Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan: A time of disenchantment

Christian Chesnot
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Obviously, the circumstances of the separatists in Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan have nothing in common since the political and geographical situations are different. But there is, despite everything, historical resonance between these two people. The Catalans and the Kurds were hardly hit in the 20th century. The first were repressed under Franco's dictatorship (1939-1975). During these years, Catalonia lost its autonomy, the Catalan language was banned, books were burned and intellectuals were hunted, most of whom found refuge in France. Spanish democracy, based on decentralization between regions, will give Catalonia a great autonomy in all areas.

In the Middle East, the Kurds share the same sad reality, as do the Palestinians, of being a scattered people. Repressed under Saddam Hussein, who even used gas against them in Halabja in 1988, Iraqi Kurds found some form of security after 2003 and the fall of the Baathist regime. Their autonomous region of northern Iraq became a haven of peace and prosperity. Virtually, the Kurds possess all the attributes of a pseudo state, while remaining attached to Iraq. For their part, Catalonia, the economic heartland of Spain, even has a representative office in Brussels, a seat in the European Union.


The will of the people to self-determination and therefore to independence is one of the cardinal principles of the United Nations. But another principle comes to frame the first: that of the territorial integrity of the States. The other postulate that for a possible secession of any part of a state, the central authority have to grant consent. However, neither in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, nor in that of Catalonia, does Baghdad or Madrid approve the independence of both sides.

To this we must add another dimension, a political one. One could contemplate an independence of Catalonia or Iraqi Kurdistan, if they were repressed, humiliated or attacked by the central power. However, it is not the case. Since the death of Franco, Spain is a democracy while Iraq, since the fall of Saddam Hussein, is on the road to democracy. One may object since Iraq is very far from being a democratic model. But the country holds elections regularly and tries, despite serious shortcomings, to ensure a form of community and ethnic pluralism. The president of the Iraqi Republic, Fouad Massoum, is he not Kurdish?

Forcing the doors of history

By organizing referendums of independence, Catalans and Kurds wanted to force the doors of history. In both cases, failure is at the end of the road. They made a monumental mistake. Madrid has just suspended Catalan autonomy and does not intend to relieve pressure. Spain is all the more strongly encouraged since no European country supports the independence of Catalonia and that the European Union does not intend to play the role of a mediator in a dossier that it considers as a Spanish domestic affair.

For their part, Iraqi Kurds found themselves isolated. They lost many territories, including Kirkuk, which they had reconquered from ISIS. They are under triple pressure from Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad. In short, for Catalonia as in Kurdistan, it is a huge step backwards. Many assets will be lost. Kurdish Massoud Barzani and Catalan Carles Puidgemont made their people take a huge risk. The price to pay - in political as well as economic terms - could be exorbitant. All of these sacrifices, gone with the wind. As usual, once again the basic citizen will have to pay the bill in his daily life.

Fragile by the influx of migrants and Brexit, Europe really did not need a new crisis with Catalonia. Iraq and the Middle East could have avoided the crisis with the Kurds, especially since the challenges are immense after the ebb of ISIS on the Syrian-Iraqi front. What is certain is that the time of disenchantment has come for the Kurds and the Catalans.

Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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