Following Catalonia’s referendum on independence, some politicians have equated Catalonia with Kosova. Such comparisons are not only politically misleading, but also stir instability in both the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas. Kosova gained independence under NATO and EU supervision following a campaign of mass murder by the Milosevic regime against Kosova’s inhabitants, after which reunification with Serbia was no longer a viable option. Catalonia is testing the framework of Spanish democracy and the right to regional self-determination that could ultimately result in separation from Spain.
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić has claimed that the EU was hypocritical in recognizing Kosova’s independence while dismissing Catalonia’s aspirations for statehood. Dačić has conveniently forgotten recent history. Kosovar separatism was a reaction to state repression, which entailed the abolition of Kosova’s autonomy and the attempted genocide and expulsion of the majority Albanian population in Belgrade in 1999.
Belgrade lost its legitimacy to govern a population that its government sought to systematically expel or murder, thereby precipitating NATO’s intervention. Countries that lose wars also invariably lose the lands they conquered or brutalized. Belgrade consistently demonstrated that it primarily sought the territory of Kosova—not its inhabitants. For instance, it excluded more than a million Albanian voters from voting lists for Serbia’s October 2006 constitutional referendum and from all national elections, demonstrating that they did not belong in Serbia. Kosova declared its independence in February 2008.
Some EU governments voiced fears that Kosova’s independence would destabilize a number of multi-ethnic European countries. In reality, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia—and the emergence of two dozen new countries during the 1990s—did not precipitate the breakup of Western European democracies. Unlike in Kosova, Catalans and other nations did not face mass murder at the hands of the central state and no international security force needed to intervene to prevent further bloodshed.
The EU’s various regional sovereignty movements operate within a democratic framework. Several pro-autonomy parties have won increasing local control for their territories in a number of countries. Although the majority of the public may support membership in a larger state, sentiments for statehood have accelerated in Catalonia and will be boosted by the heavy-handedness of the central government. If outright secession is to be avoided, the region’s autonomy must be preserved and negotiations resulting in constitutional changes will be essential.
The notion that Catalonia looks toward Kosova as an example and precedent for separation is not serious. The Catalan movement has a long tradition, fortified over the past decade by Spain’s economic crisis and the belief that the region would be wealthier as an independent state within an EU framework. Whether or not the regional government declares independence, Madrid’s reaction is crucial to prevent radicalization and violence. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy should beware of relying on coercion to control Catalonia. Otherwise the region may witness civil unrest and potential armed insurgency.
Kosova’s independence did not trigger Catalan or other separatist movements; this was accomplished by prolonged political and economic disquiet in Spain, combined with a revival of regional identities, the promise of economic improvement and the prospect of peaceful separation. Indeed, Catalan leaders asserted three years ago that it was Scotland’s independence referendum in September 2014—even though it failed—that had invigorated the Catalan movement.
In Catalonia we are not witnessing the rise of ethno-nationalism, as the Spanish government contends, but an awakening of a regional movement for self-determination. Such a process is not necessarily conflictive but can forge political units better adapted to the 21st century than larger and more cumbersome states. An effective antidote to EU skepticism may indeed be greater sub-state autonomy and even administrative independence where regions can find flexible solutions to local problems.
Although Kosova does not serve as a model for Spain, there is one specific link shared by Madrid, Prishtina and Belgrade. Spain is one of five EU countries— along with Cyprus, Greece, Romania and Slovakia—that have not recognized Kosova’s independence, and the Serbian government has praised Spain’s stance. However, that relationship may now begin to fray. Belgrade’s comparison of Kosova and Catalonia could be interpreted in Madrid and Barcelona as underscoring equivalence between Milosevic’s brutal “ethnic cleansing” of Kosova in the 1990s and Rajoy’s police crackdown against voters in the Catalan referendum and the potential suspension of Catalonia’s autonomy.
Moscow has also played its part in exploiting the Catalan-Spanish dispute. Every European election and referendum provides an opportunity for the Kremlin-funded media and its cohorts of disinformation to encourage EU discord and division. No country should consider itself immune from such attacks. In the Spanish case, Moscow has promoted the country’s fracture even though Madrid has been soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin by urging the EU to ease the sanctions it imposed on Moscow for its ongoing war in Ukraine. Maybe it is time for Spanish authorities to not only to engage in a fruitful dialogue with Catalan leaders, but also to explain the difference between Catalonia and Kosova—and adopt a more assertive and effective policy toward Russia.