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Slovenians’ hearts beat for Catalonia, but in their heads there is less binding them

The former Yugoslav country knows what Catalonia is experiencing but superficial parallels between the two do not always hold up.

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Slovenians’ hearts beat for Catalonia, but in their heads there is less binding them

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“Many Slovenian hearts beat for the Catalan people,” Slovenian president Borut Pahor told the media two weeks ago, on the day when the independence referendum took place in Catalonia.

Ana Marinič, politologist and journalist from Goriška Brda in the west of Slovenia, agrees with him. “Slovenians get very emotional when they think about the independence of Slovenia and now, all those emotions came back through the Catalan story,” she says, adding that this sentiment sometimes has little to do with rationality.

“We are well aware that such decisions can cause thousands of problems, that the decision is counter-productive, that it can generate a domino effect, that it can cause violence, and the like. But emotions and the memory of our independence are simply stronger than reason.”

Ana was only two years old when Slovenians held their referendum for independence from Yugoslavia in December 1990, but her father Damjan, a head of a school in Goriška Brda, remembers those days very well.

“Then, the same as today, we were all convinced that we were looking for something that was ours and that we should take matters into our hands and that everything depended only on us,” says Damjan, at that time a young history teacher, recalling the strong sense of unity that developed between Slovenians.

Comparing Catalan demands to a young family member who wants to live on his own but struggles to earn money and build a house, Damjan says Slovenians sympathise with nations who seek self-determination “But the old family doesn’t let it happen.”

Ivana Boštjančič Pulko of the Slovenian Center for European Perspective agrees that every nation should have a possibility to choose the form of the statehood they want. But she would be cautious, she says, to compare the Slovenian and Catalan referendum. “Ex-Yugoslavia was not a democratic state, which Spain is. And also, Slovenians were extremely united around their aspirations and the referendum was marked with a high turnout and extremely high support for independence.”

Nevertheless, the Catalan independence efforts have often been compared with Slovenia, particularly on the separatist side because some Catalans see it as a possible model for their efforts to become independent from Spain.

But the similarities that have led to comparisons between Slovenia and Catalonia, are merely superficial, says Aleš Lampe, a vice-president of the Ljubljana-based Slovenian Pan European Movement. In his opinion, Slovenia had the advantage of being able to go through the independence process by following the letter of the law, which is an option that Catalonia does not have.

The constitution of the former Yugoslavia recognised the right to self-determination among its constituent regions. That is why Boštjančič Pulko thinks more parallels can be drawn between Kosovo and Catalonia, both of which had autonomy but not the legal right to self-determination.

The turnout for the referendum in Catalonia was 42 percent. By contrast, the Slovenian independence referendum saw 93.2 percent of the population casting ballots. It’s difficult to say how close Catalonia would have got to that figure without the involvement of the Spanish police.

In his recent article in the Independent, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote that political positions around independence has apparently superseded geopolitical interests in discussions around Catalonia. In Žižek’s opinion, this ideological posturing has been particularly evident in Slovenia.

“The old left, which was to the end mostly against Slovene independence, pleading for a renewed, more open Yugoslavia, is now organising petitions and demonstrations for Catalonia, while the nationalist right, which fought for full Slovene independence, is now discreetly for unity.”

Anže Dolinar, a PhD researcher in philosophy at the University in Ljubljana agrees that such confusion in positions has emerged and argues that the debate is taking place on the wrong terms. He says that the problem is not whether to feel for or against Catalan independence, but to consider what independence would actually mean and deliver.

“The Yugoslav experience teaches us, that perhaps, sometimes, you do in fact need your own country in order to realise that not having your own country was not the problem,” concludes Dolinar.

By Lidija Pisker