Catalonia’s unwanted Crimean comparisons
Spanish unionists have been quick to draw parallels over planned referendum
A demonstration in favour of Catalan independence in 2010. A recent opinion poll suggested 60 per cent of people in the region favour a split from Spain. Photograph: Gustau Nacarino/Reuters
Crimea’s secession from Ukraine has inevitably drawn comparisons with other territories seeking to break away from the state that governs them. Scotland and Catalonia are the most obvious European examples, with both having scheduled referendums on independence for the autumn.
Regardless of whether Scottish or Catalan nationalists welcome the comparison, Russia and its Crimean allies have been quick to make it.
“It’s the same situation as we will see in Scotland and then Catalonia,” Crimea’s new information minister, Dmitry Polonsky, told Britain’s ITV News shortly before Sunday’s independence referendum. “So Crimea is the first and we will be happy to share our experiences with them.”
But while the Scottish referendum in September has been agreed upon with the British government, the Catalan vote, slated for November, is deemed unconstitutional by the Spanish authorities. The north-eastern region therefore appears to be on a political and legal collision course with the central government of Mariano Rajoy.
The Catalan regional government, which is leading the independence drive, has firmly distanced itself from Crimea, an understandable move given the West’s opposition to the developments in Ukraine. However, on Sunday, the Catalan premier, Artur Mas, warned that the Spanish state could be pushing him towards taking his own drastic course of action.
Mas, who leads a conservative Catalan nationalist coalition, said: “We can’t rule out a unilateral declaration [of independence]. It is not our ideal framework, or the best, or that which we would like. But we cannot rule it out.”
With his comments coming the same day that Crimea was voting on its own break, Spain’s unionists were quick to draw unflattering comparisons.
Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García-Margallo, said that “the parallelism is absolute” as he pointed to how both the Crimean and Catalan referendums violated the constitutions of the countries they sought to break away from.
Alicia Sánchez-Camacho, who leads the Spanish government’s conservative Popular Party in Catalonia, said: “When the threat is a unilateral declaration of independence, they are taking the Crimean route.”
The Crimean development is not the first time in recent years that a secession has thrown the spotlight on Spain. In 2008, it was one of the only EU members to refuse to recognise Kosovo after its declaration of independence from Serbia, due to its fears that Catalans or Basques would be encouraged to follow the precedent.
Regarding Crimea, Catalan separatists are adamant that any comparison is invalid. “These are totally different processes,” said Alfred Bosch, a congressional deputy for the pro-independence Catalan Republican Left party. “The basic difference is that you can’t compare a process that’s about bullets with a process that’s about ballots. We don’t have any weapons here in Catalonia.”
Vicente Palacio, deputy director of the Fundación Alternativas think-tank, broadly agrees. “Using an international situation in which there is a risk of violence for [Spanish] domestic political purposes doesn’t help anyone,” he said.
“Crimea has absolutely nothing in common with Catalonia. For one thing, in the former there is a third country – Russia – involved.”
Cultural and historical arguments have been employed to justify the Crimean peninsula’s independence; similarly, many Catalans see themselves as culturally distinct from Spain, and their language, among other things, reflects this. But while the causes behind the two processes have some similarities, there are notable differences.
For example, the Catalans’ independence campaign has also been fuelled in great part by issues related to Spain’s unique regional structure: they claim that Madrid has meddled too much in their affairs and that it under-invests in the region.
A poll released on Tuesday by the regional government’s statistics office showed that 60 percent of Catalans were in favour of independence.
Meanwhile, some of those campaigning for secession from Spain say they are looking north, rather than east, for inspiration.
“We see Catalonia as very similar to Scotland,” said Bosch. “The difference is that the United Kingdom makes it possible for Scotland to vote and the kingdom of Spain doesn’t. Cameron allows it, Rajoy doesn’t.”