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Secessionist Foreign Policy and the Strategic Use of Identity

Stephen M. Saideman and Beth K. Dougherty

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000


Acknowledgements: We would like to thank David Lake for his comments on an earlier version of this paper. This paper was previously presented, with much different cases, at the 1997 meeting of the International Studies Association in Toronto, Canada.



To be successful, secessionist movements need both domestic and international support, though neither is easy to obtain. This paper examines one kind of strategy that is available to separatist movements–the use of their identity to gain support domestically and internationally. What causes a secessionist movement to choose a particular identity? After addressing this question, we move on to discuss some of the limits separatists face–what other forces influence the perception of their identity. We also consider the most significant effect of a secessionist movement’s strategy–that any decision will attract some support and alienate others, depending in the definition of the identity at stake. Two cases, Eritrea and Macedonia, test our argument.

In the past decade, separatist movements have played a more important role in international politics, as secessionist crises have replaced the cold war crises in the media and on foreign policy agendas. Chechnya and Kosovo are the most recent examples. While much of the discussion has focused on how to resolve such conflicts, 1 an often ignored question remains: what shapes the strategies secessionists use to get support domestically and internationally? Since separatist movements are usually resisted by the state from which they are seceding, 2 they have to get domestic and international 3 support to achieve independent statehood.

How do they do this? In this article, we focus on a particular resource separatists have: their identity. Secessionists can try to identify themselves in a particular way to get support. A particular identity may cause others domestically and internationally to care about and support the group. The question then becomes: if there is an room to maneuver, why do separatist groups choose certain identities and not others? What constrains their ability to define themselves. Finally, we show that how they choose to identity themselves will affect their ability to get domestic support and international assistance. In this paper, we consider the conflicts over identity in Eritrea and Macedonia. By considering groups that faced audiences with conflicting interests, we may learn some lessons we might be apply more broadly.


I. Breaking Up is Hard to Do

A. Why Identity?

It is widely assumed in the literature that secessionist movements need international support to succeed unless the host state allows the group to secede, which is unlikely. Such weak actors generally have relatively little to offer potential supporters compared to the host state, particularly since the chances for success have historically been quite low. While each secessionist movement can try to tempt potential supporters with privileged access to their resources or their strategic position, so too can the host state if it can maintain its territorial integrity. For instance, Biafra, which tried to secede from Nigeria, could offer potential supporters access to its oil supplies. However, Nigeria could offer the same oil reserves as they could control or re-gain control over the separatist region. Which side should outside actors support? The focus could simply be on the probabilities of victory and defeat for each side. However, such a calculation ignores the possibility that one might prefer one side or the other.

What could cause a supporter, domestic or international, to prefer one side or another of a secessionist conflict? Perhaps one side is perceived to be more likely to be hostile (or friendly to) to one’s interests. But this begs a more fundamental question: why would one side be perceived as being more friendly or more hostile? It could be a matter of prior behavior. The secessionists have either helped or hurt the potential supporters. Or, if the record of prior behavior is either ambiguous or non-existent, then what the secessionist movement has promised to do may matter more, specifically how it is likely to treat oneself and one’s allies. Any secessionist movement, by defining itself and its grievances with the host state, indicates those individuals and those states who are more likely to be treated well or to be treated with hostility. 4 Any identity defines for a group who is "us" and who is "them," causing both those inhabiting the territory and those elsewhere to be seen as a potential adversary. Both inhabitants and outsiders then use this identity as a cue to determine whether the secessionists as a potential friend or foe–someone they would want to play with or avoid.

B. Choosing Identities: Strategies to Attract Support

This identity can take many forms, focusing on ethnicity (race, religion, language or kinship) or ideology. Since many kinds of identity may co-exist in a society, 5 organizers of the movement may have some flexibility in choosing which identity to emphasize and, therefore, hopefully mobilize. While the separatists’ ability to choose an identity is limited by history, particularly the history of conflict between groups within the state, the separatists may still attempt to emphasize one identity more than others. What determines such a choice? If the original organizers of the movement are from one single tribal (kinship) group, then it may be difficult to appeal to a wider ethnic basis like religion. However, if the original organizers are from many linguistic groups, but largely share the same religion, they will probably opt to emphasize religion. A broader ethnic identity may not a feasible choice, because either it is not shared widely among the inhabitants of the separatist territory or the broader identity does not distinguish the group from the host state. In that case, political entrepreneurs may emphasize a particular ideology that may not have an ethnic component, or may have an explicitly non-ethnic component, such as the Bengalis’ efforts to define themselves as a secular movement. Consequently, the original composition of the movement matters, but so does the population’s composition of the territory they seek to define as a separate state. The ethnic composition of the "homeland" will be a significant consideration because the secessionists need the support of as many of its inhabitants as possible. This is probably the most important factor in strategically making an identity choice, as support within the desired territory is the key to: a) the legitimacy of their claims within the region; b) their strength relative to the host state, 6 and c) the likelihood of international support.

The discussion of ethnic composition suggests several hypotheses:

H1a. Separatists will tend to seek a broader identity, like race or religion, if they have a narrow domestic base, like kinship or linguistic group, within the seceding region.
H1b. Separatists will identify themselves ideologically if their ethnically based support is questionable or narrow and if race or religion is not helpful domestically. 7

International assistance is so strongly desired that the separatists may emphasize an identity that is likely to increase international support rather than, or in addition to, domestic support. A secessionist movement may stress its religious nature to get support from states and non-state actors that share that particular religion, for instance. Alternatively, it may identify itself along ideological lines to get support from states sharing that ideology.

