The Spanish government has decided to submit Catalonia to direct rule, as the country's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy announced plans to sack Catalonia's regional government and limit the powers of the regional parliament.
An autonomous Catalan regional government was established back in 1931 and this status was canceled in the wake of the Spanish Civil War by Gen. Franco. After the return to democracy, the region became once again autonomous in 1979. Now Madrid is trying to retrieve this status once again, and what is particular is that today's Spain is neither in a civil war nor under the rule of a dictator.
Yet the Catalan nationalists suggest the current Spanish government is employing the methods of Gen. Franco, an accusation that touches a sensitive spot. They even claimed that the Spanish government's move to reassert control in Catalonia is no less than a coup d'état. For those of us who live in a country that perfectly knows what a coup d'état is, the accusation seems to be quite exaggerated. In fact, there have been coups in Spain's history as well, so most probably the majority of the Spanish people also believe it is not fair to accuse the Rajoy government of staging a coup d'état.
It is obvious that Catalan nationalists have made an error of timing by pushing forward the independence referendum, despite Madrid had declared it illegal. They probably didn't see that their region was not ready for independence, for both domestic and international reasons.
New independent countries emerge often when there is a tangible modification in the international system. That's why many new countries have appeared at the end of World War I, at the beginning of the Cold War, and at the end of it. In other times, the international system's leading powers oppose the emergence of new players, as their primary concern is to preserve the status quo. In "normal times," independence movements are unable to find enough justification to why they want the change the status quo.
We know that the global system is in fact changing; even if we keep calling the current situation "post-Cold War international system." Maybe it is time to find another way to call it. The problem is we are not sure what kind of system we will have, after all. What is sure is that the appearance of new actors is no longer tolerated.
New divisions may trigger a domino effect and this can even threaten the great powers such as the U.S., Russia or China, and perhaps India. A domino effect may provoke chaos and that's why the leading powers are trying to prevent it. They consider central governments as their sole interlocutors and they want existing states to have control over their territories.
Even the dismemberment of countries like Iraq or Syria is not preferred nowadays, so this is not limited to the Spanish case. There are a number of groups in those countries who want to go their own way, and they are tactically supported by some foreign players. However, when it comes to declaring independence, great powers clearly say they don't want to see that happening.
Those local politicians who have played on nationalism to drag the Catalan people to the referendum have put themselves in a very difficult position. They wanted to get more, but they couldn't, moreover, they have even lost what they had in the first place. They can no longer be considered legitimate representatives of their people.
Craving for independence, declaring independence - but most importantly - remaining independent are very different things, after all.