Monday, January 06, 2014

The Scots, the Catalans, the Ukrainians and the Normans

Russian thinking on Ukraine, and itself, is swimming against the tide

You're in a city where the signs are in one language, although many of the inhabitants speak another, the dominant but related language of a major power. One could be thinking of Catalan in Barcelona, or in fact Ukrainian in Kiev. I once really upset a lady from Western Ukraine by making this comparison. To her, Catalonia is only a region of a country, whereas Ukraine most certainly isn't, so the parallel seemed to her belittling. Some Catalans might well see the connection straight away however, as something approaching a majority there now talk of independence from their dominant 'neighbour'.

Such analogies are never perfect, but that hasn't stopped Russia making them publicly in its pursuit of Ukraine. The Russian Ambassador to France sat them down and patiently explained that Ukraine to Russia is like Normandy is to France-essentially inseparable. This analogy is facile though (and even if accepted, it doesn't begin to explain Russia's similar attitude to Georgia, Armenia or Moldova). I would suggest two more suitable ones, and in fact 2014 looks like being an important year for those nations in the shadow of their bigger relative, and the comparisons show just how far off the pace the Russian view is.

For the record, I personally feel more English than British (St. George's should be a public holiday and Anglo-Saxon history taught in schools), but I also feel European (EU freedom of movement is a good thing all round, including Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians), so I don't know whose agenda I'm serving here as neither UKIP nor the liberals would want me I expect. I'm also suspicious of countries that were artificial constructs-they never seem to last. Take Yugoslavia, Czechoslvakia or the USSR. Maybe even the UK? Unlike many academics, I don't consider the nations of Western and Eastern Europe to be intrinsically different. I'm sure, as I'm not from Russia I don't know much, but correct me if any of the dates are wrong. 

Scotland & Britain

The Act of Union between England and Scotland in 1707 took place just two years before Mazepa's last stand against the Russians at Poltava in 1709, so the England-Scotland and Russia-Ukraine unions have both basically existed for 300 years. As the Russians talk about 'Little Russia', the British establishment (which included Scots too by the way) promoted the idea that England would now be 'South Britain', Scotland 'North Britain' and (perhaps most optimistically) Ireland 'West Britain', although needless to say it didn't stick.

Scotland can claim two native languages. One, Gaelic, is enjoying a notable revival, now as visible on 'Welcome to Scotland' signs as "Croeso i Cymru' is in Wales. The other however, Scots, a close relative to English, is perhaps more pertinent to our loose analogy. Like Ukrainian, it has often been dismissed as a dialect of its dominant neighbour, but linguistic experts consider it a language; It has vocabulary which, in some instances, is more recognisible to, say, Norwegians than English (it also, like Ukrainian, once spread deeper into its neighbour's territory). Scots is somehow less prominent though. Like, say, Swiss German, it is rarely visible in its written form.

It used to be said that only around 25% of Scots favoured full independence, and discussion tended to revolve around North Sea oil revenues. Then came devolution, including tax raising powers, and then a Scottish National Party minority government, culminating in next September's 2014 referendum on independence. Support for breaking away is now put at a third of the population and there is a big difference between being asked a theoretical question and a real question.

Of course there is a strategy, official or otherwise, in London to try to keep the Scottish on board. Slightly echoing the situation with Ukraine, pessimism is the tool of choice here too, that Scotland variously 'wouldn't survive' and 'needs Britain'. One of the failures so far of the 'yes' campaign is to move the debate out of these narrow economic arguments which are basically about short term considerations and often based on assumptions. The debate should surely be about how Scottish people view themselves and their future, and the emotive aspect, that of cultural identity and what Scottish people feel that they are is at least as important as hospital prescriptions.

Nonetheless, you can't fault London in the sense that the issue will be decided by a referendum to the people in Scotland. Once upon a time there was a referendum on Ukrainian independence from the USSR, in fact in 1990, in which each region voted for Ukraine's independence, even the Donbas and Crimea. So if the Scots vote yes in 2014, following Russia's example, a bit of arm twisting in 20 years' time should put to rights any aberration in the Scottish vote. 

