News / Europe

Crimea Grab Spurs Mixed Feelings Among Europe's Separatists

People hold placards to form a giant Catalan flag in front of Sant Feliu townhall, near Barcelona, Feb. 16, 2014.
People hold placards to form a giant Catalan flag in front of Sant Feliu townhall, near Barcelona, Feb. 16, 2014.
Reuters
— Russia's annexation of Crimea after a snap referendum staged under military occupation has whetted some appetites in the Balkans, but has done no favors to the Scots, Catalans, Flemish and others seeking independence in Europe.
 
The leader of ethnic Serbs in Bosnia was quick to claim a precedent, asserting his autonomous Serb Republic's right to secede or at least turn the former Yugoslav republic into an even looser confederation.
 
By contrast, Western Europe's nationalists have distanced themselves from Crimea, concerned that the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War may give separatism a bad name.
 
“Catalonia is not Crimea,” the government of the northeastern Spanish region declared last week after the central authorities in Madrid tried to link the two.
 
Catalan President Artur Mas wants to hold a referendum on November 9 on independence from Spain, but Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has opposed any such vote as illegal.
 
“The Catalan situation could not be further from the Crimean one,” the regional government said in a position paper circulated to the Madrid embassies of the 27 other European Union members. The Crimean referendum presented a “false choice” since it was an attempt to legitimize the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, it argued.
 
Western governments, condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin's move to change borders in Europe by force as a violation of international law, have mostly rejected any linkage between Crimea and the independence movements on their continent.
 
But European diplomats say several governments quietly hope voters will note the political and economic difficulties raised by the break-up of nation states and will want to avoid such uncertainty. Separatists may be hoping that Crimea is largely forgotten by the time they hold a vote.
 
Nearly a century after U.S. President Woodrow Wilson introduced the right to self-determination into the lexicon of international governance after World War I, the implementation of that principle remains fraught with risk in Europe.
 
Morally superior?
 
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Britain had taken a morally superior path by agreeing a consensual process for a referendum on Scottish independence to be held on September 18.
 
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party, tried to turn Kerry's statement against the British government. London has warned that an independent Scotland would have to reapply to join the EU and could not be sure of sharing the pound currency.
 
“Of course you lose all of that moral superiority in the democratic process if you then say, 'of course Scots have the right under this consensual process to vote for independence but then we will set about flinging them out of the EU, refusing to share sterling.' The whole argument dissolves,” Salmond told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show.
 
Spanish leaders, struggling to hold their country together and avoid any vote on Catalonia's future, have tried to harness public revulsion at Putin's action by drawing parallels between the two cases.
 
Crimea's vote on splitting from Ukraine and the proposed Catalan referendum on secession shared one crucial feature, Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said last month. Both were unconstitutional.
 
Spain is unwilling to give any ground on Catalonia, fearful that allowing a self-rule vote or granting the region greater autonomy would encourage similar demands from the Basque Country and other regions with historic nationalist movements.
 
Catalan leader Mas has signaled he will not break the law and if blocked by the courts, he will turn the next Catalan election in 2016 into a de facto vote on independence instead.
 
Opinion polls show that public support for Catalonia to go it alone is running at about 50 percent, while in Scotland, most polls put opponents of self-rule in the lead. A TNS poll on March 25 showed 42 percent of Scots would reject independence, with 28 percent voting “Yes” and 28 percent undecided.
 
In Belgium, which holds a general election on the same day as EU-wide European Parliament elections on May 25, talk of prosperous Dutch-speaking Flanders breaking away from poorer French-speaking Wallonia has been muted for once.
 
The main Flemish nationalist N-VA party's big campaign issue is tax reform. It is focused more on reducing the amount taxpayers in Flanders pay to the federal government than on further steps to pull the country apart.
 
The extreme-right nationalist Vlaams Belang party, for its part, is more concerned with fighting Muslim immigration.
 
Balkanization
 
Putin's action in Crimea has had the biggest echo in other breakaway regions of former Soviet republics where there are “frozen conflicts.”
 
The parliamentary speaker of Transdniestria - a Russian-backed sliver of territory that split from Moldova in 1990, went to war with it in 1992 but did not win international recognition - appealed to Moscow to annex his area too.
 
In the Balkans, where most blood has been shed in Europe in the last quarter-century in the name of self-determination, the Crimean crisis has caused a new flurry of calls for a further “Balkanization” or fragmentation of the region.
 
Kosovo's prime minister has rejected Russian leaders' comparisons of the situation in Crimea with his own country's separation from Serbia against Belgrade's wishes following NATO's military intervention in 1999.
 
Hashim Thaci, once the leader of ethnic Albanian guerrillas who fought to drive former Yugoslav forces out of Kosovo in 1998-99, said: “Under no circumstances can the Kosovo case be compared with the case of Crimea.”
 
“Kosovo is a unique case. The international community intervened after the genocide by Serbia took place,” he told Reuters in an interview. “We never demanded to leave one country and join another.”
 
But Bosnia's Serbs see Crimea as an inspiration, and a vindication of their struggle for their own state or unification with Serbia.
 
Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik immediately supported Crimea's referendum on joining Russia as “legitimate and democratic” and said the Serb Republic was watching closely the secessionist movements in Crimea, Catalonia and Scotland.
 
“We are monitoring them closely and will apply the best world practices when the time comes,” Dodik told reporters during a late-March visit to Belgrade.
 
Serbia's new leaders, whose top priority is their own bid to join the prosperous EU, did nothing to encourage him.

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