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Monday, December 07, 2009

Breaking up is not always hard to do: The case of Czechoslovakia

Last month (November 17th, to be precise) was the 20th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s “velvet revolution,” the transition from Communist despotism to democratic rule that was extraordinary for its lack of violence. But January 1st 2010 will the eighteenth anniversary of an even more extraordinary event -- the “velvet divorce” between the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992, which took place by a peaceful vote of the Czechoslovakian Legislative Assembly.

Here is a question for whoever reads these posts: How many other peaceful secessions or dissolutions of nation-states have occurred in world history? Offhand, I can think of only a handful – Singapore’s secession from Malaysia in 1965, for instance, or the slow and peaceful dissolution of much of the British Empire. But the latter was peaceful precisely because the constituent parts were not geographically contiguous and had no reason other than British imperial ambitions to remain within a single unit. In particular, the Malaysian Federation was an artificial and short-lived result of British colonial policy, tacked together from the pieces of British Borneo in 1963: Easy come, easy go. By contrast, Czechoslovakia was more than eighty years old when it fell apart, was geographically contiguous, and involved territory with mixed populations speaking different dialects and practicing different religions. How did the divorce proceed with so little acrimony?

I ask, because there are numerous unwieldy states cobbled together by colonial policy of the European powers that might be much more politically successful if broken apart into more manageable and less fractious pieces. (Nigeria, for instance, comes to mind, as does Iraq). But the costs of dissolution are usually too high, because the elites from the component parts cannot agree on how to divide territory and resources. If we could bottle and sell whatever magic potion led to Czechoslovakia’s amicable dissolution, then world would be a much happier place. So has anyone ever figured out whether the Czech-Slovak experience is replicable elsewhere? For information, citations, opinions, etc, I (and one of my students who is writing a paper on the topic) will thank you.

Posted by Rick Hills on December 7, 2009 at 10:57 AM in Constitutional thoughts | Permalink


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Texas peacefully abolished itself as a nation-state in 1845 when it entered the Union, though it's dissolution of ties to Mexico ten years earlier involved armed conflict.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Dec 7, 2009 4:15:24 PM

Well, I said "much of the British Empire" for a reason: I was referring to the Anglophone parts -- Canada, New Zealand, Australia -- and not their withdrawal from the Empire as a whole.

But your examples suggest a distinction between two sorts of violence that can flare up upon dissolution of a nation. In the case of the British Empire, the formerly dominant group withdraws peacefully but the formerly subordinate peoples struggle with each other over land and people. In the case of, say, Yugoslavia or Algeria, the dominant group -- the Serbs, the French -- do not withdraw peacefully but attempt to maintain their dominant position by force. One might say that the latter case of dissolution poses an even more difficult problem than the former, right?

Posted by: Rick Hills | Dec 7, 2009 1:23:58 PM

I think you're overstating the peacefulness of the breakup of the British Empire. Events in Aden, Kenya (Mau-Mau), India-Pakistan, and Zimbabwe were entirely related to the breakup and are hardly the exception.

Posted by: S.B. | Dec 7, 2009 12:50:34 PM

Thanks, Matt: An interesting example that I had entirely overlooked.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Dec 7, 2009 11:20:03 AM

It's an exaggeration to say (as is sometimes said) that the break-up of the Soviet Union was fully peaceful- there was a bit of violence in the Baltics, there was a war between Armenia and Azerbaidzhan, and the fighting in Chechnya, Georgia, and Moldova was directly related to it, for example, but it was still _relatively_ peaceful, especially considering that many of the countries that existed afterwords were as much creations of the Soviet Union as anything, having dubious existences as states at all before that and having been part of the Russian empire for a long time before they were parts of the Soviet Union. What did help in the Soviet case was that the Soviet constitution contained clauses that said that the constituent republics had the right to be independent. No one thought this would ever be invoked, but it seems to have made a difference that it was. (Or, at least, it gave groups of people who had a legal right to invoke these claims.)

Posted by: Matt | Dec 7, 2009 11:13:08 AM

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