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Catalonia: Spaniards should realize their arrogance is real, unsustainable

I just read a new issue of the Newsletter of the Václav Klaus Institute – it included lots of answers of politicians and pundits to the question whether the dissolution of Czechoslovakia 25 years ago was just an arbitrary destructive act by two politicians who were thirsty for power (you can sometimes hear similar hints from the "Havloids" even in 2017), or the culmination of old Slovaks' efforts to gain independence. Needless to say, almost everyone answered the latter.

During the 19th century, Czechs simply experienced more autonomy within Austria-Hungary than Slovaks and Czechoslovakia as established in 1918 was primarily "our", Czech country. Slovaks were just more thirsty for their independence – perhaps for very good reasons. They've never had it. So they agreed to join Czechoslovakia – it looked like a move closer towards emancipation. And they have exploited most of the key events in the history of Czechoslovakia – 1938, 1968, 1989 – to struggle for independence.

After 1989, Czechs were excited about the fall of communism and how it could help the economy and other productive aspects of the society. Slovaks were primarily thrilled that it was an opportunity to gain independence or more of it. That was true for most of the ordinary Slovaks but with some makeup on the surface, it was basically true for the Slovak intellectuals, too.

I came to the Charles University in Fall 1992 – exactly when the fate of Czechoslovakia was sealed. We were the last freshmen who began the college as Czechoslovak citizens – well, a month earlier, I returned from Moscow where our, last Czechoslovak team attended the International Mathematical Olympiad. I've had numerous Slovak classmates – just to be sure, Slovaks are still widespread at Prague schools. Some of them, usually those who would love to earn the best grades, were trying to be as pro-federation as possible. Some others were quite self-evident Slovak nationalists. I had friends among both. For example, I attended a Prague-vs-Bratislava soccer match with Š.P. The fanaticism with which he supported Slovan Bratislava was totally amusing to me.

Given these differences, it was simply unavoidable for Czechoslovakia to split soon or later. The main 1918 "real" justification for Czechoslovakia, the need to outnumber the Germans by the Slavs, was gone along with the Sudetenland Germans. Czechs no longer needed Slovaks for such reasons and vice versa. Well, maybe another necessary condition making it unavoidable was that the Czechs ultimately didn't care much – we're simply not a nation that can get enthusiastic about the empire building (too bad, I would be almost certainly interested in these things way more than the average Czech). Various people remember assorted – subtle and not so subtle – signs of hostility of Slovaks towards Prague, their desire to gain independence that manifested itself sooner or later if you talked to them, especially while drinking wine.

Czechs just didn't see it this way. Communism fell but the federal arrangement of Czechoslovakia was OK. It looked like a good country, it just needed to get rid of the communist baggage. So the Slovak nationalists were mocked, compared to fascists. And lots of top politicians in Czechia – starting from President Václav Havel – were openly hostile towards a big portion of the Slovaks' political representatives (perhaps most of them).

Havel and the likes of Petr Pithart, a post-1989 Czech prime minister within the federal country, said they understood everything about Slovakia, they really wanted to preserve Czechoslovakia, and stuff like that. But they were pretty much hated in Slovakia and the reasons look absolutely obvious to us today. They were just not treating Slovak politicians as equal. They weren't really treating Slovak citizens as equal. With folks like that, it was totally possible that the Czecho-Slovak relations would evolve along the Yugoslav route.

There were some nationalists in Czechia – a much smaller number – who mostly wanted to stop the subsidies to Slovakia.

But fortunately in 1992, there was also a different political force in Czechia, the right-wing Civic Democrats (ODS) and especially their leaders Václav Klaus. His relationship to Slovakia was different. He also wanted Czechoslovakia to be preserved in 1989-1991, like almost all Czechs. But his wife was Slovak. On top of that, he hadn't participated in any of the interactions with the Slovaks that looked increasingly hostile.

Happily, Klaus' ODS won the mid-1992 elections in Czechia. It was actually the only party that was running both in Czechia and Slovakia. The Slovak ODS – or perhaps the Slovak clone or subsidiary of ODS, depending on how you view it – stayed below 5% in Slovakia and couldn't get to the Parliament, despite its magnificent, above-30-percent victory in Czechia. The Slovak supporters of ODS were extremely rare – the famous film director Juraj Jakubisko was one of them. Most Slovaks, even the right-wing Slovaks, would view ODS as some foreign element. It wasn't theirs.

