Nations, Benedict Anderson tells us, are “imagined communities”. They are subjectively defined, based on shared language, history, culture and other traditions. Simply put, if most people think they are a nation, they probably are. States are objective entities, defined by internationally recognised borders.
Liberals and socialists used to believe in the right of nations to self-determination, including statehood if they so wanted. Today some argue that states are increasingly an outdated concept, transcended by an international order with global rules and institutions. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, himself from the tiny nation-state of Luxemburg, dismisses the Catalans’ right to self-determination on grounds of political expediency: “We can’t have a Europe made up of 95 different countries.”
Two recent referenda on independence have been met with repression - although on significantly different scales. In Catalunya, an unauthorised referendum called by the regional government, got a 90% yes vote on a 42% turnout., although many opposed to independence stayed away. The Spanish state responded with repression, and not only on the day of the vote itself. Jordi Cuixart and Jordi Sanchez were the first separatist leaders to be detained; others soon followed.
The Spanish prime minister sacked the elected Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, and imposed someone from his own conservative Popular Party (PP), which polled under 10% in the last regional elections there. The move was denounced by Barcelona’s mayor Ada Colau, a leader of the municipal socialist movement en Comu (in Common), as “an attack on everyone’s rights and freedoms”.
Rajoy claims to be upholding the rule of law. This is the same government that contacted school principals across Catalunya and threatened the permanent removal of their academic qualifications if they allowed their premises to be used for the independence referendum -what ‘law’ was that based on?
Behind the PP stand, on one side the military and fascist elements who are increasingly visible on the streets in demonstrations for the unity of Spain, and on the other the Spanish Socialist Party (PSOE) who have played a vile role. In government, they held out an empty promise of greater autonomy, on which they failed to deliver, in order to head off Catalan demands for independence. Their refusal to entertain the idea of a regional referendum was the sticking point that prevented a socialist government being formed with the radical left party Podemos following the deadlocked parliamentary elections two years ago.
Since then, PSOE have blamed the heavy-handed police repression during the October referendum on the Catalan leadership. Their support for the imposition of direct rule has provoked a wave of disgust from Catalan Socialist leaders, including one mayor who has resigned from PSOE’s national executive in protest. PSOE refused to condemn the arrest for sedition of separatist leaders - who were handcuffed, stripped naked and forced to listen to a loop of the Spanish national anthem, according to reports: treatment deliberately designed to humiliate. Now Ada Colau’s en Comu movement has decided to break its pact with the Catalan Socialists over their role - which could mean the fall of her Barcelona administration.
Some on the left go along with the myth that the current dispute is primarily about Catalunya’s unwillingness, as a comparatively prosperous region, to share its wealth with the rest of Spain. In fact, it was the Spanish government, following the EU bailout after the financial crash, that unilaterally offloaded its debt onto the regions of Spain, making them permanently indebted to the national state. This was accompanied by a long-running media campaign against Catalunya that has polarised public opinion. These underlying factors help explain why support for independence among Catalans has surged from 15% ten years ago to where it is today.
The EU regards the demand for Catalan independence s a headache. Worse, it is green-lighting the very high level of repression being perpetrated by the Spanish state. The German government went so far as to express full support for Madrid after eight former Catalan ministers were detained without bail, on charges of rebellion, originally devised for terrorists, which carry a maximum sentence of thirty years.
The repression is spreading. Teachers who raised the issue of police brutality on the day of the independence referendum in subsequent classroom discussions are now being charged with hate speech crimes. Silence from Spain’s EU partners will only encourage this crackdown.
The last few weeks have revealed the Spanish state for what it is - an apparatus that emerged out of a dictatorship with a highly politicised monarchy and a conservative party, the PP, which continues to harbour, and is capable of mobilising, the most intolerant forces. Extreme nationalist violence against anyone supporting Catalan independence is increasing, with attacks on leftwing activists, journalists and migrants in Barcelona and Francoite falangists, rarely seen in public, openly on the march in other parts of Spain.
The Spanish government has scheduled new regional elections for 21st December. How free and fair they will be with the Civil Guard on the streets, government offices being raided and equipment confiscated and political prisoners languishing in jail cells is anyone’s guess.
The left also seems to be in some disarray, with Podemos regional leader Dante Fachin defying the dissolution of his branch by Podemos national leader Pablo Iglesias. Fachin was trying to negotiate a common platform with Catalunya's pro-independence parties ahead of December’s regional elections. “Iglesias is interfering in Podemos in the same way that Rajoy is in Catalunya,” said Fachin, according to one report.
Nonetheless, Catalans continue to resist. The arrests were met in early November with a partial general strike which saw around sixty roads across the region blocked and all of Catalunya’s universities and half its schools closed. This was followed by three-quarters of a million on the streets of Barcelona protesting against the continued detention of Catalan leaders.
Whether you support independence or not, solidarity against the Spanish state’s repression is essential. The imposition of direct rule must be condemned and those arrested released immediately. Activists should contact their MEPs in particular to demand that the EU drop its refusal to mediate towards a negotiated solution.
Grave though the crisis in Catalunya is, it has at least received considerable media publicity. The same cannot be said for the aftermath of the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. The poll, organised by the Kurdish regional government, was equally unauthorised, but its result was more conclusive: a 72% yes vote on a 93% turnout. The response of the Iraqi state has been brutal.
Rather than risk a bloodbath, Kurdish forces withdrew from lands they had controlled since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, yielding around a third of their territory and crucial oil reserves to the Iraqi state. But this has not prevented largescale abuse. A little publicised Amnesty International report documents hundreds of cases of lootings, arson and house demolition in Kurdish areas of the multi-ethnic city of Tuz Khurmatu, south of Kirkuk, by Iranian-backed militias and government forces. A dozen civilians were killed and tens of thousands of people - around a third of its population - have fled the city. “Tuz Khurmatu has been destroyed,” was the verdict of the mayor, now removed from office since the Iraqi takeover.
Elsewhere people have fled rather that risk the violence of the militias. The UN estimates that over 180,000 people have been displaced by the Iraq-Kurdish conflict, including 79,000 from Kirkuk city.
Supporters of imperialist ‘humanitarian intervention’ in Iraq are curiously silent as the deadly weaponry that the west poured into the country is now turned on Iraq’s principal ethnic minority. Of all the foreign powers with a stake in Iraq, only the Canadian government has suspended its military operations - and that’s only temporary.
The Iraqi regime seem keen to teach the Kurds a lesson. Its ongoing ban on international flights landing in Kurdistan is causing economic havoc, costing the Kurdish economy up to $1 million a day. Before the ban, there were up to 100 flights a week, carrying up to 2,000 passengers from across Europe and the Middle East. “We consider the decision a form of collective punishment by the Iraqi government,” said one Kurdish politician.
Additionally, the Iraqi government has cut off the Kurdish region’s share of medical supplies since the takeover. Iraq’s Cabinet is also planning to slash the Kurdish share of the country’s revenue in the 2018 budget - further evidence of collective punishment for the September referendum.
The Trump Administration’s public refusal to take sides between the Iraqi state and the Kurdish regional government, effectively green-lighting the Iraqi offensive, was really a veiled admission of powerlessness. The US is locked into support for the al-Abadi government, even as it has to watch the growth in influence of Iranian-backed militias which did a lot of the fighting.
Patrick Cockburn, who has written extensively about the region, described the loss of Kirkuk as “ a crippling blow to Kurdish independence”. A greater danger is that if attempts to secure national rights through the ballot box are met with state repression, independence supporters may seek other means.