Well, from the point of view of the Australian media, Catalonia and Kurdistan are both “there”, both ineradicably foreign. But there’s nonetheless a difference in approach. The Catalans are Europeans, “people like us”, so their independence movement is taken seriously – more seriously, perhaps than it deserves.
The Kurds, on the other hand, are exotic, so they tend to be treated as colorful background to a story about geopolitics, rather than subjects in their own right. Even when their patience and restraint (and for that matter their success in state-building) are acknowledged, there’s a patronising tone to it.*
And to some extent, of course, different treatment is justified. Bad behavior by the Catalans is more reprehensible precisely because, as Europeans who have benefited from decades of peace and democracy, they should know better. Kurdistan has had no such advantages; it has been fought over and around throughout the lifetimes of its inhabitants. They could easily be forgiven a degree of impatience, not to mention a lack of familiarity with democratic norms.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the contrast between this week’s two independence referenda, one actual and one proposed (although both “unauthorised”), reflects so well on the Kurds and so badly on the Catalans.
The Catalan saga – which in its present incarnation dates back five years, to the election of a pro-independence government in November 2012 – has been marked by a remarkable degree of pig-headedness on both sides. Any reasonably disinterested outside observer can see the obvious way forward: talks between the Catalans and the central government on a fresh autonomy deal, with the promise of an officially-sanctioned referendum if no agreement can be reached.
Instead, the centre-right Spanish government has maintained a blanket opposition to any referendum, ever. In the last week, evidently sensing that things were spiralling out of control, it has tried to strike a conciliatory tone, offering dialogue with the separatists that might lead to an upgraded autonomy – but only if the referendum plans are abandoned first.
The separatists, on the other hand, persist in arguing that their 2015 election win, with a minority of the vote, gives them a mandate to push ahead with a referendum despite adverse rulings from the constitutional court. But a makeshift vote on Sunday, which is the best they might be able to manage, will not advance the process at all: a low turnout will produce a decisive “yes” vote (because opponents of independence will just stay home) as it did in 2014, but it will have no credibility.
Catalan leaders are starting to admit that even if the referendum goes ahead, a “yes” vote will mean negotiations, not unilateral action. In 2014 it was possible to believe that there was a clear underlying majority for independence. Three years of economic recovery later, that belief is no longer tenable. A regional government with a large majority behind it could defy Madrid and dare it to provoke a civil war, but the moment has come and gone. Only an extraordinary provocation from the central government could bring it back.
A large majority, however, is exactly what Iraq’s Kurdish leadership has got. Last Sunday’s independence referendum produced a “yes” vote of 92%, on a turnout of 72.6%. That’s no surprise at all; no-one has ever disputed that the Kurds would prefer to be independent. It’s not quite in the league of South Sudan, which voted 98.8% for independence in 2011, but it’s still pretty convincing.
But the Kurdistan government has been quite clear that it was not seeking a mandate for unilateral action, but rather strengthening its negotiating position. As I put it last month, “having been educated in a much tougher environment, [the Kurds] may well prove to be better politicians [than the Catalans], and more alive to the risk of letting their own strategy run away with them.”
The difference in the level of pro-independence support, however, has led to a difference in the reaction of the central government. While the Spanish authorities are (finally) sounding a bit more conciliatory – because they know they are in a strong position – the Iraqi government has stepped up its rhetoric, banning international flights to Kurdistan and promising (according to the BBC) to “impose Iraq’s rule in all districts of the region with the force of the constitution.”
Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked and surrounded by unsympathetic neighbors. Although the referendum has been backed by the likes of Israel, Russia and Julian Assange, it cannot hope to go it alone unless either Turkey or the Iraqi government (preferably both) is willing to turn a blind eye. At present, the chance of that looks remote.
So the Kurds promise negotiations because they have no realistic alternative. Secure at least in the knowledge of overwhelming popular support, they have little choice but to play a waiting game, stopping short of taking any irrevocable steps until some new opportunity comes along.
* A tone that I have tried to avoid, probably without complete success.