Thanks to your support our journalism is open to everybody

9 January 2018

Catalan separatism with Ukraine and Russia in the background

Piotr Andrusieczko

The events that took place in Catalonia last autumn became one of the most important and most frequently discussed issues in the world. A serious political crisis was caused by the announcement and holding a referendum on independence in Catalonia on 1 October 2017. The police used force, hundreds of people were injured. The declaration of independence by the Catalan government on October 27 resulted in Madrid’s decision to temporarily suspend the autonomy of the region and appoint a pre-term election to the local parliament on December 21. Supporters of independence gained the majority in the parliament. However – along with the crisis in Spain – questions about Russia’s possible involvement in Spanish internal affairs were raised.

On December 21, during the day of elections, there were queues of people willing to vote in Barcelona, standing in front of the pools since early morning. Catalan flags streamed from many windows in the city. The posters encouraged to vote for the “independence” parties.

There were posters ‘Vote for Republic’ written in Arabic, supporting the secession, around La Rambla in the centre of the Catalonia capital, where many immigrants live.

Yellow ribbons, a symbol of secessionists, hung from many fences. Some Catalans came to the ballot boxes with the same ribbons.

– I am concerned they will still use article 155, even if we vote for independence. If seven million Catalans decide to vote for “blue” and not for “yellow” – that’s fine. Every result should be accepted and respected. And if I am respected, I would like to stay in Spain … I think that in Ukraine, yellow and blue – they are also similar colours … – a 39-year-old woman ends her speech in so unexpected way, standing in front of one of the electoral commissions in the centre of Barcelona. Her name is Gisela and she came to vote for independence supporters.

While discussing about the secession of Catalonia, there were some references to the Ukrainian Maidan, Russia’s influence and some comparisons between the Catalan referendum and the Crimea one were made. Even the ‘separatist’ republics in the east of Ukraine were mentioned in this context. These subjects appeared in Russian media. Ukrainian media also took the floor, focusing primarily on the inadequacy of comparisons of processes in Catalonia with the ones that took place in Ukraine after 2014.

However, what is more intriguing, both Maidan and possible Russian interference in internal Catalonian affairs was also connoted in Spain itself.

On the trail of one video

– We should be ready for the Catalan version of the Maidan at least. That could create an even more unpredictable and tense situation. But the right to protest must also be respected in democracy – commented for the New York Times, at the beginning of September, Francesc de Carreras, a lawyer and a constitutionalist, who helped to create the Ciudadanos party (Citizens). The Ciudadanos stands in opposition to the secessionists. Ukrainian Maidan was a point of reference to some other commentators of political life in Spain. Although they paid more attention to some “technologies” taken from the Kiev protests in 2013-2014.

– The strategy of copying the Maidan protest in Ukrainian style has been the subject of discussion for several months, and now people talk about the so-called” ulsterisation” of the conflict. The manipulative film entitled “Help Catalonia”, similar to the one released during the Maidan crisis in Kiev, is the latest example of a desire to escalate and internationalize the conflict – wrote in The Guardian Francesc Badia i Dalmases, a journalist and an expert on international affairs from Barcelona.

Badia probably refers to the ‘viral video’ entitled ‘I am a Ukrainian’, created on January 22, 2014 by British photographer Graham Mitchell during Maidan in Kiev.

A young, unanimous girl (later her surname appears – Yulia Marushevska) is filmed in the Independence Square in Kiev, surrounded by some barricades. She tells about thousands of people who went out on the streets of Kiev to protest corrupted, dictatorial authorities, to defend freedom and democracy.

– Please, help us – our hearts are filled with freedom, help us to become free. You can help us: talk to your friends, talk to the representatives of your government – tell them what is going on in Ukraine and ask them to support us – Marushevska appeals to international public opinion.

The film was published on YouTube on February 14, 2014 and it generated seven million viewings during the first two weeks.

“This is Barcelona, Catalonia, Europe” – that is a beginning of a video, in which a young girl explains why thousands of people in Catalonia went out on the streets for peaceful protests. “We believe in European values: freedom, democracy and human rights.” The video was released on October 16, and it indeed resembles the one that was made during the Ukrainian Maidan. But it’s difficult to talk about other similarities, for example both recordings were made in completely different conditions.

The Catalonian Maidan which has never existed

A concern over the possible outbreak of the ‘Catalan Maidan’ could be heard from institutions and representatives associated with the Spanish authorities.

On October 23, Elcano Royal Institute, a think tank supporting Spanish government – the King Philip VI is the chairman of the Supervisory Board – published a report comparing the situation in Catalonia with the contemporary state-building processes (in Kosovo) as well as mass civil disobedience and protests (Euromaidan in Ukraine).

The authors of the report claim that the Catalan secessionists used the term ‘Maidan’ despite the fundamental differences between the events in Catalonia and Ukraine. First of all, it is difficult to compare the authoritarian regime of the President Viktor Yanukovych and the Spanish authorities, the think tank indicates (the separatism supporters use even harsher names describing Madrid’s government, calling it fascist – P.A.). Secondly, the report points out that the protests in Ukraine were a bottom-up initiative, while they were institutionalized in Catalonia, supported by the local government and people’s organizations associated with the supporters of secession.

