Redrawing Borders: Here Are Five More Separatist Movements to Watch

Catalan separatists’ claim of victory in their illegal referendum has reverberated around the globe and rekindled aspirations as far away as Brazil. Independence campaigns are often fueled by ethnic or linguistic splits, or economic grievances. Some succeed, especially if a group is prepared to go to war—South Sudan and East Timor, for instance. But mostly they fizzle or end with negotiated settlements.

There are still more than 50 active secessionist movements around the world, says Ryan Griffiths, author of “Age of Secession: The International and Domestic Determinants of State Birth.” Here are five others to watch.


A tattoo is seen on a pro-independence supporter in 2014.
Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Europe’s most prominent independence movement is in Scotland, where a referendum on whether it should break away from the United Kingdom was held in 2014. Voters decided to remain by 55 percent to 45 percent, but instead of settling the issue, nationalists on the losing side gathered strength and numbers.

After the U.K. as a whole voted the leave the European Union, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon used the fact that Scots opted to to stay in the bloc as reason to push for another independence ballot. The U.K. government has refused and polls suggest there is no more support for the nationalist cause now than in 2014.

Scotland has its own parliament with control of education, transportation and health policy, some tax-raising powers and a separate legal system.


Transnistrian soldiers.
Photographer: Sander de Wilde/Corbis via Getty Images

Transnistria is a land-locked, self-proclaimed state between Ukraine and the Dniester river that’s considered by the United Nations to be part of Moldova. It broke away from Moldova in 1992 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and a brief conflict that killed about 700 people.

Transnistria has its own military, police, currency, and government. Most of its almost half a million people have Moldovan citizenship, but many also have Russian and Ukrainian passports. After the annexation of Crimea, the head of Transnistria’s parliament asked for the territory to join the Russian Federation, but Russia so far hasn’t made any move to do so. With a presence of 1,200 Russian troops, Transnistria remains a frozen conflict zone along with Nagorno-Karabakh, which along with South Ossetia and Abkhazia are the only entities that recognize the territory as independent.


A Nagorno-Karabakh militiaman in front of a memorial for soldiers killed during the war of 1992.
Photographer: Celestino Arce/Sipa via AP Photo

Armenians took over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave and seven surrounding districts of Azerbaijan as a buffer zone in a 1991-1994 war that killed 25,000 and created a million refugees following the Soviet Union’s collapse. While a Russian-brokered cease-fire halted the fighting, international mediators have failed to forge a peace deal since then. Tensions are high after hundreds died in April last year in a four-day war that erupted along the contact line separating Armenian and Azeri forces, the worst fighting in 23 years. Nagorno-Karabakh’s majority Armenian population declared independence and a wish to unite with Armenia after the Soviet collapse.

Armenia, which provides financial and military support, says Nagorno-Karabakh has a right to self-determination, though it hasn’t recognized the region as an independent state. Azerbaijan insists its territorial integrity must be upheld, while it says it’s ready to offer the region greater autonomy.

Iraqi Kurdistan

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers show their ink-stained fingers following the Kurdish independence referendum in Arbil in September. 
Photographer: Safin Hamed/AFP via Getty Images

Kurds living in a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq took steps toward independence last month with a referendum on statehood that was declared unconstitutional by the central government in Baghdad.

After 93 percent of voters approved the push, Iraqi authorities halted key financial transactions with the region and barred international flights to its airports. Neighboring Iran and Turkey have spoken also out against statehood, which they see as a precedent that could encourage Kurdish separatists in their own countries.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says he doesn’t want an armed confrontation with the Kurds but vowed to uphold “federal authority.” Some observers contend the Kurds want to use the referendum result to force the national government to resolve long-standing arguments over territory and revenue from oil sales.


A Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighter in August.
Photographer: Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Communist and Muslim armed separatist movements have flared in the Philippines’ resource-rich southern island of Mindanao since the 1970s, conflicts that cost more than 120,000 lives. Muslims make up 20 percent of the island’s population and many have long complained of inferior treatment by the central government in Manila, which since the 1930s has encouraged Christian migration into regions populated by Muslims.

Many of today’s groups splintered from the region’s dominant movement, the Moro National Liberation Front. Some have embraced a radical Islamist agenda and in May stormed Marawi—the city with the biggest Muslim-majority in the predominantly Catholic Philippines—aiming to create a caliphate. Six Philippine presidents over the last 30 years have tried, and failed, to broker peace. Current President Rodrigo Duterte, best known for his war on drugs, imposed martial law on the island in May.

— With assistance from Michael Winfrey, Jason Koutsoukis, Samuel Dodge, and Hayley Warren