The problem, of course, is that when one identifies what one is, one is also identifying what one is not. The secessionists define themselves to be of one ethnicity or ideology and the host state to be of another–that of the ethnicity’s or ideology’s adversarial identity. If a group identifies its host state as capitalist, it will probably also identify as communist. After all, why would a communist secessionist movement secede from a communist state? If the group identifies the state as representing a particular religion, then the group will identify itself as either secular or another religion. The dilemma is that when a separatist movement develops an identity, it is not only attracting friends, but also defining its enemies. If the secessionists identify themselves as being of one religion and the host state being of another, they may get support from those who share their religion. However, residents within the seceding region and within other states sharing the same religion as the host state are more likely to support the host state. Thus, secessionist movements can attempt to use ethnic or ideological identities as a strategy, but identity strategies are a dual-edged sword, perhaps helping the movement but also endangering its chances for success.

H2a. Separatists are more likely to choose an identity shared by the major actors in the region, probably race and/or religion, as language and kinship are less likely to be shared widely.
H2b. Separatists are more likely to choose a non-ethnic ideology when their neighbors and other potential supporters do not share the same religion and/or race as themselves.
H3. Outside actors are likely to care about the choices made by secessionists and are likely to change their support if the group changes its identity.

C. Constraints on Secessionists’ Strategies

This discussion thus far has assumed that secessionist movements can control the definition of their identities, but that is clearly not true. They may have some influence over how they are perceived, but other factors matter as well. Four are likely to play important roles: the ethnic composition of the region the secessionists claim, the history of the conflict, the policies and strategies of the host state, and the predispositions and politics of outside actors all shape how a secessionist movement is identified.

As mentioned above, the reality of the seceding territory’s ethnic composition may influence how others identify the movement. A secessionist movement claiming a territory that contains only a plurality of a particular ethnic group will be less likely to be identified as being representative of that group than a territory inhabited by a majority or a territory that is nearly homogeneous. For instance, the Bengali secessionist movement clearly represented nearly all the residents of East Pakistan, while the Ibos were the largest ethnic group in the territory they claimed, but there were others as well. Thus, organizers of a separatist movement will have to deal with the existing ethnic composition. If the territory they claim contains a minority of a particular linguistic group but nearly homogeneous along some other identity line, unless they appeal to that other identity, the secessionists are unlikely to be identified by others as they wish.

Nationalist entrepreneurs of course cannot simply make up any identity they wish, nor can they assume that all social groupings in the claimed territory will immediately adhere to the new national identity. Identity formation is a process, both in terms of the content of the nationalist appeal and the incorporation of members. Secessionists are constrained by the cultural and ethnic make-up of the territory they claim, even though they simultaneously need to incorporate and mobilize the largest possible number of residents in that territory if they hope to pose a viable challenge to the host state. Consequently secessionist leaders must selectively manipulate (or create) symbols, myths, practices and traditions for the emerging national community which resonate with meaning for a broad swathe of the population but which do not create internal divisions which could weaken the movement's effectiveness. Too inclusive a definition of identity could be empty of meaning for the politically unconscious groups in the emerging nation, making it difficult to mobilize the population. On the other hand, too narrow a definition could alienate significant groups within the secessionist territory. This exposes the secessionist movement to the twin dangers of internal infighting and divide-and-rule tactics by the host state.

The history of the conflict between the secessionists and the host state also influences the perceived identity of the separatist movement and whether domestic and international audiences will support the secessionists. Past behavior and events will strengthen or weaken claims to particular identities. If a history of religious oppression exists, then potential supporters will probably believe the movement’s claims of religious identity. Likewise, if such a history does not exist, then the strategy of emphasizing religious identity is more likely to fail. While history can be interpreted in a variety of ways, the past does weigh heavily on the present, making some strategies and identities more plausible and others less so.

H4. If there is a long history 8 of conflict between the group seeking to secede and the host state, the secessionists will be less able to identify themselves as they wish, unless it coincides with the history of the conflict.

The secessionists are not the only group in the game–the host state can also influence how others, both inside the state and outside, perceive the identity conflict. The leaders of the host state can try to emphasize particular identities, which may coincide with the cleavage emphasized by the secessionists or crosscut. If a secessionist group claims to represent a particular religion, the host state can claim to represent the opposing religion, appealing to outsiders of the same religion. On the other hand, the host state can emphasize another identity, such as race, in an attempt to deny the legitimacy of the secessionists’ identification. If the host state chooses to play the same game as separatists by choosing to highlight the same cleavage, then the secessionists will be more successful in identifying the conflict as they wish. If the host decides to emphasize an alternative cleavage, then the secessionists will be less able to identify the conflict as they desire. The host state though is as constrained by history as the secessionists. Ethiopia could have tried to argue that it was a multi-religious state. However, since Ethiopia has been self-identified and perceived by outsiders as a Christian kingdom for hundreds of years, no such re-identification was possible. Again, we think secessionists define in opposition to the state, with less effort on the part of the state to redefine in response. After all, states have pre-existing relationships to rely on to seek outside assistance. Further, simply portraying a group as secessionists may be considered enough to convince other actors to come to its aid given the putatively strong regime against secession. 9

H5. If the host state chooses to emphasize the same kind of identity as the secessionists, that identity is more likely to shape how others perceive the conflict. If the host state chooses a different kind of identity, then the secessionists will be less able to identify themselves as they wish.

Finally, the predispositions and activities of outsiders influence which identities are perceived. External actors may have a prior agenda or a prior bias that cause them to see particular identities at stake rather than others. For instance, during the Cold War, the United States tended to focus on the potential or existing ideological identities of the combatants in almost every conflict, rather than the ethnic identities at stake. Once such an identity is perceived, the outsider may act in ways that cause others to identify the separatists in a similar way.

This discussion of other influences upon a secessionist movement’s identity is important because it indicates that the ability of secessionists to use strategically identity is limited. They may still try to play up certain identities and downplay others. Given the limits imposed upon secessionist movements by the ethnic composition of the region they claim, by history, and by the perceptions and behavior of outside actors, organizers of separatist movements may still have some room for maneuver, especially where multiple identities co-exist.

