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  • Rory O'Keeffe

A Tale of Two Cities: Referenda in Catalunya and Erbil

This week began with an internationally-condemned independence referendum in a regional capital in an intensely strategically-important part of the world, which the national government allowed to go ahead.

It ended with an internationally-supported (or in the least positive responses, indifferently-greeted) independence vote, which the national government has used its police forces, and had the full support of both the national and regional court, to try its hardest to prevent.

In Erbil, Iraq, the question asked would lead to serious upheaval across four Middle Eastern states, with a wider international war a distinct possibility. In Barcelona, Spain , it is unlikely to stretch far – if at all – beyond what is now North-Eastern Spain.

Yet the former has gone ahead, with ‘independence’ winning almost 93 per cent of the votes cast.

The latter, which was being blocked with almost all of the tools at the Spanish government’s disposal, won a very similar proportion of the vote, though for very different reasons.

At this point, we ought to pause for a declaration of interest: it is extraordinarily rare for me to support independence movements – at least fully.

There are of course exceptions – if a group of people or a region are being actively oppressed, they must be free to be who they are, and free from any such repression. In all honesty, unfortunately, it is extremely unusual for such groups to ever be allowed a vote on their identity and future at all. Under Franco, for example (sadly a motif which will come up again) even discussion over a Catalan vote would be impossible.

In Turkey, where the government is in the third year of a civil war against the Kurdish population of its South and West, it is equally unthinkable that Kurdish people would be allowed to head to the polls (though in Turkey’s South and West, it is almost as unthinkable that those leading the Kurdish side of the war would lay down their weapons for a vote. Either way, none has been offered).

It may seem perverse to say that those who are offered referenda should always vote ‘no’ to independence, and that’s not exactly the position here, but I am suspicious of nationalist movements because:

  • We live in a world in which the problems we face – global warming; issues over food production; prevention of devastating global warfare – require closer cooperation, rather than the breaking down of nations into ever smaller ethnic groups, and the erection of new borders all over the world. Fragmentation seems unlikely to be the best way to tackle the major challenges we face.

  • At almost exactly the same rate as nationalist movements are pushing for ever-smaller units of government, major multi-national corporations are growing in size and economic weight. Becoming smaller seems an unlikely way to be able to protect citizens from the worst excesses of enormous conglomerates.

  • At the heart of far too many such movements are issues not simply of identity, but of ‘superiority’. It is of course easier to persuade people that their ‘state’ will succeed because of its innate ability to do so, but too often the idea that one group of people are naturally accomplished or capable spills into the idea that those surrounding it, to which it is not attached, are somehow less than it is. Far from overcoming oppression, the exercise seems one of parading ‘betterness’.

  • In the majority of cases, the strongest arguments are based on some shared culture, language, or historic experience. The problem here is that this is always, again almost without exception, a backward-looking reason. There is no plan for the future in a ‘shared history’, and in most parts of the world that history (though of course not always the language or culture) belongs just as much to our nearest neighbours, as to ourselves.

In Catalunya, these problems are heightened both by the region’s recent, and immediate, past.

In 36 years of fascist rule under Franco, Catalunya had developed an understandable desire to escape not just the fascist regime, but Spain itself, seeing Madrid – long its greatest rival – now as the centre of an oppression in which its identity, including its language, was crushed almost to death.

And such desires are not easy to shake. Spain has only been free of Franco for slightly longer than it suffered under him (42 years as opposed to 36 of suffering his rule, and three more of a bitter civil war Franco started to steal power). It was not until 1978 that the state had a new constitution, and in 1981 a military coup was only defeated as the army entered and occupied the state’s parliamentary buildings.

These are not tales told by grandparents to wide-eyed children, but events and experiences that are in the memory of many generations of Catalans, and discussed by parents and their children not as history, but as warnings of a very recent past.

