Catalan Violence Tarnishes European Values in Post-Soviet View

by Larissa Sotieva

The use of heavy-handed tactics by police to disrupt the Catalan referendum on October 1 was more than simply an internal Spanish or European matter. It sent a powerful and damaging message to those living in countries and territories across the former Soviet Union that are experiencing high levels of sectional or interethnic tension.

As a senior advisor for International Alert, a non-governmental organization dedicated to peacebuilding, I work extensively with partners in the post-Soviet region. Over the past few weeks, I have seen how these partners, former colleagues and friends have been questioning the efficacy of the “European democratic values” that they have been invoking in their work over the past decades.

Some countries in Eurasia have put tremendous effort into promoting European democratic standards. An important component of democratic systems traditionally has been the ability to defend the rights and interests of minority groups from encroachment by the majority. The recent experience in Catalonia has clouded public perceptions in Eurasia of democracy’s value, thus heightening the challenges faced by those who are trying to bring about change.

The Catalan example is also sure to be cited by authoritarian-minded governments in the region as they press ahead with efforts to restrict basic rights. It used to be that when blatant human rights abuses occurred in post-Soviet countries, even the governments that openly disdained European values still tended to worry about the potential for EU criticism. This concern could sometimes play a preventative role. But now, it seems, such states can worry less about criticism coming from Brussels.

“So how is Europe different from us, now?” one Caucasus partner asked me after watching images of police officers employing violent tactics to thwart the Catalan balloting. He quickly answered his own question; “If you dare use your right to choose, you’re liable to be beaten up here and there alike.”

Those I spoke to also began to draw parallels between their own governments’ tendency to interpret the law to their own advantage and what they perceived as the European governments doing the same.

Many Russian-language state media outlets have portrayed the events in Catalonia as the collapse of the “myth” of European democracy. Many bloggers from across the region have agreed with state media. Such coverage is causing an increasing number of residents of the region to wonder whether they should still aspire to European ideals of democracy.

It will not be easy to halt the erosion of faith in Western political values. My extensive experience in peacebuilding and humanitarian aid has shown me just how difficult the process of rebuilding trust can be. Peace can take years to build, but can be destroyed in an instant. Personally, I reject violence as a tool. It does not matter who uses it, to what aim, or what arguments are employed to justify it. Violence does not resolve conflicts, but merely exacerbates them.

Working for peace is significantly harder than working for conflict, but this work is crucial. We tend to take peace for granted, thereby making it yet more vulnerable and fragile. Mundane as this may sound, establishing and maintaining peace requires constant effort. Unfortunately, most of us tend to start thinking about peacebuilding only once conflict has erupted.

The lessons learned from working on conflict transformation in other parts of the world, such as the need for all civil society groups to engage in active dialogue, can easily be applied to conflicts within the European Union, including Catalonia.

But successful examples of peaceful solutions in Europe also need to be highlighted and praised. The Scottish independence referendum in 2014, for example, is a case in point. Many in the post-Soviet region were watching events in Scotland carefully, and some believed that troops could be deployed. They based this on their own experience of living in a situation of conflict for many years. In the event, both the electoral campaign and the results served to bring about a more positive perception of Europe in regions of conflict. This, in turn, helped to strengthen our position and moral grounds to work in such regions – at least, until the Brexit vote.

Right now, there is still shock and confusion following the referendum in Catalonia. Hopefully, this will give way to a desire to pause, reflect, and establish a process of dialogue.

The crisis in Catalonia might be a regional issue, but Europe needs to know that other parts of the world are watching developments closely. Europe’s failure to resolve the Catalan issue democratically could potentially help legitimize the use of violent methods to resolve disputes elsewhere.

Larissa Sotieva is a senior adviser for Eurasia at the peacebuilding organization International Alert. Reprinted, with permission, from EurasiaNet. Photo: Catalan demonstration in September 2017 (Wikimedia Commons).

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  1. Thanks for the post , well , there is no need to back off or stay speechless due to such laughable argument : ” So how is Europe different from us, now ?? bunch of reasons for showing great differences :

    And first , the Catalonians themselves , didn’t dare even to think of violent resistance , let alone military one . Aren’t they Spanish ?? aren’t they European ?? That is the education induced in them !! and just to compare it to the ” Arab spring ” for example , or to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and The Crimea peninsula . Ridiculous !!

    But , let us face the broader picture :

    Turkey is begging years for joining the EU , yet , until , death penalty is not abolished , or human rights improved generally speaking , no way !! Just to observe the sanctions imposed on Russia , due to that annexation of the Crimea peninsula , and realize how great is the difference .

    Look at Germany , accepting no less than half million refugees , granting them many legal and human rights .

    Those are only negligible illustrations !! So , wrong discretion in Catalonia , correct !! Yet , police troops in Europe , and all over the world , are many times , exercising undue force , it is regrettable , yet , common !! This doesn’t indicate yet , how strong and solid is the rule of law , and democracy .


  2. Sorry, Larissa Sotieva
    which is your source of information? I am afraid you are totally wrong.
    Let me reproduce the answer to Heather Conley (CSIS), whose link I attach:
    “I have to admit the success of the cunning way in which the separatists depicted the
    occasion when the police forces tried to keep the law and order against
    a mob of pugnacious protesters. The autonomous government went so far
    as to give the number of 900 people wounded by the police in those cases.
    Independent observers have later confirmed that only four people could
    be included in that category, none of them in serious condition. I
    could understand your rush to judgment given the first reports coming from
    Barcelona on that day. A more balanced view on what really happened was
    offered hours later by the national and international media. In the
    meantime, no regional Catalonian authority has been able to provide the
    names of those wounded or sent to hospitals. No regional Catalonian
    authority is known to have visited any hospitals. While the police have
    duly provided the names and details of the 45 agents wounded by the
    mob, of which 11 had to be taken to hospitals in various degrees of serious
    condition. The separatists have successfully followed the well-known
    rule of lazy journalism: “never let reality dampen a good headline”.
    It is regrettable that someone like you, and I am sure you did it in
    pursuit of your very noble feelings towards the “dammed”, could have
    fallen into the same trap”.
    If you can give me a different proven information, I will be grateful.

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