H6. If the host state is already engaged in a conflict with another state(s), then the secessionist movement probably will be viewed as a potential ally with the other state(s), 10 and the host state’s adversary will probably perceive the secessionist movement as having an identity similar to itself.

The previous discussion suggests that there are two distinct audiences for any separatist movement: the domestic audience within the territory they claim and within the host state and the international audience. There may be tensions between strategies aimed at getting domestic support and choices made to get international support. While it is theoretically possible for a secessionist movement to have two identities, one perceived domestically and one perceived internationally, this is not very likely, as domestic and international actors will be able to detect what is happening. This leads to the following hypotheses:

H7a. The efforts to get international support by using identity strategically will affect how the secessionist movement is perceived domestically.
H7b. The efforts to get domestic support by using identity strategically will influence how the secessionist movement is perceived internationally.

Thus far, this paper has specified seven hypotheses: the first two focusing on the factors influencing the strategic use of ethnic or ideological identity by secessionist movement; the third considering perhaps the most important consequence of the secessionists’ strategy; and the latter four on the forces shaping the relative successfulness 11 of such strategies. Both the choice of strategy and the probability of success are conditioned by domestic concerns, foreign actors, and their interaction. In the next section of this paper, we suggest how the hypotheses’ plausibility might be examined, and we then continue to discuss two brief case studies to explore these issues.

Table 1: Summary of Hypotheses

Hypotheses Independent Variable Values of Ind Var Dependent variable
Hypotheses 1a, 1b Ethnic Identity Narrow/Broad Identity Strategy Chosen
Hypotheses 2a, 2b Identity of Major Regional Actors Race/Religion/Ideology Strategy Chosen
Hypothesis 3 Strategy Chosen Race/Religion/Ideology States Attracted or Alienated
Hypothesis 4 History of Conflict Long/Short Ability to Define Oneself
Hypothesis 5 On-going External Conflict Yes/No Ability to Define Oneself
Hypothesis 6 Host State’s Strategy Same Kind of Identity as SM/Different Ability to Define Oneself
Hypothesis 7a International Strategy Race/Religion/Ideology Domestic Perceptions
Hypothesis 7b Domestic Strategy Race/Religion/Ideology International Perceptions

D. The Research Design

Because this research is at an early stage and due to the number of hypotheses to be exyplored, it makes sense that the first cut at this problem should simply be to test the plausibility of the approach. 12 By considering a few cases, we can evaluate which hypotheses may be more widely applicable and which hypotheses are poorly specified or of relatively little worth. For this study, we have chosen to consider Eritrea and Macedonia. Because the identities of both have been contested, both internally and externally, we have two puzzles: why did the leaders of the secessionists choose the particular path they followed? And why did outsiders identify the actors as they did? By focusing on cases where domestic and international forces pull in different directions, we can determine which matters more. 13


II. Eritrea

The question of Eritrea’s disposition arose after World War II, as the United Nations struggled to determine the political future of the former Italian colony. In the late 1940s, American and British officials estimated that 75% of the population favored independence as opposed to union with Ethiopia or partition between Ethiopia and Sudan. Yet Eritrea’s small population was remarkably diverse, comprising nine ethno-linguistic groups and evenly split between Christians, who mainly lived in the highlands, and Muslims, who mainly inhabited the lowlands. Italy established the colony in 1890, and there was no prior historical justification for the unity of this territory or its population.

Ethiopia succeeded in winning federation with Eritrea in 1950, ultimately annexing the territory in 1962. The Eritrean Muslim population opposed the federation; Ethiopian nationalism was inseparably linked with Christianity and Amharic, obviously excluding the largely Tigre-speaking Muslim population, and Ethiopia’s feudal economy threatened the status of the recently emancipated Muslim serf class. The small Christian intelligentsia and working class also mobilized early, alienated from Ethiopia by the Imperial Government’s dismantling of the federation and ban on Tigrinya and its suppression of the trade union movement. Armed struggle broke out in 1961 with Muslims dominating the liberation movement.

The ELF displayed a strong sectarian bias from its inception, blaming the Christians for delivering Eritrea into Ethiopia’s hands. It portrayed itself as a pan-Arab, pan-Islamic organization fighting to free Eritrea’s Muslims from Christian domination and persecution. This partially reflected its Muslim make-up, but it also stemmed from the ELF’s need for external military and financial assistance. The Arab world was a natural choice for this role. The ELF could expect little support from the newly independent African states; Haile Selassie enjoyed enormous prestige in Africa, and the OAU was in Addis Ababa. But the ELF could easily appeal to the radical pan-Arab, non-aligned convictions of Syria, Libya, South Yemen and Iraq, by portraying itself as an Arab-Muslim revolutionary movement confronting a conservative Christian regime allied with the United States and Israel. Moreover, Eritrea enjoyed longstanding educational, economic and cultural ties with the surrounding Arab states. The identification of Eritrea as part of the Arab-Islamic world secured for the ELF much-needed assistance, which in turn strengthened both its self-identification as well as outside perceptions of it as an Arab-Islamic organization. 14 The weaponry and training supplied by the Arab states helped transform the ELF military effort from low level "shift" activities into a serious threat to Ethiopia’s control of the lowland areas. The ELF adopted a zonal military structure based on that of the Algerian FLN, reflecting ethnic and territorial divisions. In 1965 or 1966, the ELF created a Christian zone to accommodate the large numbers of Christians joining the nationalist movement. The zonal structure encouraged factionalism, impeded cooperation between zones, and greatly exacerbated sectarian tensions. 15 Despite having their own zone, Christians did not feel welcome in the ELF. They were generally prevented from rising to positions of importance, and their integration into units was hampered by religious taboos, such as the prohibition of sharing food with non-believers. Many ELF fighters regarded Christians with suspicion and sometimes with open hostility, and the pan-Arabist, pan-Islamic declarations of the leadership excluded Christians from the Eritrea the ELF was fighting to liberate.

