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Multinational state

A multinational state is a sovereign state which is viewed as comprising two or more nations. Such a state contrasts with a nation-state where a single nation comprises the bulk of the population. Depending on the definition of "nation" (which touches on ethnicity, language, and political identity), a multinational state might also be multicultural or multilingual.

The United Kingdom, the United States, Nigeria, Brazil, Russia, India, South Africa and Canada are viewed as present-day examples of multinational states, while Austria-Hungary, USSR and Yugoslavia are examples of historical multinational states which have since split into a number of sovereign states. Some analysts have described the EU as multinational state or as a potential one.[1]</blockquote>[2]

Many attempts have been made to define what a multinational state is. One complicating factor is that it is possible for many of the people of what can be considered a "nation" to consider they have two different nationalities simultaneously. As Ilan Peleg has noted,
One can be a Scot and a Brit in the United Kingdom, a Jew and an American in the United States, an Igbo and a Nigerian in Nigeria... One might find it hard to be a Slovak and a Hungarian, an Arab and an Israeli, a Breton and a Frenchman.[3]

A state may also be a society, and a multiethnic society has people belonging to more than one ethnic group, in contrast to societies which are ethnically homogeneous. By some definitions of "society" and "homogeneous", virtually all contemporary national societies are multiethnic. One scholar argued in 1993 that fewer than 20 of the then 180 sovereign states could be said to be ethnically and nationally homogeneous, where a homogeneous state was defined as one in which minorities made up less than five per cent of the population.[4] Sujit Choudhry therefore argues that, "[t]he age of the ethnoculturally homogeneous state, if ever there was one, is over".[5]

States recognizing different nations or ethnies

The CIA World Factbook provides a list[6] of the ethnic makeup of every country in the world.



The debate on whether or not Canada should be described as "multinational" is an ongoing topic in academia[7] and popular discourse. The current official policy of the federal government is that Canada is bilingual and multicultural. In 2006, the House of Commons of Canada voted in favour of Government Business No. 11, which states "That this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada."[8]


Main article: Plurinationalism

Since 2010, under the Presidency of Evo Morales, Bolivia has been officially defined as a "plurinational" state, which recognizes the national distinctiveness of the various indigenous peoples.


Country Groups recognized Largest groups Date of recognition
23x15px Vietnam 53 ethnic minorities (see list) Viet or Kinh 86.2% (1999) Founding
23x15px Laos 47 ethnicities, 149 groups (see list) Lao 68% (1995) Founding
23x15px Thailand 38 ethnicities (see list) Thai 74%, Thai Chinese 14% Founding
23x15px Cambodia 38 ethnicities (see list) Khmer 86.3 %
Vietnamese and Chinese, 5% each
23x15px People's Republic of China 56 ethnic groups (see list) Han 91% (2010) Founding (1948)


Further information: Ethnic groups of India

India has more than two thousand[citation needed] ethnic groups, and every major religion is represented, as are four major families of languages (Indo-European, Dravidian, Austroasiatic and Sino-Tibetan languages) as well as two language isolates (Nihali and Burushaski).

Each state and union territory of India has one or more official languages, and the constitution recognises in particular 21 "scheduled languages". The Constitution of India recognises 212 scheduled tribal groups which together constitute about 7.5% of the country's population.[citation needed]

India has a Muslim majority state (Jammu and Kashmir) and a Muslim majority union territory (Lakshadweep), three Christian majority states (Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland) and a Sikh majority state (Punjab). Most states are based on ethnicity including Tamil Nadu (Tamil), Andhra Pradesh (Telugu), Odisha (Oriya), West Bengal (Bengali), Maharastra (Marathi), Punjab (Punjabi), Haryana (Haryanvi), Kerala (Malyali), Bihar (Bihari) etc.