The aforementioned film ‘Help Catalonia’ was not a private, spontaneous initiative. It was produced by ‘Omnium Cultural’, one of the two civic organizations involved in supporting the idea of independence and mobilising the Catalans to participate in the protests.

According to Francesco Badia i Dalmases, these organizations manipulated their supporters by using various mobilization techniques. Similar objections of public opinion manipulation can also be put to those who call for integrity using a threat of the possible Maidan.

We met Francesco the day before the elections in one of Barcelona’s café. The journalist sips the local Moritz beer, but does not hide his scepticism about the independence movement. He has a yellow, self-adhesive piece of paper for us. A secession supporter handwrote on it: ‘So that  our children do not know what fascism is. Vote for the Republic!’

In his opinion, this is an example for the strength of the mobilization and manipulation of the supporters of independence and that similar processes took place among the supporters of integrity.

Francesco does not believe in the possibility of the escalation of protests towards a broad campaign of civil disobedience, like the Ukrainian Maidan, which the media in Spain and abroad wondered about. Radical supporters of independence called for such actions. However, the majority turned out to be much restrained.

– Local activists say: we will organize Maidan. But it is not like Maidan. The authorities are dispersing protesters and activists are withdrawing. We call them “clicking activists” – says Francesco, referring to their activity in social media.

The difference between Crimea and Catalonia

– Have you come from Ukraine? I am not a journalist, but I work in a hotel and I have talked to many Ukrainians. What was your opinion when Russia took over Crimea? Was it good for Ukraine? No, I know it wasn’t good. Big companies left Crimea. The same will happen here –  says an excited, young boy standing in front of one of the electoral commissions.

The comparisons between the referendum in Catalonia and the one organized in Crimea by Russia in March 2014 could be found both in the media of Russia and of unrecognized republics in the east of Ukraine. The question about the difference between Catalan separatism and the one in Donbass was also raised there.

– We were observing very closely what was happening in Crimea and what was the decision of the Venice Commission regarding the Crimean referendum. This decision was important for us – that the referendum should be in accordance with the constitution of the country. And the Ukrainian constitution does not provide for a referendum that would take place only in a part of the country. Spanish constitution does not allow to separate a part of its territory. To hold a referendum, we should first change the constitution – explains Rafael Arenas Garcia, a lawyer and former chairman of the Societat Civil Catalana, a Catalan civil society organization, which opposes the nationalism and secession of Catalonia.

No one thinks seriously about comparing the situation in Catalonia and in Donbass, because it is understandable that there is no room for any analogies. Ukrainian experts, pointing to the inadequacy of such comparisons, first emphasize the Russian commitment in the conflict in Donbass from the very beginning.

Russian trace?

After the referendum in Catalonia, the authorities in Madrid accused Russia of interference in internal Spanish affairs. Russia was about to organize a mass internet campaign to support the separatist demands.

In November, Spanish Minister of Defense and the Minister of Foreign Affairs declared that Russian agents were actively trying to destabilize the situation in Spain by supporting in social networks the idea of independence referendum in Catalonia.

Ministers claimed Spain can prove that Russian and Venezuelan state-controlled organizations and private organizations used Twitter, Facebook and other social networks to advertise the referendum and tried to influence public opinion in favour of separating Catalonia from Spain.

During the November meeting of the EU Ministers of Defense and Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Brussels, Spanish representative Alfonso Dastis said that Spanish authorities revealed many false accounts in social networks associated with the aforementioned case, half of which were connected with Russia. 30 percent of them were related to Venezuela.

According to the minister Dastis, Russia plans to destabilize the situation in the European Union. The Russian authorities rejected the accusations, calling them insinuations and attempts to discredit their country.

The Spanish daily El Pais published a large material at the end of September 2017 describing Russian interference in the situation in Catalonia with the help of media controlled by them and the content spread in social networks. It took the Spanish-language version of ‘Russia Today’ only one month, from August 28, 2017, to publish 42 articles regarding the events in Catalonia.

The article also draws attention to the activity of Julian Assange. According to El Pais, his messages are often in line with Russia’s business. According to the monitoring of the media made by NewsWhip, the tweet published on September 15 by Assange that said: “I am asking everyone to support Catalonia’s right to self-determination …” has been retweeted more than 12,000 times and received almost 16 thousand likes. In the following days his tweets about Catalonia were retweeted up to 2 thousand times per hour and 12,000 times a day. However, the analysis of the accounts of his 5,000 followers on Twitter showed that 59% of them are fake accounts.

A new weapon. The question is, if it is effective?

The issue of Russia’s use of social networks to interfere in political affairs of other countries appeared both in the case of the last presidential elections in the US and in the case of Brexit. Although the Western experts recognize the problem, there is no evidence that such actions, if they were organized, had an influence on the results of the voting.