On the other hand, Catalunya has not suffered under Spain in its recent history. The 1982 election, which saw the Spanish Socialist Workers Party elected, was swiftly followed by the reinstatement of rights to Catalans, enabling them to teach their language in schools, use it for documents and eventually also granting wide-ranging new powers to its regional government, the Generalitat, which had been abolished when Franco seized power, and restored in 1977, two years after his death.

The Madrid government also recognised that Barcelona – then a busy but run-down port city – could be a driver in the growth of the ‘new Spain’ and spent time and money on its restoration and renovation, and on gaining grants and investment to help that advance. It did so, of course, for its own benefit (and that of all Spain) more than the benefit of Barcelona or Catalunya alone, but the development of the Catalan region, and specifically of Barcelona, as a successful merging of culture, modernity, and a centre for tourism and business was a Spanish, rather than a Catalan success story.

Even so, two generations of direct and deliberate oppression by a man claiming to be the leader of ‘Spain’ cannot be forgotten in such a short space of time, and the Catalan nationalist ideal – tied because of its resistance to the rule of Franco to a Left-wing ambition – did not die.

The global economic crash of 2008, which hit Spain particularly hard, was the major catalyst for the movement’s real resurgence, however. And it is here that the ‘movement’ began to turn a little sour.

Because as Spain fell to one of the deepest and hardest-hitting recessions and crises in any European state (only Greece was considerably worse hit) the Catalan movement began to complain that its money was being used to ‘subsidise’ other, less wealthy, parts of Spain. Nationalists in a region that had worked hard, but had also undeniably received a great deal of support from Spain, were now, without irony, using as their main rallying cry ‘we will not subsidise Spain’.

In effect, a movement that had focussed for so long on the history and experience of its region, was wilfully ignoring the reason why it could ‘subsidise Spain’. Those who had lived through fascism certainly had a reason to ask why they should bail out a state that had treated them so badly, but anyone born after 1976 had no such excuse.

The reason that this is important, however, is not because of whether Catalunya has a case for independence – this is not really the business of anyone outside of Catalunya, and arguably also the rest of Spain – but because of the last two weeks.

In June this year, Carles Puigdemont, the President of the Catalan Generalitat, announced that there would be an independence referendum ‘in October’, that the result would be binding, and that in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, Catalunya would declare its independence from Spain.

This wasn’t entirely surprising. Puigdemont was the first non-Socialist leader of the Generalitat in 32 years, and also the first not to swear allegiance to Spain and its monarch. In fact, he only gained power at all because of a last-minute agreement between his party ‘Together for Yes’ and the also pro-independence CUP.

But at this point – and indeed as late as 21 September – the outlook for a ‘yes’ vote did not look promising. Polls suggested that around 41.1 per cent of Catalans intended to vote in favour of independence, while 49.4 per cent would vote against.

Vitally, however, 70 per cent said they regarded as ‘important’ the right to vote in such a referendum.

Which is where the Spanish national government stepped in. As the national government of Spain, the administration led by Mariano Rajoy can argue that its priority must be the welfare of the whole of Spain, rather than a small portion of the population in one corner of the country, but on 20 September, he took the remarkable decision to send police to arrest 14 senior Catalan politicians and civil servants, as well as confiscating thousands of documents relating to the referendum, and to occupy the Catalan Economic Ministry building.

Simultaneously, he shipped (literally, including in one ship plastered with cartoon characters on one side) 4,000 riot police into Barcelona, and announced that the referendum would not be allowed to take place.

In the days since, arrest warrants have been issued for Catalan mayors, and websites relating to the referendum have been forcibly closed down. The echoes of Franco – fairly or otherwise – are being heard by many in Catalunya.

Nor was Rajoy making this decision alone. He does not command a lead in parliament, and is able to govern solely because the Left wing Socialist party abstained during the vote on whether to accept him as leader of a minority government. Parliament has consistently voted to enable him to ‘close down’ the referendum, including the Left-wing Socialist and Podemos parties – perhaps in part in reflection of their own desire to serve all of Spain and in response to the right-wing economic message of the current independence movement.