The fragmentation in the ELF produced by its "patronage-based leadership style…the warlordism of the zone commanders," and the sectarian tensions within its ranks left it in a poor position to withstand the onslaught of the Ethiopian Army’s Second Division in 1967. 16 The Second Division, meeting little opposition from the ELF, rampaged through not only Muslim areas, but through the Christian highlands as well, burning villages, slaughtering animals, and massacring civilians. Following on the heels of the offensive, the ELF suffered another blow. While Woldai Khasai, the commander of the Christian zone, was at ELF headquarters in Sudan, his deputy accused 27 Christian fighters of failing to perform their duties, and executed them. Deeply shaken, Woldai surrendered to the Ethiopians along with 19 other Christian associates. The defections deepened Muslim antagonism towards and suspicion of Christians. 17

The ELF’s disastrous military showing spurred a reform movement centered on fighters returning from training in Syria and China and on recent student recruits. Marxism heavily influenced both groups. The dissidents viewed the ELF’s political and military structures as outdated and ineffectual and were frustrated by the "corrosive Muslim-Christian schism within the organization." 18 Because most students were Christians, and students played a leading role in the reform movement, the movement itself had a disproportionately large Christian element. 19 In addition to calling for the abolition of the zonal system and the creation of an in-country leadership, the dissidents specifically criticized the leadership’s Arab-Islamic identification; the treatment of civilian populations, especially Christians, in the areas where the ELF operated; and ELF attacks against Christian villages, which sometimes resulted in massacres of the inhabitants. In late 1969, the ELF leadership moved violently to suppress the dissident movement. In one especially traumatic incident, the leadership sent 300 new Christian recruits to Barka for training; once there, the men were arrested on suspicion of being Ethiopian spies, brutally interrogated and a large number executed in March 1970. 20 Hundreds of Christian members of the ELF perished in sectarian violence, fled to Sudan or surrendered to the Ethiopians. 21

Several groups broke away, notably Muslim fighters from the Red Sea district and a largely Christian group led by Issaias Afwerki, which would eventually coalesce to become the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). In November 1971 Issaias’ group produced "We and Our Objectives," a manifesto explaining its goals and its reasons for splitting from the ELF.

[The ELF] leaders…stirred up some long dead grudges among some of the ethnic groups and started preaching that the Christians were their enemies, that the highlanders were their enemies, and that the Christians wanted unity with Ethiopia…they ordered their forces to plunder the Christian highlands of the country…. The agents of "Jebha" [ELF] issued orders to the effect that the remaining Christian fighters in the field should be butchered…
We are freedom fighters and not prophets of Christianity…Our conviction is that the Eritrean people were and still are oppressed…How many Christians or Muslims exist in Eritrea is of no importance or concern to us…We do not recognize that oppression discriminates on the basis of religion.
Should there be any struggle in Eritrea whose aim is to liberate only those who are Muslims, we will oppose it. We are unequivocally opposed to all forms of oppression. We will not close our eyes and remain silent when we Christians being oppressed for fear that we might be labeled as the defenders of Christians. We are freedom fighters who will not forget our revolutionary responsibility for fear of what might be said about us… 22

Although persistently labeled a "Christian" group, the EPLF from its origins in the early 1970s adopted and adhered to a policy of non-sectarianism. It was the product of the merger of two dissident factions, one Christian and one Muslim, and its leadership carefully balanced the representation of Muslims and Christians in its leading bodies. 23

The ELF moved to eliminate the upstart organization, and by 1972 fighting had commenced between the rival movements that would continue periodically for the next ten years, greatly complicating efforts to defeat Ethiopia. The EPLF rapidly gained strength. By 1977 it had an estimated 20,000 fighters, and by the early 1980s it completely eclipsed the ELF, driving its rival out of Eritrea.

We can attribute the EPLF’s successful positioning as the sole legitimate representative of Eritrean nationalism within Eritrea to several interrelated factors. First, it propagated a self-consciously non-sectarian Eritrean identity that allowed it to appeal to everyone living within Eritrea’s borders supporting independence. By the late 1960s, this is especially important since the Christian community was primarily mobilizing; unwelcome in the ELF, the EPLF offered an alternative. Moreover, the EPLF’s leadership promoted the idea that what bound Eritreans together was not some ascriptive factor like religion, but the common experience of oppression and the nationalist struggle. This simple message proved extremely attractive to Christians and Muslims alike.

Second, the EPLF had a more effective political and military organization than the ELF. 24 Its rigorous training of fighters (all recruits received six months of education before military training), in-country leadership, unified command structure, and egalitarian practices contributed to its better performance against the Second Division than the ELF. Third, the EPLF’s emphasis on social and political transformation during the struggle rather than waiting for victory to begin the process (as the ELF advocated) proved quite popular. Its ability to effect positive change in the lives of the populations under its control not only brought it loyalty and support, but eventually the bulk of new recruits to the struggle. This allowed it to control a larger and richer area than that controlled by the ELF. Finally, the political and military successes of the EPLF bred further success. Its inclusive definition of identity, military capabilities, valor in battle, and progressive political, cultural, and socio-economic policies made it an increasingly attractive movement even as the ELF tore itself apart in factional fighting. The more fighters that joined its ranks and the more villages that actively supported it, the stronger it became.