Furthermore, several Indian states are themselves much diverse ethnically, religiously and linguistically. Karnataka state is home to the Tulu and Kannada people, Jammu and Kashmir state has Hindu-majority Jammu, Muslim-majority Kashmir and the largely Buddhist Ladakh, while Assam state has the Assamese, Bodo and Karbi people etc.

Sri Lanka

Further information: Demographics of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is inhabited by Sinhalese, Sri Lankan Tamils, Moors, Indian Tamils, Veddas, Burghers and other small ethnic groups.


Further information: Ethnic groups in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has no ethnic majority, although the Pashtuns account for over 45% of the total population.[9] During the sovereign governance by Pashtun rulers, the term "Afghan" was changed from an ethnonym for Pashtuns to a demonym for any citizen of Afghanistan regardless of ethnic affiliation and was added into the constitution, making it resemble that of a multinational state. Despite being a multinational state, irredentist disputes between Pakistan's Pashtun lands still continue. The government gives equal status to Pashto and Dari as official languages.


Further information: Ethnic groups of Pakistan

Pakistan as a state arose out of the Pakistan Movement that demanded a separate state for Indian Muslims. This was based on the Two Nation Theory, which was put forward by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the idea that Hindus and Muslims in British India represented not only different religious communities but also distinct nations and hence in the event of Indian independence should be divided into two different nation-states. The Two Nation Theory was outlined by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (known in Pakistan as Quaid-e-Azm meaning "the great leader") as follows:

It is extremely difficult to appreciate why our Hindu friends fail to understand the real nature of Islam and Hinduism. They are not religious in the strict sense of the word, but are, in fact, different and distinct social orders, and it is a dream that the Hindus and Muslims can ever evolve a common nationality, and this misconception of one Indian nation has troubles and will lead India to destruction if we fail to revise our notions in time. The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, literatures. They neither intermarry nor interdine together and, indeed, they belong to two different civilizations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions. Their aspect on life and of life are different. It is quite clear that Hindus and Mussalmans derive their inspiration from different sources of history. They have different epics, different heroes, and different episodes. Very often the hero of one is a foe of the other and, likewise, their victories and defeats overlap. To yoke together two such nations under a single state, one as a numerical minority and the other as a majority, must lead to growing discontent and final destruction of any fabric that may be so built for the government of such a state."[10][11]

This idea was ultimately successful in reaching its goal for a separate Indian-Muslim state and culminated in the creation of Pakistan in 1947 in what is known as the Partition of India. Urdu was then promoted as the national language of all South Asian Muslims. However, Pakistan is a very diverse and multiethnic state, as the largest language group the Punjabis do not make up an absolute majority at only 45% of the population and speakers of the national language as the mother tongue only making up 8%. In this diverse context many nationalist movements that discard the Two Nation Theory have emerged. These movements are based upon the idea that Pakistan is not only a linguistically diverse state but also a multinational one, and therefore each ethnolinguistic group of Pakistan would be a distinct nationality.[12] Common grievances of these movements include the idea that Punjabis dominate Pakistan politically and economically leading to other groups feeling marginalised, and that the use of Urdu as the sole national language is a form of cultural colonisation that ignores the rich heritage of Pakistan's diverse peoples.

The most successful of these movements is that of Bengali nationalism, whose proponents asserted that the fact that Urdu was the only language of Pakistan would give an unfair advantage to Mohajirs (who speak Urdu as their mother tongue) and Punjabis (whose mother tongue Punjabi is quite similar to Urdu, and they were indeed already educated in Urdu under British rule). Bengalis thus feared they would be marginalised under this language policy despite their demographic strength as the largest ethnic group of Pakistan. All these grievances culminated in the secession of East Bengal (which before secession was integrated in the administrative unit of East Pakistan) from Pakistan and the creation of the Bengali-speaking nation-state of Bangladesh.

Other nationalist movements include those of the Sindhis, Pashtuns, Baloch, Mohajirs and Kashmiris. The members of these movements assert that Pakistan is a multinational state as Islam cannot be considered the sole basis for nationhood. Their demands range from increased autonomy or the transformation of Pakistan into a federation, the recognition of language rights for non-Urdu-speaking populations, or outright secession from Pakistan.

