The irresistible force and the immovable objects
As it stands, however, scenes of an organized vote and jubilant Iraqi Kurds stand in sharp contrast to shocking images of Spanish police beating Catalan voters (injuring about 900 of them), blocking access to polling stations and confiscating ballot boxes.
The irony of calling the Catalan referendum a “mockery of democracy” while violently trying to block it was clearly lost on the Spanish government. Equally ironic is Madrid’s attempt to belittle the referendum by citing a low turnout of 43 percent, when Spanish authorities went out of their way to physically stop Catalans from voting.
But while the conduct of the two referendums was vastly different, both Catalans and Kurds now face the perils of translating a vote on independence into actual statehood. Both their national governments dismiss the referendums as unconstitutional, and have vowed to block and punish a declaration of independence.
So far neither the Catalans nor the Kurds are backing down, though the former seem to be reacting more stridently, amid reports and speculation that they could declare independence this week.
The Kurds, on the other hand, seem to be taking a more measured approach, organizing presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for Nov. 1. They are either biding their time while reading the geopolitical terrain, or ensuring stronger state foundations before declaring independence.
Whether in Spain or Iraq, both sides of the divide face harsh and inescapable realities, whether they choose to acknowledge that or not. Madrid and Baghdad are stubbornly refusing to budge, not least because of widespread domestic (and in Iraq’s case, regional) opposition to territorial division, as well as the costs of losing economically important regions.
As such, from the viewpoint of the Spanish and Iraqi governments, they have much to lose and nothing to gain from backing down. But they must realize that Catalan and Iraqi Kurdish leaders may be as unable to cave as they are unwilling to do so. Having fanned separatist sentiment and promised statehood for years, backtracking — at least significantly — would probably be political suicide.
Simply put, once the genie of self-determination is let out of the lamp, it is extremely difficult to put back in. But this is also a limitation for Madrid and Baghdad. The more they make threats, the more they galvanize separatism and hostility in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan toward their authority, which will be increasingly viewed as foreign, oppressive and unrepresentative.
This view would be hugely amplified — even among Catalans and Kurds opposed to statehood — with the use of force. This would be a public relations nightmare for Madrid and Baghdad — as well as Ankara and Tehran if they joined in alongside Iraqi forces — on the international stage.
Spain would face the quagmire of repressing a largely peaceful movement that would be limited to civil disobedience. Meanwhile, Iraq would face a potentially full-blown military conflict against well-organized and battle-hardened Kurdish forces that could be directly supported by their ethnic kin in neighboring Turkey, Iran and Syria. And a successful outcome in purely military terms would do nothing to quell civilian opposition.
But for any referendum on, or declaration of, independence to be successfully implemented, regional and international recognition are vital — and in the case of both Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, lacking.
Kurds and Catalans seek independence but have no viable plan to achieve it, while Iraq and Spain have no plausible strategy to win the hearts and minds of those they insist on continuing to rule.
The latter region is landlocked by four neighbors, all of whom vehemently oppose its independence, and could choke a Kurdish state economically if they so wished — something Kurdish officials have openly acknowledged. Indeed, though Turkey, Iraq and Iran have threatened or implied various countermeasures, they have placed greatest emphasis on economic sanctions as the most effective and least risky of their options.
In announcing and preparing for the referendum, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) may have been counting on regional divisions thwarting a united front against statehood, but the vote has actually created such a front among its neighbors.
Israel is the only country in the Middle East that has declared its support for Kurdish independence. But its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has barred Israeli officials from commenting on the issue, no doubt to avoid upsetting Turkey, which had condemned Israel’s support for the Kurds, and with which Tel Aviv had only recently patched up relations after years of tensions.
And though the US and Russia support Iraqi Kurdish forces in the fight against Daesh, Washington came out against the referendum, and neither government (nor others worldwide) would risk jeopardizing relations with key regional allies by recognizing a Kurdish state.
Governments will face the same consideration via-a-vis Catalonia. Thus far, none have come out in support of its independence from Madrid, and this is unlikely to change, certainly not within the EU or NATO, both of which include Spain, which would block Catalonian membership of the European bloc.
With regard to Iraqi Kurdistan, there is currently a seemingly irreconcilable standoff, with one side refusing to accept a future as part of Iraq, and the other side adamantly rejecting a divorce.
This is not necessarily the case with Catalonia if it does not declare independence this week. It could still be enticed by greater autonomy and more favorable terms, particularly regarding Catalans’ legitimate grievance that they give more to the national government than they get back.
But Madrid’s obstinacy could take the situation past the point of no return, and a Catalan declaration of independence would probably trigger Spain’s threat to revoke its autonomy altogether.
In both cases, opposing sides have painted themselves into a corner. Those who seek independence need, but currently lack, a viable plan to achieve it. And those who seek to deny independence have so far presented no plausible strategy to win the hearts and minds of those they insist on continuing to rule.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.
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