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Catalonia is (not) Crimea. The differences and commonalities of two referendums

catalonia protesters
Protesters supporting independence of Catalonia in Barcelona demand the release of several Catalan government officials. on September 21. Image: Youtube
Catalonia is (not) Crimea. The differences and commonalities of two referendums

As last summer the separatist government of Catalonia, an autonomous community in northeastern Spain, announced a referendum on leaving Spain and later staged it on 1 October, pro-Russian whistle-blowers and Russian media started to draw a parallel between it and the plebiscite staged by Russia in Ukraine’s Crimea back in March 2014. Can these two referendums be equated with each other?

The Russian state-funded TV channel RT broadcasted an interview with Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party in which he compared the current situation in Catalonia to that in Crimea. The pro-Russian politician considers both referendums, in Crimea and Catalonia, to have been held on the basis of the right to self-determination.

Russian propaganda placed Ukraine’s Crimea and Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, occupied by Russia in 2008, on par with Kosovo. Russian political scientists believe that “the Catalan referendum, like the Crimean one, showed that Europe once again ignores the people’s will.”

Read also:  Crimea and the Scottish referendum. Is there anything in common?

The referendums in Crimea and Catalonia can be equated, however, upon other criteria than the realization of the right to self-determination.

  • Russia was involved in both the Catalan and Crimean referendums, however, in different ways due to its different intentions.
  • Both autonomous republics had no right to stage referendums.
  • The voting process of both referendums wasn’t transparent.
  • The results of both Crimean and Catalan referendums cannot be deemed unbiased.

Russian involvement


At the moment of staging the Crimean referendum on seceding from Ukraine, the entire peninsula was occupied by so-called “little green men,” unmarked masked soldiers later admitted by Putin to be Russian troops. The military operation began on 20 February 2014, as evidenced by the reverse of the Russian medal “For the Return of Crimea,” with the coined time range of the operation, 20 February 2014 – 18 March 2014. The Russian plebiscite was the final part of the military operation. The referendum was staged in Crimea on 16 March 2016, its results were voiced on 18 March 2014.

At the moment of the referendum, Russia controlled most of the information space in Crimea and continued its rabid anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

The indigenous people of Crimea, Crimean Tatars, opposed the Russian invasion: their assembly called for a boycott of the Russia-staged Crimean status referendum.


Of course, Catalonia was not occupied by Russia. The Catalan people form a separate ethnic group with their own language and the separatism background in Catalonia has a long history. So the right of people to self-determination may be mentioned regarding the Catalan independence movement, unlike Crimean Russian separatism.

Nevertheless, Russia was involved in the election in Catalonia. While the official Kremlin called the Catalan referendum an “internal” matter for Spain, Russian state media have disseminated reports consistently favorable to Catalan independence in a move some analysts consider to be Moscow’s latest attempt to interfere in Western electoral processes.

From the Russian state-owned TV channels, which are the main source of news for most Russians, the Catalan referendum has been presented as one of the many problems overwhelming Europe, and also as proof of the ineffectiveness and failure of the entire European project.

In their lengthy report How Russian news networks are using Catalonia to destabilize Europe, Spanish newspaper El País stresses, “In a bid to sow division within the European Union, Russia’s online disruption machinery is working at full speed to equate the Catalan crisis to the Crimean or Kurdish conflicts in the eyes of public opinion.”

The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Lab has assessed key allegations of the El País’s report and confirmed three of them:

  • Kremlin broadcaster RT “is using its Spanish-language portal to spread stories on the Catalan crisis with a bias against constitutional legality,” including by misstating the European Union’s view on independence;
  • Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has “become the principal international agitator in the Catalan crisis, sharing opinions and half-truths as if they were news”;
  • Automated “bots,” including Russian propaganda ones, amplified tweets by Assange and former United States National Security Agency (NSA) contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden.

In both Spain and Ukraine, any local referendum on territorial changes is unlawful. And both referendums were not legal according to local legislation.


According to the Ukrainian Constitution and the law “On all-Ukrainian referendum,” any territorial changes in Ukraine can be approved only via an all-Ukrainian referendum where all the citizens of Ukraine are allowed to vote, not only those who reside in a certain territory. According to the Constitution of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the Crimea is an “inseparable constituent part of Ukraine” and its territory may be changed “if it should be so resolved by a republican (local) referendum and by a resolution of the Supreme Rada of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea pursuant to the Constitution of Ukraine.” No Ukrainian law on local referendums was adopted as the Crimean plebiscite was staged, moreover, the referendum’s available choices did not include keeping the status quo of Crimea.


The Spanish Constitution does not allow voting on the independence of any Spanish region. Moreover, the Catalan Statutes of autonomy require a two-thirds majority in the Catalan parliament for any change to Catalonia’s status, while earlier on 6 September the Catalan parliament approved the referendum along with a law which states that independence would be binding with a simple majority, without requiring a minimum turnout.

On 7 September, Spain’s constitutional court suspended the call for a referendum on Catalonia’s independence, but the Catalan government refused to halt it.

Voting process

  • No independent international observers monitored either the Crimean or Catalan referendum.
  • Some of the voter ballots used at the Crimean referendum were printed on ordinary office paper. In Catalonia, all ballots had no fraud protection and voters could even print them out on their home printers since the Catalan government published the printable ballot’s form at the website of the referendum.
  • In Crimea, Russian citizens were allowed to vote.
  • Multiple voting was not disallowed in Crimea, anyone could vote at several polling stations. In Catalonia, people could just print their ballots at home and vote at any open polling station.

