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

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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.

 

Absurd Referenda

After the Brexit vote, Russia has been putting pressure on Serbia to have a vote on EU and NATO membership as early as the presidential elections next year. The notion of such a referendum is clearly intended to sabotage Serbia’s EU accession and seeks to capitalize on the EU crisis after the British vote. I wrote this commentary below for the daily Blic on the absurdities of this referendum and referenda more broadly.

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Referenda are popular tools in the hands of populists and authoritarian leaders and rarely the desired instrument of democrats. They give easy yes-no answers to complicated issues, they allow to mobilize citizens against something, anything and they can ignore values and rights that are other protected. It is thus no surprise that amidst the current democratic crisis on the European continent referenda have been proliferating. However, not just the Brexit vote shows how problematic referenda can be: In Greece last year, the government of Alexis Tsipras organized a vote on the conditions for the bailout plan, campaign against the plan and ignored the Oxi (no) vote the next day. In Britain the Brexit vote only took place because David Cameron promised it his own Eurosceptic party colleagues when he took control of the party and once Brexit one, both he and those who campaigned against the EU fled the scene without a plan. Other referenda have been launched by the opposition to sabotage the government and impose their own agenda, as conservative Janez Janša did in Slovenia or the clerical far right group «U ime obitelj» in Croatia with the vote to introduce a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

Even in Switzerland, the home of referenda and more experienced to voting on specific policies had two highly problematic referenda in recent years. First, a vote banned the construction of minarets—never mind that this is not only absurd considering that minarets are exceedingly hard to find in Switzerland (only four were built before the ban in 2009), but also because it breaks human rights. The Swiss voted in 2014 to limit immigration, including from the EU, which broke bilateral agreements and resulted in EU countermeasures that hurt Switzerland.

It is populists with strong authoritarian leanings across Europe who argue for referenda, often against elected parliaments as a way to short circuit complicated decisions that require negotiation and compromise. While this sounds more democratic, it is so only at the surface. Referenda are rarely the instrument of citizens, but mostly tools of either governments to ratify what they want or the opposition using them sabotage a parliamentary majority.

The idea of a referendum on EU or NATO membership in Serbia at this point is particularly absurd. No country has ever voted on joining the EU before negotiations are concluded and there was a treaty to vote for or against. Similarly, no country that does not want to join NATO has voted on whether to join. It does make sense—and many countries did—of having a vote to join the EU or NATO once the deal is completed to ensure that the citizens agree with such a big decision. Voting on something that will happen years down the road and is uncertain how it will look like (what the EU will be like, the regional context and Serbia) is akin placing a bet today on the winner of the 2024 European football championship—foolish.

A referendum on NATO would be even more bizarre as neither the government, nor a majority of citizens currently want to join and there is no significant movement to join NATO. Thus, the only purpose of a referendum would appear to be to preempt a future change of heart. However, voting now on a policy in the future is locking yourself into an artificial tight-jacket that might be a convenient excuse until a future government will see it fit to ignore it.

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The idea of such a referendum does recall the famous vote Milošević imposed in 1998 against foreign mediation in Kosovo. A majority of voters followed his suggestion to reject “foreign meddling”, just to see him negotiate (not very successfully) a few months later. JUL at the time plastered the walls of Belgrade with a poster in English (!) and the slogan “We all thing the same!”

The expectation of those arguing for such a referendum now would appear to be sabotaging EU accession and preventing a future NATO membership. A vote against the EU would be easily interpreted as a vote against political and economic reform and as more than just the rejection of membership in the organization, but the values associated with it and ties with the EU. Turning the back to Europe would satisfy dictators to the East, such as Putin and Erdogan, but bring nothing good for Serbia.  The best illustration of the populist trap was a recent cartoon of two sheep standing admiringly in front of the election poster a wolf. They were happily explaining their unlikely support: “This will show the shepherd”.

