Weeks on from their independence referendums, both the Catalans and Kurds are undoubtedly on the back foot. Neither leadership has yet declared independence, and the likelihood of doing so — let alone implementing it — is receding.
Spain says it will trigger Article 155 of the constitution, imposing direct rule on the autonomous region of Catalonia. Madrid has also threatened to arrest Catalan President Carles Puigdemont upon a declaration of independence, over which he has equivocated.
Meanwhile, in addition to coordinated economic sanctions imposed on Iraqi Kurdistan by Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran, Iraq’s central government launched a military operation that has swiftly recaptured disputed territories from Kurdish forces, including oil-rich Kirkuk.
With an economic siege imposed by its powerful neighbors, various military forces deployed along Kurdistan’s borders, Kurdish political infighting in the aftermath of the referendum, and the loss of Kirkuk — dubbed the Kurds’ Jerusalem — chaos has replaced their hope of an independent state. In a major climb-down, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on Wednesday offered to freeze the results of its referendum and enter dialogue with Baghdad.
Though the US and Russia have supported the Kurds in Iraq and Syria in the fight against Daesh, neither backs Kurdish statehood because this would seriously damage relations with important regional allies.
This is not how the Catalans and Kurds expected things to turn out following their referendums, their positions weaker and their national aspirations more distant than before they voted. But this reveals their leaders’ naivety in not foreseeing and planning for predictable backlashes.
A factor that likely contributed significantly to the strident, uncompromising approaches of Madrid and Baghdad is a lack of any expressed willingness by their respective regions or the international community, prior to or since the referendums, to recognize an independent Catalonia or Kurdistan.
Even Israel’s prime minister, whose government was the only one in the Middle East to declare support for Kurdish independence, has barred Israeli officials from commenting on the issue, no doubt to avoid upsetting Turkey.
But this lack of recognition in the run up to the referendums was as clear to the Catalan and Kurdish leaderships as it was to Madrid and Baghdad. Without this, how did they think they could plausibly translate a vote on independence into actual statehood?
Recognition is vital in this regard, if not by the central government (such as with the Scottish and South Sudanese independence referendums), then by regional or international powers. In contrast to Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, Palestine is recognized by almost three-quarters of the world’s countries, despite vehement opposition by Israel and its allies.
If a central authority opposes secession, the only scenario in which outside recognition is not crucial is if the country from which a region is breaking away is not strong enough to stop it doing so. This is the case with the failed state of Somalia, from which Somaliland declared independence in 1991, and from which Puntland declared autonomy in 1998.
Somaliland and Puntland have fared better than Somalia despite not being recognized by any country. Needless to say, however, the central authorities of Spain and Iraq are much stronger and more stable than Somalia’s, and thus far more capable of challenging secession.
In the absence of regional or international recognition, a breakaway region would need at least one major power as a patron. Turkey fulfils that role for neighboring Northern Cyprus, which declared independence from the southern, Greek part of the island in 1983 and is recognized only by Ankara.
Similarly, without Russian support, Tranistria would not be able to maintain its autonomy from Moldova, nor Abkhazia and South Ossetia their independence from Georgia. This makes these regions hugely dependent on their patron, but the associated risk is mitigated by the patronage being linked to enduring ethnic kinship, so such support cannot be considered transient.
No major regional or international powers are willing to recognize either Catalan or Kurdish independence. Though the US and Russia have supported the Kurds in Iraq and Syria in the fight against Daesh, neither backs Kurdish statehood because this would seriously damage relations with important regional allies. And the Catalans will not be able to count on support from the EU or NATO, both of which include Spain as a member.
The leader of southern Yemen’s secessionist movement, who earlier this month said an independence referendum would be announced soon, will need to carefully consider the recognition factor.
The Middle East’s two most important bodies — the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia oppose southern secession, for which there have been no expressions of support from the international community. As such, the secessionist movement should be following developments in Catalonia and Kurdistan, and be mindful to avoid its dream of independence becoming a nightmare of isolation.
After all, as with any secessionist bid, the vote and declaration are the easy part. The obstacles and challenges lie in implementation, because that is where the straightforward principle of self-determination has to contend with the complexities of realpolitik, and where good intentions and hard work can be swiftly undone.