All these features place the Catalan referendum further away from any democratic referendum like the one in Scotland, but closer to Crimean, Luhansk, and Donetsk kangaroo referendums, staged by Russia in the occupied Ukrainian territories in 2014.

Results and opinion polls


According to the organizers of the Crimean 2014 referendum, 96.77% of voters favored joining the Russian Federation. The claimed turnout was 83.1%. The Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, an assembly of indigenous Crimean Tatar people, stated that the real turnout was just 34.2%. Later Russia outlawed the Mejlis in 2016 for “the use of propaganda of aggression and hatred towards Russia, inciting ethnic nationalism and extremism in society” and listed as an extremist organization.

In February 2014, only 41% of Crimeans favored the opinion that “Ukraine and Russia should unite in one state,” according to KIIS research. The same research mentions that 35,9% of Crimean residents had the same opinion in 2013.


The Catalan government announced that 90.09% of those who voted in the referendum favored Catalonia’s independence from Spain, representing a turnout of around 42.3% of Catalonia’s 5.34 million voters. The authorities estimated that up to 770,000 votes were seized by police in raids on polling stations, and therefore not counted.

The previous Catalan independence referendum took place in 2014, eight months after the Crimean plebiscite, on 9 November 2014. The government announced that 80.76% voted for the independence with a 37% reported turnout.

The summer and fall opinion polls in Catalonia showed that the camps saying “yes” and “no” to the independence of Catalonia both shared about 40-50%.

Why Russia supports Catalonia and other European separatists

As Alexei Venediktov, director of Ekho Moskvy radio station, said, Putin “needs to break the unity of Europe.”  This is the reason why Putin supports European far-right movements, nationalists, and separatists like in Catalonia, “It weakens and destroys the unity of Europe, which is what maintains the sanctions against Russia,” the journalist stresses. This is “self-evident” and “unrelated to ideology,” Venedikov said, noting that the Russian leader will support anyone who is useful to him, regardless of ideology.

Read alsoThree years after sham referendums in Donbas, no Russian Spring

Vladimir Lepekhin, head of a Russian political study institute, has worded one more point of Kremlin’s interest in independence of Catalonia. According to him, recognition of Catalonia and Kurdistan will raise chances of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway Georgian regions, occupied by Russia.

Catalan secessionist politician Jose Enrique Folch, who is international secretary of the Catalan Solidarity Party for Independence, said on Russian media that a Catalan state would support Moscow in world forums and recognize the independence of territories of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This Catalonia’s explicit support of Russian political projects abroad has a simple explanation.

Mr.Folch was a participant of the both “Dialogue of Nations” conferences staged Moscow in 2015 and 2016. The conferences were global separatist fora organized by Kremlin-sponsored NGO The Anti-Globalisation Movement of Russia aimed to promote “a multipolar world without American hegemony.”

Read also: Separatists of the world again meet in Moscow to support Russia and oppose US (2016)

Among the participants were representatives of many separatist movements of America and Europe as well as actors from Transnistria, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, DNR, and LNR – Russian puppet statelets on the territories of neighboring countries. Of course, no Chechen, Tatar or other homegrown participants from Russia were represented at both events: Russia provides this platform exclusively for foreign movements and its own projects abroad.

At the Moscow separatist event in September 2016, Mr.Folch even promised that Catalonia would be independent in ten months then. “We have already tried to organize a referendum, but Spain banned it. For this second attempt, we don’t care what the Spanish government says,” said Folch then. It was the way he announced the latest referendum in Catalonia, staged a couple months later than he said in Moscow a year ago.

The Russian national broadcaster NTV states, “Many people say that the situation with Catalonia is a payback for Europe for recognizing Kosovo. And Brussels was warned then that the Catalan referendum will launch a wave of new separatist sentiments. For there are enough hotspots of tensions in the Old World.”

Russia doesn’t need independent Scotland, Basque Country, or Catalonia. Russia simply needs a weak, unstable Europe. The Kremlin maintains any forces capable of sowing chaos within the European Union, any forces which favor undermining the European unity. No matter whether those forces are Eurosceptic, separatist, far-right, far-left or just pro-Russian as many Russian immigrants throughout the European countries.

Controlled chaos is one of the tools used by Russia in its hybrid aggression. And here are the consequences of the Catalan referendum:

  • The Spanish riot police violently disrupted the Catalan provocative independence vote. According to the Catalan sources, more than 800 voters were injured. 
  • Catalonia’s leader Carles Puigdemont called for international mediation and for the European Union “to stop looking the other way” in the region’s bid to secede from Spain.
  • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy insisted in a televised address that there had been no independence referendum in Catalonia. 
  • Carles Puigdemont said he feared Spain was returning to the repressive practices of the Gen. Francisco Franco era. During Franco’s 40-year-long dictatorship the Catalan language was suppressed and the Catalan institutions were banned.
  • Spain’s interior minister accused the separatist Catalan government of encouraging protests against Spanish police, saying they represent “totalitarianism” and “hatred.”
  • Carles Puigdemont promised to “proclaim independence ‘within days’”, according to El Mundo.

Even though the Russian meddling into the latest Catalan independence referendum was minimal, Russia seems to have succeeded.

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