In English Voices From Spain

On the “Catalan process” and the Balkans

Originally published in Spanish: “Del ‘procés’ catalán y los Balcanes”. Borja Lasheras. El Mundo.

6 Nov 2017

In spite of the noise about Catalonia, we must keep refuting the Catalan process’ post-truths, in the hope of recovering the seny [a Catalan term for «common sense»]. Given the propensity of its spin doctors to shamelessly appropriate other people’s causes, we also must do so out of respect for the illusions and dramas of other peoples, gratuitously banalized. This misappropriation includes selective comparisons to the Balkans; namely, the Slovenian secession in 1991, as a deferred independence, and Kosovo’s (2008), as unilateral independence proclaimed by a Parliament, as did the nationalist majority last October 27th.

They will return to this cases, so let us make clear which are the differences between them. In the Slovenian case, the former prime minister, Alojz Peterle, in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo, stressed the end of the communist bloc, Yugoslavia’s dismemberment and the political pro-independence unity. The matrix state was not democratic, and in the 1990s, was in the hands of an authoritarian cynical promoter of the Greater Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, who ended his days in The Hague. The constitutional frame was different as well, and in the Slovenian case, it allowed self-determination. The support to independence in a homogenous Slovenia obtained a 90% in a referendum with a turnout over 90%. Serbia’s independence declaration, on its part, carried by the Kosovar Parliament in February of 2008, did not follow a referendum, and was boycotted by the Serbian minority (11 out of 20 representatives). Like it or not, it represents the demographic, social and political reality of this country today, with a very large Kosovar-Albanian population. These numbers of representativeness and legitimacy are very different to Catalan process’ ones, as confirmed by the October 1st and the Catalan Republic, which was proclaimed in yet another grotesque session in a half-empty Parliament, with 70 secret votes against 135, which amounts to 35% of census. The problem of these movements, in truth, is that they can eventually prevail and gaining an increasing support before the opponent’s mistakes, and weariness and failure to appear by the rest.

You can not either use Balkans and omit the war. The Slovenian declaration was followed by the Ten-Day War between the Yugoslav People’s Army and the then Slovenian Territorial Defence, until the signature of Brioni Peace Agreement. Slovenia suspended for three months its declaration and in 1992 achieved the international recognition —highly controversial, by the way—, because of its impact on the Croatia and Bosnia conflicts. In Kosovo, the 1998-99 war was preceded by years of extreme ethnic discrimination at the hands of Belgrade at that time. Without the war and its consequences, with 10.000 casualties, ethnic cleansing and years of protection by United Nations, the Kosovar case would be even more questionable than already is. Just as Kosovo distances itself from the Catalan case, most of UN members that now recognize its independence stress in the factors existing in this precedent. Factors that fortunately do not meet here, in spite of the propaganda about oppression and Help Catalonia in a decade-long controlled Catalonia by the nationalist power and its ruling class. For all this reasons, they will not achieve recognition for their Republic beyond the pariah state on duty, and turbulent figures as Julian Assange. Of course, the utopian of this wealthy Denmark could make things even more difficult for Kosovo, a poor country —the other damages caused by the Catalan process.

That said, I do see other emerging elements for comparison with Balkans that, from my experience there, do not position the Catalan process leaders and its hard-line factions in the best light. I am talking about a policy that, despite the most stigmatizing vision about the Balkans, is not exclusive of this region, but it is partially an extreme form of nationalist populism discussed by Daniel Gascón: it can happen in other places if circumstances are appropriate. I will focus in several aspects of this policy that are still present in some parts of the Balkans, and some elements of which that were key in the 1990s. First, the abuse of a plebiscitary democracy and referendums to lend a democratic facade to a decision already made and tailored to a group that claims the ownership of the political community as a whole, regardless of consequences and other people’s mind. This damages the representative pluralist democracy and essential consensus, and creates enduring fractures in societies once diverse, dragged by a yes/no binomial as polarizing as irrevocable. Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Sprska —one of the two entities forming Bosnia, with a Serbian majority—, exemplifies this. After a pseudo-referendum banned by the Bosnian Constitutional Court, with a low turnout, he is seeking another one to “defend the Serbian people against the abuses” from the state. With his threat of independence, he blackmails the EU, undermines the judiciary that is trying to prosecute him for corruption, silences an opposition “betrayer to the people”, destabilises Bosnia and impoverish his Taifa kingdom.

This Catalan process is also similar in the promotion of narratives on who is «the people» and who is not, with a language that make distinctions between citizens (i.e., the “country list” that they are discussing for the 21st December regional election; those not included, apparently, are not «the country» or not entirely). A language that justifies as defence what it is aggression, and as pacific politics what is depriving the others of rights. A language that mixes half-truths and legitimate criticism with lies,  constantly fear-mongering about the external enemy and its fifth columns. The problem is that it can operate as a self-fulfilled prophecy. Yugoslavians, except the Kosovar-Albanian and other minorities, while being the same ethnic, the next day they were different and against each other. It is almost irrelevant that the description of adversary as ustacha (fascist, Croat), chetnik (Serbian nationalist), Francoist espanyol, etc. is true or not; what matters is that many people end up believing it, which is hardly solvable. So this way we go from managing constitutional disagreements to exacerbate identity policies. Rationality disappears and takes with it moderate voices in both sides as well as the options for reform.

Finally, they are increasingly alike in their ruling classes’ nature. I am referring to a ruling class with no sense of personal responsibility at all, that relegates to others their decision’s consequences and hides behind “the people” subterfuge. A class that decides what right and judiciary institutions are legitimate depending on the convenience for their impunity —hence the zeal for having their own judges. They are politicians that act between a messianic bigotry and the calculating cynicism of the unscrupulous poker player. So they drag both supporters and dissidents to the verge of collapse and go down into History —the bad one. In some parts of Balkans this kleptocrat elite remains in power, seizing states tailored to them and resourcing to the “attacked people” language to bring the tribe together and silence any democratic challenge to their power. Some of their most toxic leaders, as I was able to observe during a trip to the region, are following closely the Catalan process, of which leaders, with the fled Puigdemont at the head, are beginning to becoming masters of these nefarious school.

The outcomes for the public space? In a poor-quality democracy with authoritarian tics and a almost hegemonic populism, impoverishment, migration, fragile economies and dependent on troikas, the resultant homogeneity of expelling the different and segregated societies of echo chambers, where reconciliation is very difficult. The ordinary citizen yearns for the days he belonged to a wider collectiveness and things were going better. Despite of that, just as in the Balkans democratic movements and alternatives appear, challenging their elites and the pretext of nationalism, in Catalonia is it not too late to prevent this so destructive policy con consolidate. So let us renew the constitutional agreements based in citizenship concepts, mutual concessions and shared rules. Still, one can not help be surprised for the appealing blindness of nationalism, also abroad. Maybe it is because, as Misha Glenny said in The Fall of Yugoslavia, “it neutralizes that region of the mind able to assess complex ecuations”.

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