Despite the fact that Punjabis are widely seen as the dominant ethnic group in Pakistan in economic and political spheres, there is also a small Punjabi language movement that asserts that the Punjabi language has been unfairly subordinated to Urdu and supports the reestablishment of cultural and economic links with Eastern Punjab in India.[13]


Malaysia when formed in 16 September 1963, comprised four independent self-governing nations of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. In 1965, Singapore seceded from the federation. Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak have their own ethnic majority. However, generally, Malaysia is considered to have 3 major ethnic group namely the Malays, Chinese and Indian. In the Borneo States, Iban is the major ethnic living in Sarawak, while Kadazandusun, Murut and Bajau are in Sabah. Malaysia considered the Malay language to be the official language of the federation, while English is the second language. In Sabah and Sarawak, English is considered the official language, although many locals are speaking Malay in their own local dialect.

People's Republic of China

Although the population of the People's Republic of China is dominated by the Han Chinese numerically, the Chinese authorities make a point of officially recognizing 56 separate ethnic groups. 55 of the 56 groups account for less than 10% of the population.


Further information: Ethnic groups in Europe

Bosnia and Herzegovina, being composed of three large groups, is the only European state with no ethnic majority (the largest ethnic group, the Bosniaks, accounting for 48% of population; on the question of the "Spanish people" as the majority population in Spain see below). But many other European states have ethnic minorities which form a majority within a province or region, see multilingual countries and regions of Europe.

Russian Federation

The Russian Federation has over a hundred and sixty different ethnic groups and indigenous peoples. The largest population is the ethnic Russians, who are Slavs with Orthodox traditions, while the Tatars and Bashkirs have a Muslim culture. Russia also has Buddhist populations, such as the nomadic Buryats and Kalmyks, and the Shamanistic peoples of Siberia and the Extreme North, as well as the Finno-Ugric peoples of the Russian North West and the Volga Region and the peoples of the Northern Caucasus, all contributing to the extreme cultural and national diversity of the country.[14] th

Out of a total of more than a hundred languages which are spoken in Russia, the country has twenty-seven official languages (the most widely spoken being Russian). More than 3% of the whole population of the Federation speak Tatar.[15]

In parts of the Federation state conflicts of nationality and other factors have led to secessionism, most notably in Chechnya, where the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria and the Caucasus Emirate have sought independence from Russia.[16]


The territory of Belgium is almost equally divided between the two nations of Flanders and of Wallonia. This has led to much political unrest throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in the aftermath of the difficult 2007–2008 Belgian government formation, a Partition of Belgium came to be envisaged as a potential solution in Belgian media.


The French Republic do not recognize any national identity or language other than French in its territory, in order to build a nation-state. However, Brittany, Flanders, Moselle, Alsace, Savoy, Occitania, Corsica, Northern Catalonia and Basque Country are not culturally French and were francized in the late 19th century. According to WikiLeaks, former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard revealed to Ambassador of the United States Craig Roberts Stapleton in 2005: "France created itself by destroying five cultures - Breton, Occitan, Alsatian, Corsican, and Flemish."


Official policy states that Norway is founded on the territory of two peoples, Norwegians and Samis.[17] In addition, Forest Finns, Kvens, Jews, Romani and travellers are recognized as national minorities.[18]


Definition of ethnicity or nationality in Spain is fraught politically. The term "Spanish people" (pueblo español) is defined in the 1978 constitution as the political sovereign, i.e. the citizens of the Kingdom of Spain. The same constitution in its preamble speaks of "peoples and nationalities of Spain" (pueblos y nacionalidades de España) and their respective cultures, traditions, languages and institutions.

After the transition from Francoist Spain to the Kingdom of Spain in the 1970s, regionalism proliferated to become a major part of national politics.