The ascendancy of the EPLF also had far-reaching consequences with respect to outside support for the nationalist struggle. An essential element of the EPLF’s critique of the ELF was that association with Arab-Muslim patrons exacerbated sectarian tensions. As part of the EPLF’s determination to de-politicize religion in the name of a unified conception of national identity, it refused to base appeals to the outside in religious or ethnic terms. In the years immediately following the outbreak of ELF-EPLF fighting, both groups did receive aid from Arab states. The ELF, actively proclaiming an Arab-Muslim identity, enjoyed the bulk of this support, mainly coming from Syria, Iraq, South Yemen, Libya and Saudi Arabia. The EPLF refused to manipulate its identity to attract support, remained wary of the domestic dangers posed by accepting outside aid, and therefore fared less well then the ELF. South Yemen proved a valuable source of Soviet-made weapons and Kuwait provided it with financial assistance, but relations with other Arab patrons were tense. The lack of outside assistance "gave rise to the [EPLF’s] emphasis on self-reliance and inward-oriented development." 25

By early 1977, the Eritrean movements had an estimated 50,000 fighters in the field. 26 Ethiopia meanwhile was caught up in the internal upheaval of the Dergue’s "Red Terror" and fighting a war in the Ogaden, which Somalia had invaded in July 1977. With Ethiopia’s attentions fixed elsewhere, the Eritrean fronts went on the offensive in 1977. By December, only four Eritrean cities remained under Ethiopian control. On the brink of success, several factors combined instead to produce a devastating defeat. First, the Ogaden war produced a stunning shift in superpower alliances; in September 1977, the Soviet Union and Cuba moved decisively behind the Dergue, having been expelled from Somalia. Once the Soviets openly embraced the Dergue, its radical Arab allies, Libya and South Yemen, followed suit and cut off the Eritreans. Second, despite their military successes, tensions between the ELF and EPLF threatened to escalate into civil war. This in turn induced the Saudis and Iraqis, the main remaining patrons of the Eritrean movements, to cut support in an attempt to force a unification of the movement. 27 When the Second Division, backed by a massive Soviet airlift, went on the offensive in July 1978, the Eritreans were virtually without foreign assistance. ELF resistance collapsed within a few weeks, but the EPLF managed to hold out until November, when it began a "strategic withdrawal" to its base in Nacfa. By the end of 1978, the Second Division had retaken all of Eritrea save Nacfa. Despite repeated large-scale offensives over the next five years, Ethiopia never succeeded in dislodging the EPLF from Nacfa.

The ELF never recovered from this defeat, and the EPLF drove it from Eritrea completely in 1981. Although the EPLF had finally succeeded in defeating its domestic rival, it nonetheless faced a difficult situation. The Eritrean liberation struggle had been deserted by its former patrons even as it struggled to confront a much larger and better equipped Ethiopian army. The EPLF managed to survive because its policy of self-reliance worked. No longer receiving weapons or financial assistance from the Arab world, the EPLF used the Ethiopian army itself as an arms supplier, capturing most of the equipment it used from the Second Division. It also manufactured certain necessary items, like ammunition, pharmaceuticals, and sandals for the fighters in underground factories at Nacfa. The ability of the EPLF to sustain and eventually prevail in the war against Ethiopia can be traced to the high levels of support it attracted from its nationalist constituency and its impressive organizational strength. Its inclusive conception of national identity, purchased at the cost of outside support, allowed the EPLF to transcend the many cleavages in Eritrean society, making it potentially capable of mobilizing all Eritreans to the liberation movement. Further, the EPLF mobilized the entire population thanks to its widely popular socio-economic reforms. The EPLF’s ability to capitalize on its popular support rested not only on its tightly structured and highly coordinated organization, but on its constant reinforcement of the theme of national unity through struggle. The Eritrean population made the sacrifices necessary to sustain self-reliance because they believed unity was the only path to independence.


III. Macedonia

Macedonia provides an interesting contrast to Eritrea, as the former struggled to gain recognition after easily attaining independence while Eritrea’s battle to become independence was difficult, but recognition came much more easily. As Macedonia moved towards independence, its leaders faced daunting obstacles in their path: nationalist Macedonians, a disgruntled and fearful Albanian population, and Greek opposition to Macedonia’s identity. Given the relatively recent development of Macedonian nationalism, it would seem to have been easy to give into both Greek and Albanian demands. Instead, Macedonian leaders struggled with maintaining its identity in face of these and other pressures. Below, we summarize the origins of Macedonian nationalism, and then consider the various forces facing Macedonian leaders. Finally, we consider how Macedonian elites reacted to the conflicting pressures.

One can date the deepening of Macedonian identity to the mid-1940’s, despite Greek and Macedonian claims to the deeds and symbols of Alexander the Great. 28 Tito created the Macedonian language and the autocephalous Macedonian Orthodox Church to distinguish the population inhabiting the Yugoslavia’s Republic of Macedonia from Bulgaria. 29 Previous activism within this region did not focus on an independent Macedonia, but on union with Bulgaria. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, which was the major political movement of the late 1800’s, was an irredentist group, seeking to join with Bulgaria. 30 While Yugoslavia’s elites were trying to establish a Macedonian identity based on the attributes of the people residing in the region, elites in the diaspora were centering their notion of Macedonian identity on Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great. 31

Either choice–the artificial and recent creation or the appeal to the glorious history of ancient Macedonia–posed a critical problem for Macedonian politicians: where do the ethnic Albanians fit? The Albanians speak a different language, largely practice a different religion, and trace their history and identity much further back in time with greater cause to do so. Although the Albanians have contested Yugoslav and Macedonian estimates of the size of their population, a recent, internationally supervised census found that they make up twenty-three percent of the population. Thus, a significant part of the population does not identify with either the modern view of Macedonian identity or the borrowing of ancient Macedonian symbols. Worse, Macedonia’s Albanians reside nearby a country governed by its kin. 32 While Macedonian elites do not need Albanian votes to gain office or to govern, separatism, either secessionist or irredentist, would challenge Macedonia’s existence even more so than Greece’s.

