. Many Slovaks were unhappy, and in 1939 they assisted Hitler in constituting them as a new state, though with limited autonomy.

After World War II, both under Soviet control and after the U.S.S.R. released its hold on eastern Europe, the same wavering between a centralized state and a federation of two autonomous nations recurred. On July 17, 1992, the Slovak parliament passed the Declaration of Independence of the Slovak Nation. Czech and Slovak leaders agreed to the breakup, even though a September 1992 poll found that only 37% of Slovaks and 36% of Czechs favored dissolution.

Rarely does such a divorce occur without bloodshed. East Pakistan’s ultimately successful effort in 1971 to become an independent state named Bangladesh was fiercely resisted by the central government in West Pakistan. Its armed forces may have killed more than one million Bengalis. Thanks to intervention by India, which was flooded by Bengali refugees, Pakistan lost the war.

The pre-war Pakistan had been another recent historical creation, a consequence of the effort to segregate Muslims from Hindus when Great Britain surrendered its imperial control over the sub-continent. The two parts of the newly created Pakistan were 1,600 miles apart at their closest, and their national identities were entirely different. Bengali language and culture went back for centuries. That national distinction, coupled with resentment of gross injustices by the Karachi government in West Pakistan, trumped religious identity.

Between 1861 and 1865 the U.S. central government resisted with terrible force the secession of the Southern states. Unlike the two preceding instances, slaveholding, not national identity, was the overriding motive for secession. Nonetheless, the breakaway states argued that they had come into the Union through a voluntary legal process and had every right to leave it the same way. That argument went for naught. Casualties of the Civil War far exceeded American deaths in any other conflict before or since, and much of the South was physically devastated.

Now we come to the Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. Unlike Crimea, where Russians (understood as a nation, not a state) outnumber Ukrainians (ditto) by a ratio of five to two, in the Donbas Ukrainians somewhat outnumber Russians, although it is a Russian-speaking area. Politically there has been a marked distinction between the southeast of Ukraine and the rest. In the presidential elections of 2004 and 2010, pro-Russian candidate Viktor Yanukovych won at least 60% of the vote across the region, in some areas over 80%, while losing elsewhere. Yanukovych became president in 2010, only to be ousted in a coup in Kyiv in 2014. That’s when the breakaway republics were founded.

The central government of Ukraine refused to recognize the secessionist states and attacked militarily. That war continued until Russia’s recent invasion. Russian troops had been helping the secessionists, just as the French helped American colonists resist British troops and the Indians helped the Bengalis. Ukrainian forces committed the same acts that Russian troops are now committing against the Ukrainians, acts which our government and media label war crimes.

Perhaps you’ve noted that I’ve passed no judgment on these events. I’m going to hand that intellectually and morally challenging task over to you. My guess is that you’ll have trouble arriving at a consistent basis for judgment. You’d be horrified, I suspect, if anyone were to argue that Lincoln should have tolerated the secession. But were you to bone up on the history of Bengali grievances against the Karachi government, I suspect you’d sympathize with their breakaway. You probably won’t sympathize with the secessionists in Luhansk and Donetsk because that would complicate our narrative about the events in Ukraine.

All I’ll reveal, as a person who hates war, is that I applaud the Velvet Divorce. If the Slovaks change their minds, they can petition to reform the union.

Herbert Rothschild is an unpaid board member. Email him at

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Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Email him at
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