The CIA Factbook (2011) gives a racial description of "composite of Mediterranean and Nordic types" under "ethnic groups" instead of the usual breakdown of ethnic composition. This reflects the formation of the modern Kingdom of Spain by the accretion of several independent Iberian realms, i.e. Asturias, León, Galicia, Castile, Navarre, Aragon, Catalonia, Majorca, Valencia, Granada. The individual nationalities or peoples of these lands are the Asturians, Leonese, Galicians, Basques, Cantabrians, Castilians, Aragonese, Catalans, Valencians and Andalusians, individuals from which groups may or may not consider them "nations" apart depending on political outlook.

United Kingdom

While the Office for National Statistics and others describe the United Kingdom as a 'nation state',[19][20] others, including a then Prime Minister, describe it as a 'multinational state',[21][22][23] and the term Home Nations is used to describe the four national teams that represent the four nations of the United Kingdom (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales).[24]

The Kingdom of Great Britain was created by the political union of the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland on 1 May 1707.[25] This event was the result of the Treaty of Union that was agreed on 22 July 1706, and then ratified by both the Parliament of England and Parliament of Scotland each passing an Act of Union in 1707.[26] The kingdoms of England and Scotland, together with the kingdom of Ireland, had already been in a personal union as a result of the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when James VI, King of Scots inherited the Kingdoms of England and Ireland and moved his court from Edinburgh to London. However, until 1707, all three remained separate political entities and retained their separate political institutions.[27][28] At the outset of this state, many of its inhabitants retained the sensation of having English, Scottish or Welsh identity. It is also notable that languages other than English were spoken, principally Scottish Gaelic, Scots, Welsh, Cornish, and Norn.

Almost a century later the Kingdom of Ireland merged with the Kingdom of Great Britain to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland with the passing of the Act of Union 1800.[29] In this way, the United Kingdom became the union of the kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland.[27][28] Disputes within Ireland over the terms of Irish Home Rule led eventually to the partition of the island in 1921,[30] with Dominion status for the Irish Free State in 1922 while Northern Ireland remained part of the UK.[31] As a result, in 1927, the formal title of the UK was changed to its current form, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.[32]

The end of the 20th century saw major changes to the governance of the UK with the establishment of devolved national administrations for Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales following pre-legislative referendums.[33]

The Scottish National Party, a major political force and current party of government in Scotland, is committed to the goal of an independent Scotland within the European Union, but this is opposed by the leadership of the next three largest parties in the Scottish Parliament. A referendum on Scottish independence was held in September 2014, with the electorate voting against. Plaid Cymru has a similar ambition for Wales.[34]


Most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are former colonies and as such not drawn along national lines, making them truly multinational states. Thus, the largest nation in Nigeria is formed by the Hausa-Fulani, with 29% of the population; similarly, the largest nation in Kenya are the Kikuyu with 22% of the population.

South Africa

The present Republic of South Africa is the successor state of the Union of South Africa, which was formed from four British colonies in 1910. The Republic has eleven official languages (Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu, English and Afrikaans) and affords official recognition to several other languages spoken by minority nations. Many speakers of a language may in fact be from a different nationality, for example, some members of both the Ndebele and the Twsana nations do speak Zulu; And groups such as the Thembu and Hlubi speak Xhosa as their home language. Further examples include the Afrikaners and Coloured communities — both speak Afrikaans, large sections of the Indian community speak English as their home language, as do members of the British ethnic group.

Just as in all parts of Africa (except for settler ethnic groups such as Dutch, English, Arab, Indian and Chinese ethnicities), the nations in South Africa correspond to specific regions in South Africa. Like other large cities in Africa, cities such as Johannesburg see a mixing of various national groups found in the republic, leading to a "melting pot" of culture. The South African government continuously attempts to unify the various nationalities in South Africa and to create the feeling of a South African identity. Struggles by South African leaders such as Bantu Biko help to re-create the African identity upon which South African identity is being built.

