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Department of Political and Social Sciences

Friends or Foes? Explaining Cohesion in Secessionist Movements

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

11 July 2022 | Research

SPS_thesis of the month_Fliervoe

While secessionist movements are often understood and portrayed as unitary actors, the majority of these movements consists of multiple factions and organizations that are embroiled in competition or even violent conflict with one another. Compare, for example, the Chechens in Russia and the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in the South Caucasus that is officially part of Azerbaijan. While both groups operated under similar temporal, institutional, and geopolitical circumstances, the separatist movements representing them developed in radically different ways. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the disparate groups fighting for the region’s independence quickly coalesced into a united front that eventually developed into a formal army over the course of the war with Azerbaijan; whereas in Chechnya, the separatist movement did not manage to keep its factions together even before civil war broke out. Why is it that some secessionist movements achieve cohesion, thus posing a united challenge to the incumbent state, while others fragment into competing organizations? In her doctoral thesis, Feike Fliervoet seeks to find an answer to this important question. She demonstrates that cohesion, as opposed to fragmentation, has been underexposed in the literature on civil wars, and proposes both a novel conceptual and theoretical framework to understand cohesion in secessionist movements.

More specifically, Fliervoet’s exploratory thesis seeks to improve our understanding of cohesion by developing an original typology of cohesion, as well as a novel theoretical framework to explain its emergence. With regard to the former, her thesis argues that movement cohesion can take three different forms: (1) unity, in which the movement consists of only one organization that is not divided into factions; (2) synergy, in which different organizations cooperate and coordinate their actions; and (3) hegemony, in which the concentration of power in a single organization allows it to dominate all others.

To explain the achievement of these different types of cohesion, the theoretical framework presented in Fliervoet’s thesis is structured around four sets of interactions. She argues that, first of all, interactions between the movement and the state it confronts are expected to increase the likelihood of cohesion if they generate perceptions of existential threat. Secondly, interactions between the movement and its external sponsors are expected to foster cohesion if external support is either conditional on cooperation, or selectively provided to a single organization. Third, interactions between the movement and the civilian population it represents can also facilitate the achievement of cohesion, either if civilians make their support conditional on cooperation or if a secessionist organization develops inclusive and participatory governance structures through which it can monopolize popular support. And fourth, interactions within the movement itself, particularly the strategic use of internal violence, can also contribute to cohesion. This theoretical framework is applied to the cases of Western Sahara, Nagorno-Karabakh and Eritrea, demonstrating that there are different pathways to (different forms of) secessionist movement cohesion. Her findings also suggest that the achievement of cohesion always requires a factor that generates a narrative of national unity, which can be facilitated by (1) perceptions of existential threat, or (2) rebel governance structures focused on inclusion. One of her main contributions to the literature is the demonstration that fragmentation of armed groups is not entropic, but can be overcome by particular (combinations of) internal and external pressures.

Read Feike Elizabeth Maria Fliervoet's thesis in CADMUS

Feike Elizabeth Maria Fliervoet defended her doctoral thesis at the European University Institute on 11 April 2022. She is currently employed as a lecturer at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands. She holds an MSc degree in International Relations and Diplomacy from Leiden University, and a BSc degree in International Development Studies from Wageningen University. Her research interests include questions of sovereignty and self-determination, civil war, political violence, and rebel governance. Fliervoet’s work has been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, and is forthcoming in the Routledge Handbook on Self-Determination and Secession.

Last update: 11 July 2022

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