A TALE OF TWO REFERENDA
THE PURSUIT OF INDEPENDENCE BY CATALANS AND KURDS REMAINS INEXTRICABLY CONNECTED NOT ONLY THROUGH TIMING, BUT BY THE HOPES OF THE SEPARATISTS AND THE THREATS LEVELLED AGAINST THEM BY THE COUNTRIES THEY WISH TO SECEDE FROM. FOREIGN EDITOR DAVID PRATT TAKES
HE was a man on a mission. But clearly he found himself in something of a quandary that day. Our encounter happened almost a fortnight ago on September 25, the date of the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Among the many invited international observers gathered at the Erbil Sheraton Hotel, the man from the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat) was evidently just as preoccupied with political moves back home as he was with those taking place around him in Kurdistan.
Events in Catalonia’s own struggle for independence were moving rapidly as the Spanish authorities began their crackdown on the Catalan secessionists – a crackdown which would end in scenes of violence as police launched attacks on Catalan voters last Sunday.
“The situation is very tense, paramilitaries are deployed and it will only get worse,” the Catalan delegate told me, as we stood chatting in the hotel lobby, surrounded by senior members of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
These Kurdish officials were likewise bracing themselves for a similar backlash from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad over their own decision to go ahead with that day’s independence referendum.
In the space of the past two weeks both Catalans and Kurds have made historic and controversial moves towards self-determination that have been met with hostility by the countries they’re trying to split from. Elsewhere, the world looks on with a mixture of concern, indifference and solidarity.
This weekend, with pro-unity rallies expected in the Spanish capital Madrid, and speculation mounting that the Catalan parliament will declare independence unilaterally at its next sitting on Tuesday, tensions are again running high on the city of Barcelona.
In a high-stakes political game of cat and mouse between Catalan nationalists, their opponents and the Spanish courts, a crucial parliamentary address by Catalan premier Carles Puigdemont has been delayed to avoid a Spanish constitutional court ban on Catalan parliamentary activity on Monday.
The address would potentially have led to a unilateral declaration of independence, but Puigdemont has now requested he talk to the regional parliament on Tuesday, 24 hours later than expected.
Some observers have suggested there are signs that each side may be choosing to pause in the hope of reducing tensions.
CERTAINLY the delay put forward by Puigdemont will at least give him room for political manoeuvre as pressure builds from Madrid. Puigdemont appears to want international mediation to be given a chance before he presses the button.
He has already stated he is ready to “suspend everything” if Madrid shows willingness to negotiate over holding a referendum – legal this time round. But the central government is unlikely to do so, arguing that such a move is unconstitutional.
If Puigdemont does declare independence, a “transition period” will begin, but this is something of an ambiguous term that casts little light on the way forward.
These latest developments come after the Spanish government’s top representative in Catalonia, Enric Millo, earlier offered a first conciliatory gesture in apologising for Sunday’s referendum violence, where Spanish police used batons and rubber bullets to stop people voting.
The scenes brought worldwide condemnation and only fanned separatist feeling but failed to prevent what the Catalan government described as an overwhelming “Yes” vote.
“When I see these images, and more so when I know people have been hit, pushed and even one person who was hospitalised, I can’t help but regret it and apologise on behalf of the officers that intervened,” Millo said in a television interview.
His understated remarks will do little to assuage many Catalan secessionists who bore the brunt of the violence meted out by the Spanish authorities last week.
According to Albert Royo-Marine, secretary general of the Public Diplomacy Council of Catalonia (Diplocat), the region currently remains under what he calls an “undeclared state of emergency”, with more than 10,000 Spanish national police and paramilitary agents in Catalonia.
Though brought there, according to the Spanish government, to maintain order during the referendum last Sunday, they remain in place and instead of withdrawing these forces, Spain is extending their stay until at least October 11.
“Violence can never be the answer, we have to solve this through dialogue,” wrote Royo-Marine in an opinion piece on Friday, insisting this has always been the desire of Catalonia’s politicians, but that “the Spanish government refuses to sit down and talk, and rules out any possibility of mediation.”
Royo-Marine’s calls for dialogue echo those of his counterparts in Iraqi Kurdistan who have been under enormous political and economic pressure from the central government in Baghdad and neighbouring countries since their own ballot on independence.
“I cannot say this often enough: we seek negotiation and dialogue. We are ready to repeat, over and over, that the independence we seek is for the Kurds of Iraq, we have no intention of getting involved in the affairs of neighbouring countries,” insisted the Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani last week.
Over the past two weeks, these two very different nations, Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, have taken unprecedented steps toward declaring themselves independent states. In doing so both have sent a strong message to nationalists and secessionists around the globe. They have highlighted too how established countries remain
something of an exclusive club, often resentful of those seeking new membership.
Catalans and Kurds alike have learned the hard way the price exacted by those who would deny them their aspiration towards self-determination.
But while the leaders of Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan are desirous of independence, and there are obvious parallels between their respective nation’s recent political experiences, their fledging states are in many ways very different.
An estimated 2.3 million people, 43 per cent of registered electors, voted in Catalo- nia’s October 1 referendum of whom nearly 90.18 per cent backed independence. That compares to a near 72 per cent turnout in Iraqi Kurdistan where 92 per cent of voters supported independence.
Catalonia is also one of the richest regions in Spain, accounting for 19 per cent of Spain’s GDP and more than one-quarter of the country’s foreign exports. It has a robust economy built on industry and tourism.
Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, makes up around 20 per cent of the population of Iraq, with oil the chief foundation of its economy, though some of its key oil fields may well become a serious bone of contention in the months ahead as the Baghdad central government aims to penalise the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a result of the independence vote.
Indeed, one of the first measures Baghdad and neighbouring countries Iran and Turkey took was to impose sanctions on the KRG including an embargo on international flights to and from Kurdistan, effectively isolating it from the outside world.
Economic pressure has also been Madrid’s weapon of choice in recent days in its own warning to Catalan secessionists. In Spain the stakes could not be higher for the eurozone’s fourth-largest economy.
Catalonia is the source of a huge chunk of its tax revenue and hosts multinationals from carmaker Volkswagen to drugs firm AstraZeneca
ON Friday, the Spanish government stepped up the economic pressure on the Catalan government by passing a law to make it easier for companies to move their operations around the country, potentially dealing a blow to the region’s finances.
Within hours of the government’s move, CaixaBank, Spain’s third-biggest lender and Catalonia’s biggest company, said its board had decided to move its registered office to Valencia “in light of the current political and social situation in Catalonia”.
Likewise, Catalonia-based utility Gas Natural said its board had decided to move its registered office to Madrid for as long as the legal uncertainty in Catalonia continued. It appears some major businesses have seen the political writing on the wall and are already heading for the exit.
Given that Spain thus far has not consented to the Catalans’ independence, nor Iraq to the Kurds’, where now does this leave the two nations? Given this denial of consent, is it inevitable that both situations will become far more volatile?
Besides turning the economic screw, Madrid has other leverage tools at its disposal. These include a “national security” law proclaimed in 2015 that allows the government to decree that the country is in a “situation that threatens national security”.
Invoking this would effectively allow Madrid to rule by decree and, for instance, to directly control regional police, who are normally managed by the Catalan government. At the most extreme, Madrid could also apply article 155 of the Constitution, which allows the central government to implement the “necessary measures” to force a dissenting region into complying. This has all the onerous implications it suggests.
“What’s not yet clear is how committed the national government is to coercing its preferred outcome,” points out James Badcock, editor of the English edition of El Pais, writing in Foreign Policy magazine. “The full force of law at Madrid’s disposal is vast.”
Many observers over recent days have warned of ominous signs that Spain may even be slipping back to the dark days of its past during the civil war of the 1930s and the subsequent dictatorship of General Franco. Some say that should Madrid chose to become even more heavy-handed if would a terrible mistake on every level.
“If the final solution for the Spanish state is a tank, we will have already won,” was how Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull summed up such a move. Others agree. According to Omar G Encarnacion, author of Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting, prime minister Mariano Rajoy will ultimately bear the judgment of history if he proves unable to find a way to keep Spain united.
“That judgment will be especially harsh if he continues to resort to the violent methods reminiscent of his conservative party’s authoritarian predecessors,” Encarnacion wrote last week.
Others, however, believe the attacks on Rajoy are disproportionate. “Madrid’s conservative government is a popular and easy target for virtue-signalling commentators who lack the nerve to take on the real contemporary Francos in Russia or Venezuela,” concluded the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank in a recent analysis aimed at debunking the “myths about Catalonia’s independence movement”.
“Spain is no USSR-like Goliath, nor is the Catalan government of Carles Puigdemont a pious, defenceless David,” the article’s writers said, adding that while “Spanish governance is subject to tensions … the assertion that there is any veiled Francoism at work is absurd”.
Nevertheless, serious concerns remain over what the immediate political future holds for Catalonia and indeed Kurdistan.
Ironically, many Kurds picked up on the levels of violence in Catalonia surrounding the referendum compared to Kurdistan.
“What happened in Barcelona during the referendum was very surprising and shocking,” said Mohammed Hussein speaking to the online magazine Middle East Eye. The 37-year-old Kurdish journalist recently moved to the city where he is studying for a masters degree in economics.
“I would have never imagined that such a level of police violence could be used in a European country like Spain simply because of political ideas,” he added.
But he cautioned: “The probability of having violence in Catalonia is less compared to Kurdistan, where there is always the possibility of a civil war.”
Unlike the Kurds, Catalans have not been victims of genocide or recently taken up arms against their government, and now the possibility of civil war between the KRG and Baghdad remains a real one.
As in Madrid’s response to the Catalans, Baghdad continues to regard the Kurdish vote as illegal and in breach of the Iraqi constitution. Already the Iraqi parliament has called for the government to send troops to disputed Kurdish-controlled regions.
Over the past fortnight the speed of events in Catalonia has been just as frenetic as those thousands of miles away in Iraqi Kurdistan.
In a strange way the pursuit of self-determination by Catalans and Kurds remain inextricably connected not only by timing, but by the hopes of the secessionists themselves.
According to a recent story recounted in Middle East Eye, Brino Tamo, a 60-year-old businessman from Kobane in Syria’s Kurdish region, who has been living in Catalonia for three decades, closed down his five clothes shops in Barcelona in a show of solidarity and support for the general strike last week.
“After voting I spent the whole day protecting the polls and helping the referendum organisers,” said Brino, who voted for Catalan independence.
If the signs this weekend are anything to go by, he will doubtless find himself back on Barcelona’s streets again in the coming days.
Spanish police confront people at a polling station in Barcelona on the day of the referendum on independence for Catalonia
Supporters wave flags ahead of the Kurdish independence referendum