If at First You Don't Secede…

Will this be the summer of separatism for Europe?

Every time one blinks, the situation in eastern Ukraine gets worse. In a game of chicken reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause, Kiev and Moscow are tooling toward the cliff's edge over the region's pro-Russian insurgency.

The April 17 Geneva pact to de-escalate the situation has had zero effect. Ukraine's "anti-terrorism" operation is zooming in on Sloviansk, where troops under Kiev's command have killed five pro-Russian activists while clearing roadblocks. Thousands more pro-Russian separatists are holed up in the city, occupying government buildings. And the insurgents have now seized a busload of OECD and Ukrainian observers -- "NATO spies," in the parlance of the city's pro-Russian mayor. 

In response, Russia is ramping up military exercises just across the border, and U.S. sources claim Russian fighter jets have entered Ukrainian airspace on several occasions over the last few days -- leading Ukraine's prime minister to accuse Russia of wanting to "start World War III."

At the center of the escalating crisis is the so-called "People's Republic of Donetsk," the breakaway republic declared in eastern Ukraine on April 7. That was the day local activists first stormed government buildings in the cities of Kharkov, Lugansk, and Donetsk while brandishing black, blue, and red tricolors. The three horizontal stripes seem an easy, if somewhat sinister reference to the Russian flag (the top band of which is white instead of black), but the activists' flag is not a recent, random invention. Nor is the republic for which it stands entirely new.

Like earthquakes, secessions occur along ancient fault lines -- and often in quick succession. Are the events in eastern Ukraine the second stage of Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan to carve up that country? Protesters there seem to be reading from the same script as those in Crimea a few weeks earlier. First: Declare independence. Then: Organize a referendum on joining Russia. Meanwhile: Threaten to invite Russian troops in for protection.

History -- and secessionist history in particular -- has a way of repeating itself. The ground rule, here and elsewhere: If at first you don't secede, try again. Will this be the Summer of Separatism for Europe?

The ambition to break away, be it to or from Russia, is likely to remain strong, with regions as far flung as Transnistria and northern Kazakhstan inching closer to Moscow, while Caucasian and Far Eastern areas may drift further away. But separatism is not a uniquely post-Soviet state of mind. Look within the confines of almost any state, and you'll find a secessionist movement dreaming of recapturing ancient glories or winning new freedoms.

Even though separatism is endemic in much of the world, any discussion of the subject always throws up the same shortlist of candidates: the Basque Country (seceding from Spain and France), Catalonia (from Spain), Flanders (from Belgium), Quebec (from Canada), and Scotland (from the United Kingdom). All have been inching toward independence for decades, gaining large degrees of autonomy. None have actually made the break, neither via the bullet nor via the ballot -- perhaps because their autonomy has reduced the payoff of going it alone. Perversely, one could argue that these secession movements are so well known because they're so inconclusive.

In their slow march toward statehood, they may be overtaken by some of the dark horses stalking the field. Take Venice, for instance. From the seventh century until its annexation into Napoleon's empire in 1797, that lagoon city was the center of an independent mercantile state, with territorial holdings at one point stretching all the way to Cyprus.

The independence movement of what was formerly known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice provides a framework for regional anger and frustration. Staple secessionist complaints, in Venice and elsewhere, are: that the central government siphons off too much in taxes, squandering it (either on corruption or on the undeserving) rather than investing it back in the region; that the central government is stupidly unable or actively unwilling to respect and promote the regional language, culture, and/or religion; and that history shows that we'd do better on our own or as part of some other country.

