Kurdistan and Catalonia both have long histories. That’s one reason many Kurds and Catalans argue that they deserve their own nation states.
Iraqi Kurds voted September 25, and it appears a majority support establishing an independent Kurdistan in what is now Iraqi Kurdistan. Though the referendum is advertised as “non-binding,” Kurdish leaders say the results will empower them to negotiate a “peaceful secession.”
On October 1, Catalans will vote on secession from Spain. Current polls indicate Catalan voters will narrowly reject secession. However, ham-handed Spanish attempts to halt the referendum have sparked a pro-secession uptick.
The Kurd and Catalan plebiscites share core issues: historical grievances, secession from internationally recognized states (respectively Iraq and Spain) and the possible creation of an independent state. Common ethnicity would be the unifying factor in the secessionists’ states. Ethno-nationalism contrasts with civic nationalism (e.g., U.S. nationalism) where the body politic’s unifying bond is not ethnicity, but shared citizenship in a democratic state established and operating under the rule of laws that protect the rights of individual citizens.
Catalan secessionists argue that Spain politically suppresses their unique identity and language. Prior to 1714 (when Spain’s Philip V took control) Catalans had their own state. Catalan complaints vaguely echo those of the Canadian Quebecois.
The Kurd complaint is more complex, reflecting their complicated situation. The Kurds ‘landlocked wedge of planet earth is a geographic “tweener”, divided among northern Iraq (Iraqi Kurdistan), northwestern Iran, northeastern Syria and a major chunk of southeastern Turkey.
Kurds argue that history demonstrates they must defend and govern themselves. Every other ethnic or political group in their region has proven to be either an enemy or an unreliable ally. Kurds believe they were wronged after WW1. The Treaty of Sevres (August 1920) promised the Kurdish people a state or perhaps several autonomous states conveniently advised by allied political officials. However, feckless Western leaders and the creation of the Turkish Republic denied Kurds their state.
Despite similar objectives, the likely consequences of Kurd and Catalan secession differ greatly.
Kurdish independence risks another regional war in the Middle East, one involving Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Though extremists throughout Europe could exploit passions stirred by Catalan secession, Catalan independence risks a war of words and street protests. If it actually occurs, lawsuits over finances, infrastructure and non-Catalan rights will turn European and international courts into judicial battle grounds. Fear of detrimental economic consequences and an appreciation of Canadian political stability among clear thinkers kept Quebec in Canada. Economic loss may keep Catalonia in Spain. The Financial Times estimated that independence could “shrink” Catalonia’s economy by 30 percent.
The Kurds, however, already confront war. The Islamic State is now on the verge of elimination in northern Iraq. However, ISIS’ 2014 invasion savaged Kurdish cities despite stiff resistance from Kurdish militias.
When ISIS invaded, Masoud Barzani, president of the Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was already advocating Kurdish independence but the Iraqi Shia-led parties dominating the Baghdad government ignored Kurdish interests. Last week Barzani said the KRG’s “failed partnership” with the Shia Arab-dominated government was over because the Shia parties had turned Iraq into a “theocratic, sectarian state. ” The secession referendum would start the process of “negotiating independence.”
The prospect of peaceful secession, however, is dim. Baghdad isn’t the only opponent. Turkey and Iran both fear Kurdish separatism. Kurds are the largest ethnic group in southeastern Turkey. Since the formation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey has said that it will never permit an independent Kurdish state. Turkey is already imposing economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan and said it might invade if the KRG seeks independence.
Kurdish nationalism is a powerful force. However, given the opposition, some analysts argue that the KRG is bluffing. It will forgo independence in exchange for increased autonomy within Iraq, control of the city of Kirkuk and a fair share of the oil revenue. We shall see.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and an author.