The Interpreter: Catalans and Kurds Discover the Hard Truth About Secession

Catalans may have themselves fallen in that gap, believing their desire for democratic self-determination would carry the day. Western powers, after decades of promoting that ideal as the basis of secession, including in backing Kosovo’s independence, have struggled for a way to dissuade Catalans.

‘The Secessionists’ Dilemma’

Kurdish leaders are well aware that realpolitik, not ideals, will determine the success of their independence bid, said Morgan L. Kaplan, a political scientist who studies the Kurdish independence movement.

From the Kurdish perspective, the referendum “was supposed to be the first step in a negotiation process with Baghdad,” he said. The idea was that appealing to international norms could sway the United States and other foreign powers to support independence. And that, in turn, could help pressure Baghdad to consent to secession.

But the vote has instead galvanized Washington and Baghdad in opposition, illustrating what the scholars Erica Chenoweth and Tanisha M. Fazal have called “the secessionists’ dilemma” — that the unstated rules for secession often fail or even backfire.

“Secessionists don’t tend to get rewarded for doing what the international community says” they should do, Ms. Fazal wrote on Twitter.

“At some point,” she added of Kurds’ decision to proceed anyway, breaking those rules, “secessionists will catch on. I wonder if the Iraqi Kurds have reached that point.”

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