Prior to his arrest in Germany, former Catalan President Carles Puigdemont visited Finland. In a wide ranging interview, Puigdemont tells Oksana Chelysheva where the fight for Catalan independence has reached, the importance of peaceful protest and what an independent Catalan state could look like.
You were elected in 2016. Since then your life has changed drastically. How do you find life now?
I didn’t have any choice. I have no choice now. I was the mayor of Girona. It was part of the association pro-independencia in Catalonia. Nearly 80% of Catalan municipalities were its members. Its former president proposed that I become its president. I could not say no. I imagined at that moment that trouble will happen in my life and that this will affect my life.
Could you predict to what extent?
Unfortunately, yes. But my best options were based on the belief that I could trust, I was confident of forty years of democracy in Spain after the death of the dictator Franco. I hoped that the benefits democracy brought would be enough not to sell it. It didn’t happen. The situation was such already in the beginning that we had to expect an aggressive reaction from the Spanish state, but not the first option based on hopes.But we tried then and we will continue to try now to force the Spanish state to sit at the table of negotiations.
But we tried then and we will continue to try now to force the Spanish state to sit at the table of negotiations.
Talking about the current situation, what is your feeling about the last elections in Catalonia, the ones after the dismissal of your government? In the situation you found yourself in that period of time with a number of politicians in prison, aggressive media coverage – could those elections be recognised as fair? What can we outside of Catalonia think of the elections organised as part of a Madrid direct-rule- strategy?
Firstly, the climate of the elections was very strange. Candidates were either in exile, or in prison. A lot of police in the streets. A lot of fake news when journalists could tell any stupid thing about us. A lot of threats aimed at people, in general, about the notion of independence. The atmosphere was absolutely contaminating. Any small stupid thing could have led to even wors consequences. But Catalan people managed to respond to that in a very powerful way. I think that it’s their attitude which is true heroism. They were brave in their dignity in front of a mounting campaign of fear and threats. They stayed calm with their strong answer, “We are not giving up.We want to decide our future. We want our republic. We are defending our republic. We are peaceful. We don’t respond with violence. Our answer is in the ballot boxes.” And this statement was a lot stronger than threats. And I personally wanted to stay loyal to the mandate I got from people. Unfortunately, the Spanish state has not accepted the results of this election. It prevents a Catalan parliament from electing the head of the government. They ignore 135 members of the parliament. I proposed my nomination after Mr Jordi Sanchez and then Jordi Turull. And Madrid has done everything not to let the Catalan parliament to choose any of us as the president.
Catalonia still doesn’t have a head of the state. The last attempt to elect Turull failed again. What do you expect to happen?
Things keep changing fast. Just every hour something new. A few minutes ago I received a public decision of the un-committee on human rights demanding explicitly from the Spanish authorities to respect the rights of Jordi Sanchez as a nominated candidate. Every hour brings some change. What kind of respect do they expect from Spain? Respect for democracy and results of the December 1 elections. Catalan people are clear saying that they want to live in the Catalan Republic which they would decide for themselves. And we must do whatever possible to demand that these expectations are translated into effective policies.
Catalan people are clear saying that they want to live in the Catalan Republic which they would decide for themselves.
Where do you think hope rests for a peaceful resolution of the conflict? In the people of Catalonia, in adherence of Madrid to the principles of democracy, your leadership, outside of the EU?
The situation is absolutely abnormal. We are regarded as a democracy. But it is not a democracy at all. I will continue to improvise this situation in order to create conditions which will allow political negotiations. It requires effort on both sides. But now it is just a conflict. This political conflict must be solved using the tools of democracy. Especially so as we are a member of the EU. We can’t teach other countries about human rights. There is only one way to solve the conflict: talks. If not, it will take a lot of time to make peace.
What are the number of politically-motivated cases which are developing now?
It is not only about politicians who are now in detention. We deal with numerous violations of freedom of expression. There are violations of freedom of movement. People have been deprived of the right to have freedom of opinion or freedom of participation. There is no freedom to even desire any democratic move without fear of becoming part of a criminal case on sedition or rebellion. This is now a kind of state with people fearing to express their opinions. This is not correspondent to a democratic society. It is not logical of a democratic society.
There are violations of freedom of movement. People have been deprived of the right to have freedom of opinion or freedom of participation. There is no freedom to even desire any democratic move without fear of becoming part of a criminal case on sedition or rebellion.
Thus, is Spain a democracy?
