Wednesday, October 15, 2014

A stakeholder view on secession movements

One of the key assumptions of a stakeholder approach to the world – be it individual, social, economic or political – is that power should be both decentralized and inclusive. Implicit in this is that all stakeholders have a right to – also unilaterally - withdraw from participation in such a common enterprise. Often, such a withdrawal is however difficult, be it divorce from a marriage or a firm laying people off. At times, as for example with a small mom-and-pop store being subject to its country’s taxation policies, it is virtually impossible.

One area where a stakeholder withdrawal is in principle always possible, however, is the secession from of a specific region of a country from that nation. Land can, in principle, be subdivided into however many pieces one desires. Given that everybody tends to lose something in the short-term, however, most such breakups tend to be messy affairs, many bloody. The most remarkable wave of secessions of the past decades was the breakup of the Soviet Empire and its European satellite states. Despite some skirmishes in the Caucasus, this secession sequence is remarkable for its relative lack of violence. Other breakups were far less fortunate affairs – Yugoslavia comes to mind here.
An interesting question comes up when considering the legitimacy of such secessions. Opinions obviously frequently diverge considerably; also well beyond the involved parties. While the West largely supported the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, even though this area constitutes the historic heartland of Serbia before the Ottoman invasions, the splitting away of the Crimea from the Ukraine was largely frowned upon by Western nations, even though the area has a clear majority of ethnic Russians. Crimea’s history is a very complex interplay between various ethnic groups, prominently featuring both Russians and Tartars, of which Ukrainians however played only a relatively recent and a minor role. Of course, the active meddling of Russia gave the entire enterprise a rather dubious after-taste.

Kosovo’s primary argument for its independence stemmed to a good part on the persecutions that ethnic Albanians suffered during the Yugoslav wars. Their independence would thus meet the criteria of “Just Cause Theory”, which maintains that secessions are only justified for the rectification of grave injustices. The same could hardly be said about the ethnic Russians of Crimea, and thus the secession and subsequent annexation by Russia of the Crimea would have to be morally buttressed by another ethical theory, namely “Choice Theory”, which in essence maintains that majorities always rule. “Choice Theory” thus would also have been applicable in legitimizing the Scottish independence movement, as the case cannot be readily made that the Scotts suffered grave injustices by being part of the UK.
No matter from what ethical vantage point one views the above examples, all national secession projects highlight a fundamental challenge in stakeholder relationships: the equitable assessment of what rights stakeholders have to unilaterally terminate their relationships with the other party. The salient question thus becomes: under what circumstances is it “ok” to act in such a way so as to improve upon one’s own well-being, if by doing so one knowingly jeopardizes the well-being of another stakeholder? For at first glance the unilateral withdrawal of any stakeholder who assesses themselves to be detrimentally affected by its participation in the larger enterprise seems entirely legitimate. At a second glance, however, we recognize that most unilateralism has affects – beneficial or detrimental – on the other parties. Would the Scotts have voted in favor of secession from the UK, the consequences would have been significant – beneficial or detrimental – for both parties.

Manuel Dawson

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