Those Czech politicians who were declaring themselves the biggest supporters of Czechoslovakia didn't even try to run in Slovakia. They couldn't get any support. They were really hated. Fortunately, they didn't have the opportunity to solve these questions because that could have been violent, indeed.

The history picked a very different, Václav Klaus' route. In Czechia, the mood began to change already in early 1992. Quite suddenly, there was some intellectual phase transition. After two years in which we were saying "Czechoslovakia has to be preserved, it has nothing to do with communism", the dissolution of Czechoslovakia became totally imaginable. I think that already since early 1992, lots of Czechs – and especially important Czechs – were thinking what would happen and how to do it right. The dramatically different result of the mid-1992 Parliamentary elections in Czechia and Slovakia has confirmed that it was indeed needed.

A month after the elections, Havel resigned to protest the dynamics. Czechoslovakia didn't really have a president anymore (the federal premier became the acting president, if I remember well). It was a partly castrated country. The Slovak Parliament overwhelmingly approved the declaration of independence sometime in July. Meanwhile, Václav Klaus and the Slovak prime minister Vladimír Mečiar could have been clearly seen as the "top politicians of the future" (because the federal power was clearly losing its authority) and they happily realized that they could speak to each other very well, they trusted each other – even without signatures – and they not only outlined the general sketch of the dissolution but realized it to the smallest technicalities. And it was a surgical cut we may appreciate today.

The Slovak desire to emancipate has always been there – for centuries. What changed in 1992 was the Czech interpretation of all these sentiments. Quite suddenly, many Czechs gained some empathy and were able to realize their previous arrogance. And maybe they lost the patience with assorted hyphen wars that really didn't produce anything valuable – and Czechs don't want to waste their time with stupid things. We would always view Slovaks as simple-minded people who lack gratitude. Well, I still think it's right to a large extent. For example, I think it's pathetic that Slovakia doesn't celebrate the October 28th, 1918 birth of Czechoslovakia because that was really the key event leading to their independence. Relatively to that, January 1st, 1993 is just "Do you want independence? Why didn't you just ask us earlier?" they heard from Czech friends. A trivial formality that was facing no real obstacles in late 1992 and early 1993. But of course I don't really care what are the exact national holidays in Slovakia. Neither do other Czechs.

I think that the evolution of the Czechs' understanding of the Slovak viewpoint during the year 1992 was a rather important, deep experience that still shapes my perspective on many political questions. We see this "arrogance of power" everywhere. Larger nations within the EU, larger parts of countries that could get dissolved, large political parties etc. love to patronize – treat their smaller counterparts as stupid pathetic losers who couldn't survive in isolation, who need to be mocked, helped, and who need to be grateful for that help. The examples are everywhere.

And we, most of the Czechs, were looking at the Slovak emancipation efforts in the same way up to the early 1992 or so. I think it's been proven that this viewpoint was wrong. Slovakia was demonstrably capable of surviving, even without the subsidies. The subsidies ultimately didn't help too much. Slovakia's freedom to have a 20% weaker currency for a decade has arguably helped Slovakia much more than the subsidies from Prague. Slovakia has almost caught up with Czechia – the PPP GDP per capita is just some 5% lower than ours. The gap used to exceed the factor of two a century ago.

Slovaks could have had different priorities. It may be partly due to their being biologically or culturally different – because of reasons that can't be changed quickly because they have evolved for centuries. But many of these differences may be due to the obvious initial conditions they can't avoid, either. If you are a part of a smaller nation, certain efforts to preserve your national identity simply may be more urgent for you than if you are a member of a "dominant" nation in a country with several ethnic groups. So even if you had the same brain and if you were Slovak, it's possible that you would be "sort of" a supporter of the independence in 1992.

OK, back to Catalonia

When I am looking at the situation in Catalonia, I am increasingly convinced that it's basically the same as it was in the Czecho-Slovak relationships in the early 1990s.

The desire of the Catalans to be independence seems clear to me. In the non-binding 2014 referendum, the turnout was some 40%. 80% of those who voted wanted Catalonia to become an independent state, additional 10% wanted it to be a "state within Spain", whatever that meant (in the Czecho-Slovak debates, we've heard about numerous ad hoc hybrid confederations and "semi-detached houses" all the time as well), and only 5% voted for the full-blown existing union with Spain.

I cannot imagine the results would be totally different in the coming referendum this weekend that the Catalan government vowed to organize.

Madrid considers the referendum illegal. Is that wise? I don't think so. And neither does the Catalan president who said that Madrid's suppression of the emancipation efforts is already harsher than Generalisimo Franco's policies.