Venetian separatism is imbued with a large dose of opera buffa, the comic style of opera pioneered there. In early April, Italian police arrested two dozen Venetian separatists allegedly involved in a plot to drive a homemade tank onto Venice's central Piazza San Marco. The plan was to proclaim independence from Italy -- exactly how occupying the historical square with a single converted bulldozer would have brought the ultimate goal of an independent Venice any closer is unclear. The aborted stunt was a repeat of a similar maverick action in 1997, when separatists using an equally goofy homemade tank proclaimed Venice's independence during a seven-hour siege in San Marco's bell tower.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because Venetians like buffa so much, public support for separatism is at a high. A March poll (suspect for being organized by the independence parties themselves) indicated that 89 percent of the more than 2 million residents who participated favored splitting from Italy.

Venice is by no means Italy's only secessionist movement with legs. For decades, the German speakers of South Tyrol have been campaigning for more autonomy, a return to Austria, or even independence -- anything, really, as long as it means less Italy. The 1.6 million Sardinians, on their Vermont-sized island, almost halfway to Spain, also feel the classic neglect that breeds thoughts of going it alone. Ironically, many Corsicans (just over 300,000 in all, on an island the size of, well, three Rhode Islands, just north of Sardinia) want less France -- even if that means more Italy.

France, that supposedly unitary hexagon, suffers from centrifugal forces in five of its six corners. The Bretons recently campaigned to limit the number of friendly kisses on the cheek to just the single one customary in their Celtic peninsula -- a not-so-subtle way of differentiating the Bretons from their multi-cheek-pecking Gallic neighbors. Alsace, thoroughly Frenchified after World War II, reverts to history, folklore, and local dialects to claim a separate German (but not too German) identity. Savoy, the seat of a powerful duchy from the 15th century to the 19th, was only annexed to France after a plebiscite in 1860 that was widely reported to have been rigged. The memory of that injustice is one of the sources of the slow-simmering Savoyard separatist movement. And in case you were wondering, the future Federal State of Savoy already has a website.

Among the Occitans of southern France, good-humored animosity toward the northerners could get mixed in with cultural and historical grievances to produce something more potent than mere regionalism. Nice, a French city on the border with Italy, remembers the time when it was still Nizza, an Italian city on the border with France. And then there are the tiny plots of France, on either end of the Pyrenees, that have links to the Basque and Catalan heartlands to the south.

As this map of all separatist movements in the European Union shows, Spain is even more troubled by potential separatisms: only Extremadura, an autonomous community close to Portugal, and a stretch of coastline between Andalucia and the Valencian lands apparently have no better place to be than in Spain. Apart from Spain's three "main" separatist movements -- in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia -- minor secessionisms are brewing in Navarra, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Asturias, Andalucia, and even Castile and León.

It gets worse (or better, if you like this sort of thing) in Belgium and Britain, countries consisting almost entirely of separatist movements. In the still-United Kingdom, the Scottish referendum on independence in September could prove a watershed. If the Scots decide to go it alone, what is to stop the 3 million Welsh from doing the same? After all, Ireland seems to be doing fine a century after kicking out the Brits (even without the anti-separatist North). And even if the Welsh don't, will English resentment against their perceived underappreciation build up to demand an English parliament and English autonomy, just like the other nations within the kingdom? And how would the Cornish feel about that? The Republic of Cornwall has a flag, is reviving its once-dead Celtic language, and is rural enough and far enough from London to feel wronged and misunderstood by the big bad metropolis. The April 24 announcement that the Cornish people will receive official "minority status" within the United Kingdom will put Cornwall on a par with the previously recognized Celtic nations.

Other intra-English regionalisms include Yorkshire, Mercia, and even Wessex -- not the "dream country" that serves as the setting for Thomas Hardy's novels, but a very real, somewhat irked region that has its own Regionalist Party and a cross-party pressure group for devolution.

The rest of Europe is less dense with separatist potential, but that doesn't mean that it's less explosive. Slovakia's southern flank is inhabited by almost half a million ethnic Hungarians who are locked out of Hungary proper by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which divided the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as are members of the Hungarian minority weirdly stranded in the center of Romania. Even after the Czech Republic's 1993 separation from Slovakia, the former is still a composite of two distinct regions, with Moravia in the east taking over Slovakia's former role as the slighted partner in a Czech-dominated alliance.

