Once international law on borders was simple: borders were sacred and inside those borders a state had full authority. Separatists were completely dependent on the goodwill of the mother country. It was sometimes (Biafra, Kurdistan, Eritrea) rude, but everyone knew what to expect. And the net effect was a rather peacefull world.
However, it was not perfect and so the pressure for something better remained. We had allowed the colonies to become independent, so why shouldn't we allow minorities who had been colonized by neighbouring countries to become independent? This was the right of "self determination" too.
An important argument to be soft on seperatists is that Western countries have been quite successfull in pacifying separatists by giving them more autonomy. So seperatism is seen as something that stimulates countries to pay attention to minority rights.
Unfortunately this ignores that the Western situation is a very special situation:
The principle in the West is still the inviolability of borders
In the West the idea of the inviolability of borders is still quite strong. So all parties negotiate under the conviction that there is no alternative. This helps very much in finding a solution that is agreeable for all.
When secession becomes a real possibility everything changes. Look at the negotiations in Kosovo where virtually no progress has been possible even on simple things because the Albanians don't want to do anything that might endanger independence (and the Serbs anything that furthers it). Sensible proposals are so defeated because they might mean some implicit recognition. Recently in Bosnia Muslim extremists rejected a new constitution because it would mean recognising the Dayton agreement - that they reject.
Yugoslav politics between 1981 and 1989 was largely paralized because several republics aimed for independence and didn't want to do anything that might strengthen the federal state.
Secession is a zero-sum game: if one side wins the other looses. And because the stakes can be so high and the step is more or less irreversible both sides will defend their position fiercely.
Even in democratic Quebec one can hear irreconcilable language. The separatist claim that "50% plus 1" is enough while the government wants a higher threshold (without specifying it). One wonders what will happen when other issues have to be solved.
Separatists is seldom about ethnic things first
When 90% of the Ukrainians voted for independence in 1990 it was mainly a vote against communism and the unpopular Gorbachov.
Similarly the independence referendums in former Yugoslavia were mainly a vote against communism. In this case the economic motive was even stronger as the EU promissed membership and the US economic aid. Yet at the same time Yugoslavia as a country was still very popular among the population. If the EU and the US had pushed for national elections and reforms on that level Yugoslavia might very well have been saved.
Separatists are often from rich provinces, who believe that they will be better of without the motherland. In the West this has been (partially) neutralized by giving economic autonomy. The premature independence of its republics made that impossible in Yugoslavia.
As Clinton said: it's the economy, stupid!
Sometimes you see arguments that are neither economic nor ethnic. At the Bosnia independence referendum the Croats voted en masse for independence. At that time it felt in logical in view of the war that was going on between Serbs and Croats in Croatia. But now some of them probably regret it.
Poor countries are seldom perfect democracies
Democracy supposes a certain level of wealth. People should be able to buy newspapers, to understand other languages good enough to see what happens outside the country and to travel around to see what happens elsewhere. In poor region without such preconditions it is the local elite that determines what people believe and how they vote.
Kosovo's separatism was long fed by the belief that everything was be better in Albania. When finally many people came in Albania in 1999 it was a shock for them to discover that it was Europe's poorest country. But the myth just shifted: after 1999 one saw instead the belief that Kosovo's mineral wealth was enough to make it a rich country.
Another example is Montenegro. In 1992 the elite was in favor of a union and in an independence referendum 95% voted to stay inside Yugoslavia. In 2006 the elite had changed its mind and 55.5% was in favor of independence.
Secessionists are often extremists
Separatists tend to be political extremists. Many had suffered for a long time in the political margin for their extreme ideas before the political winds blew their way.
Separatism is also often connected with non-democratic organisations. Croatia became a semi-fascist state under Tudjman, where dissent was suppressed and militias intimidated the governments afversaries. The ETA in democratic Spain is a very similar organisation. In Kosovo too the margins for free thinking are quite narrow.
Secession very often induces discminination
Just being greedy doesn't sound good as a motive and so we see the need for a more ideological explanation. This is always something that explains that "we are different" and such it often comes quite close to rascism. Slovenia "erased" many of the migrants from the rest of Yugoslavia. Croatia maltreated its Serbs. Macedonia initialy ignored its Albanians. Bosnia even now treats its Croats and Serbs as second rate citizens. Many of the former Sovjet Unions Asian republics now have a steady outflow of Russians - partially motivated by rascism. And so one can go on.
There is also the problem of the cost of the separation. Allthough secession may be profitable in the long turn it can have a heavy price in the short turn (administrative reorganisation, economic stagnation, war) and voters don't like that. So the nationalist government will be tempted to let the minorities pay the bill.
Given this mechanism that I believe we should be very careful in giving some area independence because a government is repressive. Very probably the government of the new separatist state will be worse.
Etnnic cleansing has many stages
When Quebec had its first wave of nationalism many companies and people left Montreal for the English speaking parts of Canada. The lost the independence referendum. But when they had won they would very probably have introduced more maws that made life uneasy of English speakers. And as a consequence more people would have left. Would this be ethnic cleansing?
In former Yugoslavia too one saw around 1990 the introduction of laws that were meant to induce the minorities to emigrate, specially in Croatia and Kosovo. These laws were much harsher as in Quebec and they robbed the minorities of their job.
Legal discrimination is often accompanied by illegal discrimination and other forms of harassment. It legalises not only those specific actions but also changes the climate to something where discrimination is acceptable.
In former Yugoslavia one could see all the steps from simple harrassment up to mass murder. I believe that the international community should have intervened when it was still in the phase of discrimination. Now they only got awake when people were being killed. And even then they were to much consumed by the power game (in which they were involved) to see the humanitarian fundamentals.
The supremity of the state
In 1991 the Soviet Union send in its army into the Baltics who claimed independence. In Lithuania and Latvia there was some resistance but given the overwhelming force this was mainly token. I believe that this is exactly what saved the Baltics from worse. The primacy of the state was maintained and so the dispute was forced into the political realm.
Compare this to Slovenia that attacked the Yugoslav troops, who had as orders to restore order without violence. In Slovenia the consequences were rather restricted. But in Croatia the concept that everybody with a gun can declare himself independent and shoot at those who don't accept that proved disastrous.
The same now applies to Kosovo. In my eyes the obvious solution would be to press Serbia to give Kosovo independence - under Serbia's conditions. This very probably would include border changes. The present idea of negotiations between equals is in my opinion a mistake. Serbia holds the key (souvereignity and the power to give or withhold independence) and that should be recognized.
The Yugoslav constitution contained the right to secede. However, I believe that the souvereignity of a state is absolute. When a memberstate seceded it would still be an internal affair and it would be up to the Yugoslav government to decide whether the conditions for independence had been met. And in this they might include the consideration that the constitution was meant as communist rethoric, not as actual rights.
The consideration of the Badinter Commission that Yugoslavia was a state in dissolution I also consider false. Sure, some states wanted to secede and the Presidium was paralised. But the fact that it was a dictatorship with a temporary power vacuum doesn't mean that it was in dissolution. Many elements of the federal state still worked - including the army. It is conspicuous that no Western leader has dared to declare Somalia a "state in dissolution" and recognize Puntland. The arguments there would be much stronger.
The course of action I propose might have left Milosevic with more power. But that is a different problem. I may come back on that in another blog post.