In December 2017 The Washington Post published an article proving that Russia has “practiced” the scenario of influencing the public opinion in each country as early as in February 2014 in Ukraine. The American newspaper refers to a secret report of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). According to the report, on February 22, 2014, the Russian services launched an operation in social networks to discredit the new authorities in Ukraine and prepare the public opinion for Russian military action in Crimea.

False user accounts were created on that day and over 30 “Ukrainian” groups on Facebook and VKontakte were created.

Between 18 and 20 February 2014, there were bloody clashes between protesters and law enforcement forces in Kiev. As a result, the then President Viktor Yanukovych fled to Russia. On February 27, the Russian intervention in Crimea began.

GRU wanted to support these activities and created four groups that were to convince the inhabitants of the peninsula to the idea of separating themselves from Ukraine. Information about Ukrainian nationalist organizations and the threat they posed to Crimea residents was also spread in the same way. According to the report, only on February 27, 2014, the groups’ websites created by the GRU had about 200,000-page views.

However, the American newspaper points out that it is difficult to assess what effect GRU information activities had on the development of the events in Ukraine in 2014.

The same difficulty appears when it comes to measure the impact of possible Russian information actions in the autumn of 2017 in Catalonia.

How Russia support separatism…

There is no evidence of any cooperation between the most important Catalan parties and organizations and Russia. The leaders of the independence movement deny any ties with Russia and any potential help they were to receive.

On the evening of the election two people came to the headquarters of the Republican Left of Catalonia party with the flag of the South Tyrol Freedom party. “South Tyrol is not Italian” was written on the flag. It was the only sign of foreign support for the Catalan independence.

Russia previously supported the representatives of marginal organizations fostering the independence of Catalonia and separatist movements in various regions of the world.

The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia deals witch such cases. It is led by Alexander Ionov. He is also a member of the presidium of the organization “Officers of Russia”.

The Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia organizes international conferences called “The Dialogue of Nations”. The representatives of separatist movements and unrecognized states from various regions of the world take part in them. In September 2016 such conference was held in Moscow. The members of the Donetsk People’s Republic, the Lugansk People’s Republic, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria as well as separatists from Northern Ireland, California, Puerto Rico and Catalonia took part in that meeting in the capital of Russia.

Alexander Ionov denies any connections between his organization and the Russian authorities. However, part of the money (3.5 million roubles) for the organization of the aforementioned conference came from the National Charity Foundation, which operates under the patronage of the President of Russia and distributes funds from the presidential grants.

Among the honorary members of the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia are: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Catalonia was represented in Moscow conference by Jose Enrique Folch, a member of a small Catalan Solidarity for Independence party. He said he came to let everyone know about “the real situation in Catalonia and why we want independence “.

Folch also commented on the Russian annexation of Crimea. He said that Crimea is part of Russia, because “the nation voted so in a referendum.” He also emphasised that the only indication of the legitimacy of the referendum is the number of people who took part in it and voted “for”.

The celebration of democracy. Yet the problem remains

The elections in Barcelona showed above all that the “democracy celebration” won and all participants declare to follow democratic rules.

The turnout reached almost 82 percent. The first place was taken by the Civic Party (Ciudadanos), which is against separatism. However, it was the parties supporting independence that received the majority – 70 seats in the parliament. The followers of integrity took 57 seats.

On Christmas Eve, two days after the elections, the supporters of independence, singing some carols, gathered near one of the prisons in Barcelona to peacefully protest the imprisonment of their political leaders by the authorities in Madrid.

Songs were sung, poets declaimed poems of liberation message, the audience chanted ‘freedom to political prisoners’. Participants held their hands up in the air and showed four fingers symbolizing the Catalonian flag. There was also a famous song by the Catalan bard Lluis Llach titled “L’Estaca”. It was a symbol of fight against dictatorship during the times of Franco regime and it became the anthem of supporters of Catalonia independence.

– The democracy in Catalonia is threatened. The same happens in Spain and in the European Union. The fundamental values of the EU are threatened by the repression and violence of Spanish government against Catalan people – Marcel Mauri, the vice-president of the organization Omni Cultural, whose leader is being detained for anti-government activities and organizing mass protests supporting separatism, explains that to us straight after the concert.

Mauri believes that there is a need for the dialogue between Madrid and Barcelona. Pep Planas, a well-known actor who also took part in a concert, shares that opinion. He says that the opponents of independence were manipulated. On the other hand, people who support the integrity of Spain claim that manipulated are those, who want the secession.

From this point of view, the further political dialogue will be difficult. The question remains, whether it will only be an internal matter of Spain and Catalonia.

Cooperation: Tetiana Kozak

Distpach is traditional reporting form - we enhance using new technologies and journalism trends. Each article besides it's text contains additional contextual information. Special anotations are created by reporters which will allow you to better understand issues we cover.

Learn more by clicking on the yellow highlights.

Support us