An estimated 300,000 people attended the pro-unity demonstration in Barcelona on Sunday © AFP

Sir, European leaders and cultural elites are still haunted by Yugoslavia and the role they played in its destruction, as evidenced by the rising level of comparisons between the collapse of Yugoslavia and what is happening in Spain today with Catalonia’s declaration of independence. Among EU leaders and the commentators in the quality press, the tilt is distinctly in the direction of arguing why Spain is not Yugoslavia. Sure, Yugoslavia was authoritarian (illegitimate) and Spain is a democracy (legitimate). Interestingly, though, Spain’s leadership in Madrid, from left and right, has long recognised that Spain is indeed a great deal like Yugoslavia: asymmetric federalism, sharp regional disparities in wealth, historical legacy of fascist mass violence and repression, unresolved consequences of a bloody civil war in the early 20th century, fiercely competing subnational identities with a long history of competition.

The political sociologist Charles Tilly once compared the democratic development of the Netherlands and Spain between 1650 and 1850 and concluded that while contention can help democratic development, too much violent contention has long-term negative consequences. While the Netherlands had 22 years of violent upheaval during this time, Spain had 82 years of revolutionary situations, often including the regions of Portugal and Catalonia. We know what eventually happened with Portugal.

If Spain is nothing like Yugoslavia, why is Spain one of the few western democracies that has yet to recognise Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia? Maybe the Spanish leadership in Madrid has long known something about their country, which makes outsiders uncomfortable. The European project was founded on trying to overcome the violent competition among its various national communities. European elites always blamed the Yugoslav crisis on the lack of democracy, but Spain demonstrates again that even a reasonably functioning democracy is no protection against secessionist passions.

Dr Mark A Wolfgram
Ottawa, ON, Canada

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