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Croatia Referendum Shows Perils of Direct Democracy

Here is a comment I wrote for Balkan Insight on the recent referendum in Croatia. I have added two tables that compare support for EU membership and support for the constitutional definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

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Last Sunday Croatia held its third referendum in the last 23 years. In 1991 Croatian citizens voted whether to remain in Yugoslavia, in 2012 whether to join the EU and now on whether a marriage should be constitutionally defined as a union of a man and a woman. Hardly of the same caliber as the previous referenda, it passed with nearly a two third majority. The referendum was in fact a demonstration of the risks of direct democracy. Croatia already defines marriage as such, all be it not in the constitution. Furthermore, there is no effort to move towards giving same-sex partnerships equal status to marriages. As a result the initiators of the referendum—a previously unknown ultra-conservative group “In the name of the family” (with support of the Catholic Church)—achieved a success without any great legal consequence, but political significance.

Some commentators in Croatia and outside decried the result as evidence of a conservative, backward looking Croatia. This is, however, is one-sided reading of the referendum.  Firstly, only ten European countries open marriage to same-sex couples, all of them in Western and Northern Europe. Thus, Croatia is by no means exceptional. Five other EU member states ban same-sex marriage, namely Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. According to the Rainbow Europe index of ILGA the main European group lobbying for equal rights of LGBT communities—measuring legal protection, human rights violations and social attitudes—Croatia ranked 13th among 49 countries in Europe, at similar levels to Austria, Finland, and well above Greece, Italy and all other countries of Central Europe except Hungary. Second, attitudes in Croatia are no particularly hostile towards gays and lesbians and opposition to opening marriage to homosexual is not particularly pronounced. There are few recent Europe-wide polls on levels of support for opening marriage to homosexual couples, but Eurobarometer numbers from 2006 indicate that the levels of the referendum outcome are do not make Croatia a conservative outlier. A 2012 study of the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency of discrimination against LGBT citizens in the EU (and future members) did find that Croatia ranks as the country with high level of LGBTs who experienced discrimination and harassment (60% experienced harassment or discrimination within the previous year), only Latvia has a higher level. The levels are similar in Italy, Cyprus and Poland. Thus, Croatia belongs to the countries of the EU that are more conservative in regard to LGBT citizens, but largely reflected Central and Southern European patterns.  Third, the turnout of the referendum was low, only 37.9% voted, thus with support for the initiative at 65.87% only a quarter of all Croatian voters endorsed the initiative.

Yet, the group and its referendum were successful. (below is added to the Balkan Insight Comment). Here it is worthwhile looking the 2012 referendum joining the EU. (added to the Balkan Insight Comment). As the table below shows, the support for limiting marriage is not inversely related to support for EU across counties in Croatia. In most counties citizens supported both. The only places where we can identify a clear discrepancy are Istria and the region around Rijeka where a majority voted again the prohibition of same-sex marriage, but for the EU.

Croatian ref percent

If we look at absolute numbers, see table below, a similar pattern emerges that support for accession to the EU was not lower where support for the recent referendum was high. The only region that is striking here is Split, where in fact more people voted in favor of the ban than voted in favor of joining the EU.

