The sight of a million Catalans converging on Barcelona to celebrate the region’s “National Day” highlights, a year on from declaring independence from Spain, that the strength of conviction to eventually secede from Madrid remains as resolute. The international community will though not only be mindful, should a schism eventually occur, of the potential for a dangerous precedent being set within Spain’s sovereign borders, but also the renewed encouragement that would be engendered in Europe’s many other, but less heralded, disputed territories.

Catalonia’s declaration of independence invoked direct rule from Madrid, an action that not only failed to recognize the apparent will of the people but until June this year saw the region lose its autonomous powers. There are though suggestions that independence is ‘so yesterday’ in the minds of many Catalans; the numerical discrepancy between a reported 90% who voted in 2017 for self-determination as opposed to a recent opinion poll that just 46.7% remained in favour brings into question the veracity of both. A ‘yes’ vote by 90% of those who turned out is reminiscent of results achieved by Central Asian autocrats masquerading as just being one of a multi-party system. The reality of what otherwise is a result that was decided before polling day brings into disrepute the very principles of a democratic society. In the case of Catalonia, to demonstrate a seemingly overwhelming popular mandate for independence, a figure of 90% is designed to heap pressure on Spain and give it justified cause for concern of a potential mass-insurrection. A figure little over 46% does though undermine not only a statistical evaluation of the 2017 plebiscite, but its own veracity. Was the recent opinion poll commissioned by Madrid, Barcelona, or a neutral third-party? Such a numerical divergence seems improbable, unless one, or perhaps both, sets of figures have been massaged to suit individual ends.

Although not an example bearing any form of relation to the Spain-Catalonia question, Macedonia(FYROM) and Greece are on the brink of reaching an historic agreement over the former’s name. Despite not being a case of seceding from an otherwise unsympathetic federation – Macedonia has already gained independence in 1991 from a disintegrating Yugoslavia – there are unique issues regarding identity, where Greece wholly objects to Macedonia’s name on the grounds that it clashes with the appellation of its northernmost province. A Greek proposal to remove its veto to Macedonia’s entry into both the EU and NATO on the proviso that Skopje agrees to a name-change to Northern Macedonia, has been surprisingly indulged by an international community apparently more concerned with receiving Macedonia into the fold than a blatant case of bullying, coercion, and blackmail by one sovereign state against another. A referendum slated for the 30th September will decide not only the name change but also solicit the opinion of the Macedonian public regarding entry into the EU and NATO in one, catchall question. It is highly contentious how two such otherwise irrelevant questions can be rolled up into one question, and defining answer.

The lengthy deadlock between Serbia and its former province Kosovo, is close to reaching an apotheosis. Belgrade’s continued lack of recognition of Kosovo’s independence is being put to the test by a proposed land swap between the two entities, seen as a final deal for both to move on. Should Serbia agree to grant pockets of land otherwise populated by a Kosovar-Albanian majority as part of a reciprocal, quid pro quo arrangement, will it then be expected to formally recognize Kosovo as an independent, sovereign state entitled to self-determination? I find such a change of mindset highly unlikely over what is, after all, a province regarded by Serbs as the cradle of their own culture and identity. There will be those within Serbia, perhaps numbering an overwhelming majority, who will conclude that an equitable land swap instead constitutes Belgrade ‘selling out’ to a still unrecognized, separatist state.

Serbia could justifiable feel more sinned against than being the perpetrator of the Kosovo situation; it could be argued that Pristina saw a chance to break from Serbian rule once the prevailing international opinion of Belgrade was at an all time low after the Balkan conflicts in both Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. If the apparent Serbian aggressor in these bloody theatres of war was seen to be once more warmongering on its own doorstep against a smaller, innocent neighbour, Kosovo’s break for independence would always be viewed favourably by the world at large. Again, the carrot of EU membership dangled before both Pristina and Belgrade could bring both countries to heel, although Russia’s objection to such a prospect of Serbia in effect heading west than falling more under its eastern aegis will yet further isolate Moscow if it is being seen to attempt to shape developments in the south-eastern Balkans. Should Serbia fall on its sword and head towards a path to EU membership, Russia could be compelled to intensify the rebel-backed occupation of parts of eastern Ukraine, centred on the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Other than seizing the Crimea, Russia’s sphere of influence is perhaps now otherwise limited to the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, who, unless for the vast wealth of energy deposits under parts of the region, need Moscow far more than it needs them.

It is unrealistic for the many conflicts and border disputes elsewhere in Europe to not gain traction for their individual agendas when credence is given to some similar causes, but not others. Developments elsewhere can of course be manipulated to suit circumstances and justify actions, but the ongoing disputes in South Ossetia, Ingushetia, Chechnya, and the Azerbaijani territory of Nagorno-Karabakh that have all but been forgotten by mainstream media could once more be reignited should causes of what might be regarded as equal validity be viewed favourably. Perhaps the most serious consequence of Serbian land gains in what is currently regarded as Kosovan territory could be a push by the Serb-inhabited Republic of Srpska for secession from the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where it makes up part of modern-day Bosnia along with the Croat and Bosniak dominated Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In historically unstable regions as the Balkans and Caucasus, little is needed to inflame conflict and distrust. It is through the secessionist ideals of those perhaps hundreds or thousands of miles away that can give encouragement to who otherwise thought their ‘just cause’ was lost. Are we then waiting for another domino effect amongst relatively dormant conflicts otherwise at a stalemate? Countries with fomenting discord within its borders, such as Spain, need to walk a precarious tightrope of not recognizing the likes of Kosovo as a sovereign state, for fear it would send out the wrong message to Catalonia.

Rarely, since the eras of Yugoslav and Soviet disintegration, has Europe been so peripherally unstable.

Source material and further information:

BBC: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-45492205

BBC: www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-44342610

Focus International Agency(via B92 Serbia): www.focus-fen.net/news/2018/08/29/433778/b92-serbia-serbia-shouldnt-insist-on-republika-srpskas-independence.html

Balkan Insight: www.balkaninsight.com/en/article/bosnia-will-be-next-if-kosovo-is-partitioned-08-23-2018

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: www.rferl.org/a/baku-slams-armenian-pm-over-nagorno-karabakh-remark-in-moscow/29481249.html

European Western Balkans: https://europeanwesternbalkans.com/2018/08/28/cerimagic-leaders-kosovo-serbia-reviving-dangerous-ideas/