Is there ever a good time to hold an independence referendum? Of course the answer to that question, from Kurdistan to Catalonia, depends on whom you ask. For those looking to declare a new nation based on ethnic, economic or political claims, there's no time like the present to take destiny into your own hands and finally right the course of history.
On the other hand, current national leaders who seek to hold current borders and maintain territorial unity will always find good reasons to oppose such moves.
But perhaps the timing and motivations of both sides (all valid in their own right) matter less than the short- and long-term consequences these latest two such referenda might provoke.
Some five million people are expected to cast their vote today in Iraq's northern region of Kurdistan, in an independence referendum opposed by the federal government in Baghdad, all regional powers — with the notable exception of Israel — the United States and the United Nations. Beyond the constitutional argument, opponents in Iraq's capital and abroad argue that attention should first be focused on defeating ISIS, with Kurdish forces playing a crucial role in this still unfinished war. Kurdish independence would further weaken Iraq, and exacerbate divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the rest of the country.
Both Iran and Turkey, two key regional players with their own restive Kurdish minorities, are strongly opposed to any such nationhood for Kurds in Iraq, which is at least partially driven by a desire to secure the region's oil wealth. Given the phrasing of the question being asked today in Erbil ("Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?"), it's hard not to see their point.
A textbook example of how economic resentment can feed into pre-existing historical and cultural grievances.
Some supporters of Kurdish independence worry of the consequences, in light of the national and international forces opposed, according to a reportage from Erbil by French daily Libération. Still, momentum for a "Yes" vote appears to be growing. "We have two choices: independence or submission," declared Iraqi Kurd leader Masoud Barzani at a rally this weekend.
Placed in a wider, regional perspective, an independent Kurdistan might just be the first step towards a general redrawing of Middle Eastern borders along ethnic and religious lines, something The New York Times has reported in the past.
Far across the Mediterranean, another tectonic change could be set off from the Spanish region of Catalonia, where a vote on independence is planned for Oct. 1. The situation there is a textbook example of how economic resentment can feed into pre-existing historical and cultural grievances. The authorities in Catalonia, Spain's richest region, have long protested the federal government siphoning its wealth into Madrid, and insisted they would be better off alone. Madrid's move last week to send in the police and arrest Catalan leaders has only served to "deepen the wound," as Catalan author Francesc-Marc Álvaro wrote in Barcelona-based daily La Vanguardia, and to embolden the pro-independence side, as rallies held across the region over the weekend have shown.
"Human pillar" during Barcelona's city festival on Sept. 24 — Photo: Matthias Oesterle/ZUMA
Though the implications are less severe than in the Middle East, the emergence of an independent Catalonia could also set a dangerous precedent in Europe, as it might convince other independent-minded regions such as Spain's Basque country, Belgium's Flanders, or even Germany's Bavaria, to go it alone. The repercussions, for old nation-states as well as for European institutions already struggling to reach consensus with 28 members, could be devastating.
It is an interesting paradox of our ever smaller and more globalized world that so many new claims of nationhood are emerging across the planet. There is no established formula for measuring the legitimacy of any such claim to independence, but it is hard to deny that each one adds more strife to an already unstable world.
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