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Where Does The U.S. Stand On Secessionist Movements Abroad?


Crimea isn't the only region in Europe with cessation on its agenda. There's a referendum planned this fall in Catalonia. That's the Mediterranean coastal region of northeastern Spain that includes Barcelona. And the Scots are weighing independence from the United Kingdom. A few years ago in Africa, South Sudan became independent of Sudan, and before that, of course, the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia involved various declarations of independence, not all of them well received by the former power.

Is there any consistency to U.S. policy on breakaway movements? Well, Jonathan Paquin has made a study of conflicts that break up countries. He's a political scientist at Laval University in Quebec City in Canada. And, Professor Paquin, welcome to the program.

JONATHAN PAQUIN: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: And first, what have you found about U.S. reactions to these various secessions?

PAQUIN: Well, I guess the first thing that should be said is that there is a clear distinction between what we call unilateral secessions, such as the secession of Crimea today, and what we call constitutional secessions, something that happened, for instance, in South Sudan in - a few years ago and something that could maybe happen between Britain and Scotland this year. And the Americans are not against constitutional secessions. What they want to make sure is that all of the parties around the table agree on the separation of a country.

What the Americans don't like - actually, they hate it - is unilateral secessions because it creates instability. And as the global superpower, the U.S. tries to reduce as much as possible instability in the different regions of the world. In terms of unilateral secessions, I must say that there is an inconsistency from the part of Washington.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, let me ask you about it this way: When the Russians want to underscore what they see as U.S. inconsistency on secession, they very often cite U.S. and NATO support of Kosovo Province breaking away from Serbia. Do they have a point there?

PAQUIN: I think that they don't. There is a major difference between Crimea and Kosovo. Now, Kosovo was under Serbian rule for several decades, and actually, what happened in the 1990s is that there was repression in Kosovo. Albanians in Kosovo, some of them at least, had to leave the country to go to Albania, Macedonia and places like that because of Slobodan Milosevic's repression.

SIEGEL: The Serbian leader.

PAQUIN: The Serbian leader. Well, in the case of Crimea, I don't think that the Russians in Crimea are repressed by the government of Ukraine. They formed a majority of Crimea and there is clearly not a claim of violation against human rights. So these are two very different cases.

SIEGEL: You say that you have found inconsistency, though, in U.S. positions on secession. What is the inconsistency that you found?

PAQUIN: What I've found is that, at the end of the day, what really matters to the Americans is, once again, stability. If there is a, say, an ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and the central authorities of a state are no longer willing to negotiate with separatists, say, in Slovenia or in Croatia, at one point, the Americans will have to make a decision, whether they still support the central authorities, in this case Yugoslavia, or will they go with the separatist entities. So in extreme cases, the Americans will choose to support some secessionist states.

SIEGEL: Do you see the forthcoming referendum in Crimea as presenting any precedent of any sort that will be cited in, say, the case of Catalonia in Spain? I gather the Spanish prime minister was very glad to hear the U.S. oppose secession because they don't like the idea that the Catalans are planning to vote for - possibly to break away.

PAQUIN: This whole referendum in Crimea is, to me, a farce because it was settled in Moscow. The Ukrainian minority in Crimea and the Tatars, who are Muslims, have not been consulted. They are not in favor of it. How do you want to have a democratic debate and discussion in Crimea when you have Russian soldiers everywhere and probably bullying some citizens who disagree with the idea of Crimea joining Russia or Crimea becoming independent? Absolutely...

SIEGEL: But we don't expect to see troops in the streets of Barcelona. Does that mean that you expect the U.S. to look more kindly on a more democratic, more civil secession? Or is the principle of secession just going to be more likely to be opposed?

PAQUIN: Well, if the Catalonians are voting for secession and if Madrid is willing to negotiate, then the Americans will probably welcome the initiative. Again, what the Americans don't like is unconstitutional secessions, which create turmoil, troubles and potentially in some places, ethnic cleansing.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor Paquin, thank you very much for talking with us today about secession.

PAQUIN: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Professor Jonathan Paquin, who's associate professor of political science at Laval University in Quebec City in Canada. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.