There are parallels between Vladimir Putin’s need to dominate Ukraine and right-wing Spain’s intolerance of Catalan nationalism.
Modern Spain wouldn’t bomb Barcelona. Putin’s aggression is in a league of its own. But the last conservative government of Spain did send riot police into Catalonia when it organized an independence referendum in defiance of Spanish courts. It did depose the regional government, arrest its leaders and sentence them to between nine and thirteen years in prison for inciting “sedition” and participating in a “rebellion”. It did hack the phones of dozens of Catalan separatists, including non-politicians, to read their messages and listen to their conversations.
Putin uses tanks, conservative Spain the law, but their motivation is the same: neither can accept the independent aspirations of a people they refuse to recognize as separate from themselves.
Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s center-left prime minister, pardoned the Catalan separatists who were imprisoned for leading the controversial 2017 referendum. But Spanish prosecutors still seek the extradition of former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont, who lives in Belgium, and they are still trying the former speaker of the Catalan parliament for allowing debates on independence and abolition of the monarchy.
Much like Republicans in the United States, conservatives in Spain have been able to use their majority in the Senate — where rural areas are overrepresented — to control the judiciary. They have blocked Sánchez’ nominations to the body which appoints lower-level judges. As a result, most Spanish judges are right-wing, and Catalans bear the brunt of their judicial activism.
Quim Torra, who succeeded Puigdemont as Catalan president, was removed from office by the courts for hanging a yellow ribbon, the symbol of the Catalan independence movement, from the balcony of his state-owned residence. Judges argued Torra had used government property for political party aims, apparently a grave enough offense to overturn a presidential election.
Oriol Junqueras, Catalonia’s former vice president, was elected to the European Parliament in 2019 while in prison. The European Court of Justice ordered Spain to release him on bail, so he could attend his swearing-in ceremony. Spain’s Supreme Court refused.
When Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled that Polish law takes precedence over European law, it caused an EU-wide uproar. When a Spanish court issued a similar ruling, nobody in Brussels spoke out.
Spanish lawfare against Catalan nationalism has reached such absurdities that the Pompeu Fabra University and University of Barcelona were found guilty of violating the “freedom of education” of their students when they put out statements in support of the jailed separatists.
Much like Putin considers Ukrainian nationalism a criminal affront to the Russian world that could only appeal to “neo-Nazis”, conservative Spain considers Catalan nationalism illegitimate and refuses to believe it has a mass following. Putin understands that a free and prosperous Ukraine would serve as a rebuke to autocracy in Russia. Right-wing Spaniards feel similarly threatened by the prospect of an independent Catalonia.
Former prime minister José María Aznar argues Catalan language laws are not about protecting Catalan, but “exterminating” Spanish. Pablo Casado, the former leader of Spain’s conservative People’s Party, compared bilingual education in Catalonia to racial segregation in 1950s America. His party has proposed to suspend Catalan self-government. The far-right party Vox (Voice) would permanently revoke Catalan home rule. It has 20 percent support in the polls. 50 percent of Spaniards believe Catalonia has too much autonomy, rather than too little. Not even Sánchez’ ruling Socialist Party would allow Catalans a legal referendum on independence.
I lived in Spain for three years, and the disgust with which Andalusians, Castilians and Galicians would casually talk about Catalans, especially around the time of the 2017 referendum, was shocking to me. Catalans were described as arrogant, entitled and uncaring (for pointing out they pay relatively more into the Spanish treasury than they take out). When I asked if Catalans didn’t have a right to self-determination, the response was always the same: what makes them so special?
Basques, who have a strong national identity of their own, and Valencians, who border Catalonia, were usually more sympathetic. Polls suggest only the Basques agree Catalans have a right to break away.
The contempt is reciprocated. Even Catalans opposed to independence tend to consider the rest of Spain backward.
There are objective differences. Catalans speak their own language. The region has historically been more urbanized and wealthier than the center and south of Spain thanks to higher productivity and cultural and trade relations with the rest of Europe. Catalans may be more reserved than other Spaniards, although, to this Dutchman, all Spaniards seem pretty laid-back. It’s the narcissism of small differences.
I suspect the reason so few Spaniards can accept Catalan nationalism, let alone Catalan independence, is rooted in their own inferiority complex. Spain never tires of pointing out how “European” it has become. Nobody in France, Italy or the Netherlands feels a need to. This is another similarity with Russia, which has for centuries looked to Europe and found itself wanting by comparison.
Putin and his apologists insist the West didn’t treat Russia with respect after the Cold War, but no amount of Western respect could have made up for Russia’s self-doubt. Europe doesn’t treat Spain any differently from Italy or France. If anything, Spain is praised for making the transition from autarkic dictatorship to prosperous democracy in one generation. It still feels insecure.
Insecure nations lash out. The next best thing to respect is fear. The next best thing to self-worth is to hurt others. It’s the logic of the schoolyard bully. As long as Russia, which has an economy the size of Spain’s, can dominate Ukraine, it is still a great power that must be reckoned with. As long as Spain controls Catalonia, its economy, population and landmass make it one of the great nations of Europe. Without Catalonia, the Spanish economy would be reduced to the size of the Netherlands’.
Catalan nationalists have never resorted to violence. (Unless one counts the Civil War, when Catalonia fought on the side of the Republic against Franco.) The Spanish state has. It intervened violently in the 2017 referendum. Spanish police beat up voters and seized ballot boxes. Hundreds were injured. Luckily no one died.
The conflict between Ukraine and Russia has escalated way beyond riots and legal disputes. It is a wake-up call for Spain not to let its own conflict with Catalonia spiral out of control.