He has also been backed by the courts, including the Catalan regional court which on Wednesday ordered police to prevent buildings being used as polling booths on Sunday, on the grounds that the decision to go ahead with the referendum was in ‘clear breach’ of the constitutional court’s ruling that it should be called off.

The constitutional argument states that ‘Spain’ is an ‘indivisible state’ and that therefore any attempt to reduce it via independence votes from its regions would be counter to that. The problem, of course, is that if Catalunya believes it is not a part of Spain, and its people are not Spanish, then not only would they not have to abide by the constitution of a ‘foreign’ state, they would also not be breaking its constitution by declaring their independence, because if Catalunya is not ‘Spanish’ then it is not ‘dividing Spain’ to declare that.

The major problem, however, is that it was clear that Rajoy was making an enormous mistake. In the wake of the raiding and occupation of Catalan government buildings by Spanish police, and the arrest of Catalan politicians, many Catalans were reminded of Franco – or the stories they had been told about him. In Barcelona (where the city’s main football team joined the protests) and across Catalunya, tens of thousands of people came out to protest.

When the vote took place, the foolishness of Rajoy’s gamble was proven. All around the world, images were beamed showing black-clad police armed with riot shields and long batons beating men and women who were attempting to vote. Other pictures and videos showed the remarkable sight of those same police beating Catalan fire service-people, who had suited up to stand as a barrier against the police's brutality.

Seldom has a democratic state looked more authoritarian. Indeed, seldom has Spain looked more fascist, even in its Francoist nightmare.

But the images, as it proved, were the least of Rajoy’s problems. Because as results came in, they revealed that on a turn-out of 42.3 per cent, roughly 90 per cent of the 2.2m votes cast were in favour of independence.

In other words, the 41 per cent or so of Catalans who are fired-up enough by the prospect of Catalan independence were willing to risk what the police would throw at them to go and vote for Catalunya to leave Spain. Almost everyone else – the people making up the majority who opposed the plan – understandably stayed at home.

Rajoy picked a fight he didn’t need to pick, and in doing so he ensured Catalunya voted for something it would never have voted for otherwise, and which is the opposite of what Rajoy himself wanted.

Reminding people of a fascist occupier of your region, who closed down your parliament and terrorised your family, may be the single most effective way to change someone’s mind about whether they want to remain a part of your country. It is hard to imagine how – having done exactly that – Rajoy can propose to remain in his job. If not for moral reasons, then certainly for reasons of rank incompetence.


Arguably more perilous, and with greater likely repercussions than the Catalan vote, is the situation unfolding in the wake of the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on Monday.

The Kurdish situation in the Middle East is complicated, but effectively the population is spread across four states (northern Syria, northern Iraq, northern Iran and by far the largest number (around 17m) in south and eastern Turkey).

As with almost all people in the region, up to a century ago, they were a part of the Ottoman Empire. As the Empire collapsed, it was suggested that an Armenian and Kurdish state may be created, but instead, they were divided between the new states of Turkey (created in 1923) and Syria, and Iraq and Iran. The Kurds were offered a vote on whether to remain part of the new Turkey, but had few other options, and decided to remain.

In all four states (most famously, perhaps, today in Turkey, where the government is fighting a civil war – now in its third year – against its Kurdish population) Kurds have resisted what they have seen as unreasonable and in some cases violent and genocidal behaviour towards them. Along with Turkey’s long experience of violence between Kurdish separatists and the state military, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein enacted regular programmes of violence – including the use of poisonous gas – against an ethnic group he (and they) believed to be ‘un-Iraqi’.

In Syria, where first Hafez and later (and now) his son Bashar al-Assad were successive dictators, the situation was a little different. Where it was possible to dominate and oppress them, the Kurds were dominated and oppressed. But the Assads were themselves part of a minority group in Syria, and while his son is far less bright than his father, he knew enough neither to neglect, nor attack the Kurds at the north of the state.

