In 2017, the world witnessed two secession movements that simultaneously voted to disrupt the status quo in Iraq and Spain. Votes that supported the independence of Kurdistan and Catalonia topped 90 percent in both regions and were met with often violent pushback from the respective governments. The economic weight of the two major cities in which these communities are based – Erbil and Barcelona – accounts for a sizeable share of the economies of both countries, meaning that the success of the movements would have national ramifications. In response, the Iraqi and Spanish governments took coercive measures to prevent the secessions from happening, which brought the international media to side with the civil movements championing their democratic rights.
Even though both cases are of ethno-political strife, at the heart of the two struggles are strong cities that have played a direct role in empowering – not to mention connecting – these communities. We take a closer look at how the cities of Barcelona and Erbil have been central to secession movements in Catalonia and Kurdistan.
Mobilizing For Independence
In September, the Iraqi leadership warned their Kurdish counterparts that they were willing to make an armed intervention if the secessionists did not terminate the September referendum (link in Arabic). In late October, the Kurdish parties Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change (Gorran), reported that their offices in Dohuk were looted or burnt overnight.
In October, 4,000 kilometers (2,600 miles) west, around 15,000 Catalans protested the violence met by their own secession referendum and gathered outside the national police headquarters in Barcelona chanting “independence,” calling Spanish police an “occupying force,” and urging them to leave the region. Spanish police forcibly removed voters from polling stations, which resulted in the injury of 38 people. In response, hundreds of Spanish firefighters stood up for voting Catalans against their colleagues in the police department – a moment that was celebrated among activists around the world on social media platforms.
“Despite major abuses from the Spanish judiciary and political establishment towards Catalonia, I think that the departure situation of the two regions is not comparable in terms of historic oppression,” Barcelona-based political scientist Oriol Barba tells progrss. “What both regions share is that their potential independence will have a major impact beyond Spain or Iraq, since it will have implications for their neighbors – [in the] Middle East and the EU as a whole.”
When All Is Said And Done
Things remain unresolved in both Spain or Iraq. Although the Spanish government is still tightening its grip on Barcelona and the three other cities that make up Catalonia, it is also trying to seal a deal that would give Catalans greater autonomy as part of a fiscal pact under which Catalonia would have more control of its finances.
It is safe to say that Barcelona, with a majority of Catalans, is Spain’s beating heart of tourism, industry and economy. The region is known for its industry of textiles, chemicals, food-processing and metalworking. Catalonia, home to 7.5 million people and composed of Lleida, Girona, Barcelona, and Tarragona, accounts for almost 20 percent of Spain’s national GDP.
Meanwhile, in late November, Kurdish leaders in Iraq were invited to talks with the Iraqi president to discuss the appointing of a new governor for Kirkuk – traditionally a Kurdish quota – in efforts to clear the political deadlock. The deadlock, which evolved into an armed conflict, ended when Kirkuk fell into Iraqi Arab hands in mid-October, weakened the secession movement.
Iraqi Kurdistan is home to 5.3 million people and is composed of the capital Erbil, as well as the cities of Barzan, Batifa, and Amadiya. With a local GDP of $23.6 billion compared to a national GDP of $171.5 billion, Erbil and the areas covered by the Kurdistan region of Iraq are mined in oil, a wealth everyone in the larger region is chasing – especially with the oil crisis worsening in the Arabian Gulf.
Saad Salloum, an Iraqi political scientist specialized in minorities, believes that the Kurdish-controlled oil territories in the north will not affect Iraq’s economy as a whole if the secession happens. “The oil wells in [Arab-controlled] Al-Başrah are the ones which increased [revenues] in recent years,” says Salloum, who is also Head of Studies and Research Department at the Political Sciences Unit of Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, and one of the founding members of The Iraqi Council for Interfaith Dialogue.
“The problem may be with control over the water resources and transport of freight from Turkey, passing through Kurdistan.” However, Salloum argues that the secession will not have a huge impact on oil production in Iraq in general since oil wells are concentrated in Arab-controlled regions. He does note, however, that the majority of Kurdistan’s oil is concentrated in Kirkuk.
“Secession movements are a combination of rhetoric and institutional bargain. In the case of Kurdistan and Catalonia, the rhetoric component has been conquered by the pro-independence movements,” Barba says. “However, without institutional impact those movements risk [leading] to [in]effective results, which can turn into frustration and anger among the population.”