To consider Greece’s concern about Macedonia obsessive would not overstate the case. The consensus may be that "‘There is no conceivable way that Greece can said to be threatened by the existence of a small, independent Macedonian state." 33 Still, since Macedonia started its path towards independence, Greece’s domestic and international politics has centered around Macedonia. Despite wasting important political capital at the European Union, and despite potential economic costs, Greece embargoed Macedonia for more than three years because it disputed Macedonia’s use of particular symbols and because of its name. Greece claimed that Macedonia posed a threat to its security, but once Macedonia removed the questionable clauses in its constitution, it was hardly a threat. Instead, Greece focused on Macedonia’s name and its flag, as well as other symbols that were "stolen" from Greek history.

It is clear that domestic politics has driven Greece’s obsession with the name of Macedonia, which forced the republic to take on a name similar to a pretentious rock star–the Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia [FYROM]. Constantine Mitsotakis lost power and was replaced by Andreas Panandreou in large part due to the former’s supposed weakness on the Macedonia issue and the latter’s promises of harsher steps. 34 Macedonia’s name and its use of symbols from Alexander the Great challenged the meaning of what it is to be Greek. Further, Macedonia’s independence and appeals to Macedonian nationalism threaten to appeal to the Macedonians who live in Greek. This not only raises the possibility that these "Slavophone Greeks" might want to join with Macedonia, but also challenges "‘the fundamental notion that Greece is a homogeneous state.’" 35

These fears are not entirely imaginary as Macedonia elites faced significant pressure from Macedonian nationalists. The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization–Democratic Party of Macedonian National Unity [IMRO-DPMNE] gained the most votes of any party in the first competitive elections. Harking back to the glory of the earlier IMRO movement, the IMRO-DPMNE is very strongly anti-Albanian and supportive of the Macedonian nationalist cause. "Its unabashedly irredentist approach in its early days did much to aggravate relations with Greece." 36 Because the IMRO-DPMNE gained a significant amount of support in the 1991 elections, its demands and concerns could not be ignored.

Kiro Gligovo led Macedonia both before and after it became independent. Along with Bosnia’s President, Alija Itzebegovic, Gligorov proposed a variety of solutions that would head off the disintegration of Yugoslavia, fearing the worst for his republic. Once Slovenia was de facto independent and Croatia was fighting for its independence, Macedonia held a referendum with the Macedonians voting for independence although the Albanians largely boycotted. Gligorov combined symbolic concessions to Macedonian nationalists while making compromises with the Albanians. A change of language in the constitution made the Macedonians the constituent people of the state, although additional language gave all citizens equality before the law. 37 Despite the equality clause, this infuriated the Albanians. Gligorov and other Macedonian leaders tried to assuage the Albanians by including members of the Party of Democratic Prosperity [PDP], the largest Albanian party, in each cabinet.

The Macedonian nationalists were allowed to have the flag they desired, which angered the Greeks. The flag together with Macedonia’s name and potentially irredentist language in its constitution gave Greek politicians enough cause to focus its attention on Macedonia for several years. Macedonian leaders were more willing to change the flag of the country than its name. The most the Macedonians were willing to change their name was to the Republic of Macedonia (Skopje). 38 The refusal to change its name prolonged Macedonia’s isolation.

So, why did Macedonia hold onto its name despite the costs? What choice did Gligorov have? Gligorov and his allies needed support from Macedonian nationalists while avoiding antagonizing the Albanian population too much. To rely upon religion to appeal both to Macedonians and to the larger Orthodox community would not have worked, given the contested status of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. 39 Such a strategy would not assuage Greece nor Serbia (nor, therefore, Russia). Further, it would not gain additional supporters in Western Europe. Emphasizing the Macedonian language, which domestic politics compelled, would not play well outside the country since it is not the language of powerful groups beyond Macedonia. Stressing the Slavic identity of the Macedonians was not particularly likely to help since it would antagonize the ethnic Albanians and only appeal to a few countries.

Borrowing the symbols of Alexander the Great may have seemed like a relatively inoffensive choice, as it could help buttress Macedonian identity without greatly angering the ethnic Albanians. It appealed to Macedonian nationalists both at home and in the diaspora. However, it greatly antagonized Greece. Given the reality that today’s Macedonians are not related to those of the past and due to Greece’s hostility to any borrowing of ancient Macedonia’s symbols, Gligorov had to jettison this approach. He argued that "‘we should not be slaves to hypotheses that we are direct descendants of Alexander the Great.’" 40

Given the limits of these alternatives, Macedonian elites had to try to develop an identity that appealed to Macedonian nationalists without compelling the Albanian minority to secede. By focusing on the territory of the former Yugoslav Republic as the defining element of the new state, Macedonian leaders were wedded to the name. The domestic costs of any other strategy were too high, regardless of the international costs imposed by Greece. This case, along with the Eritrean one, suggests that domestic politics weighs more heavily than international concerns.


IV. The Dilemmas of Divorce: What is a Secessionist Supposed To Do?

A. Comparisons

The two case studies suggest that secessionist movements do face some difficult choices, and their ability to define themselves is quite constrained. The cases provide for some interesting comparisons and contrasts, given how long it took for Eritrea to become independence and how quickly Macedonia broke free from Yugoslavia. Below, we consider whether the cases met our expectations about: the impact of ethnic composition upon the strategies chosen by the secessionists; the influence of regional actors upon group strategies; how constrained the secessionists were; the interaction between domestic and international dynamics, and the weighting of domestic and international factors on the perception of the identities at stake.

