After referendum, Catalonia is left with bad options

It is no surprise, Catalan independence referendum got a clear backing in Slovenia. Not so much at the foreign office but in most political parties, media and common people. How could it be otherwise. Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia 26 years ago, also after a referendum and later after a brief war with central authorities.

But those were different times and circumstances. Spain of today is not like Yugoslavia at that time was. A communist state with faltering economy, nationalistic powers in each republic tearing it appart, at a time when the entire communist block was disintegrating. Sure, many in western capitals were not sympathetic to independence aspirations of Slovenia and Croatia, both republics willing to forsake the common state, but it also was not that dangerous to them, as Spanish case could prove to be. And, besides, both republics had their armed forces and could defend themselves, which actually happened. In Slovenia it was a brief struggle, in Croatia much more bloody. And then war moved to Bosnia and Hercegovina and later to Kosovo. Where once was one state, now we have seven.

Spanish authorities showed a heavy hand in dealing with Catalan independence aspirations. Unlike UK, where Scottish referendum was held without interference, in Catalonia police tried to forcibly prevent the referendum, injuring many hundreds of Catalans. No level of propaganda could hide all the videos and photos of their violence. It was a case of brute force agains peacefull voters and if any violence came from the side of the Catalans, one should bear in mind, that would never be the case, if the police wasn’t there, trying to prevent them from voting.

The question if Catalonia is better off with a large degree of autonomy in Spain or independent, is a question for people of Catalonia to decide. Independence is not always a road to success, as many people in Slovenia will gladly tell you. Problems don’t get solved just because your capital is no longer Belgrade, but Ljubljana, as in Slovenian case, or Barcelona instead of Madrid. Foreign elites get replaced by local ones and money still gets spend and most are unlucky because of taxation and waste, even if a more prosperous part of the country goes its own way. Like Slovenia in Yugoslavia, Catalonia is on average richer than Spain. With independence come new institutions, army, foreign policy and so on and they all require funding. A rational debate could swing Catalan voters either way, toward independence or toward staying in Spain. But, as said, that is something for people there to decide in a free, democratic referendum, not in Madrid.

A graffiti in the Catalan city of Olot, made after a cover in the Slovenian magazine Mladina

Spanish authorities should have taken a different road. Instead of sending in the police, they should have tried to persuade Catalans to stay in Spain, offering maybe a bit more autonomy on top of everything the province allready enjoys. They should have enganged in a rational debate, emphasizing all the benefits of staying in Spain and costs of being independent. Not threatening, but offering a friendly hand, would have been far more persuasive. What happened instead, was evidence to Catalans, that Spain is not a mother, but a wicked stepmother, ready to use violence against a disobedient child.

Proponents of Catalan independence won easily despite and probably because of police violence. That does not mean Catalonia will soon become an independent and recognized state. Its president, Carles Puigdemont, declared independence, but postponed it, leaving room for negotiations. Prime minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy didn’t show any willingness to to that and reactions from European capitals, or lack of them, showed just how isolated Catalans are. Their secession could lead to many similar moves across Europe, bringing with it instability, something nobody really wants.

In the end it all comes down to how much strenght someone has and if there is ability to use it. In the case of Slovenia and Croatia, independence would never have been achieved, were it not for their armed forces. When the tanks of the federal army started to burn, it was a whole new game. In short, independence was fought over and won militarily. One wonders if people of Catalonia are able or ready to go that way. Spain is not Yugoslavia and it has enough strenght to win, while Catalans can hardly get support from abroad. No big power has an interest to help defeat Spain. No, not even Russia, country now regulary accused of formenting divisions within Europe.

What remains are bad options for Catalans. Peacefull resistance will not work, so they must try to negotiate, hoping authorities in Madrid understand, going the violent way is not an option. This means, independence is virtualy off the table, but more autonomy is not.