Many of the nationalities found in South Africa are also found in countries bordering South Africa. There are more Sotho, Tswana and Swazi people living in South Africa than in the bordering nation states of Lesotho, Botswana and Swaziland respectively. In the past this has led to conflict. Lesotho still claims large swathes of South Africa and in the past attempts were made to cede portions of South African territory to Botswana and Swaziland. It was originally intended that these three states be incorporated in the Union of South Africa, plans that never came to fruition due to power struggles within the apartheid governments in Southern Africa.

Former multinational states

Main article: List of empires
Further information: List of largest empires


1. Bohemia, 2. Bukovina, 3. Carinthia, 4. Carniola, 5. Dalmatia, 6. Galicia, 7. Küstenland, 8. Lower Austria, 9. Moravia, 10. Salzburg, 11. Silesia, 12. Styria, 13. Tirol, 14. Upper Austria, 15. Vorarlberg; 16. Hungary 17. Croatia-Slavonia; 18. Bosnia

Austria-Hungary, which succeeded the Austrian Empire, is a historical instance of a multinational state. The centrifugal forces within it, together with the loss of the First World War, led to its breaking up in 1918, when its successor states included the First Austrian Republic, the Kingdom of Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs which became part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Parts of Austria-Hungary were also incorporated into Poland, Ukraine, the Kingdom of Romania and the Kingdom of Italy.

The Empire's principal languages were German, Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Croatian, but there were many more besides, including Ukrainian, Romanian, Slovak, Serbian, Slovene, Rusyn, Italian, and Yiddish.[35]

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Empire was the dynastic state of the Turkish House of Osman. At its peak in the 16th and 17th century, the empire controlled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. In addition to Turks, ethnic groups included Albanians, Armenians, Arabs, Assyrians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, Circassians, Georgians, Greeks, Jews, Laz, Kurds, Zazas, Macedonians, Romanians, Serbs and Tatars. Millet was a separate legal court pertaining to "personal law" under which a confessional community (Muslim Sharia, Christian Canon law or Jewish Halakha law abiding) was allowed to rule itself under its own system. After the Ottoman Tanzimat (1839–76) reforms, the term was used for legally protected religious minority groups, similar to the way other countries use the word nation. The word Millet comes from the Arabic word millah (ملة) and literally means "nation". The Millet system of Islamic law has been called an early example of pre-modern religious pluralism.[36]

Soviet Union

The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was a union of Soviet republics (of which there were 15 after 1956) with the capital in Moscow. It was founded in December 1922 when the Russian SFSR, which formed during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and emerged victorious in the ensuing Russian Civil War, unified with the Transcaucasian, Ukrainian and Belorussian SSRs. Addressing the Extraordinary Eighth Congress of Soviets of the Soviet Union on 25 November 1936, Stalin stated that "within the Soviet Union there are about sixty nations, national groups and nationalities. The Soviet state is a multi-national state."[37]

In the late 1980s, some constituent republics of the Soviet Union started legal moves towards or even declarations of sovereignty over their territories, citing Article 72 of the USSR Constitution, which stated that any constituent republic was free to secede.[38] On 7 April 1990, a law was passed allowing a republic to secede if more than two-thirds of that republic's residents vote for secession on a referendum.[39] Many held free elections, producing legislatures that soon passed legislation contradicting the Union laws in what was known as the "War of Laws".

In 1989, the Russian SFSR, which was then the largest constituent republic (with about half of the population) convened a newly elected Congress of People's Deputies. Boris Yeltsin was elected the chairman of the Congress. On 12 June 1990, the Congress declared Russia's sovereignty over its territory and proceeded to pass laws that attempted to supersede some of the USSR's laws. The period of legal uncertainty continued throughout 1991 as constituent republics slowly became de facto independent.