Of all the other secessionist movements, from the Frisians on either side of the Dutch-German border to the Bavarians in Germany's south and the Silesians in Poland's south, few are as geographically impressive as Sapmi -- the promised land for the descendants of Scandinavia's original hunter-gatherers (the Sami, formerly known as the Lapps). Sapmi is spread out over large areas of no less than four countries, but the Sami are a minority in each. With the Sami's ancestral stomping grounds sliced up by a multitude of borders, Sapmi reminds one of Kurdistan: the ephemeral homeland of the Kurds, divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Separatism is tough -- but try seceding from four countries at once. 

Speaking of the Kurds, separatism of course doesn't stop at the borders of Europe. This map of the world's secessionist movements lists about 600 separatist wet dreams. Kabylia (in Algeria), the Coptic Pharaonic Republic (in Egypt), Caprivi (in Namibia), Gorkhaland (in India), and Patagonia (in Chile and Argentina) are but a handful of an overview that might be a bit too completist. What is Sweden seceding from? And surely, listing all U.S. states feels a bit like padding out the list.

Not that the United States can escape the separatist bug, even after that one disastrous experiment with secession in the 1860s. This map from Mansfield University geography professor Andrew Shears glosses over that attempt, but tallies up all others that could have been: a union of 124 states, with such obscure candidates as the Republic of Indian Stream (on the Canada-New Hampshire border), Absaroka (astride Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana), Cimarron (the Oklahoma Panhandle), and Forgottonia in western Illinois (talk about passive-aggressively daring the government to "ignore us at your own peril").

Would the world be better off if all that separatist resentment were let out of the bag and every frustrated region, amalgamated kingdom, and formerly grand duchy could mind its own business? 

The question is less absurd than it sounds. Just look at that foundering transnational project, the European Union. The bitter irony is that one of the only things uniting the 28 public opinions in the fledgling superstate is their common resentment of their common project. The telegenic figurehead of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, is but one of a new generation of populist politicians across the continent, all popular insofar as they rail against "Brussels" -- that symbol of the wasteful, undemocratic, and bureaucratic European behemoth that threatens to crush each member country's uniqueness.

Some of the European Union's most vocal opponents scoffingly compare it to the Soviet Union and eagerly anticipate its similar fate. The implosion of the European Union could prove to be just as much of a Pandora's box of secessionisms as the end of the Soviet Union is still proving to be: today in eastern Ukraine, tomorrow perhaps in France, Spain, and Italy.

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The Rise of India's Common Man

Could India's third-party candidate be the country’s kingmaker? Or is he just tilting at windmills?

VARANASI, India — At Indian political rallies, singers and minor officials typically warm up the crowd until the candidate arrives -- typically quite late. At an event in mid-April in a slum neighborhood of Varanasi, one of the great cities of the "Hindi heartland," the local talent extolled the virtues of Arvind Kejriwal, the head of the upstart Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), or Common Man Party. "This economy is for the elites and the rich," he crooned. "The policymakers are in the pockets of the World Bank and the IMF. You've been left with no job, so you might as well pull a rickshaw." It might have sounded better in the original Hindi.

Aam Aadmi is, as one of its leaders put it to me, "a revolutionary mass movement for change" which has entered electoral politics out of the recognition that the kind of change it seeks won't come any other way. It harnesses aspects of traditional Indian "pro-people" movements advancing the cause of the downtrodden to a form of politics which is, by Indian standards, highly unconventional. Only a year after its creation in 2012, Aam Aadmi shocked experts -- indeed, everyone but itself -- by defeating the ruling Congress party to win state elections in Delhi. Now the party is running candidates all over the country, testing whether its message will resonate beyond the urban hothouse that is the nation's capital.