When Catalonia Married Spain
Catalonia has been part of Spain since the 15th century, when King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile recited marriage oaths and declared both realms as one. It took Catalans four centuries to establish a renewed sense of Catalan culture and identity, which quickly turned into a campaign for political autonomy and secession.
“The [Catalan independence] movement has been successful in terms of agenda-setting. Undoubtedly, today it is a top priority topic in Catalonia, Spain, and the EU. However, it is not clear whether the movement has been able to enlarge its base during the last two to three years,” Barba says. “It has generated stronger cohesion within the pro-independence people but its capacity to gain new supporters is unclear. Probably the current events will have an impact [on the] longer term and should Catalonia be independent one day, the events of October 2017 will explain a lot in this process. But this does not seem achievable in the short run.”
Peaceful Solutions For Kurdistan
Based in Erbil, 24-year-old civil worker Heliz Othman, has no particular opinion about what’s going on currently, but she says that a lot of people think that the current movement may be a suicide attempt, “especially that Kurdistan has got a long way to go to become a state,” she tells progrss. “No one is against the idea of independence, but there is a great fear of the aftermath, which may come in the form of hostility from neighboring countries, economic crises, and perhaps military clashes. We don’t want more killing, we want peace and therefore peaceful solutions.”
In 1920, Kurds were divided by the Sykes-Picot Agreement between five states in the region: Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Armenia, and Iran. But the Kurdish struggle predates the division of the population among five states. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Kurds’ hopes of independence were crushed by British colonialism. In spite of that, Kurdish leaders launched a series of rebellions against British and subsequent Iraqi rule.
In 2005, Iraq was the only country that announced an autonomous region for Kurds; today, the region is governed by a Kurdish regime and monitored by a Kurdish parliament. But this came decades after bloodbaths, which claimed between 50,000 and 182,000 lives in the Kurdish genocide in a campaign known as “Al-Anfal” which took place between 1986 and 1989. The campaign included the deliberate targeting of civilians with chemical weapons, most notoriously in the town of Halabja in 1988.
“It’s not expectations, rather fears that we have of a war between both governments and the killing of more people,” Othman says. “As a citizen, I do not expect anything because of the fluctuating policies and events every hour.” It is still unclear whether the referendum’s results will take their course or not.
The political, ideological and sometimes dialectal differences between Iraqi Kurds has kept them from uniting under one decision regarding the secession. Kurds opposed to the secession argue that being part of Iraq gives them the positives of a state and spares them the negatives. “For example, the Kurdish president gets treated and received like a normal president, moving to and from the Kurdish region requires a visa-like stamp; they get their own budget,” Salloum explains. “But they don’t need to worry about protecting their borders for example; however, Kurds now face a threat since the Mosul battle encouraged the Arab Iraqi army to multiply its power and be more centralized – which is something no one expected.”
Nevertheless, the political centralization of Erbil empowered the secession movement to take its first steps forward in decades. The centralization of the movement in Erbil was a deviation from the traditional Kurdish approach, which sold Kirkuk as the political capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It was not until the movement migrated to Erbil did it gain the political power to both decide and clearly announce the intention to secede. Erbil’s political weight empowered it to embrace the outskirts of Iraq, populated by Turkman, Yazidi, and Christian minorities among others like Tel Afar, Sinjar, and Nineveh, which are disputed areas between Arabs and Kurds, Salloum says.
Returning to Barba, he tells us that cities are hotspots in these secession movements in general. “Both Erbil and Barcelona play a major role in the development of the secession movements in the two regions,” he says. “In the case of Barcelona, it is in this city [that] we find more complexity and different views. The equilibrium position that the current local government is trying to maintain in the conflict and the pressure received by both the pro- and anti-independence movements to take a clear stake for one of the two, shows how important the positioning of the capital city is for the development of the conflict.”
The history of the world is full of successful and failed secession movements. Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking province in eastern Canada tried to secede multiple times with a low number of voters supporting the secession. “The Quebec example shows how a failed secession movement can have dramatic implications for a whole region and for a specific city,” comments Barba. “The effects that the pro-independence movement had in Montreal, which lost economic and political weight towards its “neighbor” Toronto, should serve as an alarm to be taken into consideration by both the Kurdish and Catalan independence movements.”