A Tale of Two Referendums

By Andrej Mrevlje |

December 23, 1990, was a murky, drizzly day in Ljubljana. One would prefer to stay indoors reading a book, watching a movie, or cooking for friends. Perhaps decorating a Christmas tree. Instead, the entire population was on its feet, taking part in the vote on the independence of the Republic of Slovenia, at the time an integral part of the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Hands hesitated with heavy responsibility before casting the ballot; we all knew that little gesture would make history, but the vote was also a step toward uncertainty. Such fear comes with the freedom to decide.

Before that December 23, we never voted on something that could have consequences for the country. One could only vote for the local government, for or against the candidates selected among the loyal members of the Party. Thinking back, I still don’t  know how it was possible — in a country that banned importing computers, among the other things — to cast a vote for independence, for secession. To exit from the union of six nationalities, led by one (Communist) party, kept together by one army, and blended into an ideology of WWII resistance was crazy. There must have been some legal loopholes, or the Yugoslav constitution was indeed a flexible document, tolerated by the leaders because they never believed that things can be changed by a vote.  

However, 94.5 percent of Slovenians entitled to vote on that grey day cast their ballots. 88.5 percent of them wanted the independence that arrived next year on the 25th of June. The next morning we woke up with tanks on the streets and with the most of the world against a newly born republic. Perhaps the world was too big to hear the voice of a small nation, or too superficial to understand what was really going on during in the Balkan powder keg. In complete ignorance and blindness, the European Union decided to back the unity of Yugoslavia for the cost of enthroning Slobodan Milošević, a sick and bloodthirsty Serbian nationalist. Only ten years later, that same EU put Milosević on trial, charged with the war crimes committed during the ferocious civil war in Yugoslavia. But in that courtroom in the Hague, there should also have stood some of the EU leaders who installed the bloody dictator. It was they who authorized Milosević to keep Yugoslavia united, closing their eyes to its resulting ethnic cleansing.

Those were painful times. Slovenia entered the storm more prepared and was luckier. In July 1991, the Yugoslav federal army sent its troops towards Slovenia for the second time. This time, heavy tanks and heavily equipped military units with devastating firepower were ready to crush Slovenia for good. Luckily, the international community stopped the tanks before they rolled over Slovenia. A few months later, at the beginning of 1992 — after the open conflict between the European Christian Democrats and the socialists (in 1991, the majority of the countries in EU had socialist governments)– the Vatican decided to recognize Slovenia and Croatia. Had it not been for this influential ally, who brought on board Germany and Italy, the outcome of an already bloody war could’ve been even more devastating. It prepared the world for the change. With diplomacy and the lobbying of the international community before the very act of independence –on June 25–Slovenia managed to implement the people’s will, expressed during the referendum six months earlier.       

On October 1, a week ago, Catalans voted on the referendum for independence. Of the 2.26 million who cast ballots (two-fifths of the Catalan electorate), more than 90 percent voted “yes.” A week before that, in a far more troubled corner of the world, Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for separation from Iraq. Of those who cast ballots (more than three-quarters of the population), 93 percent voted “yes.”

Both referendums were met with the overwhelming disapproval of the outside world. The local authorities, in Barcelona and Erbil respectively, had only a short-term political agenda. Despite the long-known desire for the independence of both Kurds and Catalans, each referendum happened within a moment of extreme global insecurity, as the tensions between major superpowers rise daily. Kurds and Catalans, then, stand at the crossroads of a new global order.

With profound respect for the right of self-determination, I do think that both Kurds and Catalans will have very slim chances of reaching their dreams in this turbulent era. Having said that, the reaction of the central government in Madrid is shameful and the behavior of the EU towards Catalans is, to say the least, hypocritical. Images of violence from the streets of Barcelona were similar to the images coming from a country of a military regime, not the country that is an early member of  EU. In many ways, the repression of peaceful voters evoked the time of Generalissimo Franco.

On the other hand, reading the numbers of the outcome of the referendum, one wonders what was behind the urge to call it, when the polls show that a majority of Catalans– 49 percent– oppose independence right now. The Catalan government’s own polls also suggest that 70 percent of people support a referendum on the region’s future, yet under half want it, even if the Spanish government does not agree to its terms.

So I called upon my old time friend who is one of the most lucid minds among the foreign press corps in Rome. Rossend Domenech is Catalan,  someone with whom I enjoyed scrutinizing Silvio Berlusconi and the separatist movement Lega Nord when they both appeared on the Italian political scene. When I asked Rossend what’s the hurry, I was shocked to hear that the reasons for the Catalan’s impatience were identical to Slovenia 27 years ago:

The Catalans, who have distinguished themselves in history for having a mercenary army stationed in the Mediterranean, at the service of those who paid most, can not afford to collaborate as a fifth of the Spanish GDP and a quarter of its exports, while receiving in return only 75 percent of what you already pay to the central state in taxes. On the other side, the Basques got the freedom of collecting all taxes and giving 15 percent to the central state, the Catalans no. But the Basques used the arms and the Catalans did not.

There are other reasons, such as bickering about the language used in schools and more. The Catalan Independence Movement started from the grassroots. Ten years ago only 10 percent of population wanted independence. If, at that time, Madrid would have said “have your referendum,” nothing would happen. Subsequently, during the last decade of constant Catalan pressure on Madrid, the central government has done nothing to sit down to listen and negotiate. According to many observers, it was this attitude of Madrid that grew the number of separatists. There was a time when the socialists proposed to the conservatives a change of constitution so that Spain would become a federal state, following the models of Switzerland or Germany. It would be a good solution, but it did not happen and now it’s too late.

At this point, the decisive day is next Monday, when the Catalan government should proclaim independence …. while Madrid is stacking military across Catalania.”

I always thought that Catalans were politically more experienced than Slovenes. That Spain, compared to Yugoslavia, offered a better chance of negotiating democratically the reforms needed to resolve problems of the kind Slovenia had 30 years ago when trying to negotiate with Belgrade for ten long years. Because Slovenes and Catalans were pushing to resolve their problems within the multinational state, they were stigmatized as nationalists, even if the issues the two countries needed to tackle were of the social-economic nature.

But without the necessary reforms – both Slovenes and Catalans proposed to the central authorities the implementation of a federal system – Yugoslavia and Spain were facing stagnation that in the end did erupt into some sort of nationalism. In the case of Yugoslavia, a politically corrupt and centralized administrative-military apparatus refused to listen to the grassroots and local leaderships. It was Kosovo, or better, the Albanian minority, that started to ask for the reforms in 1981. The paranoid central government understood the move as the rise of Albanian nationalism and clamped down on the whole region. The repression of Albanians who were asking for labor reforms was the first act toward the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

I was amazed, however, to hear that similarities between Catalonia and Slovenia persist deep into the 21st century, into the digitized world. I could not have been more proud when I heard that Slovenian public opinion is showing massive solidarity with and support of the Catalans, in opposition to ambiguous Brussels. But I also fear that at this point, as my friend says, it is too late for sitting back around the table. The guns are drawn.

As much as the Kurd’s referendum is concerned, one should remember that Kurdistan should have come into existence a century ago when Britain and France agreed that the Kurds — liberated from the Ottoman Empire— could hold a referendum on independence in about one-quarter of the territory on which they live. But even that arrangement was too much for the Turks. The western imperial powers caved in, paving the way for a hundred years of political and ethnic repression, military campaigns targeting Kurdish civilians, and even genocide. Kurds were given false hope, and now have to fight for self-determination at a time when the world is too concerned with utter war to even consider the legitimacy of a Kurdish state.


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