This state calls itself a democracy, but it doesn’t act as democracy. It is now a repressive regime which violates fundamental rights. All the actions of this state against peaceful movement is in violation of UN documents as well as the charter of fundamental rights in the EU. Spain was condemned two weeks ago for sentencing young people for burning the portrait of the King. Spain was condemned for that by the ECHR (The European Court Of Human Rights). The Court said that punishments over a burnt portrait was in violation of one of the basic freedoms in a democratic state, freedom of expression. If we estimate the level Spanish justice system is at now, last year the Europea barometer showed that independence of justice in Spain is actually one of the worst in Europe. Out of 28 countries, Spain is in 26th position as regards independence from the justice system. This is not an exemplary democracy. And, finally, what kind of democracy is it when you are expected to pay a 9-euro homage to visit the grave of the dictator Franco. And the maintenance of his grave is paid from the state budget. And you can go to his grave and there is the public monument to the dictator. This kind of democracy is very strange. Even more so because until now there are thousands of families in Spain, who don’t know where the remains of their ancestors are buried. It’s not acceptable. There is no single public euro in Spain spent to identify such graves or restore the dignity of the families who were Republicans during that civil war. That is not correct. Franco died in 1975. It’s enough time to restore the situation. Why is the Franco Foundation legal in Spain? Why are thousands and thousands of bodies still unaccounted for? Of course, according to the Spanish Constitution, it’s the main law of the democratic state. But with regard to the implementation and interpretation of the laws, this Constitution is far from being democratic.
There is no single public euro in Spain spent to identify such graves or restore the dignity of the families who were Republicans during that civil war. That is not correct.
Why do you think that Catalans have not taken the path of full rejection of the laws coming from Madrid? From the point of view as elected president of Catalonia – why do you believe there has not been more radical civil protest? Is it intentional to protest through peaceful demonstrations?
The peace culture is part of our identity. You might know that the international anthem for peace is a traditional Catalan song. Catalan people made a gift to all the other people with this anthem for peace. We are a people who want to deal with other peoples. We don’t see ourselves as the best people. We are one people among others. And we accept to negotiate to achieve agreements with all the world. For that reason, we must remain a peaceful people. There is no other force. But remember that we held one of the biggest demonstrations in the world against the war in Iraq. It happened in Barcelona. This is not accidental. That is part of our culture. For that reason, we are trying to achieve independence without a war for independence but through a peace for independence. That is why I said to the people that it is our right and duty. Probably, it will take a lot of time. Of course, we need a lot of patience. Of course… that is true. But it is the only possible way to achieve independence in Catalonia.
Because we do want to continue to live together, people who support independence and people who are against independence. Because those who are against have their democratic right to be against. But we decide together. What is the best tool to solve problems peacefully inside society with different opinions. Only by voting. And by respecting the results of the vote. Violent conflicts, using violence as such doesn’t help to solve problems. To prove it, just see what is the result of the Spanish state using violence against us. It is not helping to solve the situation.
For that reason, we are trying to achieve independence without a war for independence but through a peace for independence.
From what you have just said, I can come to the conclusion that if Catalonia becomes independent, you might reconsider NATO membership…
We are clearly on the side of the countries which withstand global threats. Such global threats, as terrorism – of course, cyber wars, threats to our trade policies. We are in NATO. We are in the EU. And we are in the very delicate Mediterranean area. We want to keep a key role in maintaining peace in the Mediterranean area. At that moment, when Spain decided to become a member of NATO, it was a good idea. It then helped to ensure our security. There is a debate in the Catalan society about NATO membership. But despite the final decision on the membership, I strongly feel that Catalonia must play a role in keeping world security. But in the spheres which I referred to when I started to answer your question. We were victims of terrorist attacks. Last summer, for example. Barcelona is one of the most visited places in the world. We must ensure the safety of our people, our guests,our investors. Their lives and their projects must stay safe.
OK, now let’s look at ideas and possibilities… Catalonia becomes independent. What kind of state would it be? Issues such as granting citizenship. How do you see it? Will every person who resides in Catalonia at the time of gaining independence become citizens regardless of ethnicity? Language… if you become independent, what happens to Castellano?
Very open. Our citizenship is not a question of ethnicity. Who is a Catalan? The one who wants to be Catalan. It doesn’t matter if a language is different or your origins are not from Catalonia, but somewhere else. What matters is your ideology. If you want to be part of this effort, to build a new republic based on the will of the people, you can be Catalan. No one would demand of you answering what you actually think of independence. That’s what we see as our model. So, the citizenship is something in discussion now. What is, for example, identity? It is not a passport. It is not a mother tongue. It is not a religion. In the past, yes. In the 19th century. Nationality and citizenship then were based upon official language, official culture, single vision of the world outside a country. But now it is impossible to see it as grounds. Our country is expected to be diverse. There are already a lot of languages spoken in Catalonia. We receive every year 17 million tourists a year, a country of 7,5 million inhabitants. It has a strong impact on our understanding of citizenship. The modern world is changing due to innovative communication technologies. Skype, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram. They all influence a new concept of citizenship. We are open to discuss what model better corresponds for a new republic in the 21st century. The same with the language. Of course, we are bilingual. We speak Catalan and Spanish. And both are our official languages. That will continue. We are strongly committed to safeguarding linguistic rights. We think that linguistic rights must be part of human rights ideology. Every language is a treasure for humanity. It doesn’t matter how big is the number of speakers. Every language must be protected. In our Catalonia the rights of Spanish-speaking people will be as ensured as rights of people speaking Catalan. We must be open towards linguistic diversity in our country in order to ensure that no language is persecuted. People have the right to speak any language in our country.
