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Catalonia, Iraq, and Ambazonia: The Separatist Epidemic

With news of the separatist tensions rising, if not reaching a breaking point altogether, in Catalonia as they pressure Spain to recognize their independence, it must be stated that other regions are facing similar issues as well. Iraq and Ambazonia, two other countries probably more known for their troubles than a first-world, developed, OECD nation like Spain, have issues of their own, with smaller factions looking to assert their autonomy and secede from the jurisdictions of their formal national governments. However, this begs the question: is separatism an epidemic at this point in time, and furthermore, what drives a group to seek their own status as a nation-state in this era? 

The Catalan Conflict

As tensions spark in the whole world, the one on the cover of most newspapers these past few weeks is the Catalan conflict. But what is Catalonia, and why is it so important?

Catalonia ranks as one of Spain’s 10 richest regions with a high GDP, a large concentration of renowned companies’ social headquarters, and constant  tourism. Yet, Catalonia’s different cultural and historical baggage gives it a peculiar identity of not being entirely at one with its identity as a Spanish region.  Catalonia existed as a sovereign state prior to the birth of the Spanish state in the 15th century and has always been a restless region due to its location between Spain and France. However, regardless of its geographic affiliation, Catalan identity was still present but with time, Catalans integrated more and more with the Spanish culture and language. When Catalonia saw its cultural Renaissance in the 19th Century, the social changes that took hold ushered a will for political autonomy as well as separatism. Under the Spanish Republic in 1931, Catalonia obtained a broad autonomy which was quickly revoked when Franco came to power. Franco’s rule endangered Catalonia’s culture with his various attempts to annihilate it. Catalonia remained culturally sound and became a key republican stronghold during the Spanish Civil War. After Franco’s death, Catalonia obtained its own parliament and executive (Generalitat), seizing the benefits of broader autonomy. This autonomy was reduced once again in 2010 after a wave of Spanish nationalism. In 2012, a pro-independence majority was  elected in the Catalan parliament which prompted a regional, non-binding referendum vote on independence.  The results of the vote were overwhelmingly supportive of Catalan independence. On October 1st,2017, a new referendum was organized asking Catalonians the same question.

This referendum is what brought Spain to the front of the media scene these past few weeks since this vote sparked tensions between Catalonia and the Spanish central government. Two key characters of these tensions are Mariano Rajoy, President of the Government of Spain and Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia. The central government is criticized for its violent response to the referendum and Catalonian demonstrations that followed.

Communication between Catalonia and the Spanish government is non-existent which further stirs the tensions. Both neglect and ignore each other other. It was Rajoy who stated in an earlier speech “for the dialog to be possible, it has to stay legal.” Meanwhile Puigdemont, the Catalan leader, says that Rajoy is “violating their fundamental rights” and is a “totalitarian”.

While the Catalan vote was being held, the Spanish police held siege over voting stations and stopped ballots. Nevertheless, Catalonians managed to vote, with a voter turnout of 43.03%. The votes show an overwhelming majority with 2 044 000 votes For (90%) and 177 000 Against. However we should interpret these numbers carefully, as they represent less than half of the Catalan population. Furthermore, the fact that the Spanish police removed ballot boxes also made the vote count difficult to determine. Now, the Catalan parliament has 48 hours after the end of the vote to make a unilateral declaration of independence. But even if they do so, the Spanish government will probably repress it violently in continuation of their policies of unity and remaining as one country. Puigdemont has for now delayed parliamentary sessions and has not yet announced anything as he calls for negotiations with Madrid.

If Catalonia were to declare independence, Madrid stated they would use the never-before-used Article 155, allowing Madrid to take over autonomous regions.

As the Guardian justly points out, it is not only national wealth that is at stake; it is Spanish unity and identity all together.

Of course, every story has international players. Catalonia reached out and asked for international mediation, but no measure or even statement was made regarding the issue. Taking a closer look at Spain and the European Union, things become more complex: France stated that it would not recognize Catalonia as a state which therefore makes it unable – if it becomes one – to meet the requirements for membership. Even if France was compliant, Catalonia would have to get Spain to agree. Furthermore, all of the rare sympathetic statements made on the issue were urging Spain to open dialogue at all levels of Spanish politics, with international and Spanish officials pushing towards this declaration.

Economically, most would agree that Catalan independence would plunge the country in a complex situation, with unknown yet very serious consequences. Economic instability is known to make investments flee, and these independence tensions are getting dangerous as much for the Spanish economy as is it for the Catalans alone. If the Catalans declare their independence, they will also need to leave the Eurozone which could be devastating.

It is still unknown which turn this conflict will take in what the mayor of Barcelona has called “the worst institutional crisis since democracy began.”

Kurdish Conflict

On the 25th Of September, 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan held an independence referendum. Even though it was announced to be non-binding, the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) wanted it to be recognized due to the high number of votes cast (93%) in favour of this choice It has been claimed that a positive result would start the process of state-building and negotiations with the Iraqi government. However, they do not want to declare independence right away. Meanwhile, the Referendum was declared illegal by the Iraqi central government, much to the consternation of Kurdish officials. 

