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Kurds and Catalans: trying for a peaceful route to independence

REUTERS/Susana Vera
A woman holding up an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) during a protest on Monday, one day after the banned independence referendum in Barcelona.

What’s a people? What’s a nation? What’s a state? And when do they add up to a nation-state?

The Kurds of the predominantly Kurdish region of Iraq, and the Catalans of the predominantly Catalonian region of Spain are reminding us, at the moment, that these questions — which are pretty much always with us, although not always in the headlines — are potentially very awkward and troublesome, especially when they suddenly are in the headlines.

Kurds and Catalans are distinct peoples that are trying to take votes to peacefully and democratically establish independent nationhood.

The Kurds, over the loud objections of the government of Iraq, organized a vote in which roughly 3 million votes were cast and more than 90 percent voted to declare independence from Iraq. Kurds are not Arabs, have a distinct language and culture, and are, by far, the largest non-Arab minority in Iraq. Iraq not only tried to ban the vote, but has authorized the use of force to prevent any further movement toward Kurdish independence.

(The Kurds are also the fourth largest ethnic group in the Mideast — behind Arabs, Persians and Turks — and by far the most populous nationality in the region that doesn’t have a nation of its own.)

Catalans organized a similar vote and likewise got 90-percent-plus support for independence from Spain, which Spain says isn’t going to happen. Catalans are ethnically distinct from Spaniards and are the largest non-Spanish minority in Spain.

How should we feel about this? I can tell you that I have long sympathized with the Kurdish cause, and am just starting to think about the Catalonian case. But, as a matter of philosophy, I think that it’s best when distinct “nations” have their own “Nations,” but that this is very risky and hard to arrange because the larger “Nations” generally resist, and the resistance often produces bloodshed.

I know of one, glorious example in recent history of a bi-national state breaking up peacefully, which was the 1992 breakup of Czechoslovakia into separate Czech and Slovak republics. Czechoslovakia (like Iraq, by the way) was created in the aftermath of World War I. After the collapse of the Eastern European Communist bloc (which included Czechoslovakia), Slovaks complained that they wanted a nation of their own and felt dominated by the larger and more populous Czechs. I happened to visit Czechoslovakia when this was under way. The Czechs I met generally told me that they thought they were very fair to the Slovaks, but that if the Slovaks really disagreed, they should work things out peacefully and democratically. Which they did and two, smaller nation-states went into the future as neighbors.

It is sometimes referred to as the “Velvet Divorce” because it was handled so smoothly and, especially, peacefully. Both countries have done pretty well since, and when they do have problems, they are free to work on them in their own ways.

As the summary at the top suggests, this is unlikely to happen in either the Kurdish or Catalan cases. The Kurdish case is further complicated by the fact that there are four large-ish Mideast nations that have Kurdish regions (in addition to Iraq, they are Turkey, Iran and Syria).

But the key to understanding this (at least for a Kurd-sympathizer like me) is that almost all of the Kurds in the world live in a relatively contiguous region that would make a substantial (and pro-American, by the way) nation.

Instead, the boundaries of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria (all pretty much drawn by the Britain and France in their role as the victorious World War I powers) carved the Kurdish region into four bits making the Kurds a minority in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria and a majority nowhere.

The U.S. government has other fish to fry and isn’t too invested in nationhood for the Kurds or the Catalans. Washington likes stability, except where it doesn’t. I don’t expect this to end happily for “Catalonia” or “Kurdistan.” The Kurds, whose home region is mountainous, have a fatalistic saying that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”

I’m rooting for them. If you’re intrigued, I put their plight into more historical context in this piece three years ago.

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/02/2017 - 12:31 pm.

    Showing my ignorance

    …happens all too often to old men, but that doesn’t always stop me.

    I don’t know enough about Spain and Catalonia to have a worthwhile comment except to mention that, if I recall correctly, the separation of the 13 North American colonies from Great Britain in the 18th century was not especially peaceful, either.

    The Kurds would seem to provide those who like to call themselves “conservative” with a nearly-perfect opportunity for the “nation-building” that has been the rationale for much of our interference, military and otherwise, in Middle Eastern affairs for at least the past generation. Instead, we engaged in a war about oil in Kuwait, and have spent trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives trying to prop up and preserve the state of Iraq, which has little reason to exist.