First, both secessionist movements faced the problem of multiethnic populations with significant cleavages. Both Eritrea and Macedonia have a significant religious cleavage dividing the population. The first attempts at Eritrean independence focused on the religious divide between many of the Eritreans and Ethiopia, but this limited the appeal of the ELF. The ELPF developed a non-sectarian identity to appeal to a wider base, although this sacrificed international support. Attempting to use religious would have alienated the Albanian population even further. Language proved to be more of a unifier in Eritrea, as all nine linguistic groups could not speak Amharic, creating a shared enmity towards Ethiopia. In Macedonia, language serves as a major dividing line. Consequently, both groups sought identities that appealed beyond narrow ethnic groups. Both sought to create nationalisms focused on the entire territory they claimed, rather than on particular groups within it. This was very difficult, requiring the defeat of the ELF on the battlefield. The EPFL succeeded in its secession and against the ELF precisely because it created a nationalism focused on its entire territory rather than choosing the limited religious definition promoted by the ELF. Gligorov and his colleagues are not so "lucky" as they still face the problem of being outbid by the Macedonian nationalists.

Second, the international context greatly shaped the choices made by the various actors. The ELF played up the Arab 41 and Islamic identity of its supporters to appeal to Middle Eastern countries, and this worked as the ELP received much assistance from these groups. The ELPF, due to its domestic strategy, could not use religious identities to appeal to Middle Eastern countries, and the conscious decision to avoid international entanglements facilitated its efforts to gain support domestically. Macedonia was pressured from its outset to re-define its identity to meet Greece’s demands. Further, there were no credible alternative identities for Macedonia to use to appeal to outsiders–race, religion and language were all self-limiting. The best Macedonia could was to emphasize its multi-ethnic government as an island of stability and tolerance in a very dangerous region.

Clearly, outsiders cared about the identities at stake and changed their policies as the secessionists defined themselves. The ELF received much more support from the Islamic world than the ELPF. Radical Arab states lessened support once Ethiopia changed its ideology, thereby altering the cleavage between separatists and host state. Likewise, the story of Macedonia’s first years was largely the tale of Greece’s obsession about the symbols and identification of Macedonia. While the rest of this article suggests that the ability to shape one’s identity is constrained, the reactions of Greece to Macedonia and of Arab states to Eritrea suggest that a group ought to try.

Some of the constraints we considered include the history of the conflict, the behavior of the host state, and the international relations of host state. The path the Eritreans took to gain independence shaped how outsiders perceived the conflict because the ELPF had emerged from and was a rival to the ELF. Ironically, perhaps the most important factor influencing perceptions of Macedonia’s identity was its brief history as a republic of Macedonia. After all, its name on CIA maps (and Microsoft Word language setup menus) is still FYROM–the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

The behavior of the host state mattered as well. Ethiopia’s revolution changed one of the divides between separatists and hosts since it eliminated the Marxist-Leninist appeal of the separatists. Instead, outsiders with a preference for socialist regimes could then choose to support Ethiopia or become neutral. Likewise, Ethiopia’s support of the Organization of African Unity and its norm of territorial integrity may have deterred African states from supporting Eritrea. 42 This hypothesis does not apply as clearly to Macedonia since its independence was a product of its host state disintegrating. There was no Yugoslavia left to combat Macedonia’s independence. Serbia did constrain Macedonia’s choices as the Serbian Orthodox Church opposed the independence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, limiting Macedonia’s appeal to Orthodox states. Other cases of prolonged conflict may tell us more about what host states can or cannot do to limit the support separatists may receive.

The third factor shaping the identities at stake and constraining separatists was the involvement of their hosts in international conflicts. This clearly mattered as Eritrea’s fate was shaped by Ethiopia’s relationships with its neighbors–both in Africa and in the Middle East. Likewise, the conflicts in Yugoslavia, Macedonia’s host state, shaped how others reacted to Macedonia, including the eventual decisions to bypass Greece.

How did the domestic and international politics of separatist intertwine? For Eritrea, the international game certainly influenced the domestic one as appeals to Islamic states elsewhere appealed to some but offended others. As the ELPF sought to find a secular way, it had to alienate potential supporters elsewhere. The two arenas were certainly linked and shaped each other. Likewise, competition within Macedonia to define what it meant to be Macedonia clearly shaped its relationship with Greece, and Greek pressures clearly influenced the domestic political scene.

Finally, this article indicates that the domestic political game is primary, despite the importance of receiving international support. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why the ELPF did not seek the support of states in the region. It would be difficult to understand why Macedonia did not change its name, as Greece demanded. These were important sacrifices, threatening the existence and success of both separatist efforts. Yet, leaders had to focus on the domestic audience first. They could not lead a group that would receive international support if there were no group. Once organized and established, groups had to maintain policies that caused people to give support, even if it meant prolonging the struggle. This might sound obvious, but previous studies 43 failed to address adequately how the domestic-international trade-off works out.

B. Implications

The clearest implication of this approach is that secessionist movements can shape their identity to a certain extent, depending upon the historical context of their conflict and the role of the host state in international disputes. As we have seen in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, a successful secession does not mean that separatism stops being an issue. New separatists movements have developed to secede from the new states, such as the Chechens in Russia, the Abkhazia in Georgia, among others. Moreover, old secessionist conflicts continue, with the Basques in Spain, the Quebecois, and others continuing to seek independence to varying degrees. To understand these conflicts, it is important to know why secessionists make the choices that they do. There has been much work recently focusing on ethnic conflicts in general and secessionist conflicts in particular. This article may add to these debates.

Understanding the decisions made by separatists is also important because these choices do have lasting impacts, particularly within the seceding region and within the host state regardless of whether the movement successfully seceded or not. The chosen identity will influence the future conflicts in the area. The particular definition of Georgian identity as it seceded probably caused other ethnic groups within the seceding region to consider more seriously the secessionist option. 44

This article also sought to explain the limits separatists faced in shaping their identity. An interesting puzzle that this article helps to understand is why some separatists are perceived in a particular way contrary to their efforts to define themselves. By getting at what circumscribes the ability of separatists to shape how others perceive them, we can understand why some secessionist movements fail to appeal to some audiences while others can succeed.

