You Can’t Always Get What You Want:


You Can’t Always Get What You Want:

Lessons from the Referendums in Catalonia and Kurdistan

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need

Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”


Text: Mikayel Zolyan

Catalonia and Kurdistan: so different, yet so similar

Тwo referendums on the issue of independence took place this autumn, within a week from each other: in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25 and in Catalonia on October 1. Obviously, there are as many differences between the two cases as there are differences between the current political situation in the Middle East and in Western Europe. And yet, it is hard to ignore some striking similarities between the two cases. Thus, in both cases the referendums revolved around the issue of transforming an autonomy into fully-fledged independence, an issue which has been on the table for years, and yet the governments and politicians had been wary of taking decisive steps. Both regions are on the average better-off than the rest of the country (though in very different ways) and in both regions support for independence movements is based on а long history of discrimination and pro-independence movements.

Obviously, there are immense differences between cases of Kurdistan and Catalonia, as well as between Iraq and Spain. Spain is (or at least was until recently) not just a paradise for holiday goers and expats but also one of the most politically stable countries in Europe, a textbook example of a successful transition from dictatorship to democracy. The last time Catalans suffered from large scale violence was during the Civil War in Spain in the 1930s, when they were punished for siding with the republicans precisely because the republican side had promised autonomy to Catalonia. Under Franco Catalans faced linguistic and cultural oppression, but it largely became a thing of the past after the democratic transition.

On the contrary, the Kurds in Iraq not only faced bans on the language and culture but became subjected to a genocidal campaign by Saddam Hussein’s government as recently as the 1980s and 1990s. The establishment of a no-flight zone by the Western countries saved the Kurds from annihilation and gave them de facto autonomy, but they were still left surrounded by enemies amid an unstable region. The American invasion of Iraq, as we know, did not result in an establishment of a stable democratic Iraq. On the contrary, Iraq, torn between different factions, became a dysfunctional state plagued by chaos and civil war. So, obviously the challenges and dangers facing people in Erbil and Barcelona are very different from each other. And yet, analyzing the similarities between the two cases may lead to interesting conclusions.

What went wrong?

One striking similarity is how both referendums were given a cold shoulder by the international community. The only country that openly supported the Kurdish referendum was Israel, a mixed blessing for Kurdistan, sandwiched between Syrian and Iraqi Arabs, Iran and Turkey. All the neighbors of Iraqi Kurdistan had an extremely negative position on the referendum, and made it clear that they would not stop at any steps aimed at preventing Kurdistan from achieving full independence. The prospect of emergence of an independent Kurdish state has for years been a nightmare for the rulers of not just Iraq, but Turkey, Iran and Syria, with their own sizable Kurdish minorities. As if numerous statements had not been enough, Ankara and Tehran even went so far as to hold joint talks of the heads of general staff in the run-up to the referendum.

Similarly, the idea of Catalonian independence was met with condemnation in virtually all European capitals. The only country that was “suspected” of sympathy for Catalan secession was Russia, and in this case the “accusations” were not based on any official statements but rather on the recently common trend to see Russian “hackers” and “trolls” behind any significant development in the West. In fact, Russia with its ethnoreligious diversity, federal structure and history of separatism would be an unlikely supporter of Catalan independence.

There was also a common pattern in how Madrid and Baghdad reacted to the actions of Barcelona and Erbil: essentially in both cases the central government refused to compromise and responded by force. Of course, the level of violence was very different in each case: Baghdad initiated a full-scale military offensive and the violence in Catalonia did not go further than arrests of Catalan government members and some cases of police brutality on the day of referendum, which, as Madrid supporters claim, were in fact amplified by the media reports. However, even this level of use of force came as a shock to many Europeans, used to a non-confrontational style of politics, at least in so- called “Old Europe”.

Moreover, in both cases a potential arbiter, who could have interfered in the conflict, either remained silent or supported the central government’s position. In case of Kurdistan, the ally, whose support the Kurds expected, was the United States. US, however, not only formally spoke out against the referendum, something that could have been expected, but also, what was probably more shocking for the Kurds, refused to interfere, when another American ally, Baghdad’s central government, resorted to brute force to solve the issue. Washington stood aside, even though its supposed arch-enemy Iran was helping Baghdad to stage a sweeping offensive against the Kurdish autonomy’s forces.