    My strictly amateurish opinion is that we’d have spent our treasure, diplomatic efforts, and possibly even military threats (as opposed to action) much more usefully if we’d have supported the creation of a Kurdish state. Arrangements could readily have been made to see to it that semi-arid Turkey was not suddenly deprived of an important water source, and my suspicion is that Kurdish oil can be refined into gasoline and jet fuel about as easily as Iraqi oil, so a treaty with a new Kurdish state to that effect would likely benefit both them and us. Such a creation would also have provided an opportunity for negotiations with the Russians about something other than nuclear weapons and the Ukraine. Who knows? Maybe the creation of a Kurdish state would be enough to finally discredit the Syrian regime enough to get Syrians to change course. Stranger things have happened.

    Unlike perpetually-tribal Afghanistan, we might have only a single government to deal with, based on a coherent language and culture, and one that’s not busily trying to kill off internal rivals with our help and at our expense..

    I now turn the podium over to more qualified and thoughtful commentary from others.

  2. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/02/2017 - 01:17 pm.

    Building a Nation

    I like the idea of an independent Kurdistan, and am neutral to mildly-in-favor of an independent Catalonia (sending in armed police to stop a peaceful referendum was a bad PR move on Madrid’s part). The problem with nation building is that, even when the nation is as relatively cohesive as Kurdistan would be, the land for that nation has to come from someone else. It would mean a loss of territory for everyone involved—not just Turkey, but Iraq, Iran, and Syria. How would he global community make that loss of territory palatable? The loss of a restive ethnic minority does not seem to be incentive enough. I doubt very much that more coercive tactics would work, and there are broader forces in operation that make it look like any concessions would fail. Remember that one of the dying gasps of the Ottoman Empire (or initial demands of the new Turkish Republic) was to refuse to sign a peace treaty at the end of World War I that included a referendum on the future of Kurdistan. Kurdistan had been under Ottoman control for centuries, and it was not a territory to be ceded lightly.

    The same factors are at work in Catalonia. Although the Catalans have a distinct culture and language, it has been a part of Spain for the past 300 years, having bounced back and forth between Spain and France for some 600 years before that.

    The experiences of these two nations shows why the Czechoslovakian “Velvet Divorce” model may not apply. The Czech Republic and Slovakia were cobbled together as a sort of tidying-up, and had their amicable split some 80 years later. For better or worse, Kurdistan and Catalonia have been a part of other countries for centuries. Their languages and cultures are distinct, but economically and politically they are too closely tied to the “other” country. Whatever we may like to see, the reality of the vetoes of others still stands.

  3. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/02/2017 - 02:02 pm.

    The big question…

    Do your views also concern the legitimacy of the founding of the State of Israel and the current controversy regarding the “Two State” solution for the Palestinians?

  4. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/02/2017 - 02:21 pm.

    One difference

    The Catalans are clearly a single ethnic group. As far as I know, there are no distinct Catalan dialects (I am privileged to have a couple of Catalan friends). They might disagree among themselves on issues, but not about who is a member of the group.
    The Kurds, on the other hand, are less homogeneous.
    While they have some common ethnic characteristics, they also have serious rivalries among themselves. This is complicated by a tribal culture with no democratic history of sorting things out.

  5. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/02/2017 - 09:16 pm.

    Finally, a consensus among everyone here: Kurds deserve their own state and America should help them because it is fair and in America’s best interests and it should have done it before.

    But while it is obviously clear why Kurds want their own state, it is not the case in Catalonia. Spain is a relatively prosperous democratic country – what is the reason to leave it? What’s the reason for Scotland to leave the UK or for Quebec to leave Canada? (Czechoslovakia case was different: no one left anyone, they divorced.) Unfortunately, it is the case of politicians who want to govern an independent state (no glory governing a province) and people falling for their propaganda.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 10/03/2017 - 09:23 am.


      is the most prosperous part of Spain. Unlike Kurdistan, their economy consists of more than oil and soldiers.
      Like Minnesota, they contribute more to the state than they receive.
      They speak a different language from the rest of Spain, and have an independent history.
      Isn’t that enough?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/03/2017 - 11:01 am.

      Why an Independent Catalonia?

