A legally binding referendum on full statehood for Catalonia, which is looking increasingly likely ahead of this weekend’s elections, could have interesting implications for the future of Russian-EU relations.

A pro-independence supporter attends a rally of "Junts pel Si" or "Together for YES" in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: AP

As early regional elections in Catalonia approach this weekend, the political tension is palpably rising in the autonomous community itself and across Spain as a whole.

This is primarily because the Catalan government, headed by Artur Mas (whose official title is President of the Generalitat of Catalonia), considers Sunday’s vote as a “political referendum” on Catalonia’s independence from Madrid.

In the words of Mas himself: “I will not step back from our decision to give the Catalan people the right to decide their own future.”

For the first time, on the eve of the regional vote, the topic of sovereignty has united the main separatist — or, as they say here, pro-independence — forces into a single electoral alliance under the banner “Together for Yes.”

Politically, it represents a diverse coalition of leftist and liberal separatist forces underpinned by Mas’s liberal Democratic Convergence of Catalonia and the left-wing Republican Left of Catalonia.

The alliance is supported by many well-known public figures, among them the former coach of FC Barcelona Pep Guardiola (now with Bayern Munich). Polls show that the alliance is sure to win with around 38-40 percent of the vote.

Such a result could hand the “Together for Yes” bloc an absolute majority. But in any event, taking into account the results of the alternative left-wing coalitions — “Catalonia Yes We Can” (aligned with Podemos) and the Popular Unity Candidacy, which is represented in the regional parliament — there is bound to be a majority in favor of a legally binding referendum on full statehood for Catalonia.

Madrid says “No”

Meanwhile, the Spanish federal government, led by the head of the conservative Popular Party (PP) Mariano Rajoy, is categorically against Catalonia’s secession.

The conservatives have already gone through the Spanish Constitutional Court to annul several provisions of the Statute of the Autonomous Community, in particular the paragraph that specifies the “Catalan national entity as a nationality.”

Last year the central government did not allow the Catalan Generalitat to hold an official referendum on independence, whereupon the local authorities held their own unofficial public opinion survey.

In response to Mas, Rajoy has stated that, “The elections in Catalonia will be exceptionally autonomous. There will be no independence for Catalonia, and people will not be forced into choosing between being Catalan, Spanish or European.”

In essence, Madrid is resorting to scare tactics. A few days ago the head of the Central Bank of Spain, Luis Maria Linde, issued a stern warning that independence from Spain would mean Catalonia’s exit from the EU, and “exit from the EU equals automatic exit from the euro zone.”

Even senior sports officials have been dragged into the propaganda campaign. They, for their part, have threatened to exclude Barcelona from the Spanish soccer championship in the event of Catalonia’s unilateral declaration of independence.

But it seems that threats and pressure are not having the desired effect for members of Spain’s governing circles. According to the latest pre-election forecasts, the “unionists” (those in favor of a single state, i.e. the PP, the Socialists Party of Catalonia and the new liberal party “Citizens”) even combined can barely muster a third of the Catalan electorate.

The Russian factor

Russian influence in Catalonia is primarily about economics and tourism. At the political level, there are no ties between Russian politicians and the regional policy makers.

However, during the fighting in eastern Ukraine in 2014, people bearing Catalan flags were spotted in the self-proclaimed republics, although they turned out to be just a handful of individuals who had gone to the Donbas on their own initiative.

Outside of politics, Spain remains a very attractive destination for Russian tourists. Moreover, statistics show that 70 percent of Russian holidaymakers in Spain head for Catalonia. According to sociological data, more than 40 percent of them invariably return.

This is partly the result of a deliberate policy on the part of the Catalan autonomous community; back in 1993, a Catalan tourist office opened in Russia. And it is predominantly the coastal areas of Catalonia that rich Russian investors in the Spanish economy like to call home.

Though Russian direct investment in Spain is comparatively low (around $50-60 million per year), the primary beneficiary is once again Catalonia. Before Russia introduced an embargo on agricultural products from the European Union, Catalonia had signed many commercial agreements with various Russian regions, including Lipetsk, Samara, Novosibirsk and Moscow. Catalonia also opened a trade office in the Russian capital.

Catalan producers have much to offer the Russian market: fruit and vegetables, oils and sparkling wines, metal products and plastics. Catalan goods traditionally enjoy high demand elsewhere in Europe, too. Members of the Catalan Chamber of Commerce have repeatedly stated their interest in the Russian market, for which reason Catalan patrons were not overly pleased about the introduction of mutual economic sanctions between the EU and Russia.

In any case, Catalonia’s drift towards independence will take time and will not be frictionless. But already it is clear that one of the components of the process will be the formation of a distinct Catalan diplomacy and foreign policy, one of the vectors of which could well be Russian.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.