All eyes are on Scotland today as the nation heads to the polls for a historic vote on independence. Photo: AP
LONDON — All eyes are on Scotland today, as Scots head to the polls to decide whether they will break away from Britain to become an independent nation.
Outside Scotland, nowhere is there more suspense than in Spanish Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, where there is hope a win in Scotland will bolster local secessionist movements.
“There are some Kurds around and lots of Spanish people here -- huge numbers -- and a delegation from the Basque national party,” said Professor Michael Keating, who teaches politics at the University of Aberdeen and is director of the Scottish Centre on Constitutional Change.
“They’re talking to us and learning about what happened here in Scotland. We’re not talking about replicating, we’re just explaining to them what’s happening here.” he added.
The Catalans and the Kurds each feel repressed by their respective governments -- in Madrid and Baghdad -- that are not only resistant to secession but working to quash any effort to pursue single statehood.
Henri Barkey, Middle East analyst and professor of international relations at Lehigh University in the United States, said there are parallels among the Catalans, the Kurds and the Scots.
“You have two sets of complications that don’t exist for the Kurds: membership in the EU and membership in NATO. Once they (Scots and Catalans) leave, what happens? Will they remain members of the EU? It’s not clear. In that sense, Kurdistan has an easier, non-institutionally bound way forward. However, the problem for the Kurds is that they are where they are and Catalonia and Scotland are in Europe.”
The biggest difference? There will be no wars over Catalonia and no wars over Scotland. The Kurds, on the other hand, have for years fought plenty of opposition for their independence, and it is not contained to one nation: Turkey, Syria, and Iran -- none of the governments that rule Kurdish minorities -- support a Kurdish nation.
The Kurds and the Catalans are both driven by the desire to capture and preserve a culture they each see being slowly and methodically drummed out.
Willy Colomer Vilaplana, 22, grew up in the Catalan village of Cardedeu, 30 minutes north of Barcelona. Even at his young age, he is passionate about the history, the language and the traditions of Catalonians.
“It’s a matter of identity,” he said. “It’s something the Spanish can’t really understand. But some of us, we don’t feel Spanish at all.”
Catalonia contributes one-fifth of Spain’s economy, and studies have shown the region is fiscally robust -- so much that it can afford independence.
But, Vilaplana said money is not the main driver for Catalans.
“It has nothing to do with money. It has to do with a culture. I feel close to European thinking because I associate it with being modern, whereas I associate Spanish thinking with being very conservative and old-fashioned,” he said.
“If the Spanish government were a little bit clever, they would make a few concessions and the desire for independence would decrease. But instead, they turn us down all the time and they attack our culture, taking it out of schools, TV and public media.”
Kurdistan, Catalonia and Scotland each has strengths that can help support a break with central governments. But there are also weaknesses that could undermine the process.
The Scots and Catalans have technological bases, where Kurdistan lacks the skills and know-how. But Kurdistan’s best is to leverage its oil and gas revenues. Perhaps most importantly, Kurdistan holds the all-important wild card: power.
And right now, Iraq’s Kurds are in the forefront of an international war against the Islamic State (IS).
According to Barkey the difference between Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, on the world stage, says it all.
“The Kurds have much more international legitimacy than the Scots have. When Barzani comes to Washington he can see the (US) president. If Salmond were to come tomorrow, he wouldn’t -- not just because of the differences with Britain, but just because ‘who cares.’”
Salmond may not carry the weight of the Kurdish president. But if a “yes” vote prevails for Scottish independence, he and his tiny nation of rebels will have no problem sustaining the world’s attention.