From Yugoslavia to Catalonia and back: Some thoughts on parallels and differences



A few days ago, I wrote a few lines for Radio Free Europe (and a few other media, including AFP, N1 and UOL noticias) on the similarities and differences and the uses of the referendum in Catalonia and in the Balkans, which caused some lively debates. Here are these notes with a few points expanded.


Parallels and Differences

First, neither is Spain Yugoslavia, nor is Catalonia Slovenia or Croatia. Just like Istria, Vojvodina or Republika Srpska are not Catalonia. The reasoning, the dynamics and political process leading to any independence movement is specific, but each success is claimed by independence groups and each failure by states. One key difference between Kosovo and Catalonia is the violence. Despite the heavy-handed police response on Sunday, the independence movement in Catalonia cannot claim a recent history of repression as Kosovo did. Catalonia did experience a brutal repression in the context of the Spanish civil war, yet this is more than half a century past and four decades of democratic, decentralized rule in Spain are the reality and have been for a long time. In Kosovo, even before the war 1998-9, the revocation of autonomy in 1989 suggested that Kosovo could not rely on any autonomy arrangement with Serbia.

This is a key difference with Catalonia, which enjoys far-reaching self-government. Despite the stubborn and inflexible policies of the Rajoy government the difference are stark: Spain is a democracy, Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 1990s were not. There is a parallel in the fact that the more intransigent and heavy handed the centre is, the more likely people turn their support to independence. The pictures of the police violence during the referendum is the best advertisement for the independence movement. This stands in contrast with the approach taken by the UK or Canada, allowing for a referendum to be held unrestricted. Allowing for referenda to happen does reduce the all or nothing/now or never environment of referenda.

Only a few years before the respective referenda in Slovenia and Croatia in 1990, only a minority favored independence, but the heavy-handed policies of Milošević catapulted nationalists to power and secured support for putting a distance to Belgrade. Thus, independence movements are always the product of the relationship between the region or people seeking independence and the center. The Yugoslav cases suggest that repression and centralization efforts backfire.

Repercussions and Echoes in the Balkans

There are repercussions of the referendum in Catalonia for the region: The tensions between the Spanish government and the region are part of the key reasons that Spain has not recognized Kosovo. Thus, the first risk is that any confrontation in Spain over Catalonia will make Spain and arguably other non-recognizers more reluctant to consider recognizing Kosovo. Thus, we need to not only consider the effect of the crisis on independence movements, but also on state policies.

The Balkan cases, as most other independence movements live off their own internal dynamics, not based on what goes on elsewhere. However, success and failure elsewhere shape debates. There are only two real potential cases in the region at the moment, the north of Kosovo and the Republika Srpska. More historical regions, Vojvodina or Istria, have a sense of identity distinct from the Croatian and Serbian nation-state and a multi-ethnic, rather than mono-ethnic narrative of difference. Both lack strong movements for independence and lack a clear cultural distinction from the rest of the country as is the case in Catalonia (see an excellent new book by Dejan Štjepanović on this). Both the political leaders in the Republika Srpska and the North of Kosovo have articulated their policies separate from Catalonia. In the North of Kosovo, the discourse is not about independence, but rather about remaining with Serbia (echoing similar arguments made by Serb secessionists in Croatia Bosnia in the early 1990).

In the case Catalonia were successful in achieving independence, it would encourage the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik to pursue his goal. The Parliament of the Republika Srpska already stated when Kosovo declared its independence in 2008 that it reserved the right to pursue independence for the RS if Kosovo would achieve international recognition. Already Dodik has been continuously hinting at organizing a referendum. He has recently held back from pursuing a referendum on independence, largely due to international pressure, including from Serbia and Russia.

Catalonia will not cause new independence movements, just as Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not trigger a new wave of independence movements. It will serve as argument of both states and independence movement to make old claims or to counter them. A large factor is the international environment. There is generally little support for recognizing states. This is usually done only in extraordinary circumstances, either when there is an agreement with the central government, as happened in South Sudan, or if there was massive repression and a strong, violent independence movement, as in Kosovo or when the state had already disintegrated and there was no clear path to keeping it together, as it was in Yugoslavia. When Aleksander Vučić accused the international community of hypocrisy for not recognizing Catalonia, but supporting Kosovo, he is ignoring the specificity of Kosovo, which were underlined in the submissions and arguments brought to the ICJ in preparation of the 2010 advisory opinion on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Thus, neither Catalonia not fit any of these categories of potential countries that can make a plausible claim for independence, neither can Republika Srpska nor the North of Kosovo.


2 Responses to From Yugoslavia to Catalonia and back: Some thoughts on parallels and differences

  1. Andrea Lorenzo Capussela says:

    you say: ‘In Kosovo, even before the war 1998-9, the revocation of autonomy in 1989 suggested that Kosovo could not rely on any autonomy arrangement with Serbia.
    This is a key difference with Catalonia, which enjoys far-reaching self-government. Despite the stubborn and inflexible policies of the Rajoy government the difference are stark: Spain is a democracy, Yugoslavia and Serbia in the 1990s were not.’

    yes, but Kosovo declared independence one decade later, in 2008

    2008 is eight years after the Milosevic regime was felled

    that year according to the Worldwide Governance Indicators in Serbia ‘voice and accountability’ was not far from Croatia’s level, the highest in the Balkans, and considerably higher than it ever was in Kosovo in 2008-16; see also Freedom House’s Nations in Transit reports: in 2008 Serbia’s ‘democracy score’ was a little worse than Croatia’s, and far better than Kosovo’s (indeed, throughout 2008-16 was qualified as a ‘semi-consolidated authoritarian regime’)

    so what remains of this ‘key difference’?

    the differences between K and C are many and big, but protecting Kosovars from autocracy is not one of them

  2. Nenad Stankovic says:

    I came to this blog by chance, since you tweeted something about Serbia’s new year’s joke that was relayed in Serbian media. Regardless of our opposed views probably on the most of the issues in the Balkans, a professor should restrain himself from labeling someone “a war criminal”, if that is not the case. Personal feelings and opinions are one thing, but calling someone war criminal, who was liberated as innocent, is called diffamation and in Tintins “real Europe” is inadmissible, especially for someone who pretends to be an expert/professor for “South-Eastern studies”. It is hard today to find people with integrity, who thing with their own brain, since the “triage” for acceptable/non acceptable thinking is already done at earlier stages in the educational system in western Europe, what I have learned myself. At least from the (even hypocritical) ethical point you would need a little objectivity and clear head, before naming and shaming. But to leave that aside, for the past 20 years I witnessed so called “objectivity”, which in fact is engagement, it was just point out something which shouldn’t be the case in academic world (even if you are specialist for the Balkans, where everything is permitted). Coming to your blog to see who you really are and reading this article where you in comparison want to show that Catalonia is not Kosovo, which I agree, you show a lack of deeper insight knowledge of the Kosovo problem. You are like CNN, everything starts with Slobodan Milosevic and decision to revoke autonomy, but you are not entering into prelude how autonomy was given, why there was a problem with autonomy even in Tito’s Yugoslavia and what were the forms of separatism in Kosovo. You are blatantly ignoring persecution of Serbian civilian population in Kosovo in the 80s by Albanian secessionists, which was well documented, but you accept simplistic propagandist slogans that all the evil came with Milosevic and these evil Serbian nationalists. As all other propaganda agents you are closing both eyes on wrongdoings of some other nationalists, which were as well considerable. There is no serious analysis, just pure propagandist short-circuit short memory food for an average Joe, who doesn’t know nor is interested to know anything besides what he/she considers true with brainwashing during 90s in the media.

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