Catalonia versus Crimea

Private article, in no way meant to reflect views of BBC

Both referendums were not recognised internationally and that’s where the likeness usually stops. In fact, the very idea of comparing Catalonia 2014/17 to Crimea 2014 really gets some people’s geopolitical goat. Just see the attack by the Atlantic Council think tank on a Bloomberg analysis piece by Leonid Bershidsky which charges in with the headline “The Only Thing Catalonia and Crimea Have in Common Is the Letter C”. That is patently true in economic terms (Crimea, population 1.9m, had GDP in 2014 of about 3.6bn euros; for Catalonia, population 7.5m, it was about 200bn) but is money really everything? If it is, no need to read any further.

Bershidsky argues Catalonia will fail where Crimea succeeded if only because Catalans don’t have a military power at their back. If that isn’t enough, they have a eurozone telling them, with the odd exception (like Belgium), to pipe down and stop rocking the Spanish boat just when it’s afloat again. Plus the only oil in Catalonia is the stuff literally on the table and any muscular Russians ascending the Ramblas are more likely to be innocent gay tourists than covert marines.

I drank overpriced Coca Cola beside some of the former in a cafe in Barcelona (“Did they really just charge us 50 bucks for that?” ”It would seem so”) and I got to know quite a bit about the latter in Sevastopol (“A marine does twice the work of an ordinary soldier”) but that is just in passing. What I’m going to give here are my personal impressions of the two referendums. First, let’s place them.

Sun, sea and grievances

A sun-kissed region lapped by the sea… A land of wine beloved of tourists… A people set apart by geography… A great port that once endured the horrors of siege…

Depending on your route, Black Sea or Med, Sevastopol or Barcelona, you could have been talking about the same place not so long ago.

When Freddie Mercury was recording Barcelona “like a jewel in the sun” back in the late 1980s, Spain was putting the fascist years behind it with a liberal, Socialist government at the helm. Catalonia was getting used to autonomy again after 50 years of repression.

On the other side of Europe, Crimea was still the balmy summer holiday destination of millions of Soviet citizens. Moscow punk Petya Mamonov growled about standing “hot and wet” and skint in a phone booth in his song Crimea but it was only rock and roll.

A few years later, Soviets became Russians and Ukrainians. Crimea, a Russian territory only attached to Ukraine in 1954 when it was all one country and boders didn’t matter much, suddenly found itself outside Moscow’s orbit.

For the next two decades, Russians muddled by in Crimea with the suspicion that the money in brave new Ukraine, new investment at any rate, was passing them by while state corruption was just putting on a new set of clothes. If it wasn’t the poorest region in Ukraine, it lagged behind industrialised parts of the north like Donetsk. At the same time, the “great and mighty” Russian language had to contend with official disapproval even though “everybody spoke Russian”, not Ukrainian, as Crimeans told me with some bitterness in 2014 (to be honest, in parts of southern Russia like Rostov I find it hard to tell the difference when locals speak).

Language was a sore point in post-Franco Catalonia too as Catalan jostled for the same status locally as Spanish. In the end, the Spanish street names were translated and the language enjoyed a renaissance.

The real ill-feeling arguably started with the financial crisis of 2008. “Spain is robbing us” became a running theme among Catalan nationalists as the economy reeled regionally and nationally, and corruption cases multiplied. For some, Spain was a “crooked, shitty country”, as one Barcelona resident put it to me, and they wanted shot of it.

Pride and relief

The run-up to the two votes could hardly have been more different.

In Crimea, in the space of a couple of weeks, separatists unilaterally called and held a referendum on reuniting with Russia after locking down the local Ukrainian authorities with the support of Russian troops (already there because of Moscow’s military bases). What campaigning there was, was heavily pro-Russian. Every hostile utterance from the Maidan stage in Kiev was seized upon and amplified by reunification supporters. OSCE and UN election observers quite reasonably stayed away from a ballot regarded by the international community as a fig leaf to cover a staggering act of annexation by Russia.

Reporting from Crimea, March 2014

I visited three polling stations on voting day, 16 March — two in Sevastopol and one in Bakhchisarai — and spoke to voters in Yevpatoriya. The polling stations in Sevastopol were busy and voters appeared relaxed and cheerful. Electors were less in evidence in Bakhchisarai, where there is a sizable Tatar minority. I noticed no sign of security forces or coercion at any of the polling stations but why would there be when opinion polls had for years indicated a solid majority of Crimeans in favour of reunification?