In case of Catalonia and Madrid, it was Brussels that could have pushed Madrid in the direction of being more accommodating but chose not to do so. Hence, EU was seen by many observers as extensively supportive of Madrid’s position, especially when it failed to condemn the violence used by Madrid to prevent the referendum, while similar police actions are often condemned, when they happen in Eastern Europe or post-Soviet countries. Madrid government’s persecution of Catalan leaders for their political actions, rather than any criminal activity (though it was indeed based on existing Spanish laws), also caused little formal reaction from EU and Western European capitals.

Finally, there is one more similarity between the two referendums: ultimately, both referendums not only failed to bring the desired result but also, arguably, left the cause of independence further from achieving its goal. In case of Kurdistan, the final outcome of the processes, triggered by the referendum was the loss of de facto control over so- called “disputed” territories, which include the city of Kirkuk and oilfields around it, which were considered instrumental for the economic well-being of the future Kurdish state. As for Catalonia, not only the referendum was proclaimed illegal by the Spanish court, but it also  became a catalyst for mobilization for those in Catalonia who are opposed to independence. The Catalan government took some steps that raised eyebrows and left journalists confused, such as proclaiming independence, then immediately “freezing” it, and then eventually “unfreezing” it. All this provided pretext for the Madrid government to enact the laws that stipulate for temporary direct rule in Catalonia, declaring new elections as well as arresting the members of the Catalan government.

Why did it go wrong?

So, why did the referendums in both cases eventually fail to lead to independence? It is possible to attribute this result to two groups of factors, internal and external. The external factor is the more obvious one. Landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan is extremely vulnerable to the prospect of a blockade imposed by its neighbors, let alone the prospect of military intervention. In case of Catalonia things are obviously not as rough, but the prospect of being left out of the European Union after leaving Spain played a similar role. Catalonia, which would be left out of EU, would have a completely different economic outlook. In fact, even before the referendum an exodus of Spanish and international companies from Catalonia began, which gave a glimpse of the economic risks associated with independence. So, in both cases it became obvious that, were they to become independent, both Kurdistan and Catalonia would face economic collapse.

This attitude is a part of larger consensus which unites most world governments, authoritarian and democratic. “Separatists” are subject to virtually unanimous condemnation, probably second  only to “terrorists”. In the dominant discourse of today, shared by many ardent authoritarians and some proponents of the “liberal consensus”, once someone is declared a “terrorist”, almost all forms of violence against them become acceptable. Not to the same extent as “terrorists”, but the label of “separatist” in fact carries a similar negative connotation, which allows central governments to turn to violent means when dealing with “separatism” with little fear of inviting international condemnation. Of course, when “countering separatism” leads to mass extermination or ethnic cleansing, the position of the international community may change, but as long as the central government stays within certain limits, it can usually count on the backing of the international community. Of course, there are exceptions, and there are always double standards, but the general rule seems that existing nation-states support each other in preventing new nation-states from emerging.


Why Catalonia and Kurdistan are not Scotland or Quebec?

Obviously, there are differences in how governments deal with the issue of separatism, or to use a more neutral term “secessionism”. Czechoslovakia was divided into Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993 peacefully and without any major confrontation, just as war raged in former Yugoslavia. Some Western countries, such as Canada and UK, have allowed referendums on independence in Quebec and Scotland respectively, while actively campaigning for a “No” response, and in both cases this tactic has helped not just to avoid conflict but also to preserve the unity of their countries (at least for the time being). In both cases the referendums were only a part of the political process that included negotiations and compromise between the center and the secessionist regions.

From the point of view of various types of political culture, the Madrid government’s reaction was arguably closer to that of Baghdad vis-a-vis Erbil than, say, London’s reaction to the independence movement in Scotland. Some observers have put the blame for this inflexibility on the ruling Popular Party, and more specifically on Francoist heritage within it. There is a fear in Madrid that allowing a referendum in Catalonia, even if it brings a result desirable for Madrid, would be a time-bomb under the unity of the Spanish state. What if it becomes a precedent for similar demands in the Basque country, where the separatist violence of ETA has only come to an end recently, or emergence of similar demands in other regions, with their own distinct cultural and linguistic identities, such as Galicia, to bring one example.

Similar fears obviously play an even bigger role in case of Iraq too. It is only recently, with the defeat of the IS that Baghdad Shia dominated government has managed to secure its control over the larger part of the territory of Iraq. It might be ready to tolerate de facto autonomy of Erbil authorities, but a de jure independence of Iraqi Kurdistan would effectively mean an end to Iraqi state in its current form. Thus, the leaderships of both Catalonia and Kurdistan were faced with central governments determined to win what they believed was an existential struggle for the existence of their countries. They were also faced with international community’s unanimous opposition to their independence. However, external factors might have proved less decisive, had their actions been based on an equally unanimous support inside the regions. However, for different reasons and in different ways, in both cases there were some issues regarding domestic support.