Our citizenship is not a question of ethnicity. Who is a Catalan? The one who wants to be Catalan. It doesn’t matter if a language is different or your origins are not from Catalonia, but somewhere else. What matters is your ideology.
At your lecture at the University you raised this concept of a new identity, of a new statehood. At the same time, our century is so volatile, full of events which are fraught with severe consequences. Do you think that Catalonia and your referendum were influenced in some way by developments in the Ukraine, for instance?
The Catalan case goes back centuries. It probably started in the beginning of the 18th century. We lost our institutions, our Constitution, the right to speak the language in public. We should not forget about other cases in Europe – Scotland for instance. But there is no single case identical to another. The movement for independence in Catalonia is not something new. But the majority of Catalan people still believed in the possibility of modernization of the Spanish state that could allow Catalans to be Catalans, to be respected as a minority inside the Spanish state. It was the reality for the time before the referendum. The main influence on the decision to hold the referendum was internal. It was caused by the decision of the Spanish Constitutional Court in 2010 when they ruled to cancel most of the political articles in our Statute of Autonomy. It changed the attitude of Catalans. Just one figure. When the Constitutional Court made that ruling, in the Catalan parliament there were 185 members, there were only 14 MPs elected from pro-independence parties. After that ruling in the elections of 2015, the number of MPs elected from pro-independence parties was 72.
But the majority of Catalan people still believed in the possibility of modernization of the Spanish state that could allow Catalans to be Catalans, to be respected as a minority inside the Spanish state.
It means that every attempt to push through rights, to put pressure on – the results are counterproductive?
If the state wants to stay unified?
The state must learn from history that unification as a religion does not work in the 21st century. People are aware of what is happening all over the world. They easily talk to people in the US or Australia. Chinese business invests in the US or Japan. People study all over the world. The concept of unity as a religion is not modern. It is outdated to base a state on such a concept. State unity is not sacred only for Catalans. The more intelligent states like the UK, sense such differences. When Scotland demanded independence, the central government accepted that demand and decided to play the match with the Scots. What happened? They won. That is the intelligent reaction. And our case is opposite. If you use reprisals, you stamp on people’s dignity. Dignity is like water. It always stays, even when the drought is severe.
The state must learn from history that unification as a religion does not work in the 21st century.
There is a tendency nowadays to explain things very simply. These guys are bad, these lines are good. This attitude was attributable to the media over coverage of the events in Catalonia. Was there any background manipulator who pulled the puppets strings? And in your case like in many more other cases, the puppeteer was identified as Russia. Is it true that the Kremlin allocated huge money to help organisers of the referendum. How do you respond to accusations that recent events in Catalonia were part of Putin’s plan to destabilise the EU?
Madrid has zero evidence that we received any proposal of help. We asked for zero help from other countries. Neither from Russia or whoever else. When I heard such accusations of me for the first time, I thought it was a joke. How people might even think that we are influenced by Russia? It’s incredible. But gradually I realized that people started to believe what are invented as explanations. My God… some media in Spain even played with charges against me of being a Russian spy – Cipollino as a nickname. But speaking seriously, the developing fashion of Putin being behind all, is offensive for the Russian people. It is not correct to keep saying that Russia is always in the shadows manipulating the innocents. But it also indicated what kind of problems we have in Europe. And Russia has nothing to do with our problems. For example, the immoral crisis caused by Mr Juncker and Mr Savoyard in the European Commission is not caused by Moscow. When the search for an external enemy starts, democracy dies. It doesn’t mean that we should not be critical of Russia with regard to many issues. But our own problems are provoked by us. What I saw as a joke when the first signs of “Russia is behind everything” campaign started, now is a problem. It is a huge problem to see Russia behind every accident or every failure.
But speaking seriously, the developing fashion of Putin being behind all, is offensive for the Russian people. It is not correct to keep saying that Russia is always in the shadows manipulating the innocents. But it also indicated what kind of problems we have in Europe. And Russia has nothing to do with our problems.
Is there any way out? Or will the collapse get deeper?
Information could help us. No to fake news. Information demands from the citizens will influence the media policies to be more accurate.
Now you are talking as a journalist?
I was so upset with the attitude in the Spanish media towards Catalonia. It worked as a machinery of fake news. It is the intoxication machine. It is not the attitude which might ensure a democratic society. So it is true information which can help us to avoid such kind of manipulations when Catalans were denounced as “egoists”, “populists”, “putinists”. Please – be finally serious. And demand quality information and no propaganda. We need the truth. But I don’t know if we have any hope of seeing it soon.
Do you have any positive expectations from the EU?
No, not from the EU authorities. Not at this moment. But from the European citizens, yes. I believe in responsible citizens and citizens who are truly committed to the values of democracy. I believe in the citizens of Europe as it’s future.