      Leaving aside the perfidy of politicians, there are three main arguments being made for Catalonian independence:

      1. Culturally, linguistically, and historically, Catalonia is not Spanish (just as Slovakia is not Czech). They speak a distinct language that is not a dialect of Spanish, and have a heritage that has been maintained despite the Franco regime’s efforts to suppress it.

      2. Economically, Catalonia is subsidizing the rest of Spain and not getting a proportionate return. “Spain is a relatively prosperous democratic country” bankrolled largely by Catalonia. Catalonia does not have the same fiscal autonomy a state in the US would have, or that even the Basque region has in Spain.

      3. Most importantly, the people of Catalonia seem to want it. If self-determination of nations remains a desired end, that should be the clincher.

      • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/03/2017 - 09:32 pm.

        I know all of this, of course, but will Catalonia be better off as an independent country rather than a part of Spain even if it contributes more than it gets there? Will Minnesota be better off as an independent country? Europe is trying to unite, hence, EU and its displeasure with the UK for Brexit and now all provinces want to split? By the way, in case you don’t know, Putin is a big proponent of independent Catalonia whose leaders have said that they are against Russian sanctions…

        “the people of Catalonia seem to want it.” Or they were just brainwashed by the leaders, as I said…

        “If self-determination of nations remains a desired end, that should be the clincher.” That is what Confederate States wanted…

        Of course, all of the above doesn’t mean that the Spanish government acted correctly…

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/04/2017 - 09:13 am.

          “[W]ill Catalonia be better off as an independent country . . .”

          Beats me. Then again, it’s not my decision, is it? The Catalonians should be the ones to answer that question.

          “That is what Confederate States wanted…” First, the Confederate states were not a “nation.” Second, if Catalonia wanted to secede from Spain to protect slavery, I would be completely opposed

          • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/04/2017 - 09:42 pm.

            Do you want to say that you respect the will of the people only if you agree with their goals? As I said, the Catalonian government wants to get rid of Russian sanctions and help Putin…

            • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/05/2017 - 10:40 am.

              The Goals

              First, there are conflicting reports on whether Putin support Catalonian independence. I see passing references that say he supports independence, but the Russian Foreign Ministry has deemed the independence referendum illegal. Russia will not, they say, recognize Catalonian independence.

              Second, if the goals of the people are to enshrine a crime against humanity, then no, I will not support that. Putin is an authoritarian tyrant, but I don’t think his regime rises to the level of institutionalize chattel slavery.

              • Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 10/05/2017 - 09:46 pm.

                I did not say that Putin supports Catalonian independence because it was irrelevant to our conversation – we talked about Catalonian people whose government, most likely in search of a powerful ally, expressed views that Putin may like. As for Putin, of course he would like to see Catalonia stirring the pot – anything to make Europe and America look bad; Putin just doesn’t want to say it out loud, which is understandable.

                So you appreciate the will of the people only if you agree with that will… But that’s not democracy, that’s dictatorship…

                • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/09/2017 - 09:15 am.

                  Once upon a time . . .

                  I once thought we could all agree that a government established solely to enshrine a crime against humanity was a bad thing that the global community should not tolerate. Now, that thinking is dictatorship. Who knew?

                  “As for Putin, of course he would like to see Catalonia stirring the pot – anything to make Europe and America look bad . . .” Actually, Putin is not interested in stirring up Europe, and is especially not interested in stirring up the nationalist aspirations of ethnic minorities.

                  “Putin just doesn’t want to say it out loud, which is understandable.” I’ve never thought subtlety was one of his gifts. Remember, he has also denied trying to interfere in the US election.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 10/04/2017 - 10:28 am.

          What the Spanish Government Did

          I just saw this article, and it is an interesting take on what you said.

          “I was Catalan, Spanish and European. But Mariano Rajoy has changed all that.”

  6. Submitted by Rich Crose on 10/03/2017 - 08:41 pm.

    Interesting note on Language

    Groups seeking independence all seem to have their own language –Kurdish in Iran, Catalan in Catalonia. Scottish in Scotland. Irish in Ireland. Slovak in Slovakia, Czech in Czech Republic, French in Quebec. A common language is what binds the people, not borders, not religion, not government.

    This is why Franco outlawed Catalan when he was in power, why the French outlawed Celtic when they conquered England.

    Could we predict the next independent state or civil war by looking at what language a people speak? This is why Texas will not secede (Alabama, maybe, who knows what language they speak.)

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