The current Catalan Parliament has 62+10 deputies supporting the independence, 25+16+11 supporting union, and 11 are neutral. So it's some 58% for secession vs 42% for union among those who have a clear opinion. Even that is a rather strong support for the secession. But the regular people's opinions are even clearer.

A Spanish reader pretended that he's OK with the referendum but he doesn't really want them to leave because Catalonia has a higher GDP per capita than the rest of Spain and it may arguably have a higher percentage of some conservative voters, too. Spain doesn't really want to lose these things. I understand that. But the perspective is exactly opposite in Catalonia (well, now I am talking about the right-wingers in Catalonia). They don't want to subsidize Spain and they don't want to be dragged to the left by the rest of Spain.

It's up to the Spaniards but I think that the continuing suppression of the Catalan drive for the independence is unwise and ultimately unsustainable. The more aggressive your politicians are, the less the Catalans like you – and the less they like the union with Spain. It's completely understandable. If Madrid promises tough measures to prevent the referendum or its results etc., it may terrify lots of Catalan people. Some of them may even be afraid of sharing their view. But it won't make them love Madrid, will it?

Spaniards should realize that they're not really gaining so terribly much by "owning" Catalonia. In practice, most of the issues on the Catalan territory are being decided by the Catalan people, anyway – pretty much the same people who would be deciding if Catalonia became an independent country. And needless to say, if conflicts even remotely resembling the Yugoslav conflicts would explode, the losses would be far higher than the benefits of the union of Spain and Catalonia.

So Spaniards should genuinely prepare – psychologically and not only psychologically – for the possible secession of Catalonia. They should stop repeating misleading comments about the Catalan emancipation efforts. They should stop the mocking. They should stop twisting the numbers quantifying the degree of support for the Catalan independence. They should think how the surgical cut may be made to make everyone happy and to make the Spanish-Catalan relationships of the future to be much better than the relationships we see right now.

The right principles to do the surgical cut are rather clear to me – a variation of the Czecho-Slovak 1992-1993 scheme. Everything that is immovable or controlled by territorial governments will belong to the country where it's located. Everything that is movable, including the deposits in the national bank and the debt of the federal government, will be divided in the 5-to-1 ratio. 5-to-1 (i.e. Catalonia is one-sixth) is just an approximate ratio of the populations. The ratio of the territories is vastly greater (more asymmetric). But it's actually useful to use a "nice number" like that because it implicitly reminds you that you are supposed to be generous at each moment. It's clear that it could be 4.5 or 5.5 but the benefits of a smooth division are far higher than the benefits of the coefficient's being equal to 4.5 or 5.5 relatively to its being 5. That's really the point you should understand at each moment.

Madrid may keep on trying to suppress the emancipation movement but it will be increasingly obvious that it's an arrogant, imperial attitude and it's not really helping anybody.

Of course, if the referendum said that Catalonia wants to remain a part of Spain, things could be different. But the numbers that I can see indicate that this outcome is one from the realm of fantasy.

On top of the frantic opposition to the independence that we may see in Madrid, we could see some opposition in Brussels, too. Václav Klaus recently pointed out that Czechoslovakia was probably lucky in 1992 that we weren't members of the EU yet – because as members of the EU, we could have been stripped of the freedom to dissolve the country. Brussels and other Western European capitals may try to undermine the Catalan emancipation effort, too. They may question the right of the newborn Catalonia to join the EU as well and do other things.

I won't try to speak to the people in Brussels because I think that I would be speaking to a wall. (Well, Juncker actually said that his commission would actually respect a "Leave" result of the Catalan referendum so maybe they're not as involved.) But it may have some sense to try to speak to the Spaniards. You should be able to understand me that you are facing similar challenges that Czechs faced 25 years ago and were able to solve without increasingly deteriorating relationships. Maybe, Czechoslovakia could have been preserved but the arguments, centrifugal tendencies, non-uniform results of elections etc. would have probably not gone away by now. We've been used to celebrate the union – Czechoslovakia – for most of the 20th century but from a rational viewpoint, it's obvious today that at some point, it became a net liability. Can't you imagine that the same may be true for Spain's union with Catalonia?

A Portuguese Twitter user who didn't want his name to be copied here has flooded my Twitter account with responses. I think that he represents exactly the wrong thinking I am advising the Spaniards to get rid of. "Spain was founded by a French Bourbon." Great but completely irrelevant. Surely French Bourbons aren't Masters of the Universe so that their inventions are guaranteed to be protected indefinitely or for centuries. "Why not form a confederation?" First, it doesn't follow from the Bourbon history. Second, the answer is that most Catalans don't want confederation. On top of that, confederations are messy hybrid systems that don't really work well.