The difficulties of getting everyone on board

Of course, in terms of popular support for independence there is a significant difference between Catalonia and Kurdistan. Though it may be somewhat incorrect to compare the referendum results, since the one in Catalonia faced obstacles from the central government, still the numbers tell their part of the story. In case of Kurdistan, turnout was 72 %, and 92.7 % of those who voted said “Yes” to independence. In Catalonia, 92 % of those who came out to vote said “Yes”, but only 43 % took part in the voting.

These numbers reflect the reality that in Catalonia, the population is divided over the issue of independence. In Catalonia ethnic boundaries are blurred: many people identify as both “Catalan” and “Spanish” (though not “Castilian”), while many immigrants or children of immigrants often identify with the Catalan independence cause. The Catalan and Spanish (Castilian) languages are related, and most inhabitants of Catalonia are bilingual. In everyday communication it is a common practice to use both languages as each person speaks the language that he/she knows best (a practice common in some other cases, as for example in Ukraine, between Russian and Ukrainian speakers). The absence of clear-cut ethno-cultural borders in Catalonia has encouraged Catalan politicians to present Catalan nationalism as inclusive and civic which seeks to represent all inhabitants of Catalonia, regardless of their ancestry or cultural heritage. Yet, as recent events in Catalonia have shown, pro-independence politicians have so far failed to convince the absolute majority of Catalans.

In case of Kurdistan there is an overwhelming support for independence among the Kurdish population of the region, a support forged by years of oppression and uprisings, followed by years of de facto independence. While it is true that there is an immense diversity of dialects and traditions between various Kurdish groups, there seems to be a consensus among the majority of Kurdistan’s population, at least in Iraq, on independence as the ultimate goal. However, there is no consensus as to when and how it should be achieved. The decision to hold the referendum in September was seen by many in Kurdistan as premature. Government’s critics claimed that the referendum was supposed to boost the popularity of autonomy’s leader Masoud Barzani. The rivalry between two main Kurdish parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by competing families Barzani and Talabani, influenced recent developments. When the Iraqi force occupied Kirkuk almost without any resistance, some PDK supporters even accused PUK of treason. A third party, Gorran movement, which considers itself in opposition to both PUK and PDK, was suggesting to postpone the referendum. Finally, the Kurdish leadership has failed to attract to its side some of the ethnic and religious minorities residing in the area. While it was difficult to expect support from Arabs and Turkomans living in these areas, even those minorities, such as Yezidis or Assyrians, who potentially could have become supporters of the Kurdish state, to a large extent remain sceptic about the Kurdish national project.

Epilogue:  but if you try, sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need

    So, in both cases the referendums have failed to bring independence supporters what they wanted, and in fact have thrown the independence agenda several years back. But is the dream of independence shattered once and for all? Historical experience tells us that it is hardly so. Once a certain national project emerges and achieves support of the majority among the people that it seeks to represent, it is extremely  difficult to destroy or contain it. The idea of independence may survive numerous failures and defeats, and as  time passes they often become a part of the mythology that only strengthens the pro-independence sentiment: the failed “Easter Rising” in Ireland in 1916, which ultimately led to Ireland’s independence, is a great example of that.

In Kurdistan, it seems that the red line  was crossed a long time ago. The majority of Kurds in Iraq see themselves as a separate nation, and sooner or later this view will find its reflection in the political setup of the region. It may take time, geopolitical shocks, and sacrifices on behalf of the Kurdish population, but the final outcome of this process is evident. In the long term perspective, few things short of large scale ethnic cleansing are capable to prevent the perspective of Kurdish independence.  The emergence of Kurdistan on the map of the Middle East is a question of “how” and “when”, not a question of “if”.

With all the similarities, the case of Catalonia is different in this respect. Here things hang in the balance. It is precisely now that the main question of Catalan identity is decided: is being Catalan compatible with being Spanish or not? Depending on how the current crisis is handled, the political preferences of Catalans will be shaped for years and maybe even decades to come. Madrid’s no-nonsense tactic, based on unyielding adherence to the letter of the law and willingness to use force to uphold it, may have been efficient in the short term, but in the long term it may push more Catalans to the camp of independence supporters. In the 1990s one of Catalan politicians ran under the slogan “for a Spain that understands Catalonia”. Maybe it is time for the Spanish government to show some “understanding”, otherwise it may win the legal and political battle but lose the battle for the hearts and minds of Catalans once and for all.