John Carlin,, October 6, 2021
A retired British diplomat wrote to me this week comparing the case of Alexéi Navalny, the Russian dissident who chose to go to jail, with that of Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan independence fighter fleeing from prison. “On the one hand,” said the diplomat, “there is an opposition politician who, after surviving an assassination attempt by his country’s secret police, chooses to return to his country of his own free will to face a long period of squalid imprisonment. On the other, a politician who fights in the courts to be able to continue living his comfortable exile”.
Winning legal battles in small European courts goes well; are triumphs enough
The diplomat, an expert on Russia, is clear about it. Navalny is a brave man, a hero, a martyr; Puigdemont, a coward and “a clown who plays at being a freedom fighter”. The conclusion reached by the diplomat is tempting and, at first glance, convincing, but I disagree. To say that Puigdemont is a coward is to oversimplify. Admiring Navalny does not mean having to despise Puigdemont.
That said, there is no doubt that Puigdemont would do more to inflame the independence cause if he followed Navalny’s example than by staying in his sweet home in Waterloo, taking a walk from time to time through the Old Continent. Imagine the circus that would be mounted. After notifying the world of the time and place of his return to the homeland, the redeemer crosses the border on foot where tens of thousands of his followers, hundreds of journalists and a battalion of the Civil Guard await him. The euphoria at the first appearance of the former president gives rise to rage – screams, struggles, blocked roads – when he climbs into a police van at gunpoint to be transferred to the prison in Madrid. That same afternoon a million or more protesters occupy the streets of Barcelona.
There is a difference between giving a talk to independent friends on an Italian island and the possible alternative of staging what would be the Spanish political event of the decade. The impact on the minds and hearts of the Catalan people would be overwhelming; the impact on international public opinion, precisely Puigdemont’s argument to stay and propagandize in Belgium, enormous. Puigdemont and his cause would gain supporters in Catalonia and supporters throughout the world. Spanish justice would be more portrayed than ever. The divisions in the independence movement would be diluted, as in the times of Mariano Rajoy. Pedro Sánchez’s seduction policy would be in ruins. Then, covers from New York to Vladivostok: the trial. What an opportunity for Puigdemont to unleash public speaking and denounce the oppression that Catalans suffer at the hands of the Spanish State!
And this gift to independence at what price? A few years in jail for sure, but not in Siberia. Conjugal visits, access to television and a diet that would not compare to that of the tapas bar that Puigdemont frequents half an hour from Waterloo, but not that bad either. It does not seem to have had a negative impact, at least, on the health and figure of his secessionist comrade Oriol Junqueras.
So why doesn’t Puigdemont do as Navalny? Why is he a coward? Perhaps, in part. But above all because he possesses the mythical Catalan virtue of the ‘seny’. He is a man with more sense of proportion than many realize. He speaks of “the persecution” to which the enemy subjects him, but deep down he has the measure of his cause. He knows that Spain is not Russia. That here there is freedom of the press, that the elections are fair and that the Government does not assassinate its opponents. He knows that neither Pedro Sánchez nor Rajoy are Vladimir Putin. He knows that in Catalonia he lives very well. Nobody is going to risk dying to get out of the yoke of Madrid.
Puigdemont does well. He understands that voluntarily going to jail for Catalan independence, even if his room was a hotel suite in Abu Dhabi, would be an inordinate personal sacrifice. Winning legal battles in small European courts is going well. They are triumphs enough.
As for what the retired diplomat says that Puigdemont is a clown and that he plays at being a freedom fighter, it is not so easy to refute. But just as ridiculous, more irresponsible and hard to understand is that the state prosecutors, the judges of the Supreme Court and the Spanish political middle class fall into the game as well.