The Kurdistan Regional Government was established after various territorial gains made during the Iraqi civil war. Now, Kurdistan has its own government, schools, and a security force – the pesh merga. Its economy relies mostly on oil from Erbil and Kirkuk.

The Kurds are deemed to be the largest ethnic group without a nation-state, with around 30 million scattered around 5 different countries.

Iraqi Kurdistan has tense relations with its own Iraqi central government, and their neighbors as well. Even if throughout time they have banded together, Kurds have been the victims of major ethnic cleansing campaigns in Iraq during the 1970s and 80s for having sided with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The Kurds then went on to be protected by the US. Tensions with neighboring states are even worse. Turkey is particularly antagonistic towards the Kurds within their own borders, and as a result they are culturally and politically repressed, with pro-independence militants seen as terrorists. Logically, most of the country sees an independent Kurdistan as a potential threat, and Kurds worryirk that a potential Kurdish state will be met with retaliations and military force from the Turkish government. 

Syria, on the other hand, has its own independent ‘haven’ for Syrian Kurds (estimated at around 300, 000 before the war). This was won during the Syrian Civil War. It is located in the north east  near the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Having stayed neutral when it comes to Bashar al-Assad, they have globally been left alone. However, if the regime came to rule again, it would not be pleased by an independent and armed autonomous Kurdish region within its borders, and likely the set up and relative peace of this haven would cease to exist. 

Internationally, the US,while having been generously helped by the Kurds in the middle-east, never officially backed plans for an independent Kurdish state – as the New York Times judiciously points out. The US, depending on its alliances with Turkey and Iraq for regional stability and the coalition against ISIS, would not make the mistake of backing the Kurds up, as it would anger and potential destroy relationships with the governments of those two countries. 

The response to this event in Britain and the US was answered by a statement of “disappointment,” and later, a push to break a deal between Erbil and Baghdad.

Ambazonian Conflict

On the 1st of October, 2017, several independence protesters for Ambazonia were shot dead by the Cameroonian government. Ambaziona is a self-proclaimed, independent region located in the northern part of Cameroon. Its sovereignty has not been recognized by anybody yet. Ambazonia gets its name from Amba’s Bay, from a Bay in Southern Cameroon where most of the English-speaking population resides. Ambazonia declared its independence in 1984 following the name-change of the country from United Republic of Cameroon to Republic of Cameroon – a name adapted after its independence from the French, but only on the French part. This issue exists because when all the colonies were given independence, the French colony was more developed than the English one, creating a split. As a result, the English colony, when given independence, was only given the choice to either join Nigeria or Cameroon as part of a federation. The choice of getting their own independence was missing. Logically, residents of this region felt that the shift was excluding the English-speaking part of the population even if the government were to follow a bilingual policy. This conflict was already messy from the start, as 8 protestors were shot dead while demonstrating against political injustice and cultural and linguistic discrimination on the very first day. This serves to only prove the inflexibility of the President of Cameroon, Paul Biya. His military crackdown shows that peaceful dialog is not the way this conflict will be resolved. Given the conflict is still in its early stages, we have yet to discover how this will turn out.

Were these Conflicts Inevitable?

Identity is the fundamental pillar of a nation-state. When a state lacks a common history and has many different cultures (includes norms and values) and languages, this national identity is flawed, and in extreme cases non-existent. When a war or conflict approaches, it is what makes a country win or lose: Identity.

All of the separatists are lacking this fundamental element, and that is why these events were inevitable.

Catalonia does not share a history with Spain.  It was traded from kingdom to kingdom and had its own identity before joining the Spanish Empire. Its a similar story with the Kurds.  The Kurds, a very old people, with their own identity and culture, were divided into 5 areas, with little regard for their ethno-inguistic boundaries. As for Ambazonia, they were actually given the choice to join two countries with whom they didn’t share anything except the language for one and a little bit of culture for the other one.

Being the minority, the Ambazonian people  were discriminated against and sometimes persecuted further, fueling more rejection and a feeling of alienation. In the event of a war, they would not side with their central government. The Iraqi Kurds were a great example of this phenomenon when they fought alongside the Iranians in the Iran-Iraq war.

A great example of this identity crisis is the detention and disregard of specific flags, institutions,and  hymns, social systems. To be forced to forfeit these in order to forcedly pledge allegiance to a government with which you share little in common with is often the common root cause of these identity crises. The best example is social protection, which varies between countries, but is often the trust that ties a government and its citizens togerher. An example of this would be retirement and pension plans; I pay for you through my taxes, but I also expect that for example for familial protection I will be helped to buy my children supplies thanks to you (based on an insurance logic, or a pay as you go pension plan). Should something  of this system be intrinsically violated or unequal owing to the actual laws or structure of a federal government, obviously, the wronged party will feel the need to retaliate. 

This article doesn’t pretend to find a solution, it just analyses the obvious: Identity problems result in unhealthy government function.. How the problem should be resolved, is another question that is worth asking, but we should not forget that it is through history and its application of raison d’état that these problems arise, and will continue to arise as this is the basis of every state reasoning.

Julie Baron is a first year student at the University of Toronto studying economics and political science, and serving as a staff writer and Campus Liasions Lead at The Foreign Observer. She comes by way of France and Shanghai, and is fluent in French, English and Mandarin and enjoys studying political movements and travelling. 


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