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2017 in Review: A Year of Separatism Anxiety?

26 Dec 2017
By Aleksandar Pavković
Kurds celebrate the outcome of their referendum

This was a year in which cartographers, among others, were put on notice as the world’s borders came under threat. From Iraq to Spain, separatism was in vogue.

Referenda and their aims

On 25 September, the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, and on 1 October, the Catalan regional government in Spain, held referendums asking voters whether they wanted to see their regions become independent states. It is unusual to have two referenda on independence at the same time on two different continents; yet this appears to be only a coincidence.

The Kurdish government did not intend to proclaim independence immediately, but rather to gain legitimate grounds to do so at a time that it deems appropriate. By contrast, following the referendum in Catalonia, the majority of the representatives in its regional parliament declared the independence of the Republic of Catalonia from the Kingdom of Spain.

In both cases, less formal referenda were held beforein Kurdistan in 2005, and in Catalonia in 2014which, like the recent ones, produced large majorities for independence. In both cases, voters had been mobilised for years to support and vote for independence: for secessionists movements and their supporters, state independence is a symbol of the freedom and dignity for which their national group has allegedly yearned for many decades, if not centuries. Those who disagree usually do not participate in the referenda organised by secessionist movements.

Central government response

In both Spain and Iraq, the central government, backed by the judgments of their highest courts, proclaimed the referenda illegal. In both countries, the political elite is united in rejecting any independence claim. In such circumstances, a secessionist referendum with an almost guaranteed pro-independence result aims to show that the electorate in the region has, in effect, ‘withdrawn consent’ from the ‘host state’Spain and Iraq respectivelyand that the latter therefore has no legitimacy to rule over the region.

But since the ‘host state’ governments reject such referenda as valid ways of establishing legitimacy, the referendum can at best increase the costs of governing the region and to invite outside powersneighbouring states as well as the major powersto intervene in the dispute.

As these costs increase, and the host state government has to rely more and more on coercion and ultimately force, outside powers may, the secessionists hope, pressure the host state government to enter negotiations with the secessionist government and offer to mediate in the conflict. A similar secessionist strategy of denying legitimacy, provoking conflict and international intervention was, indeed, effective in securing independence of several states from Yugoslavia and, in 1971, of Bangladesh.

What could a referendum achieve?

It was far from clear this (northern) autumn that either regional government had a particular strategy in mind, be it escalation, or enticing international intervention. In neither case was there any attempt made to predict, plan and possibly counter the likely response of the central government and its international allies. In both cases, the major powersthe EU administration in the case of Catalonia and the US, Turkey and Iran  in the case of Kurdistanmade it very clear beforehand that they did not support any unilateral moves towards independence. In the latter case, the three key powers separately called for the referendum to be cancelled. And yet, the secessionist leaders went ahead with the referendum, regardless.

In response to the referendum, the Iraqi government, supported by the US, re-took by armed force the oil-rich territories around and including Kirkuk, which were earlier occupied by the Kurdish forces. Turkey and Iran temporarily closed their borders with Kurdistan and issued dire warnings to the Kurdish government.

The Spanish government, for its part, removed the Catalan government, called for new elections for the Catalan regional parliament, issued arrest warrants for and arrested the secessionist leaders located in Spain. Four ministers of the removed government, including the president of Catalonia, fled to Brussels attempting, in vain, to gather support for an EU intervention in Catalonia.

The Kurdish armed forces are in full control of the Kurdistan region and the Iraqi government has no means (and hence no intention) to bring the Kurdish government officials to trial.  Yet, in both cases the swift and forceful response of the host state government caught the secessionist leaders by surprise and, apparently backing down, they offered to “freeze” the referendum (Kurdistan) or claimed that their declaration of independence was only symbolic (Catalonia).

Independence suspended?

This suggests that at least some secessionist leaders in each region have shelvedperhaps temporarilytheir plans for independence. But this leaves in place popular secessionist movements, which will not abandon independence as their ultimate political goal. Both the ‘host states’ and their international allies will need to find a way to engage with these movements and their demands. Given the strength and popularity of the independence movements, repression does not seem to be a viable option, although some segments of the Shi’a political elite in Iraq may be inclined to try it.

As a result of the current setback, each movement may openly split into accommodating and non-accommodating factions or parties. Whether this will happen is yet to be seen. Such a split would allow the ‘host state’ to find an accommodating political partner which will, perhaps only conditionally, recognise its legitimacy and still be able to form sufficiently representative  or functional regional government.  ‘Til the next referendum perhaps?

The coming referenda

Independence referenda are planned in New Caledonia in 2018 and in Bougainville by 2020. In contrast to Spain and Iraq, France and Papua New Guinea have each agreed to accept the referenda and their results, provided that they fulfil the conditions set out in the agreements regulating them. The conditional acceptance of the referenda, while understandable, may provide an opportunity for disagreement and potential conflict of the kind we have seen in Spain and Iraq. Given their proximity to Australia, this may require the Australian government to pay closer attention to these two nearby referenda that are yet to come, than it has done to those already held in far away places.

Aleksandar Pavković is associate professor in politics and international relations in the Faculty of Arts at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.