Why it is misleading to draw close parallels between the two.
Spain is today (Friday, Oct. 27) facing its worst crisis since democracy was established after the end of Franco’s dictatorship in 1975. Catalonia’s parliament has voted to declare independence from Spain, with Spain’s senate immediately responding by voting to invoke Article 155 of the country’s constitution, thereby temporarily taking direct rule over the Autonomous Community. According to reports from Madrid, the government in Catalonia will now be dismissed.
The holding of the referendum for the independence of Catalonia on October 1 — ruled to be illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court — and the violence used by Spanish police has triggered a series of events that have made the world look at the eastern region of Spain with deep concern. The demonstrations, both against and in favor of independence, have grown in recent weeks, with both sides playing their cards on the Catalan issue.
In this context, in recent days, weeks, months and years, politicians and legal experts associated with PDeCAT, the nationalist and pro-independence party of Carles Puigdemont — president of the Autonomous Community of Catalonia — have made unfortunate remarks and comparisons between Catalonia and Kosovo’s path for independence.
However, making allusions to Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence or comparing this with Catalonia’s secessionist efforts are misleading when considering the unique features of the former southern Yugoslav province. These two cases are completely different, and have very few similarities.
"Speaking Catalan as the first language and identifying yourself as Catalan does not automatically make you a supporter of independence, and vice versa."
Firstly, let’s look at the specifics of the Catalan people in order to understand their demands for independence. Whether or not Catalans can be considered a different ethnic group from Spaniards is hard to assess, and therefore can hardly be compared with Albanians and Serbs. However, what is clear is that the idea of identity plays an important (but not unique) role for supporters of independence.
The Catalan language, its traditions and history, make Catalonia a particular case, but not strictly unique from other regions in Spain, whose constitution considers that the state is composed of different nationalities, each with their own right to autonomy. It is precisely this diversity that makes Spain a very decentralized country, giving the 17 Autonomous Communities a great range of powers. Catalans generally speak Spanish and Catalan, with a minor population able to speak Occitan. These three languages are similar, as their roots all come from the Latin language.
However, these features do not play a unique role in the process, and can be interpreted by both pro-independence and anti-independence supporters differently. In other words, speaking Catalan as the first language and identifying yourself as Catalan does not automatically make you a supporter of independence, and vice versa. There are other political and economic elements to take into account.
Catalonia enjoys a high degree of autonomy compared to other regions of Spain. Over the last century, due to the singularities of the Catalan society — its language as well as its culture and traditions — Catalonia has obtained the right to discuss local and regional issues through their own bodies (i.e. the Catalan parliament). The Spanish Constitution and the 2006 Catalan Statute of Autonomy, have also granted the Autonomous Community of Catalonia management of its own educational and health care systems, its own police force (Mossos d’Esquadra) as well as management of correctional centers and road traffic.
Despite Catalonia having no autonomy in the field of foreign policy, in recent years the Catalan Parliament has pushed to establish more than 10 Catalan delegations in foreign countries in order to promote Catalan culture abroad. In short, Catalonia’s degree of autonomy is one of the highest in Europe, and it is a long way from the situation that Kosovo went through in the last decade of the 20th century.
"Evidently, Kosovo’s path for independence did not follow the same pattern."
Kosovo’s autonomy — previously granted by Yugoslavia’s 1974 Constitution — was revoked by Slobodan Milosevic in 1990. Albanians were dismissed from public institutions and education in the Albanian language was forced underground after it was largely banned by Serbian authorities. Hundreds of thousands of Kosovars were also forced to leave their homes fearing persecution and attempted ethnic cleansing by the central government.
It is true that the excessive force of the Spanish national police on October 1 reminded us all of an undemocratic state and the violence of Yugoslav authorities in the 1990s. However, apart from these unfortunate and avoidable events carried out by the Spanish national police and military police (Guardia Civil) acting under instruction from the central government in Madrid, there have been no signs of political or cultural oppression in Catalonia; pro-independence Catalans have not been subjected to state oppression since the end of Franco’s dictatorship and enjoy their rights freely.
