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World: Analysis From Washington--Buying Off Nationalism

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 26 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - Central governments around the world are betting that they can buy off separatist challenges with cash. But their faith in the power of money to rein in nationalist movements is likely to be misplaced.

In countries as diverse as Spain, Russia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and China, central governments have dispatched ever more money to regions seeking greater autonomy or even independence.

Often, these governments have done so out of a belief that money alone will be enough to end such challenges. But sometimes they have acted out of a conviction that the additional funds will isolate separatist leaders by weaning away their potential followers.

Every government using this tactic has claimed success, pointing either to a diminution of support for secession and to the isolation of those separatist leaders prepared to use violence to achieve their ends.

But despite some successes, there are three reasons to believe that this tactic will often fail to achieve its goal of integrating ethnic or regional groups into the larger society and may even backfire on the governments that employ it.

First, leaders of autonomist or separatist movements may actually be able to generate additional popular support for themselves and their goals by pointing out that the central authorities had done little or nothing for the area involved until pressed by these movements.

The Spanish government has explicitly said it is dispatching money to the Basque region to isolate terrorists from within the ETA (the Basque separatist movement). This aid may have won Madrid and cost the ETA some friends. But it has come only after the ETA acted, a fact that many in the region will find persuasive in itself.

Second, the additional money given to particular regions will in many cases strengthen local officials who may then use their new power and authority to press for additional concessions, political as well as economic.

The British government's decision to devolve significant financial powers to Scotland lest a Scottish national movement challenge the integrity of the United Kingdom may have just the opposite effect.

By creating new institutions which control real funds, the new regional power centers may demand not only more resources but also greater political rights. Indeed, Scottish nationalists are likely to view the new arrangements as the first step toward the realization of their agenda.

And third, the success of one or another autonomist or separatist movement in extracting resources from a central government may lead members of other groups within the borders of that state to decide to follow the same route in order to gain the same benefits.

Fearing the demonstration effect that Chechen independence might have on other regions within the Russian Federation, Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent in the Russian army in a failed attempt to crush that independence movement.

But now, seeking to keep Chechnya within the borders of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin is calling for the dispatch of funds to that region, a flow of money that might have the effect of encouraging some other regions to seek benefits from Moscow by challenging the central government.

This is not to say that the distribution of funds by a central government can never play a positive role in integrating a state. Obviously, money carefully distributed can play that role.

Rather it is to question the assumptions underlying this policy: the notion that financial considerations outweigh all others for most people most of the time, and the notion that individuals and groups will abandon their professed goals if enough money is on the table.

There is some evidence to support both of these ideas, but there is far more to support the contrary finding, particularly after national movements take off.

Once that happens, individuals and groups have been and are routinely prepared to sacrifice their immediate economic interests in the name of what they see as larger purposes.