Croatian ref numbers

Thus, while there is a clear regional pattern of support and rejection of the ban on same-sex marriage (with more liberal regions in Istria,around Rijeka, and to a lesser degree in Zagreb and Medjumurje and more conservative regions in Dalmatia), it would be wrong to assume a straightforward liberal-conservative divide that translates to Euroskepticism. A second point of comparison is turnout (continued from the Balkan Insight comment). Turn out at the referendum is not as low as it would seem. Turnout in 2012 on joining the EU was less than 7 percent higher, 946.433 voted in favor of the ban, some 1.299.008 voted for joining the EU. Referenda often have low turn outs as they are usually able only to mobilize voters who are concerned with the issue at stake. It would be thus a mistake to consider the turn out a failure for the church and the groups that supported the initiative. The main successes reach beyond the referendum itself. For the first time, conservative groups in Croatia were able to gain main-stream support for a social issue, rather than a national issue. While popular support for “homeland war” can be more easily generated, Croatian society, as other post-Yugoslav societies, have been overall unresponsive to social conservative initiatives and policy agendas beyond national issues (borders, veterans, interpreting the past). The referendum suggests that a conservative social agenda might gather popular support. Such campaigning is likely to be polarizing and cannot capture a majority, but can energize the conservative spectrum of the electorate. Not unlike the Tea Party in the US, such an agenda is unlikely to be sustainable in the mid-term or to gain a majority, but it can dictate the debate. Finally, this referendum opens the door to potentially other referenda. It remains to be seen how serious the threats of nationalist groups in Vukovar are to seek a referendum on banning Cyrillic, but the success provides an incentive for the opposition to by-pass representative democracy and impose a conservative agenda through referenda (or their threat). Slovenia has had some similar experiences with multiple referenda in 2010-2012, mostly initiated by opposition groups that among others blocked pension reform and a law that would have put same-sex partnerships on equal footing with marriage. The threshold for holding a referendum in Croatia is higher (10% of all registered voters), but the success of the referendum against same-sex marriage highlights the ability to reach the number of required signatures if the issue has a polarizing effect and well-organised groups stand behind the initiative.

Thus, the referendum is less the evidence of a backward and conservative Croatia, but of the risks and potential of using polarizing social issues to dictate the policy agenda.

The surprising-unsurprising “Yes” for the EU in Croatia

The referendum on EU accession of Croatia gave a resounding “Yes” in favor of joining the EU. According to the final results, 66.27% of citizens who turned out voted in favor. The No vote got only  a third of the vote. Striking is that every county of Croatia voted in favor of joining the EU, even the most Eurosceptic region of Dubrovnik-Neretva stilled voted 56.93% in favor. The regional variation is thus not very great and there is no clear regional pattern except for the two southern regions of Split and Dubrovnik being more skeptical. Support was great in towns close to the EU, such as Varazdin and Cakovec, but also in poorer towns and regions like Slavonski Brod or Gospic. This suggests that the reasons for support were multiple. Opponents of the EU did not do well, even in strong-holds of more nationalist parties, such as in Slavonia where the HDSSB did well in parliamentary elections. Ironically, it would seem that the Euroskeptics did best on the Dalmatian islands of Brac and Hvar. For example in the two municipalities of Jelsa and Stari Grad on the Island of Hvar, support for EU accession was just above 50% (51.16% and 51.79% respectively). This would also suggest that rejection of the EU is less based on the nationalist arguments heard in the referendum campaign, but possibly on the sense of some tourist destinations that membership will not bring an tangible benefits. The few Bosnian Croats that voted (just over 6000, or 2.3% of eligible voters) endorsed EU membership with 87.85%.

The turn out in the diaspora was low, but so was it in Croatia itself. This somewhat puts a dent into the referendum results. Only 43.68% of eligible citizens voted. The low turn out is not unique to Croatia: elsewhere similar referenda often had an equally low turn out. Now it could be argued that the result is no surprise. No significant parliamentary party campaign against joining and even Ante Gotovina in custody at the ICTY endorsed the vote, undermining nationalist argument against accession. So no surprise? Well, there might not have been no surprise now, but only a year ago, Euroskepticism was high. Protests last year in Zagreb burnt the EU flag, even if protestors agreed on little else. For years prior, Croatia had become by far the most Euroskeptic country in the region. In 2009, according to the Gallup Balkan Monitor, only 26.2% of Croats thought the EU was a good thing, nearly half of the runner-up Serbia, in 2010 the number dropped to 24.8%. So were the numbers wrong? The referendum suggests two things about support for EU accession in the Western Balkans: First, citizens might be growing weary of the EU as negotiations drag on, once they are concluded, it is easier to warm up to the EU. Second, many citizens might not “love” the EU, but they consider it the least bad option. Thus among many “Yes” voters in Croatia today are surely also those who rather not take any chances, especially as the alternative remained unclear and potentially risky. Thus, even if support for accession is likely drop in the other countries of the region–as it so often dues in the accession process–this does not suggest that citizens will vote against membership at the end.

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