The situation was complicated by Turkey, as the latter had few real moments of peaceful existence with Kurdish people, and even when it did, continued to chase and harry the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) which it – as well as the EU and US – list as a terror organisation, forcing its members across the border into Syria.

There is not space – and I do not have the expertise – to tell the Kurdish story in detail here, but the ‘nation’ in all its scattered components has similarities and differences with its neighbours, as well as even amongst itself.

Kurdish people are Muslims – mainly Sunnis, though with a sizeable minority of Shia believers – but are not Arabic in terms of their own self-image, or their language. Though they write with the Arab script, their languages; Kurmanji, Sorani and Pehlewani (the first two are spoken by roughly 23m out of 26m Kurds and are close to mutually unintelligible – compared to English and German by some linguists), are Indo-European. From Kurmanji, ‘sopas’ (thank you) is far closer to the Russian (spasivo) than to its Arabic equivalent (shukran), while ‘penge’ (five) is nearer to Greek (pende) than Arabic (Hamza).

Due to the wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq, Kurdish people in both countries have gained a relatively large amount of autonomy from the central government in both states – though in the Syrian case, at the enormous cost of being repeatedly attacked by IS and the Syrian government.

In Iraq, the Kurds were granted an autonomous ‘safe haven’ after the first Gulf War in 1991, and remained detached from Saddam’s regime until it was removed in 2003. At that point, the Kurds ‘rejoined’ Iraq, albeit with a strong devolved parliament and a national language of their own.

And it is here that the latest attempt at a pan-Kurdish independent state took place, in the form of a referendum of the Iraqi Kurds, on Monday (25 September).

That vote saw 92.7 per cent of the electorate agree that ‘The Kurdistan region (the Kurdish name for the Kurdish region of Iraq) and the Kurdistani areas outside the region's administration (my italics) should become an independent state.’

The italics really are important here, because this vote is not simply about the independence of Iraqi Kurds from Iraq, but about whether or not Kurds from all of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria should unite to create their own state: Kurdistan.

The Iraqi Kurdish President, Masoud Barzani, said that the referendum was supposed to be the ‘opener’ to a series of talks. Unlike Puigdemont – perhaps because he, unlike the Catalan leader has experienced directly the violence that comes from being different in an unstable region of the world – he made no statement of intent to declare unilateral independence in the vote’s wake.

And it is also true that none of Turkey, Iran or Syria would have been likely to welcome a vote in Iraq that might further stir nationalist zeal in the Kurdish regions of their own nations.

But it is also not hard to see why the Iraqi government – led by Prime Minister Haida al-Abadi – and those of Iran and Turkey (Syrians have many other concerns, of course) would feel threatened by this vote, and why they might have tried to prevent it.

In the event, they did not. Though al-Abadi asked for – and received – permission from the Iraqi national parliament to send troops to the Kurdish region to prevent the vote taking place, he did not do so (though he has, since the referendum, asked for and received such permission again. He commented: ‘I do not wish to see Iraqis fight Iraqis,’ despite having asked for permission to send Iraqis to do exactly that. The troops have not – yet – been deployed).

Iran, Iraq and Turkey were joined in their public disapproval of the vote taking place at all by the US and UN, and in perhaps the most ominous signal of intent to date, Turkey voted on Sunday 24 September to ‘update and reinforce’ a law which ‘enables’ it to ‘intervene’ in Syria or Iraq, should a matter of ‘Turkish national security’ unfold in either state, and ‘reminded’ Iraq that it had given up its ‘rights’ to Northern Iraq in 1923 only on the grounds that the state should remain united.

Turkish tanks and troops have been deployed along the Turkish border with Iraq since 16 September, on an ‘exercise’ which involves them pointing their weapons at the Iraqi-Kurdish region, and is set to continue until 5 October.

