Ever since two ethnic groups in two different parts of the world held controversial independence referendums this year, only to invite severe retribution from their central governments, even the most prudent political pundits have struggled to pass judgment without betraying either double standard or moral confusion. Notwithstanding the panoply of arguments both for and against secessionism provoked by the two disputed votes, an issue that cuts to the heart of the matter remains unresolved: Given what is going on in Iraqi Kurdistan and Spain’s Catalan region, is the putative gain in the form of national sovereignty really worth the pain?
The answer to that question, to quote Bob Dylan’s lyrics from another tumultuous time, is blowin’ in the wind. The clues are not hard to find: one need only look at the aftermath of both the ill-fated referendums. The Kurds have already paid what they regard as an unconscionably high price for the mere act of staging an independence referendum. In a punitive move, Iraqi federal government forces, acting in lockstep with Iran-backed Shia paramilitaries, retook by force most of the areas that had fallen under the control of the Peshmerga when the Kurdish force defeated Islamic State in 2015. In mostly one-sided skirmishes, Iraqi soldiers and their Shia allies reportedly killed up to 75 Peshmerga soldiers, using weapons and equipment given to them by the US-led coalition meant for use against Islamic State fighters.
As the French public intellectual Bernard Henri-Levy has written, since 2014 after the Iraqi army took flight in the face of a “tsunami of the Islamic State”, the Iraqi Kurds “held off the barbarians and thus saved Kurdistan, Iraq, and our shared civilization”. Yet, the referendum backlash has compelled Masoud Barzani, the long-serving leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, to fall on his sword. The loss of substantial oil-rich territory, revenue and border control by Iraq’s Kurds following the September 5 vote is merely the latest in a seemingly endless string of misfortunes that have befallen the Middle East’s 30 million Kurds
The Catalan historical narrative is, of course, very different from the Kurdish saga of suffering, betrayal and heroism. But as with the Kurds of Iraq, there is no denying the deep-seated desire among a sizeable segment of the Catalan population, who have their own language, culture and history, to break free from Spain. Although it has 16 per cent of the Spanish population, Catalonia generates more than 19 per cent of Spain’s GDP and 25 per cent of its exports, according to http://www.theconversation.com of the University of London. If it could retain access to both Spanish and European Union markets, an independent Catalonia could be as viable a country as any other EU member state. Additionally, in Barcelona the Catalan region has a world-class city that is also a major tourist attraction. Despite these advantages, the separatist Catalan political parties failed to convince the rest of Spain as well as Europe of their case for independence on the basis of an underwhelming referendum turnout – 42 percent, compared with the Kurds’ 72 percent.
Up until October 1, Catalans in Spain enjoyed a high degree of political autonomy with their own parliament. Today, the separatist parties are in disarray, their leaders either in jail or on the run, and preparations are under way for a fresh regional election on December 21. In hindsight, both the Kurdish and Catalan independence referendums look like ideas that could have done with more planning for worst-case scenarios and less depending on the world’s moral conscience.
By the same token, then, should separatist and national self-determination movements from Western Sahara in Africa to Mindanao in the Philippines be seen as lost causes, not worth sacrificing more blood and treasure for?
If recent history from even before the Kurdish and Catalan independence referendums has one clear message for cheerleaders of nationalism in the 21st century, it is this: Beware – the road to sovereign statehood may be paved with good intentions, but so is the proverbial road to hell.
Take East Timor, which became the world’s youngest nation on May 20, 2002, to the immense relief of an international community that was powerless to stop Indonesia from invading the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and launching an occupation that caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people. Fifteen years have elapsed since a long and traumatic struggle culminated in independence, but tensions attributable to income inequality and high unemployment continue to periodically boil over in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
Government figures show 41.8 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line of $1.52 per day in 2014. Oil revenue makes up 90 per cent of Timor-Leste’s budget and roughly 80 percent of its national income is derived from oil. In the absence of new sources of income and political will to abandon unsustainable spending patterns, the country could be bankrupt by 2027, according to research from a Dili-based think tank, La’o Hamutuk. The prospect of turning into a “failed state” stares Timor-Leste in the face, placing the Southeast Asian country somewhere between Kosovo and South Sudan in the world’s ranking of fragile states.
Talking about South Sudan, which broke away from Sudan in 2011 as the outcome of an agreement that ended Africa’s longest-running civil war, the world’s youngest country has steadily become synonymous with poor leadership, ethnic cleansing, sexual violence and economic collapse. The ethnic groups that were supposed to share political power in an independent South Sudan have continued to perpetrate unspeakable atrocities on their people. Between 2013 and 2015, a civil war displaced 2.2 million people, killed tens of thousands of South Sudanese and devastated the economy. South Sudan, which has sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest hydrocarbon reserves, was supposed to become a prosperous country following secession.
Instead, crude output has dropped to half in recent years over security concerns and internal strife, with fighting disrupting production in the country’s northern oilfields. To sum it all up, six million people – that is, half of South Sudan’s population – are currently in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 1.2 million are at risk of famine, according to the UN.
None of this is to say that people around the world should accept injustice, discrimination, inequality, ethnic cleansing or state violence as destiny and keep their aspirations for independence accordingly in check. Rather they should prevail upon their leaders to understand that in an age of raw power politics, what really counts is neither the lofty rhetoric of political slogans nor the moral rights of oppressed peoples but the immediate interests of sovereign states and major powers.
As such, the importance of taking the most pragmatic approach, no matter how circuitous, leading to an amicable separation is paramount because, to quote the New York Times commentator Bret Stephens, “Nations pay a price for the foolhardiness of their leaders, as the Kurds recently found out.”
Iraq’s Kurds and Spain’s Catalans have learnt their lesson the hard way. Whether their experience will dissuade other disaffected communities and stateless peoples from pushing for independence at all costs is the big question.