In American terms, Aam Aadmi feels something like the George McGovern campaign or a Ralph Nader crusade. Kejriwal has attracted to his side a group of idealistic, successful, and intellectually serious people who have chosen to put aside their day jobs to join the effort. Virtually none of them have any prior experience in politics, which before Aam Aadmi they would have deemed a monumental waste of time. A remarkable number of them are journalists or academics. One afternoon, I drove with Manish Sisodia, the party spokesman and a former television newsman, to one of his daily meet-and-greets in a Varanasi neighborhood. He pointed to the other two passengers in our car and said, "They were journalists, too." They calculated how many of the seven AAP candidates for parliamentary seats in Delhi were journalists. Four? No, five. One of the others was Anand Kumar, one of India's leading sociologists. Another equally prominent social theorist, Yogendra Yadav, is running for a seat in Haryana, a northern state.

Sisodia, an extremely amiable idealist, quit his job in 2005 to join the "right to information" movement, which seeks to compel the government to disclose information about its dealings with special interests at home and abroad. Kejriwal quit his job as a tax commissioner the following year, and the two began to work together. Their timing was auspicious: The gargantuan corruption scandals of recent years, involving among other things the auctioning off of spectrum for the use of cellphone companies and the sale of coal-mining licenses, aroused the public over the issue as never before.

Then in early 2011, the Arab Spring erupted. Sisodia said to me that he and Kejriwal, along with several confederates, concluded that India needed its own Tahrir Square movement. On Jan. 30, 2011, they called for a mass demonstration in Delhi in order to demand the establishment of an anti-corruption ombudsman, known as a Lokpal. Sisodia put out a call on Facebook, and 56 other cities held simultaneous demonstrations as well. The crowds consisted overwhelmingly of the kind of comfortable middle-class people who had tried to keep government as far away from their lives as possible, but who had become so fed up with the ruling Congress party and its endless scandals that they were prepared to leave their living rooms and join a protest. India's very brief Arab Spring, known as the India Against Corruption (IAC) movement, ended when the Congress promised to pass a Lokpal bill.

At that point it would have been hard to predict what, if anything, would have come of the campaign. Aam Aadmi has its roots in a distinctively Indian tradition of movements for moral purification which stretch back to Mahatma Gandhi himself. Some of the older leaders of the party were followers of Jayaprakash Narayan, a Gandhian who organized mass demonstrations against the authoritarian Indira Gandhi, provoking her to declare the Emergency in 1975 and putting an abrupt end to the "JP Movement." Such national protest campaigns have been seen as constituting a right-wing critique of the left-wing Congress party. The IAC appeared to follow in this tradition. Some of its leaders, including Anna Hazare, a charismatic Gandhian campaigner, used the kind of Hindu nationalist language favored by the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and welcomed support from the RSS, the party's activist and paramilitary wing. Indeed, BJP partisans have since argued that the movement should have accepted a role as a partisan ally in the contest against the Congress party.

But India's political alignments have changed radically in recent years. Congress has lost both its political hegemony and its canonical status on the left: It was a Congress government that liberalized the Indian economy in 1991, and it is under Congress that India has minted a new generation of billionaires over the last decade. The phenomenon of corruption had come to seem inextricable from the unbridled capitalism professed to different degrees by both parties. Aam Aadmi thus fused the old, Gandhian anti-corruption motif with a new anti-globalization ideology that seeks a new model of development.

Aam Aadmi enjoyed a very brief interval in power. In late 2013, Kejriwal ran for chief minister of Delhi, a state as well as the nation's capital, and, shockingly, won -- gaining the support not only of Delhi's professionals but also of slum-dwellers disgusted with the Congress. Kejriwal sacked some police officials and acted to keep a lid on prices of electricity and fuel. Mostly, however, he continued to behave as an activist. When the Lokpal bill failed to get through parliament this past February, he quit, after all of seven weeks in office. Henceforth, he proclaimed, Aam Aadmi would advance its agenda not as a Delhi-based movement but as a national political party.