Patriotic sentiment aside, events in Kiev, where the elected pro-Russian president had been forced out of office by huge street protests, thus scuppering Vladimir Putin’s plans to woo Ukraine away from the EU and Nato, had cast the referendum in some people’s minds as a choice between the lesser of two evils, Russian order or Ukrainian chaos. A family I interviewed over lunch in Yevpatoriya seemed quite wise to both arguments when they made up their minds.

Reunification rally in Sevastopol

The outcome, nearly 97% in favour of reunification on a turnout of 83%, sounds quite incredible and, without the mechanisms of a legal vote in place, cannot be verified. All I can say is that I saw real elation on the streets of Sevastopol and Yalta in the days that followed: an almost tangible current of pride in being part of Russia again and relief that the secession had passed off almost bloodlessly. It’s a pride which covers like static electricity the very fabric of Sevastopol, a city Russians have fought and died for again and again since the Crimean War.

Pride and indignation

Two things have impressed me deeply about Catalan independence activists these past three years: their ingenuity and capacity for organisation.

Starting from the position that peaceful persuasion alone can achieve what Basque bombers could not, they have built a magnificent, popular propaganda machine for their cause, iconising objects like the ballot box and the humble printer in a hundred witty ways (add a lone-star flag, a smartphone and a truncheon, and one day there will surely be a museum exhibition explaining the Catalan independence moment in 5 objects) to press their claim for self-determination, staging and draping in streets, photo-bombing social media, leaving amostly hostile traditional media standing. Their grassroots movements can get out supporters by the avenue-ful in a matter of hours. With co-ordinated tee-shirts they create political human mosaics to rival Olympic Games openings. No wonder Spanish justice has gone for the grassroots leaders first in its attempt to mow back the spring meadow.

While I wasn’t in Catalonia on referendum day this year (I arrived the morning after), I was for the November vote of 2014, watching the banned vote unfold at a Barcelona polling station. I registered real pride among the polling staff in holding a clean, transparent vote and have no reason to believe their commitment to democratic values was any different this month, for all the best efforts of the police to stop them.


But, yes, it was another outlawed vote and the outcome, while very plausible, cannot be verified. No OSCE, no UN. No international support of any consequence for the referendum, neither from Juncker nor Trump, while Putin points to the West’s support for Kosovo breaking away from Serbia (which Spain did not endorse) and says it has only itself to blame for encouraging separatism, the obvious subtext being that it should apply the same standards, accept Crimea’s re-inclusion in Russia and lift the sanctions.

Catalan independence supporters are circulating a strident, highly charged English-language video appealing for international solidarity. Whether by design or not, it mirrors a Maidan video, also fronted by a young woman, also portraying a popular revolt in terms of human rights. While propaganda, the Catalan video does capture the very real indignation at the refusal of the world to intervene meaningfully in the dispute.

The H-bomb

Happiness. That’s what I found in common in both places.

Walking around Barcelona just after the referendum, looking at the delighted teenagers hanging out on Plaza de Catalunya wearing their starry separatist flags; listening to the older, dustier but fear-free crowd noisily picketing Spanish National Police headquarters a few streets away, slugging from their Estrella beer bottles; hearing the victory horns of cars crossing the upper Ramblas; I couldn’t help but think back to the elation in Sevastopol, people strolling around the waterfront in their best clothes, faces radiant in the spring sun; cars with flags honking about the streets at night.

Sure, there were differences. Vox pops in Crimea were a challenge as people used to an unsympathetic international press clammed up (one angry drinker was only held back by his mates when he saw me working on the pavement one night). But vox pops with independence supporters in Catalonia dropped into my hands like leaves from the plane trees.

In Crimea it was more the happiness of relief than expectation. In Catalonia, expectation lifted the soul.

These are only my personal impressions and you should understand that I tend to take my life hacks from the Rolling Stones and the Roman Catholic Church. Which finally brings me to the Stones playlist for the gig they played at Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium just before the referendum. Yes, they really did play Street Fighting Man. Perhaps even more incredibly, they told Barcelona, You Can’t Always Get What You Want. However, listen to that song’s great, consoling rejoinder: “But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

I hardly know what Crimeans are thinking these days (it’s been three and a half years) but Catalans – Catalans are trying.