Barcelona protests: people's will or provocation?

Barcelona protests: people's will or provocation?

Hundreds of thousands of pro-independence supporters from across Spain’s northeastern region of Catalonia are expected to pour into Barcelona today, as unions called for a general strike on the fifth day of protests following the jailing of nine separatist leaders.

Major roads were blocked off across Catalonia today and several main streets in Barcelona were closed to traffic in anticipation of the marches, as well as picket lines that had begun springing up, while regional trains and the city’s metro were running on a reduced timetable.

Barcelona’s El Prat airport, forced to cancel around 150 flights this week after it was barricaded by thousands of people, was running normally for the most part, according to Spain’s ministry of public works. Around 36 flights operated by Vueling and 12 by Iberia were canceled today due to the strike.

Barcelona town hall said 400 garbage containers were set ablaze during protests on Wednesday and estimated that the city had suffered damage totaling more than 1 million euros ($1.1 million) in two days, Reuters reported.

Catalonia has been gripped by protests and rallies since October 14. The unrest was sparked by the Spanish Supreme Court’s verdict on Catalan politicians involved in what Madrid deemed to be an illegal referendum for the region’s independence in 2017. Some of the 12 leaders of the Catalan independence movement charged under the case were found guilty of sedition and misuse of public funds, with Vice President of Catalonia Oriol Junqueras getting the harshest penalty of 13 years.

The sentences set off protests across the region, with protesters at times clashing with police.

Pro-independence leaders went ahead with a 2017 referendum on independence, despite it being deemed illegal by Spanish courts, followed by a declaration that the region was breaking away from Spain. Madrid responded by seizing control of the Catalan administration and putting the ringleaders on trial.

The deputy dean of the Faculty of Global Economics and International Affairs of the Higher School of Economics of the National Research University, Andrei Suzdaltsev, speaking to Vestnik Kavkaza, noted that ​​an analogue of the "Arab spring" is currently taking place in Barcelona.

"Of course, the previous leadership of the separatists, activists with more or less clear Catalonia goals have been squeezed out from the masses. Therefore, now we see a mass event with the people dissatisfied with the fact that their leaders are condemned, and the head is in immigration. But all these people are well informed where to go, what to do and so on. There's huge work carried out on the Internet, they are motivated to protest, so it’s not about the 20th century spontaneity," he said.

"What is happening in Catalonia is a completely understandable separatist movement that relies on a set of mistakes by the central government. Such options cannot be ruled out anywhere. If one tries to transfer the situation to the post-Soviet space, then, in my opinion, all the main separatist options have been already showed, and one can hardly expect some new surge in the next decade," Andrei Suzdaltsev stressed.

The senior research fellow at the European Research Centre of the International Relations Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vladimir Olenchenko, in turn, drew attention to the fact that there is no consensus in Catalonia on the issue of forms and methods of protest. "There are activists, mostly young people who use violent methods of protest, but they don’t find support among the general public. It’s also striking that the activists are secretive, which means that it's not a political struggle -  a politician can't be anonymous," he noted.

"There is a demarcation between activists and moderate residents of Catalonia, who allow the possibility of a new referendum or the possibility of greater isolation from the central Spanish authorities, but do not adhere to violent forms of protest. This leads to the fact that the base of violent protest actions is narrowing, and therefore they start using  increasingly aggressive forms to provoke law enforcement agencies and thereby try to involve wider circles of the population in the protests, stressing the brutality of law enforcement forces," Vladimir Olenchenko pointed out.

"I don’t think this is a spontaneous process, because these protests require a good material and financial base. It’s not clear who is a sponsor, but in any case it doesn’t look like people, who woke up very unhappy in the morning and decided to go on strike," the expert said.