The Herald on Sunday - - THE WORLD -

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.

Pho­to­graph: Getty Im­ages

Span­ish po­lice con­front peo­ple at a polling sta­tion in Barcelona on the day of the ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence for Cat­alo­nia

Pho­to­graph: Getty Im­ages

Sup­port­ers wave flags ahead of the Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.