Why you should care
Because if at first you don’t secede … try, try again.
It was a momentous day. After millions of people across the autonomous region of Catalonia had headed to the polls, the results were in: More than 80 percent of voters had opted for independence from Spain. The streets of Barcelona were packed with crowds of smiling faces, the evocative red and yellow stripes of the Catalan flag draped around their shoulders. There was just one problem: It didn’t matter one little bit. After the Spanish constitutional court deemed a formal independence vote illegal, the November 2014 ballot was nothing more than a nonbinding straw poll.
And the entire saga might repeat itself in a little over a week’s time. On October 1, the region will again hold an independence ballot that it claims will be binding but Madrid maintains is illegal. And Catalonians aren’t alone. On September 25, the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan will hold an independence vote, which is also claimed to be binding but with no formal recognition from the Iraqi government. The Kurds, like the Catalans, have been here before, voting 99 to 1 in favor of independence in 2005, only to be roundly ignored.
That’s not to say that unilateral referenda are a waste of time: Votes that were unrecognized but tolerated by Moscow, namely in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, facilitated their independence from the Soviet Union in the early ’90s, says professor Matt Qvortrup, author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict. So we hit the history books to find out what failed independence referenda of times gone by can teach today’s separatists.
The Case of the Indecisive Electorate
Back in 1933, the giant state of Western Australia, all one million square miles of it, voted for independence from what was then the Australian Federation. The region had never really been keen on joining the federation of British colonies in the first place after the discovery of gold in a couple of towns, but the Great Depression proved the final straw, causing unemployment to hit 30 percent in Perth. In a referendum organized by the Nationalist Party, the independence option got more than two-thirds of the vote, but the movement was derailed by local politics: The same day they won the referendum, the Nationalists lost the state parliament election and were booted from office. The pro-federation Labour Party “just ignored [the independence bid], then it all kind of blew over,” says Qvortrup. A similar turn of events thwarted a successful independence vote for the Faroe Islands from Denmark in 1946 — the next general election resulted in a victory for unionist parties, which conveniently ignored the fact that the referendum had ever happened.
Other failed secession votes that led to violence? Texas, Virginia and Tennessee …
Newsflash: Nationalism Can Lead to Violence
Referenda in favor of independence by Slovenia and Croatia in 1990 and 1991 precipitated the breakup of Yugoslavia, although devastating ethnic conflict during the Yugoslav Wars also ensued. Though the Yugoslav Constitutional Court had ruled that secession would not be constitutional, the votes ultimately proved successful in guaranteeing the nations’ independence, as did the 1992 poll in Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Aleksandar Pavković, a politics professor at Macquarie University. Not so successful? The 1991 independence referendum in Kosovo, in which 99.98 percent voted in favor of independence — Serbs there boycotted the vote — but the European Community and the United States refused to recognize it, says Pavković, and the rest of the world followed suit. Other failed secession votes that led to violence? Texas, Virginia and Tennessee all passed ordinances of secession by popular votes in 1861 to form the Confederacy, triggering the American Civil War.
And Now for Places You’ve Never Heard of …
These places failed to win statehood precisely because nobody else cared. In 1992, the three-million-strong region of Tatarstan voted 62 percent in favor of becoming a sovereign state. But unlike the newly independent states in Eastern Europe, there was no international interest in this rogue region in the heart of Russia, so it languished as a “phantom state” for several years, never signing the treaty that formed the modern Russian Federation. That is, until Putin came along and declared the historic referendum unconstitutional. And then there’s the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh, which in 1991 held an independence referendum from Azerbaijan with 99.98 percent of voters in favor. As of yet, not a single country has recognized their independence — though seven U.S. states have.
So What About Kurdistan and Catalonia?
Observers expect the votes this year to come in significantly in favor of secession — so expect a return of the Barcelona street parties. But the lesson from history? “It really depends on what is in the interests of other countries,” says Qvortrup. That’s probably “sealing the fate” of both independence movements, he says. In Europe, the EU has no interest in recognizing Catalonia, while “it stretches beyond my political imagination” that any regional powers see any strategic advantage to having a brand new country in the Middle East, he says.
So hold tight. You probably don’t have to redraw those world maps just yet.