Eduardo Eyras: "The solution is a vote but not this one which was illegal." Just a lame search for excuses, Eduardo. If you and the folks in Madrid are wise, the purpose of a referendum is really to gain some information. The question is whether the information is accurate. Labeling it "illegal" is just demagogy – it has nothing to do with the purpose of the referendum. Most likely, any referendum organized in a remotely similar way about a vaguely similar question will have the same result. "Illegal" is just spin. It's your arrogant method to place yourself above any referendum. And this arrogant attitude only shows that the referendum isn't really the key point at all. Some people say that there should have been one in Czechoslovakia in 1992 – but whom would it help? It would have probably ended with different outcomes in Czechia and Slovakia – tense. Regardless of the results, the losing side would be looking for legal and demagogic glitches to delegitimize the referendum, and so on. The referendum doesn't really solve the things – it's some politicians who should have balls and take the responsibility for solving some problems in conditions whose character is basically known.

You know, a pro-union clique in the courts may always declare any credible emancipation efforts to be illegal and suppress them, regardless of the degree of anger and liquidation of political rights of an ethnic group. The real good question isn't whether it can – yes, it can – but whether it should. Whether it's the right thing to do so.
How much of Catalunya's GDP is derived from exporting to the rest of Spain? Would an independent Catalunya have access to Spanish markets?
The author wanted to stay anonymous.

Wow, this is just a stupid comment. The access to Spanish markets – and free trade in general – is pretty much by definition an equal benefit for both sides, the seller and the buyer, because trade is a consensual, mutually beneficial activity. You can't "convert" the access to markets for GDP. Catalonia is richer on the per-capita basis than Spain because it produces more than Spain. And indeed, one aspect that makes Spain relatively poor is that it finds it easier to import than to produce and export. But by banning imports, you don't directly increase the production i.e. GDP. Even if Catalonia didn't have access to Spanish markets, it would probably find some other markets for the products. The world is big. Someone's wealth is about his ability to produce, not about particular permissions to sell somewhere. Threatening with the "access to the markets" is just absolutely pathetic. This is what the scum in the EU is doing to the U.K. It's pure blackmail with no ethically justifiable basis and you just can't become richer or better by similar threats or blocking of the free trade, especially if the increasing trade is the most sensible strategy for Spain itself to grow wealthier. It's in the interest of Spain to demolish trade barriers around itself. The decision to use the "we will block the access to Spanish market" weapon is a clear proof that the authors of such strategies have the goal to maximally hurt Catalonia – even if it hurts their country as well. This insight is surely an additional reason for Catalonia to try to leave, right?

By the way, this guy has written about 5 other comments that may be described as blackmail. "Resentment will lead to boycotts" and stuff like that. My only response is that you're filth, Portuguese man, and I blocked you because I don't want to be getting this hateful garbage in my Twitter app.
Czechoslovakia was the union of two nations. Spain is the union of at least 4 nations. If Catalunya secedes, Euskadi and Galicia may follow.
Well, Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918 as a country with at least 4 important nations as well – Czechoslovaks, Germans, Hungarians, and Rusyns. Note that Czechs and Slovaks were 1 nation among these 4, not 2. The national ideology of the new state simply included the assertion that Czechs and Slovaks were one nation. That was helpful because in this combination, our generalized nation safely outnumbered the other big three as well Gypsies and Jews. ;-)

All the ethnic minorities were obviously causing problems. The Sudeten Germans wanted to leave Czechoslovakia – well, instead of independence, they preferred annexation by Hitler – in the 1930s. Chamberlain gave them what they needed in 1938. That problem along with a similar weaker Hungarian problem was solved when those nations lost the war in 1945. Expulsion of 90% of Germans and many Hungarians. We got rid of the Rusyn problem by allowing them to go to the USSR and Slovakia became independent in 1993. So yes, all these problems were dealt with and it's plausible that after Catalonia, Spain should wisely deal with others as well. I don't want to talk about those (and whether I would encourage the secession in the other cases) – they're not equally urgent topics now, however.

I was bombarded by about 3 more Spaniards on Twitter, and had to block them. The fanaticism with which they're trying to discredit the Catalan emancipation efforts have one main consequence from my, totally decoupled impartial viewpoint – to assure me that the claims that the 7.5 million people of Catalonia are politically suppressed are accurate.

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