Catalonia & Spain

Iberia was overrun by the Moors while Kievan Rus was ransacked by Mongol hordes (the Arab cultural influence on Castillians is as true as the Asian influence on the Russians, but, unlike the Russian 'Eurasians', the Spanish are Europeans, and don't claim to be 'Eurafricans', 'Eurarabs' or any such nonsense). One country to emerge from the reconquista was Catalonia. Its incorporation into Spain (and France) again takes place during the 17th-18th centuries with the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 coming just five years after Bohdan Khmelnytsky gave the Russians the car keys at Pereyeslav in 1654 (rather like Yanukovych has just done). Portugal could conceivably have ended up in exacty the same position (one school of thought is that Catalonia moved first, allowing Portugal to break free).

The comparison to be made between Catalan/Spanish and Ukrainian/Russian seems to me a striking one. Both languages punch below their weight; Ukrainian is Europe's 8th most spoken language while Catalan has more speakers than many of the EU's member states. The Russification of Ukraine in the Russian Empire/USSR and imposition of Castillian by Franco, changing Catalan names and place names to Spanish ones, is a familiar story for Ukrainians and Catalans alike. That strange feeling of seeing one language written on the city's street signs but hearing another more commonly spoken on the streets is common both to Kiev and Barcelona. The temptation to mix with a language that is closely related is also acute; in Ukraine that is the 'surzhik' of Russian and Ukrainian and in Catalonia the tendency to come out with Spanish words in a Catalan way rather than pure Catalan (Ukrainians might think of Prime Minister Azarov here).

In terms of an aim of independence, Catalonia on one level seems to have the furthest to go here. Madrid simply says a referendum on independence is 'illegal' but how long does an argument of that sort sit with the basics of democratic legitimacy? It's interesting to observe Catalonia's politicians appealing to the EU on this issue. As with Ukraine, the EU may not have the will or tools to assist meaningfully there either. Spain fears losing a prosperous province and the re-emergence of the Basque problem, but if Scotland and Catalonia show something that Northern Ireland and the Basque Country don't, it's that democratic means can slowly but surely nudge you closer towards your aims.

Catalans, whatever the situation, are, unlike Ukrainians and Russians, completely free to protest and express their views. Catalonia also continues to enjoy real autonomy. Had such autonomy been given to Ukraine in a hypothetical democratising 1980s USSR, perhaps Russia and Ukraine would have stayed together after all, but it's too late, Russia too autocratic, to hope to achieve this kind of outcome now. 2014 won't yield a referendum there but the zeitgeist may mean Catalonia moving closer in that direction, and it's difficult to ignore the zeitgeist.

France & Normandy?

Just to be charitable, I will entertain the Russian Ambassador's analogy a little longer. Normandy was incorporated into France in 1204 (about half a century after the founding of Moscow). The country of France itself had come into being barely 300 years earlier.

Linguistically, Normandy speaks French, and spoke French even as an independent kingdom. Norman French was even the language of royalty and administration in England for hundreds of years follwing the Norman Conquest. So where is the 19th century Norman equivalent of Taras Shevchenko writing his poems in the Norman language? Where is the national awakening? Most crucially, where is the independence movement? Need I go on?

For a better analogy however, France offers several. Look at Corsica, incorporated in 1768, and still restive. The supposedly irrefutable Russian claim to Crimea goes back to its annexation by Russia around the same time, in 1783. Western Savoy was first conquered by Napoleon in 1792, and finally cemented as a part of France in 1860. A Russian contemporary of Nice might be Sochi, founded by Russian imperial expansion in 1838 (but, unlike Nice, consolidated by the ethnic cleansing of the local Circassian population in the mid 19th century).

France in fact has 8 histrical linguistic minorities (Alsatian, Flemish, Breton, Walloon, Corsican, Catalan, Basque and Occitan) as well as numerous dialects and patois. A really interesting case would be the southern third of France, the Occitan territory. This historically spoke the 'langue d'Oc', a language more akin to Catalan. Had history developed differently, who knows if that would have become France's Ukraine?

The Russian Ambassador might have been on safer ground talking about Kievan Rus and the continuity of 'Rasiya' from 'Rus', but then you'd have to ask why France doesn't claim Franconia in Southern Germany? Best keep it simple I suppose. Imagine France bullying Belgium into accepting a role as its vassal state, installing a Francophone government with scant regard for the rights of Dutch speakers, maybe even a Flemish-hating education minister and you're somewhere closer to the mark. After all, the coal mines and steel mills of the industrial south are where the wealth is, and that's the future, surely? Sounds like the 19th century though, right?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hack:
A very excellent post that exhibits a broad knowledge of
European history. Enough material to expand on though. Easpecially the last paragraph.