For example, school and university courses are delivered in Catalan and Spanish, providing every student the possibility of choosing the language in which he or she wishes to learn. This diversity has resulted in a prosperous economic situation that sees Catalonia representing 20 percent of Spain’s total GDP.
Economic advancement has been mainly driven by Catalonia’s tourism industry, which represents a quarter of foreign tourism in Spain and exports and imports that represent a quarter of Spain’s total trade balance. As a result of this economic advancement, banks and multinationals have established their headquarters in Catalonia, placing it as one of Spain’s Autonomous Communities with the highest level of foreign investment.
In general, Catalans enjoy better life conditions than in the southern regions of Spain, something that has been reflected in its unemployment rate being significantly lower than in other regions of Spain for years.
It is the emphasis on the economic aspect that is crucial here, as it is well known that the pro-independence Catalan movement concentrates and justifies its demands for independence on Catalonia’s disproportionate tax contribution to poorer parts of Spain. Their main argument, after the Constitutional Court in 2010 overthrew parts of the 2006 Statute of Autonomy that related to fiscal autonomy, is that only through independence will Barcelona be able to control its own finances
Evidently, Kosovo’s path for independence did not follow the same pattern. For years, Kosovo’s economy was the weakest in the former Yugoslavia, and was largely sustained through remittances from abroad and the production of the mining industry. Kosovo also benefited from the economic output of other regions in Yugoslavia, which is strictly opposite to the Catalan case. Irrespectively, it is a reality that Yugoslav authorities barely developed Kosovo’s industry in the 1970s and 1980s, resulting in the emigration of Kosovo’s Serbs and Albanians to foreign countries in Europe and Serbia.
Certainly, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence that followed years later cannot be understood without the conflict and the prior repression.
Not insignificantly, there is also of course the issue of whether the Catalan people actually want independence. According to the results of the October 1 referendum, only 38.7 percent of Catalans support an autonomous and independent Catalonia outside of Spain; while 90 percent of those who voted supported independence, turnout was just 43 percent of the Catalan population, with many of those opposing independence electing to stay away from the poll. Today’s declaration of independence based on these results goes against any principle of democracy, thereby violating citizens’ rights.
While no referendum was held on Kosovo’s independence before the February 17, 2008 declaration, one was held in 1991. This cannot be placed in the same context as Catalonia’s situation nowadays as it showed — using the same measure as above — that more than 85 percent of the population supported the creation of a new Kosovar state; this referendum was admittedly boycotted by the minority Serb population.
Furthermore, the political situation in which this referendum was held has no possible resemblance to the Catalan referendum because, as previously argued, Kosovo’s autonomy had already been removed at the time of the Kosovar plebiscite and Albanian public servants had been dismissed from public institutions.
The repression towards Albanians, led Kosovar Albanians to a war for self-determination that consequently resulted in gross human rights violations by both parties to the conflict. Certainly, Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence that followed years later cannot be understood without the conflict and the prior repression. Nobody in Spain, in Madrid or Barcelona, want to see political hostilities break into a bloody civil war.
However, this fragile situation that requires smart leaders has fallen into the hands of incompetent and stubborn politicians that have been unable to sit at the same table to discuss and generate a creative dialogue to find a solution. The bloody-minded approach from both parties — not helped by King Felipe VI’s own intervention — has already caused deep fragmentation within Spanish, and Catalan, society that will not easily be healed.
The Spanish government, as the highest central authority of the state, urgently needs to makes reforms in order for all Catalans to feel represented and thus heal some of the divides. These will be unlikely if Madrid does not take actions to reform a Constitution that is already outdated. By the same token, the Catalan government should stop misleading the public on the possible consequences of an independent Catalonia, which are uncertain at best.
And any comparison with Kosovo should be dropped once and for all.