There is a certain frame of mind that believes that secession by ethnic minorities is an absolute good in itself. Asked the question, “Should Region X have the right to secede from Country Y?”, a lot of people will answer with a resounding “Yes!” without knowing or even caring where X and Y are or who lives there.
Others are more selective, relying instead on the Bolshevik principle of kto-kovo (“who-whom”), which relegates the righteousness of secession to whether or not the observer likes or dislikes the state in question. This is typical of western governments. Good secessions are from countries we don’t like – Serbia above all, of course. Independent Kosovo: good. Montenegro’s separation from its union with Serbia: good. But Republika Srpska’s possible separation from Bosnia and Herzegovina: bad. Independence of Serbian Kraijinas from secessionist Croatia: emphatically bad. Northern Kosovo and Metohija’s separation from “sovereign, independent Kosovo”: very, very bad.
The only constant: Serbs are always wrong.
The same subjective kto-kovo frames conflicts in the former Soviet Union. The deus ex machina independence of all the former Union Republics was an automatic and positive development. But the desire of any portion of them – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Adzharia (Georgia), Pridnestrovie, Gagauzia (Moldova), Crimea, Donbass (Ukraine) – to leave its former Union Republic is per se illegitimate, notwithstanding the 1990 Soviet law on secession requiring separate referenda in such entities.
The desire of Catalans – or more precisely, of some undetermined portion of people living in Catalonia – to secede from Spain is different because it doesn’t fit into the usual kto-kovo international lineup. One finds among Catalan sympathizers many of the usual partisans of biased western selectivity as well as some of their fiercest critics (such as the usually sound Pepe Escobar). Likewise, members of both of the usual camps have expressed opposition to Catalan secession, either out of mechanical support for “western institutions” (the European Union, the US) or consistent support for the principle of state sovereignty (the government of Serbia and most of the countries that oppose an independent Kosovo).
In the court of public opinion, the pro-independence camp has gained the upper hand. While the Catalan referendum was clearly illegal under Spanish law and the Spanish authorities had every right to shut it down, the TV images of police using physical force to prevent people from casting a ballot played badly against Madrid – which is no doubt what was intended. If, as expected, Catalan independence is declared in the coming days, Madrid will have little choice but to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy, further radicalizing the situation. (Remember how the west falsely cited Slobodan Milosevic’s supposedly “abolishing” of Kosovo’s “constitutionally guaranteed autonomy” in 1989 as proof of an impending “final solution” against the province’s Albanians.)
The morality play of Madrid’s “authoritarian” violation of “democracy” brings us to another canard: the notion that the “will of the Catalan people” is paramount. This is misguided for at least two reasons. First, who decided that Catalonia as a subdivision of Spain, or of Catalans as a distinct nation, is in a position to asset a sovereign, united “will” apart from the rest of Spain? As was the case with Kosovo (and just a week ago, in Iraqi Kurdistan), Catalonia demonstrates the futility of granting autonomy to a region based on a minority ethnic, linguistic, or religious identity. Doing so only whets that minority’s demand for more cession of power, culminating in the demand for independence. (Hence, in Serbia the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina endorsed the Catalan referendum.)
Second, granting presumptive sovereignty to an aspiring secessionist entity always ends up shortchanging those who don’t want to secede. This can take more than one form. One example is the “West Virginia” model, whereby one region within the entity doesn’t want to leave; comparable to Pridnestrovie, South Ossetia, Republika Srpska, etc. Another is intimidation of citizens who are loyal to the common state – who according to polls represent a majority in Catalonia. As stated by film director Isabel Coixet i Castillo in El País:
I see now, with horrifying clarity, that no matter what happens next, there is no room here for me or for anybody who dares to think independently, even though this is my birthplace. Today it is insults against me, yesterday it was insults against members of my family; the day before it was insults against friends of mine whose other friends openly criticize the fact that the former are still friends with me. And tomorrow, it will be something worse. [ . . . ]
Because if, when you condemn the (Spanish) government’s actions, you don’t also condone the Catalan government’s actions, you immediately become an enemy, a fascist, a fascistoid, a Franco follower, the scum of the earth. And you think about the fear that has already covered, like spores, the skin of all those people who keep quiet but who secretly come tell you that they’re on your side – that they are grateful for what you are doing, and then they tell you that they don’t even talk about the situation inside their own homes, for fear that their children will hear them and get into trouble at school.
These are not mere anecdotes. This is the reality on the ground for those of us who live here. This is the new, shocking fracture of a society that used to live in peace and without fear, with logical differences of opinion and different values and different criteria, but always on a foundation of respect.
Madrid has stumbled badly. Whether the situation is already unsalvageable is unclear at this point. What is clear is that increasing confrontation and repression, however legal and even necessary, will bolster the intolerant, revolutionary repression of Spanish patriots and embolden secessionists.
When Catalan authorities scheduled their referendum, Madrid could have coopted it by saying, “Great idea! The whole of Spain will vote on whether Catalonia should be independent.” Not only would that have given the rest of the country a voice, it would have allowed the cowed and silent majority within Catalonia to express its will. Perhaps even at this late date it’s an idea the Spanish government should consider.