The ghost of Crimea in the Catalan referendum: how to defy claims to independence

More than 2.25 million people turned out for Sunday’s referendum across Catalonia, a region in the northeast of Spain. The regional government said 90% of voters were in favor of a split from Madrid. But the turnout was low — around 42% of the voter roll. Catalan authorities blamed the figure on the crackdown on the vote initiated by the national government. Almost 900 people were injured, during clashes with Spanish police forces.

Another bloody battle provoked by the referendum happened in Russian and Ukrainian social media where a massive number of opinion makers, bloggers and regular users tried to interpret actions in Spain through the prism of a three-year old trauma —  a so-called “referendum” in Crimea.

To get a bold and comprehensive look into the phenomena of referenda, including manipulation and disinformation possibilities related to it, Free Russia Foundation asked Michael Arno for his expert opinion on direct democracy and referenda campaigns.

An election can be a clarifying event.  So too can the suppression of an election.

Over the weekend, more than two million Catalans, greater than 40 percent of those eligible, voted in a referendum on independence from Spain. To which Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy declared, «There was no independence referendum in Catalonia today.»

Spanish authorities shut down referendum websites and sent hordes of national police into the region to seize ballots and forcibly prevent people from voting. News reports are full of those police using rubber bullets on crowds, smashing their way into polling places and roughing up people.  Nearly a thousand citizens of Catalonia were injured in various clashes

While the referendum result was a lopsided 90 percent opting for independence, previous polling shows Catalans split on the question. Perhaps the suppression worked best with those opposed to separation from Spain, who seem to have stayed home.

Earlier last week, Iraqi Kurds also held a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly favored separation — in this case from Iraq and for the formation of their own wholly independent nation. And, likewise, others, including the United States, tried to block the vote. Thankfully, not by force.  However, Turkey and Iran oppose an independent Kurdistan because they fear it will embolden demands by their own Kurdish populations for greater autonomy.

Referenda for independence has long been seen as the perfect demonstration of democratic will or as a lawless action by terrorists wishing to destroy a great nation.  How one falls on those views is strictly in the eye of the beholder.


Pavel Elizarov, political activist, eyewitness of the referendum in Catalonia:

Free Russia Foundation THINK TANK«The day of the referendum that I observed in Barcelona gave me a lot to think about.  The brutal action of the Spanish police was not surprising – thousands of them were deployed there for the likely purpose of blocking the vote. There is no reason in questioning the accuracy and honesty of the ballot counting. The most impressive thing about this referendum was an ability of Catalans to organize voting and counting based on effective grassroots organization. The significant role in this was played by the technical strategy: for example, the possibility of voting at any polling station was mentioned only during the beginning of the voting.

From another side, the final numbers predictably show a lack of unity within Catalans: the referendum became a roll call for independence supporters. Two million final votes “in favor” of separation out of 7.5 million total population of Catalans is roughly equal to the number of votes for the ruling coalition in recent parliamentary elections. Such a number will force the leaders of the republic to keep counting the other opinion in following steps.»


Almost 26 years ago, Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union by forcing a referendum vote by gathering more than 800,000 signatures.  On December 1, 1991, 92% of Ukrainian voters opted for independence, thereby all but crushing what remained of the Soviet Union.  The next day, the U.S. and hundreds of other countries recognized Ukraine as an independent state.  Yet six weeks later, a similar independence referendum was held in South Ossetia and a year earlier a vote was held in Abkhazia for a return to the Soviet Union from Georgia.  Nearly 99% of the votes (Georgians boycotted the referendum vote) were cast for leaving Georgia, but the U.N. and most other countries refused to recognize the vote.

It’s been impossible over the years to remove geopolitics and sometimes ancient territorial claims from independence referenda.  Once an independence vote succeeds, it has a domino effect on other regions making similar claims.  China abhors the recognition of an independent state out of fear Tibet will find a way to stage a similar vote.  The United Kingdom wants to stay united and that means keeping Scotland in the fold with even the thinnest of connections remaining.  Spain will be concerned that the Catalans will encourage the Basques and Romania will worry that the western part of the country would rather unify with Hungary to say nothing of the recent seizure of Crimea by Russia and the desire China holds for Taiwan and a great deal of the South China Sea.

Democracy can be a wonderful thing because it’s a full expression of the will of the people, but it can also have its consequences.  When there’s an attempt to block democracy, as in the case of Catalan, Spain will be left with two bad choices:  allow the vote to count and recognize Catalan’s independence, or refuse to accept the voters and hold the Catalans in Spain against their will.  It remains to be seen how this will play out and how it will affect others with similar claims to independence.

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