Attempts by Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan to break free have backfired, posing sobering lessons for other separatists and those who rule them. If there’s any takeaway, it’s that both parties should exhibit flexibility, in case the bluff is called.
Without question, the organizers of the twin independence referenda miscalculated by ignoring warnings of a harsh reaction from above. Rather than enjoying newfound freedoms, what were once semi-autonomous regions with substantial powers are left, at least for now, with little or none. And it’s not clear they’ll ever get any back.
Iraq acted decisively to punish the vote held on September 25, sending in troops to seize the oil fields and territory around Kirkuk, considered by Kurds to be a cultural capital. The humiliated regional president, Masoud Barzani, resigned. Meanwhile in Spain, Madrid sent police, who beat up hundreds of peaceful Catalan voters on October 1. Last Friday, it sacked the provincial government and parliament and imposed direct rule. Yesterday, protests erupted after nine Catalan ministers were jailed for disobedience, and the demonstrations are likely to gain force in the coming days. Catalan secessionists are unlikely to limp away quietly and forget the sorry chapter.
These fiascos should trouble any of the dozens and dozens of separatist groups globally that might be contemplating exit strategies, among them Belgium’s Walloons and the Faroe islanders of Denmark. More importantly, the political chaos following the referenda should also give pause to central governments facing restive ethnic minorities. While the secessionists were shortsightedly stubborn, their national governments equally should have been more willing to discuss concessions. Rigidity and force encourages grudges and radicalism rather than capitulation. Better to recognize identity concerns and not force integration. That’s what Britain did with Scotland, and Canada with Quebec. That’s how Switzerland achieved its fabled peace in the last century.
What Iraq and Spain fail to understand is that these peeved groups have legitimate local support for their cause. Cultural memories remain powerful, which is why the Kurds and Catalans have clung to grievances that are decades or centuries old. Those that have been aggressively denied a voice will continue to be confrontational. Renewed defiance might not be immediate, but, as we have seen in countless other examples, dreams of self-determination pass on through generations if brusquely ignored.
The Kurds have been trying for a century to get their own homeland, to the discomfort of the countries that host the scattered population: Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. They have a distinct language and their population of more than 25 million is the world’s largest group of stateless people. They almost achieved their dream of home rule under the 1920 treaty that abolished the Ottoman Empire, but a subsequent international agreement that etched modern Turkey’s borders erased that provision. Hopes rose again after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the new constitution that followed created a proto-state, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), helmed in Erbil. It won significant powers, including its own army, which later played a decisive role in expelling ISIS from Iraq’s northern territories including Kirkuk. Emboldened by this achievement, the KRG gambled on calling for full independence, to the great consternation of its US allies and neighboring countries with sizable Kurdish populations.