* * *

The 45-year-old Kejriwal is its unquestioned standard-bearer, at least for now. The AAP convener is, as Anand Kumar says, "a technocrat trying to be a politician." A graduate of the elite Indian Institute of Technology, Kejriwal was a career civil servant with a passion for public service which seems almost archaic in today's India. Kejriwal also has the outsider's knack for the bold gesture. Running for Delhi chief minister seemed like a stunt until he won; resigning looked like a stunt as well. Kejriwal decided to run for parliament from Varanasi only after Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial hopeful, announced that he would contest that seat. Kejriwal, that is, chose Varanasi not because he's likely to win there but because he wants to take on the other side's champion. For Modi, who sees himself as the modern heir of ageless, Vedantic India, the holy city of Varanasi is a saffron crown. For Kejriwal, it is the opposite: The place to show that it is his vision, not Modi's, that speaks to modern India.

Kejriwal is not a gifted speaker like the supple and mocking Modi. He stands in front of a crowd -- as close to it as possible -- and pours out a litany of criticism in an unvarying tone, stabbing the air with an index finger. What Kejriwal has is a stirring populist message. Once he supplanted the singers and the minor orators on stage at the rally I attended, Kejriwal told a crowd of perhaps 500 gathered under a white canopy to keep off the 100-degree heat, "Narendra Modi, Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, Arun Jaitley [a BJP leader] -- they're all the same. They take your votes, and then after the election they serve people like Mukesh Ambani." (The richest man in India, Ambani serves as the emblem par excellence of crony capitalism.) When Ambani's Reliance Industries applied to raise the price of fuel distributed to Delhi households, Congress officials signed off, but Kejriwal, then chief minister, applied to the Electoral Commission (EC) -- the campaign had already begun -- to block the move. And the EC, as he now told the crowd in Varanasi, agreed -- the first time any politician had challenged Ambani, much less succeeded.

Congress officials -- which is to say, for the most part, Gandhi family members -- have focused relentlessly on Modi's alleged hostility to Muslims. The party's master theme is secularism versus communalism. Kejriwal, intriguingly, avoids the subject. He wants to show that both parties collude in the same rigged system. And he takes direct aim at Modi's record of booming economic development in Gujarat, the state where the BJP candidate serves as chief minister. "I went to Gujarat," he said that day, "and I talked to the farmers, and they told me that Modi has taken land away from them and given it to Ambani and Adani" -- another plutocratic clan.

I would like to say that at this point "the crowd roared," but it wasn't that large a crowd, and it didn't roar.

After Kejriwal finished speaking, he began answering questions. Before he had begun his address, volunteers had circulated through the audience handing out slips of paper with space for a question, and a line for the questioner's name. When Kejriwal was ready, an aide fished into a plastic bag full of the slips, apparently pulling them out at random. The candidate's answers were not terribly illuminating; to a question on education, he said that the way to end India's two-tiered system was to make government schools better than the private schools available to the rich. Nevertheless, the very act of soliciting questions implied that Kejriwal understood his listeners as fellow citizens rather than merely voters from whom a ballot is to be siphoned. Gandhi, too, had enlisted his followers as fellow activists, and thus afforded humble folk a sense of agency.

Aam Aadmi lives by its ideals, trusting that doing so will help it reshape India's political culture. In a country awash in "black money," the party posts online all of its contributions -- name, date, sum. A party committee must approve any contribution larger than 1 million rupees (about $18,000). I didn't learn if any had been sent back. Pankaj Gupta, a former engineer who I found in one of the bare cells in the AAP headquarters -- soiled walls, naked bulb, laptop -- said to me, "If we have to play in their playground, we can't compete. Our thing has always been, make them play in our playground." Gupta said that he believed that AAP's refusal to nominate candidates with criminal records had restrained the other parties from doing so, though this seems overwhelmingly contradicted by the facts. To take an example ready to hand, Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate from Varanasi, has been charged with a wide range of crimes, including gangsterism (though he has never been convicted of any of them).

