In an unofficial referendum in March, 89 per cent of Venetians voted yes to independence. Photo: Getty
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All is not what it seems with Venice’s separatist vote

A flash in the pan, or the start of something big?

Between 16 and 21 March an unofficial referendum took place in the Veneto region of Italy, supported by a plethora of pro-independence groups. The question put to residents was direct and straightforward: “Do you want the Veneto to become an independent and sovereign Federal Republic?”

According to the organisers, the number of voters amounted to 2,360,245, representing 73 per cent of the regional electorate. Of these, 2,102,969 (89 per cent) voted yes, while a paltry 257,276 (11 per cent) voted no.

The Italian press and the government in Rome largely ignored the event until the spectacular turnout and massive majority in favour of independence turned the international spotlight on this part of Europe. But since then, the participation rate has been heavily contested. Some experts calculate that no more than 100,000 votes were actually cast, many of these from abroad.

Farce or drama?

So was the entire exercise a farce, a highly successful media scoop by relatively small and uninfluential groups? Well, yes and no.

It is almost certain that the referendum attracted far fewer voters than it was claimed by the organisers. However, as pollster and academic Ilvo Diamanti reported in the national daily Repubblica on 24 March, an opinion poll carried out before the referendum found that 55 per cent of respondents agreed with the goal of independence. Having said that, those who considered this term as synonymous with complete sovereignty did not exceed 30 per cent.

In short the referendum was a symptom of a widespread and diffused sense of dissatisfaction, which according to Diamanti, “should be taken very seriously” by the Italian state.

This dissatisfaction revolved primarily around the “excessive” level of taxation imposed by the central state. This is not a new issue by any means.

The Northern League

In the early 1990s the Northern League (Lega Nord) party enjoyed an electoral breakthrough in the region (and in Lombardy) precisely by campaigning against “thieving Rome” and the “centralist state”. It accused them of being responsible for systematically robbing the productive north, benefiting the parasitic south and leading the country towards bankruptcy.

The party first promoted federalism as the only solution and later campaigned for secessionism, inventing the nation of Padania along the way. But in 2000 the Lega reverted to federalism and embarked on a long-lasting alliance with Silvio Berlusconi, becoming part of a coalition which governed Italy for a total of nine years.

Yet interestingly the League was not among the promoters of the recent referendum, even if it was soon ready to jump on the bandwagon. The party is in crisis following its debacle at the 2013 elections. Its image is tarnished from being perceived to have increasingly got into bed with Rome.

Throughout its period in government the party also failed to turn federalism into a concrete project and taxation remained high. In 2012 Umberto Bossi, the party’s long-standing charismatic leader, was made to stand down.

Big league, little leagues

There had existed in northern Italy prior to 1990 a number of small and fairly ineffectual regional leagues. They agreed to merge thanks to Bossi’s efforts. Now that the Northern League was coming apart, the regional leagues regained the initiative.

By far the strongest was the Liga Veneta. Unlike neighbouring Lombardy, Veneto has various characteristics of regional identity: a language that is still widely spoken; a history of independence (a sovereign Venetian Republic existed for several centuries until 1797); clear and popular symbols (especially the flag with the winged lion).

The relationship between the Lega Lombarda (Bossi’s original league) and the Liga Veneta had always been stormy, since the latter resented the iron fist with which Bossi ruled the party.

Over the years Bossi expelled various members for wanting independence for the Veneto rather than Padania as a whole. Ironically, many of these former League members were the main promoters of the recent referendum. Fabrizio Comencini, leader of Liga Veneta Repubblica, was expelled in 1998 but today at last feels vindicated.

Gianluca Busato, leader of Plebiscito.ue, the main organisation behind the initiative, was himself expelled in 1997. On 30 March Busato openly attacked the Northern League: “The Lega Nord wants to exploit our success just to be able to continue its love affair with Rome.”

Things have been happening fast since the referendum. Links have been established with other independence movements across Europe.

Busato launched a mass fiscal protest, inviting Venetians to withhold taxes. Luca Zaia, the Northern League president of the Veneto assembly, promised to relaunch a regional law calling for an official referendum.

On 2 April, 24 members of an pro-independence group were arrested under charges of terrorism, raising the ugly spectre of political violence. After seemingly ignoring the event, the recently appointed prime minister, Matteo Renzi, stated that the needs of the Veneto were for him “a priority” and announced a new visit to the region. It is still too early to say whether this is all a flash in the pan or the beginning of something new and big.

This article is part of Breaking Nations, a series of articles that examines independence movements around the world.

The ConversationAnna received funding from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation to study the Northern League in 2000

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war