But despite some incidents of violence in ‘divided’ communities, where Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds both live, the vote went ahead without hindrance.

Since then, however, matters have improved little, if at all.

The Iraqi central government has moved to close all Kurdish Iraqi airports, and called on the international community to deal only with it, not with the Kurdish regional government.

And Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has announced that Turkey will no longer buy oil directly from Iraq’s Kurdish region, and will now only deal with the Baghdad-based central Iraqi government in trade matters, if the region makes ‘bigger mistakes’ than holding the referendum.

He added that Turkey would ‘respond harshly’ to any security threat on its border following the referendum, though ‘this is not our first choice’, that it will no longer train Iraqi Kurdish fighters who are defending Kurdish oil fields from IS militias, and that it would effectively blockade the region, closing the road linking it with Turkey.

Up to now, oil from the region has been sold directly to Turkey by the Iraqi Kurdish government, as the region’s major pipeline runs to Turkey.

But Barzani replied that the region is self-sufficient in fuel and food, and that more than 75 per cent of the goods vehicles which enter the region from Turkey are carrying items for other parts of Iraq, so that Turkey and Iraq would suffer more than the Kurdish region from any blockade.

The issue of oil is potentially a vexed one however, because though it is not mentioned here, Turkey – and indeed the Syrian Kurds – are oil importers, and in 2014-15, when IS was at the height of its power in Iraq and Syria, it was feared that both may be buying oil from IS, (though through third party representatives) and inadvertently therefore providing cash to the terror group.

Both the UN and US have offered to help mediate between Iraq’s Kurdish region and the central government, while the Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi has spoken to Barzani and is ‘optimistic’ that talks can begin between the two.

But Turkey has called for a summit between itself, Iraq and Iran, and in Syria, the Assad regime this week offered Kurds negotiations on independence ‘when the fight against IS is over’.

As an aside, the wording of this statement was deliberately designed to present Assad’s fight as ‘against IS’, when in fact it is of course against IS (which also opposes every other rebel group in Syria) plus a range of other groups, including the Kurds. It was also designed to present Assad as the leader of resistance to IS, when in fact almost every group in Syria has at one time or another fought against IS, and in Raqqa, IS’ main Syrian base, Kurdish and Syrian Democratic Force fighters (both opposed to Assad) are clearing the city of the terror group.

But it is also an effort to divide the Kurds and the rest of the opponents to Assad, who will otherwise be united against him and the Russian air force when the battle against IS ends, and to anger Turkey, which fears that independence for Kurds in Iraq, and its promise for Kurdish people in Syria, will lead to it facing increasing efforts for independence from the huge Turkish Kurdish population (though of course, Turkey could simply reduce such a risk by talking to its Kurds, rather than imposing curfews, sending tanks into the Kurdish region’s major cities and consistently attacking Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria).

Should such an outcome arise, Turkey – the main backer of anti-Assad forces in Syria – could become unable to continue to assist the groups which have come to rely on it for its assistance against the dictator.

Finally, among the Iraqi refugees here in Greece, there is a real fear that should the Kurds gain independence from Iraq, the Arab Sunnis and Shias may themselves begin to push for their own separate states, that such efforts could easily lead to violence, and that once these states are created, violence between them – and potentially against the new Kurdish state – would inevitably follow.

It is a too common mistake to pretend that ‘if people from a state talk about that state, what they say is definitely true’, but what Iraqis believe and fear about their nation’s situation and future is an insight into the mind-set of Iraqi men and women who have now experienced conflict for most of their lives. If they believe that violence is a serious risk in Iraq, then it is likely to also be the feeling of those still in Iraq, still armed, and still fighting in militia organisations across the country.

As yet, it is arguably true that Iraq and its neighbours have responded to the independence referendum which affects them in a calmer, more sensible way than the Spanish government did to the vote in Catalunya.

But it is certainly true that with wars already ongoing in three of the four states, there is potentially a great deal more to lose if any of the four makes the wrong move now.

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