* * *

The election is in some respects a way station on the party's path to amassing a network of activists. Each day, Manish Sisodia, one of five precinct captains, in effect, goes out hunting for volunteers in his assigned portion of Varanasi. I spent the afternoon with him in Lanka, a neighborhood of tiny alleys where a door in a wall opened to reveal a dark passageway crowded with beds and children and mothers and flies. A patch of light glimmered in the distance where the tunnel must have ended in a narrow courtyard.

Sisodia marched from hovel to hovel listening to people's complaints about the price of fuel or the lack of water or electricity, putting his arm around the men, patting the children on the head, and posing for pictures with the people who recognized him from TV. He told them, "Please vote for Aam Aadmi if you want to end inflation and you want the country to prosper." He got a lot of promises, and, what was more useful, a handful of new volunteers.

From one of the dismal interiors, a young woman with a dazzling smile and a spotless dress emerged -- a student at Banaras Hindu University eager to volunteer, though exams were coming up. Indu Patel, a high school teacher, signed up, and immediately began racing into households to proselytize the women hiding shyly behind doors. Bappu Sonkar, a vegetable vendor, delivered a furious, expostulatory address on corruption, and added his name to the list.

Still, AAP is a political party, and having chosen to go the electoral route, it will be judged on its ability to win votes, not volunteers. How well would it have to do to force other parties to begin playing on its playground? "Twenty-five seats," says Gupta. That would be an extraordinary outcome. Proving the experts wrong in Delhi has given party leaders what may be a misplaced faith in the appeal of their message. They are convinced that they can beat Modi, but virtually no one else considers this possible.

Pawar Dikshit, the local correspondent for the Hindustan Times, says that Ajay Rai, the Congress candidate and a local state legislator, will split the Muslim vote with Kejriwal and win the upper castes who typically back Congress, while Modi will clean up among the numerically predominant "backward" castes. He predicts that Modi will win, and that Rai will place second. As for the AAP's belief in a widespread frustration with conventional politics itself, says Dikshit, "You cannot equate the perception in Delhi with the perception in UP" -- Uttar Pradesh, of which Varanasi is one of the chief cities. Delhi is a global city with a sophisticated electorate; UP is a giant, impoverished, rural region of 200 million people where most people still vote according to their caste identity.

And yet, though neither of the two main parties profess to see the AAP as a threat, BJP activists keep showing up at Kejriwal's rallies to throw eggs and tomatoes at him, and to distribute pamphlets with essays claiming that Aam Aadmi is plotting to foment a "color revolution" with the aid of the Ford Foundation and the CIA. It sounds like someone is worried.

The question which Aam Aadmi really wants to pose is, "What is political debate in India about?" If it is about growth, then the answer might as well be Modi, who has made Gujarat a model of industrial development. If it is about communalism, then Congress, led by the genuinely secular Gandhis, is India's safe refuge. But perhaps it ought to be about something else as well -- the rising brutality and criminality of daily life, the impunity of the rich, and the seething sense of injustice which has swelled the ranks of the violent revolutionaries known as Naxalites, who are now thought to have a presence in one quarter of India's districts.

But perhaps Aam Aadmi doesn't know quite what it thinks yet. Anand Kumar, the party intellectual, says that Kejriwal "doesn't know about the social and economic domain," though he believes that the party leader now accepts Kumar's own critique of "liberalization, privatization, and globalization," as he puts it, the neo-liberal model of export-driven, capital-intensive growth. I don't find that entirely reassuring, and I don't know that middle-class Indian voters will either. Nevertheless, almost all of the dozen or so people I talked to after two of Kejriwal's rallies said that they thought Kejriwal was an honest man who could deliver on the promises he had made. They said that they would vote for him. I very much doubted that they would; but the path which Aam Aadmi has embarked on is a long one.

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