A referendum for the preservation of the USSR was held on 17 March 1991, with the majority of the population voting for preservation of the Union in nine out of 15 republics. The referendum gave Gorbachev a minor boost, and, in the summer of 1991, the New Union Treaty was designed and agreed upon by eight republics which would have turned the Soviet Union into a much looser federation. The signing of the treaty, however, was interrupted by the August Coup—an attempted coup d'état against Gorbachev by hardline Communist Party members of the government and the KGB, who sought to reverse Gorbachev's reforms and reassert the central government's control over the republics. After the coup collapsed, Yeltsin—who had publicly opposed it—came out as a hero while Gorbachev's power was effectively ended. The balance of power tipped significantly towards the republics. In August 1991, Latvia and Estonia immediately declared restoration of full independence (following Lithuania's 1990 example), while the other twelve republics continued discussing new, increasingly looser, models of the Union.

On 8 December 1991, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus signed the Belavezha Accords which declared the Soviet Union dissolved and established the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in its place. While doubts remained over the authority of the Belavezha Accords to dissolve the Union, on 21 December 1991, the representatives of all Soviet republics except Georgia, including those republics that had signed the Belavezha Accords, signed the Alma-Ata Protocol, which confirmed the dismemberment and consequential extinction of the USSR and restated the establishment of the CIS. The summit of Alma-Ata also agreed on several other practical measures consequential to the extinction of the Union. On 25 December 1991, Gorbachev yielded to the inevitable and resigned as the president of the USSR, declaring the office extinct. He turned the powers that until then were vested in the presidency over to Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia.

The following day, the Supreme Soviet, the highest governmental body of the Soviet Union, recognized the bankruptcy and collapse of the Soviet Union and dissolved itself. This is generally recognized as the official, final dissolution of the Soviet Union as a functioning state. Many organizations such as the Soviet Army and police forces continued to remain in place in the early months of 1992 but were slowly phased out and either withdrawn from or were absorbed by the newly independent states.


The first country to be known by this name was the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, which before 3 October 1929 was known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. It was established on 1 December 1918 by the union of the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and the Kingdom of Serbia (to which the Kingdom of Montenegro was annexed on 13 November 1918, and the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris gave international recognition to the union on 13 July 1922).[40] The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was invaded by the Axis powers in 1941, and because of the events that followed, was officially abolished in 1943 and 1945.

The second country with this name was the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia, proclaimed in 1943 by the Yugoslav Partisans resistance movement during World War II. It was renamed to the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946, when a communist government was established. In 1963, it was renamed again to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). This was the largest Yugoslav state, as Istria and Rijeka were added to the new Yugoslavia after the end of World War II.

The constituent six Socialist Republics and two Socialist Autonomous Provinces that made up the country were: SR Bosnia and Herzegovina, SR Croatia, SR Macedonia, SR Montenegro, SR Slovenia and SR Serbia (including the autonomous provinces of SAP Vojvodina and SAP Kosovo which after 1974 were largely equal to the other members of the federation[41][42]).

Starting in 1991, the SFRY disintegrated in the Yugoslav Wars which followed the secession of most of the country's constituent entities. The next Yugoslavia, known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, existed until 2003, when it was renamed Serbia and Montenegro, but in 2006 this state finally separated into Serbia and Montenegro.

See also


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  2. ^ A Union of Diversity: Language, Identity and Polity-Building in Europe
  3. ^ Ilan Peleg, 'Classifying Multinational States' in Democratizing the Hegemonic State (Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 78-80
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  11. ^ Excerpt from the Presidential Address delivered by Quaid-e-Azam at Lahore, March 22–23, 1940,
  12. ^ Tariq Rahman (1996). Language and Politics in Pakistan. Oxford University Press. p. 2. 
  13. ^ Tariq Rahman. <span />'The Punjabi Movement' from Language and Politics in Pakistan<span />. 
  14. ^ Ethnic groups in Russia, at
  15. ^ Russia - Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette at, accessed 31 January 2011
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