Two different independence referendums are scheduled to occur within the next two weeks. The first will take place in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, and the second will take place in Catalonia on October 1. Both of these referendums are the latest developments in long independence movements, and both have potentially wide-reaching consequences. In order to understand these consequences, it is important to understand how Kurdistan and Catalonia have come the place they are now.
Iraqi Kurdistan comprises three provinces in northern Iraq with a population of roughly 6 million inhabitants. It is populated mostly by the Kurdish people, an ethnic group with an estimated 35 million members. Before the First World War, most Kurdish areas were under the control of the Ottoman Empire. Now, however, the Kurdish people are divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Kurdistan is one of the most prosperous regions in Iraq. It has large oil reserves, which contributes a steady flow of revenue. Its military wing, the Peshmerga, has been successful in fighting ISIS in Iraq. The region began to enjoy a degree of autonomy after the United States enforced a no-fly zone over Northern Iraq during the Gulf War. Since then, Iraqi Kurdistan has become the most democratic and economically developed part of the country.
As a result of Kurdistan’s relative prosperity, not to mention the statelessness of the Kurdish people, it is not surprising that the notion of independence has proven popular. A poll shows 52.9% support for “yes” as opposed to 25.6% for “no” and 17.9% for “undecided.” Despite its support among the Kurdish population, the referendum is staunchly opposed by the Iraqi government and many international actors. Iraq’s Supreme Court and Prime Minister have already demanded that the referendum be suspended, and Israel is the only country to have officially endorsed Kurdish independence.
The reason that so many foreign actors oppose the referendum is due to its possible negative ramifications. The lack of support from Baghdad makes the result of the vote unenforceable, meaning it is unlikely that a “yes” vote will actually result in independence. Nevertheless, a “yes” vote would be an important bargaining chip for the Kurdish independence movement. As a result, the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Syria fear that a successful referendum would strengthen calls for independence among their Kurdish populations, consequently compromising their territorial integrity. Numerous western governments, including the United States, oppose the referendum because they fear it may undermine unity in the Middle East, thus threatening the security situation.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum largely reflects the awkward position in which the Kurdish people has long found themselves since they were divided between four states. While a single, unified Kurdish state would theoretically be viable, the current status quo makes self-determination almost impossible. Similarly, while the relative prosperity of Iraqi Kurdistan means it could potentially be a successful state, the division of the Kurdish people makes such a prospect difficult. Moving towards Kurdish independence and unity undermines the unity of the current Middle Eastern state system. Thus the world would like to promote unity in the Middle East, but doing so has so far required maintaining the division of Kurdistan.
Catalonia is a region in Northeastern Spain with a population of 7.5 million. Centered on the the prosperous city of Barcelona, it has the largest economy of any Spanish region. It contributes over 20% of Spain’s economic output despite containing only 16% of its population. It also contributes more in tax money than it gets back, which is one of the arguments in favor of independence. Furthermore, the region has a distinctive language and culture, which has contributed to rising nationalist sentiment and has propelled Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a separatist coalition, to power in the regional government. On September 6, the regional government passed a law that a “yes” result of the referendum will be binding and will result in a declaration of independence, so the stakes of the referendum are high.
Catalonia held a non-binding referendum in 2014, and in it the voters overwhelmingly supported independence. This may be misleading, however, as it had low turnout and was boycotted by members of the opposition. Polls indicate that, although the majority of the population supports holding a referendum, it is roughly evenly split between support for and opposition to independence. This means that a “yes” vote is possible but far from guaranteed.
As a result of the possibility of losing its most industrialized region, the Spanish government feels threatened. Just as Baghdad strongly opposes the Kurdish referendum, Madrid has attempted to halt the Catalan referendum. The constitutional court ruled that the independence vote is illegal, and on September 20 Spanish police raided government offices and detained 13 senior Catalan officials. The Catalan government has nevertheless pressed on with its preparations for the vote, prompting a crisis.
At the moment, it is not certain whether or not the referendum will even be able to take place amid such vehement opposition by the Spanish government. Furthermore, even if Catalonia votes “yes” to independence, the Spanish government would likely contest the legitimacy of the vote and take steps to prevent Catalan secession. Catalonia, therefore, is in an awkward position just like Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems to be on a road toward even greater confrontation.
Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia have both scheduled independence referendums within the next two weeks, but whether or not they will actually occur is not certain. Furthermore, that they will result in independence is not only uncertain, but unlikely. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum, these two regions do not have the support of their respective central governments. That means that, while independence has been called for in response to numerous legitimate problems facing the people of Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, it cannot come without causing problems of its own.