By Sven Milekic*
Drums, music, singing and shouting shattered the busy late summer night in the centre of Barcelona, packed out with tourists looking for famous sights, a place to eat or drink – and possibly wondering what the protest was about.
Tens of thousands of people had crowded in front of the Department of the Vice-Presidency and Economy of the Catalan Government on September 20, at the crossing with the famous Rambla, near Catalonia Square, protesting against the Madrid government’s arrests of 14 Catalan officials.
Government officials are generally only arrested en masse in large-scale corruption cases. But here, in Catalonia, they had been arrested for attempting to organise the referendum on independence set for October 1.
Although the police temporarily put some of the regional officials behind bars for 48 hours, and seized 10 million voting ballots, the Catalans have defiantly vowed to go ahead with the referendum – despite Madrid calling it illegal.
The enthusiastic crowd, full of young people, waved red-and-yellow Catalan flags with a white star on a blue triangle, singing along with the music blaring from large speakers set on a small stage in front of the building.
There was some booing and whistling – probably intended for the Madrid government and national police, the Civil Guard – as people chanted: “Democracy”, “Independence”, “Occupying forces out” and “Where is Europe?”
Almost as a realised metaphor of the young that will carry the torch on, a father lifted up his daughter, aged around 11 or 12. She perched on his shoulders, high above the crowd, wearing one Catalan flag as a cape and holding the other in her hands, as people chanted frantically, while numerous flashes from cell phones blinded her and everyone else around.
“She looks like Lady Liberty,” a friend of mine, standing next to me in the stream of people, said.
As I walked around, with my companions mostly from ex-Yugoslav states, with a few others from Germany and France, I did not feel frightened or intimated by a crowd that, according to various media reports, reached 40,000 people.
However, I left a certain unease, as everyone seemed unconditionally “on board” with the idea of independence.
Most people from former Yugoslavia feel that unease when taking part in “grand national projects”, and when demands for “freedom and independence” risk ending in bloodshed.
In this euphoric atmosphere, one of the protesters asked a friend from Croatia something, and after she replied that she “didn’t speak Spanish”, he replied in English, obviously provoked: “I don’t speak Spanish either!” – meaning, his language was Catalan.
In Barcelona, everyone seems “on board” with the idea of secession from repressive Spain.
And the Madrid government is repressive, threating through the media that “there will be no pensions if Catalonia breaks free”, imprisoning Catalan officials, handing out fines of 6,000 to 12,000 euros for people disseminating voting ballots, and shutting down websites promoting independence.
Madrid’s moves are fuelling Catalan separatism – and yes, Catalonia has valid reasons in pushing for independence.
A highly industrialised region with a massive tourism sector, it is one of the biggest contributors to the national economy, producing around 19 per cent of Spanish GDP. It accounts for 16 per cent of the total population.
Supporters of Catalan independence argue that although Catalonia gives almost 10 billion euros a year to the central, it is still not one of the 17 regions with the most autonomy – claiming that the Basque Country has more.
The central government has also made clear its disinterest in investing in Catalonia, allocating it 9.5 per cent of its federal budget in 2015, which is a significant drop from nearly 16 per cent allocated in 2003.
People living in Barcelona claim that while it is easier to find a job than in Madrid, the wages are lower, while living costs – especially for rent, due to the explosion of tourism – are higher.
On a non-financial matter, the Spanish Constitutional Court has rejected dozens of Catalonian regional laws, effectively limiting their autonomy.
This is why the number of people supporting independence in Catalonia has jumped from only 15 per cent in 2009 to 41 per cent this July.
However, this is where we come to the twist. Although, according to the July survey, some 49 per cent of people in Catalonia are against independence, their voice is not heard much in Barcelona.
While on windows, balconies, shops and everywhere throughout Barcelona, one can see Catalan flags and green posters with “Si” (“Yes”), indicating supporters’ views about the potential referendum, no Spanish flags, or the word “No”, could be seen.
Yet, we are talking about 49 per cent of the people, as stated in a survey conducted by the Catalan regional government.
Here I come to the point where a I draw a parallel with Croatia and rest of former socialist Yugoslavia.
In Yugoslavia, the first demands for more fiscal independence surfaced in the mid-1960s, when Slovenia and Croatia, the two richest republics, took a similar position, that “Belgrade takes our money and gives it to poor republics” [the other four].
By the 1990s, however, the situation had radicalised, and people turned from arguments to arms.
Although Croatia overwhelmingly opted for independence or at least a loose confederation in a national referendum in 1991, the situation was far from idea, democratically.
As Croatian University professor Dejan Jovic noted back in 2014, the referendum was only democratic in the sense that the decision that won more votes was adopted.
However, he added, the atmosphere was such that it was not free to publically campaign for the option that lost. Political elites in both Croatia and Belgrade had made the atmosphere so heated that by then that it was impossible to have a truly fair referendum.
Fast-forward more than 20 years, and Croatia is not marking the decision of that history referendum nearly as much as it is celebrating its military victory in 1995, in the war that followed.
Croatian citizens also now use referendums to limit others, not free them, as in the 2013 referendum on gay marriage.
Although it would be an overstatement to say the situation in Catalonia is like that in Croatia in 1991, the deeply unfree atmosphere in which huge decisions are about to be made can be compared.
Clearly, Catalans wanting to vote “against” independence do not feel nearly as free to express their feelings as the other side.
The central government is fuelling the radicalisation of the public and of political and media discourse. It is creating a “with us or against us” dichotomy, when many people who do not support independence would, for example, support more autonomy for Catalonia, as surveys show.
While in Croatia in the 1990s, nationalists led the way, in Catalonia the battle is led by a wide spectrum of political parties, including far-leftists.
But it is still a situation in which “we, the good” are oppressed by “them, the bad”. There is no middle ground.
Although Catalonia is truly a welcoming region, inviting in Middle-Eastern refugees at a time of growing anti-migrant hostility in much of Europe, its political elites are pushing for further radicalisation and division in Spanish society.
While there is no ethnic component to this separatism, as Catalans proudly emphasise that their descendants come from all over the Spain, a certain discomfort with Madrid is transparent.
All these leads to the drawing of historical parallels. Pictures or slogans of Spanish fascist dictator Francisco Franco are shared on social media. Some go further back in history, to 1714, and the brutal year-long of the siege of Barcelona by the Spanish King.
Events from the Spanish Civil War are interpreted in museums through a somewhat simplistic Catalan perspective, in which Catalans are shown almost exclusively as Republicans.
Back in Croatia and rest of the former Yugoslavia people remember simplistic historical approaches very well, and the links that our leaders made with fascist movements in the 1940s or even with 14th-century battles.
They also know how things that were once shared among all Yugoslavs, like the anti-fascist struggle, now are interpreted through strictly national perspectives.
In all post-Yugoslav states, people remember the nation-founding myths but also remember the price they paid for them.
In the end, the push for Catalan independence must be looked through the perspective of what it actually brings for the ordinary citizen, struggling to make ends meet in beautiful, but expensive, Barcelona.
Will his or her paycheck grow as a result of independence? Will they only have to vote in one less election less – the Spanish one? Will he or she be more truly free and independent – or will the political elites just be that bit more powerful?
*Sven Milekic is a BIRN journalist based in Zagreb, Croatia.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.