This week, an estimated 1.6 million pro-independence Catalans linked arms to form a 400-kilometer human chain across their region. Called Catalan Way, this peaceful protest was inspired by the Baltic Way of 1989 when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were pushing to break free of Moscow rule. But is it legitimate to draw parallels between Catalonia's move to split off from the rest of Spain and the Baltics' drive to win back their independence from the USSR? Two Spanish journalists who have both lived in Estonia have given ERR News their views.
Eduard Lladó Vila
The Singing Revolution: Yesterday, the Estonians; today, the Catalans
Following the example of the peaceful political demonstration that took place in the three Baltic countries in August 1989, Catalonia hosted on 11 September 2013, Catalan National Day, its own Baltic Way.
Baptized for the occasion as Catalan Way, about 1.6 million people joined their hands to create a 400 -kilometer human chain running from Catalan's northernmost town (on the border with France) to the southernmost one (on the border with the Region of Valencia) through Barcelona.
This massive pro-independence protest, covered by media throughout the world, has been largely inspired by the extraordinary human chain that 24 years ago linked Tallinn to Riga to Vilnius on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
As it happened in the Baltic case, the Catalan National Assembly, the grassroots organization promoting the Catalan Way, expected to offer a stunning scene, allowing the international community to witness the strength of the independence movement and to set forth the desire of Catalan society to be consulted on independence.
In fact, the process that led Estonia and the other two Baltic countries to the restoration of the independence is seen in Catalonia as a likely example to emulate in its determination to abandon Spain and become a new European state.
Obviously, the political contexts of Spain and the USSR are slightly different. While 1989’s Soviet Union was an authoritarian regime that had been illegally occupying the Baltic countries for 50 years, Spain is nowadays a democratic country where all human rights are supposed to be guaranteed. But the severe recession, an unequal distribution of wealth and the Spanish government’s wish to centralize some regional competences have given rise in Catalonia to demands for a free state.
Nevertheless, Spain’s public commitment to refuse any dialogue on independence with Catalan’s regional government and its conviction to make illegal any referendum on national sovereignty somewhat bring to mind the discourse that the Soviet Communist Party stated towards the Baltics' struggle for freedom. Therefore, this Spanish Soviet attitude is leading Catalonia to carry out its own Singing Revolution.
Like the protests held by Estonian civil society from 1987 to 1990 to regain Estonia’s freedom, the Catalan pro-independence wave is, above everything, a broad-based, peaceful, inclusive and democratic movement. Last year’s mass protest on Catalonia’s National Day (when 1.5 million people demonstrated in the streets of Barcelona), this year’s Concert for Freedom at Barça’s Camp Nou (a crowd of 90,000 spectators attended the musical event) and Catalan Way show the popularity and the acceptance of the pro-independence ideas.
As Catalonia has been divested of the capacity to hold a referendum within a legal framework, the movement is focused on spreading among the international community the same consensus that surrounds this nonviolent, civic and national revolution.
As Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania did it once, Catalan society hopes that massive and convivial demonstrations like the Catalan Way will contribute to publicizing the moral issue of the Catalan conflict: the impossibility of using democratic weapons in a democratic context.
Almost 25 years ago, the Baltic Way became a milestone for the success of the Singing Revolution. The Catalan Way might from now on be the milestone for our own Revolució Cantant.
Spain is no ‘Evil Empire’
The recent success of the Catalan Way understandably strikes a soft spot in the heart of every Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian. The example of the Baltic Way of 1989, when citizens from the three Soviet-occupied Baltic republics created a human chain through their territories to push forward their independence from the Soviet Union, is acknowledged in the Catalonian case, and its excellent organization has succeeded in putting the demands of Catalonian nationalists in the world stage.
However, similarities end there.
Catalonia is a modern nation integrated into one of the most decentralized multinational countries in the European Union. Unlike Estonia, Catalonia didn’t become part of Spain by the force of arms. Rather, Spain came to exist because the kingdom to which Catalonia belonged, Aragon, merged dynastically with another peninsular kingdom called Castile in the 15th century.
Successive rebellions and the siding of the local upper class with the losing party in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714) saw the privileges Aragon enjoyed abolished and leveled with the rest of Spain. Since then, Catalonia has developed its culture and economy very successfully to become one of the leading regions in today’s Spanish democracy.
Aside from the fascist regime that oppressed the whole country for 40 years, Catalonia’s identity is not in question. Catalan is an official language used at all levels in everyday life as well as a vehicle for culture. Politically, Catalonian nationalist parties are overrepresented in Madrid’s parliament and have been the key to some national governments in the last decades. They have been fierce about Catalonian autonomy and have obtained many victories from national governments regarding decentralization.
The reasons that secessionism has become more popular in recent years are complex. The impact of the crisis in this very dynamic region has been harshly felt. As in the rest of Spain, cuts in education and social services have been made and many families are losing their homes to banks. Nationalists have blamed the government in Madrid for this. The rise of the right wing in the national government and its traditional Franquist attitude towards nationalities has also given Catalonian nationalists a perfect "evil Spanish" foe.
However, both sides are painting a distorted image of Spain to fit their ideas. Spain should be understood as a multinational country, where different cultures have a role all Spaniards cherish. It is a young and rather imperfect democracy evolving politically and administratively after a long dictatorship, whose most probable and adequate structure in the future will be federal.
Another common argument for secession is the payments Catalonia and other rich regions of Spain make into a solidarity fund benefiting the poorest parts of the country. Nationalists claim not enough investment goes back to Catalonia and point to the presence of exacting road tolls around Barcelona as an example of this. Actually, the decision to finance the construction of most motorways with tolls was made by Catalonian autonomous governments. Under the slogan “Espanya ens roba” (Spain is robbing us), every time a poorer region makes economic or social progress, Catalonian nationalism considers that Catalonian money was spent there that should have been invested in their region instead.
Catalonia is a nation, the same way the Basque Country, Galicia, Andalusia and Castile (other Spanish regions) are also nations enriching the renowned culture of the kingdom we call Spain. They have nurtured each other and intertwined their identities through the last 500 years of history. As nations, they have an undeniable right to self-determination.
However, the people living in the cultural and political entity these nations have created together - one emerging from the drama of a long history of empire, decadence, civil war and, finally, a first chance in history to coexist in a democratic state - deserve a calmed and honest discussion away from the half-truths and nationalist mythologies that short-term political interests are creating and putting forward in a time of severe economic distress.