Europe could have looked strikingly different today if Catalan politicians took Russia up on its alleged offer to help Catalonia achieve independence in 2017 – at least according to the Spanish authorities.
If only they said “da” and agreed to recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea as legitimate, a clandestine Russian group founded during the Gorbachev era would have sent 10,000 men to Barcelona to force the Spanish state into submission and, amid much chaos and bloodshed, declare former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont as the president of the independent Republic of Catalonia. The Kremlin, meanwhile, would have paid off all of Catalonia’s national debt and supported the new country in the international arena, leaving the European Union embarrassed and divided.
This is not the plot of a cheap spy novella, but the latest far-fetched accusation the Spanish state directed at the leaders of the Catalan independence movement to undermine the legitimacy of their struggle.
Of course, as we all know, Russia did not try to invade Spain to help Catalan pro-independence activists. In fact, it did not even recognise Catalonia as an independent state in the aftermath of the 2017 independence referendum. Moreover, the only “proof” of such an offer ever being made is a recording the Spanish police allegedly found on the confiscated phone of a Catalan politician. So far, the authorities provided no indication that the offer was ever considered by Puigdemont, nor did they provide any additional evidence that there had been an offer.
However, the authorities pointed to these unsubstantiated claims as one of the reasons behind a massive police operation against the leaders of the Catalan independence movement, which resulted in the arrests of 21 senior Catalan politicians and activists on October 28.
While the authorities accused the arrested individuals of a variety of crimes, from misuse of public funds and abuse of office to money laundering, the fact that they codenamed the operation “Volkhov” in reference to the World War II front where Spanish fascists fought alongside the Nazis against the Soviet Union clearly indicated that their primary aim was to add weight to their claims that Russia is tacitly supporting the Catalan independence movement.
People not familiar with the Spanish state’s relentless harassment and persecution of Catalan activists and politicians may find it shocking that a police operation has been named after such a dark chapter in Spanish history, or that state authorities publicly accused an overwhelmingly peaceful political movement of considering unleashing a 10,000-strong Russian militia on Europe on such flimsy evidence. But the Spanish security forces have long been acting as if they are working not for a democratic European state but an erstwhile fascist dictatorship. And being spied on, unlawfully jailed, and accused of treason and terrorism merely for their political views, sadly, is a daily reality for Catalans fighting for independence.
Since the 2017 independence referendum, the Spanish state has been working round the clock to intimidate and silence Catalan activists and elected officials. In 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court found nine high-profile Catalan politicians guilty of “sedition” for helping organise the independence referendum and sentenced them to 9-13 years in prison. Amnesty International deemed the verdict “an excessive and disproportionate restriction on the peaceful exercise of [the convicted politicians’] human rights” while the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions called for the immediate release of these political prisoners. However, turning a blind eye to these criticisms, the Spanish prosecutors not only refused to reconsider their position but demanded the “re-education in the Constitution” of Catalan political prisoners in order to allow them to leave prison for a few hours a day.
Many activists and politicians, including Puigdemont, meanwhile, were forced to flee the country to avoid being detained. But pro-independence Catalans lucky enough to find an opportunity to leave the country before being arrested could not escape the Spanish state’s harassment and persecution either. The Spanish Secret service illegally spied on them across the borders of the EU, and the state used all avenues available to it to stop their political activities and secure their extradition back to Spain.
Puigdemont, who is currently living in exile in Belgium, has been a member of the European Parliament since 2019. However, Spain is actively working to convince the European Parliament to lift his parliamentary immunity – which prevents Madrid from asking for his extradition. Another Catalan MEP, Toni Comlin, is in the same situation. Former Catalan Vice President Oriol Junqueras, who became an MEP alongside Puigdemont last year, was unable to take his seat in the European Parliament in the first place, as he has been in provisional detention in Spain for the alleged crime of sedition for the last two years.
Quim Torra, who became the president of the regional government of Catalonia in May 2018 following Puigdemont’s forceful removal from the office, was “disqualified” from the role in September for the unbelievable “crime” of refusing to remove banners in support of the independence movement and Catalan political prisoners from the facade of The Palau de la Generalitat de Catalunya – the historic building housing the offices of the regional government.
It is not only prominent movement leaders whom the Spanish government, judiciary, and security forces are trying to intimidate and silence through politically motivated investigations and trumped-up charges. About 700 Catalan mayors are currently being investigated for taking part in the 2017 independence referendum. Many Catalan activists are facing charges for “crimes” like organising strikes and blocking roads. Several activists have been charged with “possessing explosives” – which turned out to be just fireworks. Even Catalonia’s most senior police chiefs faced charges of “sedition” for “not doing enough” to stop Catalan voters from taking part in the 2017 referendum – in the end, they were all acquitted.
All these efforts failed to put an end to the Catalan desire for self-determination, so it would seem Spanish authorities have decided now to malign the independence movement with ridiculous accusations of collaborating with Russia to reach their political aims and to bring destruction and war to the EU.
The Catalan leaders never hid the fact that they are willing and ready to talk to all nations, and influential political activists and journalists like Julian Assange, to increase support for their movement. They have also been open about their plans to create a Virtual Catalan Republic, a digital infrastructure not subject to Spanish control, as a way to broaden popular participation in regional politics and also make it more difficult for Spanish justice to intervene in their political activities. They are even trying to create a Catalan cryptocurrency and alternative means of digital payment to free themselves from the clutches of the Spanish banking system. These efforts are managed by the Consell per la República Catalana (Council for the Catalan Republic), a private organisation based in Belgium headed by Puigdemont.
But none of these efforts and initiatives signals a desire on the part of the independence movement to go to war with the EU, let alone invite Russian troops to Europe. Moreover, the idea that Russia would risk a war with the EU and NATO to help liberate a nation that is nowhere near its own territory is as absurdly ridiculous as it is embarrassing.
While the EU did nothing to stop Spain’s determined repression of Catalan political freedoms beyond issuing occasional empty statements, Madrid still failed to extinguish the flames of independence and freedom in Catalonia. As a result, the Spanish authorities now seem determined to stir Europe’s deep-rooted fears of Russian intervention to be allowed to increase the pressure they have long been putting on their Catalan citizens. Nevertheless, not even this newly invented “Russian connection” is going to be enough to make Catalans give up on their dream of independence. It may, however, help Hollywood screenwriters come up with the plot of their next action-filled spy thriller.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.