By Dr Dawn Walsh, Research Fellow at IICRR & Elevate: Irish Research Council International Career Development Fellow – co-funded by Marie Cure Actions
This piece is based on a book the author has published this month, please find more details at www.palgrave.com/de/book/9783319772332. The author is grateful to the Irish Research Council for its support of this research.
From Northern Ireland, to Bosnia to Iraq autonomy has played a key role in many high-profile conflicts. ‘Autonomy’ means the awarding of an independent public policy role to a sub-state geographic unit and is often used to encourage minority groups who would like to secede to remain part of a state. However recent referendums held in Kurdistan in Iraq and Catalonia in Spain highlight that such arrangements can be very instable. These cases highlight how local administrations can use their autonomy to try and break-away from the state and will undoubtedly increase governments’ reluctance to offer minorities such arrangements.
In my book I examine whether it is possible to protect against such instability exploring whether the international community can prevent groups from using autonomy to push for more independence without the agreement of the central government. My research looked at five existing countries (UK-Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Moldova-Gagauzia, and Iraq-Kurdistan) where autonomy has been used to end or prevent violent conflict.
My main findings show that the international community can help to stabilise autonomy. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the international community, through peace-keeping, first carried out by NATO and later the EU helped and a ‘High Representative’, (the international community’s representative in the country), prevented the Serb entity from seceding and Bosnian Croats from illegally setting up their own region. In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, the international community was able to pressure the local parties to make legal changes needed for autonomy in that country by postponing a donor conference. They successfully used the ‘carrot’ of aid to encourage the locals to adhere to the agreement they had signed. In Northern Ireland individuals from the United States of America, Canada, Finland, and South Africa all played important roles in overseeing IRA decommissioning. The resolution of this issue was essential to ensure that the province’s Assembly and other institutions, which were central to its autonomy, were able to function. This showed that even small acts of assistance can help autonomy to work in post-conflict societies.
But there are serious problems with relying on the international community to stabilise difficult compromises in such countries and regions. The international community is more interested in some countries than others. For example, few of us have heard of the Moldova-Gagauz conflict. It happened in a small country and did not led to many casualties, so the international community has offered very limited help. Given the other international crises facing world leaders we can understand why they focus on more violent conflicts but this means that other groups that have successfully prevented their dispute from leading to all-out war can be neglected.
The policies of major countries and international organisations also depend on a range of factors, meaning that the need to stabilise autonomy arrangements is often not the key to the choices they make. For example, many countries provided weapons directly to the Kurds in Iraq to help them to fight ISIS. This is of course understandable given the serious threat ISIS pose to international peace and security, but this policy undoubtedly emboldened the Kurds in Iraq and contributed to their decision to hold the illegal referendum in September 2017.
It is also increasingly difficult to get different countries to cooperate and this makes it almost impossible for them to stabilise autonomy set out in peace agreements. The increasingly troubled relationship between the EU and Russia, most recently marked by the Salisbury poisoning, has a particularly negative effect in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Moldova. It means the largely united approach to peace-building in these countries taken in the late 1990s and early 2000s has been abandoned instead their citizens have become pawns in a larger international dispute.
President Vladimir Putin has acted to increase Russia’s influence in the Balkans to push back on what he sees as European Union and NATO encroachment on Russia’s borders. In 2015 Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council Resolution to condemn the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as a genocide. Given the extreme tension between Russia and the West, such action may seem to be small and inconsequential, but it encourages nationalist leaders in the Bosnian Serb region to make threats about breaking-away from the state. Given the extreme violence and human suffering which resulted from the last widescale conflict in the Balkans anything which encourages local parties to even threaten secession should be treated as serious.