Scottish independence? Consider the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia for some lessons

A former British ambassador, with intimate knowledge of what happens when states break up, considers the implications of a disintegration of the United Kingdom

Sober thinking on Scotland?
Charles Crawford
On 19 February 2012 11:58

How might a process culminating in Scotland becoming fully independent compare with what happened when the Soviet Union broke up and former Yugoslavia (SFRY) collapsed? Let's look at four basic headings: Defence; Money; International Identity; and Process.

Declaration: Apart from those long postings overseas with the Foreign Office (FCO), I have spent all my life in southern England. But my DNA contains plenty of Yorkshire and Scottish plus some Irish. In other words, I am pretty damn British. So if I ever am allowed to vote on the subject, I will vote for the United Kingdom continuing


From mid-1991 to mid-1993 I was part of the FCO/Whitehall team grappling with the unprecedented problems caused by the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The overwhelming requirement was to identify who was in control of the former Soviet nuclear weapons arsenal and associated strategic facilities, then deployed variously in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Belarus. Western governments came to a pragmatic but far-reaching conclusion, namely that the internal borders between the 15 former Soviet republics would define the new international borders of 15 new countries. No-one wanted to open the Pandora's Box of border adjustments according to ethnic or other criteria: once that started where to stop? The Soviet nuclear arsenal stayed under Moscow's control.

This policy worked out pretty well across the sprawling Soviet space, helped by the fact (usually forgotten) that Russia itself was the first Soviet republic to proclaim itself independent in 1991 as part of Yeltsin’s struggle with Gorbachev. The basis for the disintegration was, in effect, agreed by all sides. The main exception was Chechnya, the only Soviet territory without full republic status to proclaim itself independent. Russia's subsequent determination to squash Chechnya's independence ambitions has been pursued with terrible loss of life. Other anomalies are still unresolved: Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

By contrast, in communist Yugoslavia the disintegration of the country was contested by Belgrade and the country’s Serbs from the start. Ethnic rivalries were, in any case, much more acute. The international community dithered over which basic principles should apply. Hence the chaos of the 1990s. The Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) took back to Serbia whatever assets it could carry from the rest of Yugoslavia, leaving the other republics to create for themselves new defence forces based upon whichever JNA troops decided to join them.

It looks safe to assume that if Scotland leaves the UK it will be on a basis agreed with London and endorsed by some sort of democratic process. Scotland would need to decide what defence forces it needed - and the price for allowing English/"UK" forces and installations to stay on its territory. Scottish regiments and some military assets based in Scotland could be taken over by the new Scottish government, but London would keep control of all strategic nuclear assets and associated international responsibilities. Intelligence-sharing rules would be needed.


This is complicated. When the Soviet Union broke up, Whitehall officials argued long and hard about how best to deal with the USSR's international debt. It was not fair to put the whole Soviet burden on Russia. On the other hand, the hassle involved in trying to share it out among the 15 republics would be horrible, plus Russia seemed more likely do pay back the debt. Eventually Russia did take on the whole debt, and in August 2006 finally paid it all off -- an impressive achievement. This simplification of the problem made it much easier for the other new countries to launch themselves on international financial markets and set up their own new currencies.

In Yugoslavia it was completely different. Belgrade not unreasonably demanded that if the other republics wanted independence they should take their fair share of the Yugoslav debt burden. Eventually a complicated apportionment was worked out.

As recent public exchanges have shown, Scotland will have to think long and hard about this aspect of its independence bid. London will insist on Scotland shouldering a fair share of the UK's heavy debt burden. Will Scotland launch its own currency (not easy with so much debt), or try to cut a deal to continue using the Pound? Or (horror!) bid to join the Eurozone? Painful questions for the SNP tendency: well done David Cameron for putting them so bluntly.

International Identity

When the breakup of the Soviet Union took place, one issue was not in doubt: Russia as by far the biggest former Soviet republic would continue the USSR's place on the UN Security Council, with full veto rights. Under a quirky arrangement going back to the earliest days of the United Nations, Belarus and Ukraine already enjoyed full membership rights. All the other former Soviet republics had to apply for membership in their own right, opening the way for them to join all the other international organisations.

We argued about OSCE membership within the FCO. There was a real risk of "diluting" OSCE democratic principles by accepting the Asian republics of the former Soviet Union as members. But (said I) under the USSR all Soviet citizens had had some sort of formal protection from the OSCE: was it not wrong to strip that away from citizens of new countries who might really need it? Eventually a consensus emerged that all former Soviet republics could join the OSCE, with the messy results we see today.

Yugoslavia again was different. Belgrade insisted that it "continued" the SFRY's membership of the UN even as all the other republics fell away and made their own membership applications. Kosovo of course can't join the UN or most other international organisations: Serbia backed by Russia, China, India and the majority of countries in the world does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state.

In both situations, much legal improvisation had to take place to roll over to the new countries on an ad hoc basis many legal obligations of the former single state (not least air services agreements, to keep airlines flying across those countries' airspace). Somehow it all got sorted out.

In Scotland's case the most difficult practical issue would be European Union membership: what would Scotland be expected to pay to – and get from - the common EU budget? Could Scotland join without committing to joining the Eurozone?. In practice, it would be hard to imagine Scotland not joining the EU and NATO and all the other European and wider international organisations. The FCO has plenty of Scottish-originating diplomats who would decide whether to stay in London and remain loyal to what remained of the United Kingdom or head north to set up the new Scottish diplomatic service. In 1991 many Ukrainians based in Moscow decided to become Russian citizens. At the ensuing haggling between Russia and Ukraine over the Black Sea Fleet, the Russian Foreign Ministry team at one point had more Ukrainians than the Ukraine side.


For Scotland neither the Soviet nor Yugoslav precedents look relevant. The post-Cold War divorce of the Czechs and Slovaks is a better example, but that was bundled through by the two communities’ respective elites and the international complexity was then much less. The Quebec case offers Scotland little comfort, as the Canadian Supreme Court has laid down far-reaching principles which made Quebec independence much more problematic. Here in the UK anything to do with Scottish independence is likely to produce a firestorm of litigation over principles and procedures and the associated division of assets. But in the end a split could come.


Negotiated international divorces to create new states do happen. But they are hard work, and incredibly time-consuming and costly. Do we here in the UK really want to invest so much effort in focusing solely on what divides us – and ending up with smaller collective international impact in most relevant respects?

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and writer: He tweets @charlescrawford 

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