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Putin Grins as Catalonia Defies Spain

In the three weeks since the Catalan independence referendum, things have not cooled between the state and the central government, and this makes Vladimir Putin very happy.
Carles Puigdemont, photo courtesy of The New York Times

Carles Puigdemont, photo courtesy of The New York Times

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont missed a crucial deadline this morning to formally declare independence from Spain. and the future of his government remains in jeopardy as Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy plans to meet on Saturday to possibly invoke Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which would allow him to take over the Catalan government in Barcelona.

The obscure Article, which has not been applied in the forty years of the Spanish Constitution's existence, states:

"If a Self-governing Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution...or acts in a way that is...prejudicial to the general interest of Spain, the Government, after having lodged a complaint with the President of the Self-governing Community and failed to receive satisfaction therefore, may...take all measures necessary to compel the Community to meet said obligations, or to protect the above-mentioned general interest."

Rajoy has agreed to suspend enacting Article 155 if Catalonia holds a snap election, an idea supported by other Spanish political leaders. Catalonia, however, is less warm to this course of action, with Marta Pascal, leader of Puigdemont's Democratic Party of Catalonia, declaring it "[off] the table."

Since the October 1st referendum, where 90% of the 42% of Catalonians voted to declare independence, Catalonia has been reluctant to formally announce their separation from the central government in Madrid. In a speech last Tuesday, Puigdemont appeared on the verge of declaring independence, claiming that he had "assume[d] the mandate" for Catalonia to become an independent state. A few moments later, however, he backed off from doing so, saying that he would ask Parliament to "suspend the efforts of the declaration of independence so that in the coming weeks we can undertake a dialogue." 

In a letter to Rajoy on Monday, after he missed his previous deadline, Puigdemont continued to emphasize dialogue, writing, "our main objective is to to dialogue, and that all of those international, Spanish and Catalan figures and institutions who have expressed their disposition to taking part in negotiation may have the opportunity to explore such an option. This will show the commitment of all sides to finding an agreed solution."

Despite Puigdemont's best efforts to engage all sides in such a dialogue, he is partially responsible for the gravest constitutional crisis Spain has faced since the death of Francisco Franco. Catalan separatists have suspended both the Spanish Constitution and the the Statute of Catalonia, but have not yet enacted their own policies now that they have voted for independence. The Spanish newspaper El Pais wrote today that they are focused on "nothing other than breakaway agitation.

The referendum itself (the illegality of which I documented here) was fraught with controversy, as Rajoy sent Spanish police forces to block polling places, and shut down websites offering Catalan voters information. An Android App directed at helping Catalan voters was removed from the Google Play store at the request of the Central Government. And on Election Day, the Catalans launched a system designed to help voters find their polling places in case the police closed the one nearest to them, utilizing dozens of backup servers in case the website was shut down - which it was repeatedly.

These reports of Rajoy interfering with Catalans' right to vote helped turn the state into a hotbed of fake news, much of it propagated by outlets like RT, Sputnik and WikiLeaks. Journalist Clara Jimenez Cruz from Maldito Bulo found numerous examples of false stories shared by citizens and politicians, many of them concerning police brutality. Similar to Trump supporters using photos of the Cleveland Cavaliers victory celebration to tout the size of his Phoenix rally, supporters of the referendum used photos of Catalan miners from 2012 to depict those beaten at the hands of Spanish officers.

Fortunately, the European Union will back Rajoy in standing up to Puigdemont and the secessionists, although they have no plans to play mediator between the two. European Parliament head Antonio Tajadi stated today, "[while] are in favor of dialogue...nobody in Europe could accept the independence of Catalonia...nobody will help the government of Catalonia on this path." Rajoy has also received support from both French President Emmanuel Macron and German President Angela Merkel.

Less supportive, however, is Vladimir Putin. In a speech today in Sochi, the former site of the last Winter Olympics, he condemned the West and the EU for not preparing for this situation earlier:

“The Catalonian situation shows the unanimous condemnation of all those freedom fighters by the EU, and a number of other countries in this regard…you should have thought about this beforehand. Has nobody heard of those centuries-long contradictions in Europe? You were aware of that. Sure you were. But you even welcomed the collapse of a number of states in Europe, and you are not hiding the fact that you are happy about that...why were you so thoughtless in using this situation to appease the Big Brother from Washington to support the separation of Kosovo so unanimously, provoking such processes in other regions of Europe and the world?”

Putin shouldn't be so hopeful that Catalan independence will benefit him in his fight against the West, however. At least 20,000 Russians own property in Catalonia: 70% invest in homes for holiday rentals as non-residents, and the remaining 30% possess a residence visa. Should Catalan formally separate from the central government, the non-residents could be thrown off their current flat tax rate, and residents would find themselves taxed on a progressive scale that could go as high as 45%.

Putin is facing re-election next year. He might not want to provoke anger from his fellow oligarchs by forcing them to pay higher taxes due to interfering in another country's democratic process. And given the way Russians turn on their elected leaders, he might find himself having to play mediator between his desire to undo the foundations of Western democracy, and the base that has kept him in power.