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Kurds and Catalans: trying for a peaceful route to independence

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.”

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

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.

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(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.”

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