This approach might help to explain why other states react to particular secessionist conflicts as they do. If states are motivated by the chosen identity of the separatist movement, then understanding that choice can help us predict and explain the international relations of secessionist conflicts. This article also helps to explain a basic pattern of secessionist conflicts–that they generally do cause countries to take sides quite strongly. Secessionist movements have a keen ability to create both friends and enemies. Understanding this dynamic can help us make predictions about which secessionist movements are likely to get domestic and international support, and therefore are more likely to succeed. Those identities that polarize outsiders in ways that create more supporters than opponents are likely to cause the secessionists to be more successful. If countries that are not motivated by ethnic ties want to take sides based on who is the likely winner, understanding this dynamic can assist in making foreign policy.

Before the recent disintegrations of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, there was relatively little comparative study of secessionism. By considering some secessionist crises of the past, we hope not only to have added to our understanding of these past conflicts, but also to suggest some basic patterns and dynamics that appear in on-going conflicts today and that are likely to appear in future secessionist conflicts.



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Note 1: See, for example Chopra and Weiss 1995, Davis and Gurr 1998, Harvey 1997, Kaufman 1996a, 1996b, Stedman 1997, and Walter 1997, 1999. Back.

Note 2: For clarity, the term "host state" refers to the state from which a secessionist movement is attempting to secede. Back.

Note 3: Donald Horowitz asserts that "Whether a secessionist movement will achieve its aims, however, is determined largely by international politics, by the balance of interests and forces beyond the state." in Horowitz 1985. Back.

Note 4: For an excellent discussion of the logic of ethnic group formation, see Hardin 1995. Back.

Note 5: There is a long-running debate about whether ethnic identity is a given in society (primordial accounts, such as Geertz 1963) or are created by politicians (Brass 1991). We follow a moderate position taken by Horowitz (1985); Laitin (1986), and Rothschild (1981) that argues that multiple ethnic identities frequently co-exist and that the salience of particular identities is determined by the political context. Back.

Note 6: The more support the secessionist movement has within the region, the more likely others within the region will support it. The dynamics in such situations are prone to tipping or bandwagoning as the costs of joining a secessionist movement decline as the movement grows more popular (Hardin 1995, Kuran 1998). Back.

Note 7: Race or religion would not be available for a separatist movement if the likely pool of supporters share the same race or religion as the host state. Back.

Note 8: Besides length of time, degree of previous violence, and other variables may also affect how history affects perceptions of identity. Back.

Note 9: The strength of the boundary and anti-secession regime has been asserted by Jackson and Rosberg 1982 and by Herbst 1989, but Saideman 1997a, 2001 argues that the regime does not constraint states from supporting secessionists as strongly as frequently believed. Back.

Note 10: This is a hypothesis that could be derived from realism, as one of realism's oldest and basic logics is that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. However, there is also a basic logic to ethnic conflict, that ethnic groups are motivated not only by ethnic ties, but also ethnic enmities. If two groups share ethnic enmities with a third group, they will see each other as allies as long as their own ethnic differences are not too great. Back.

Note 11: Success refers to whether the identity separatists seek to emphasize is the one that is generally perceived or not. Successful secession is conditioned by this, but also determined by other factors beyond the scope of this particular paper. Back.

Note 12: Eckstein 1975. Back.

Note 13: The previous effort at this question (Saideman 1997b) the domestic and international strategies coincided, making it difficult to determine the relative weighting of each. Back.

Note 14: This helped ensure that Israel continued to heavily support Haile Selassie's regime. Back.

Note 15: See Shumet 1989 for details. Back.

Note 16: Iyob 1995, 112 Back.

Note 17: Tekle 1993, 188. Back.

Note 18: Iyob 1995, 112. Back.

Note 19: Markakis 1987, 123. Back.

Note 20: Markakis 1987, 126. Back.

Note 21: Pool 1983 187, puts the number at 44-450 between 1966-69; Shumet 1989, 456, estimates that 200 were killed in 1969-70 and over 200 others surrendered to Ethiopia. Back.

Note 22: Pool 1983,187-88; Telke 1993, 189. Back.

Note 23: Markakis 1987, 143. Back.

Note 24: See Pateman 1990 for details. Back.

Note 25: Iyob 1995,128. Back.

Note 26: Ellingson 1978, 623; Sherman 1980, 91; Markakis 1987, 142. Back.

Note 27: Washington Post, April 30, 1977. Back.

Note 28: The idea of Macedonia and of Macedonians existed before 1945, but Tito's efforts gave the idea of Macedonia a foundation for political, social, and economic organization. Back.

Note 29: Poulton 1995, 117-118. Also, see Perry 1997, 270. Back.

Note 30: See Saideman and Ayres (1999) for a discussion of why groups might want to be irredentist or secessionist. Back.

Note 31: Poulton 1995, 121. Back.

Note 32: Perhaps the term "governed" should be considered rather loosely, given Albania's instability. Back.

Note 33: Dentich 1994, 103. Back.

Note 34: Pettifer 1992, 482; Tupurkovski 1997, 146; Woodward 1995, 358. Back.

Note 35: Perry 1997, 269. Back.

Note 36: Perry 1997, 242. Back.

Note 37: Buck 1996, 8. Back.

Note 38: Ramet 1995; Reuter 1999 Back.

Note 39: Poulton 1995, 118. Back.

Note 40: Gligorov 1999, 102. Back.

Note 41: Emphasizing the Arab identity of Eritrea was more of a stretch since only five percent of the population speaks Arabic, and these folks were actually less interested in the secessionist project. Back.

Note 42: Again, Saideman (1997a, 2001) argues that the OAU and the norm of territorial integrity matter much less than argued. Back.

Note 43: Saideman 1997b, for instance. Back.

Note 44: Jones 1993. Back.