Catalonia: Barcelona demonstrations highlight left divisions over Ukraine

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, it soon became clear that there was a gulf between Catalonia’s peace movement, motor-force of the historic 2003 Barcelona demonstration of 1.3 million against the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the country’s 26,000-strong Ukrainian community.

In its manifesto for last year’s March 2 Barcelona demonstration against Putin’s aggression, the Catalan peace movement called for the withdrawal of all foreign troops and for negotiations to end the conflict, opposed increasing military budgets, and was silent on the issue of arms supplies to Ukraine.

Nearly 500 social and political organisations in Catalonia endorsed that demonstration’s manifesto. Ukrainian community organisations took part in it, as did all sections of the Catalan left, from the social-democratic Party of Socialists of Catalonia (PSC) to the radical and revolutionary left.

However, the rejection by most of the peace movement of Ukrainian insistence on weapons to repel Putin’s invasion soon opened a breach between them.

The same fault line also went through the coalition government of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) — which was in favour of sending weaponry and has begun to contribute small amounts including ten Leopard tanks — and its more radical junior partner Unidas Podemos (UP). It was also reproduced within the radical left.

The Ukrainian associations also increasingly baulked at the peace movement’s denunciation of NATO, seen by them as the only force available to help them turn back Putin’s invasion. The negative role of NATO had been a passing reference in the movement’s manifesto for the March 2 demonstration but was emphasised more in that for its successor action on April 24.

The Ukrainian associations then boycotted this second demonstration, and for the rest of last year held their own separate protests.

Two demonstrations or one?

This was still the state of play on the eve of the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, with each alignment preparing its own march for February 24–25.

Nonetheless, within Catalonia for Peace (the convening peace movement platform), a minority of affiliates — including Catalonia’s major trade union confederations — by now felt that an effort should be made to reach out to the Ukrainian community, with the goal of holding a single demonstration if at all possible.

This minority put out feelers: what would be their minimum demand that would make a single demonstration of the Ukrainian community and the peace movement thinkable?

The answer that came back was that any single demonstration would have to include the call for Russian troops to leave all of Ukraine.

When this was put to the next organising meeting of Catalonia for Peace there was, in the words of Luca Gervasoni, director of the International Institute for Non-Violent Action (Novact) and supporter of the call, “a very strong discussion”.

He told the February 26 edition of the Catalan daily Ara that it was a mistake not to include the demand for the removal of Russian troops, because “it was the lever that was needed to achieve unity”.

Júlia Tarán, vice president of the Spanish chapter of the anti-Putin alliance Free Russians, agreed with Gervasoni: “The Ukrainians don’t want to unite with people who don’t ask for the withdrawal of the troops, and for me they are completely in the right.”

Opposition from the other side came from the most-pacifist minded associations, like the St Egidio Community, for whom an end to war and violence takes precedence over other considerations.

Rival manifestos

In the end, to offset the absence of a call for Russian troop withdrawal, the organisers of Catalonia for Peace also removed any mention of NATO from their manifesto, reducing concrete demands to an immediate ceasefire and negotiations, along with the "prohibition of nuclear weapons” and “reduction in military expenditure”.

By contrast, the Ukrainian community manifesto “Barcelona Stands With Ukraine” detailed the suffering, crimes and destruction that the invasion had brought and called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and “the implementation of the international rule of law”.

The near-500 associations of Catalan civil society which had endorsed last year’s unitary manifesto now had to choose between that convening the Ukrainian associations’ demonstration (“Barcelona Stands With Ukraine”) and that of Catalonia For Peace.

The majority (over 300) solved the problem by endorsing neither — 58 backed Barcelona with Ukraine’s manifesto and 114 Catalonia for Peace’s.

Eight organisations — those not wanting to break with the peace movement but with greater sensibility towards the Ukrainian cause — endorsed both. They included Novact, social justice and development network La Fede and Catalan language and culture association Òmnium Cultural.

Of Catalonia’s parliamentary parties, the Spanish-unitarian People’s Party, Citizens and PSC endorsed the Barcelona Stands with Ukraine manifesto, as did the independentist Together for Catalonia.

The governing social-democratic pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia and Catalonia Together and Barcelona Together — party of mayor Ada Colau — endorsed both manifestos, while the radical left Independentist People’s Unity List endorsed neither — a reflection of the fact that all positions on the Russian invasion are to be found within it.

On the day

The failure to achieve a united demonstration — inevitable given the differences involved — now gave rise to four different actions on February 24–25.

According to municipal police, the February 24 Barcelona With Ukraine march, which enjoyed logistical support from Barcelona Council and Colau, mobilised 8500, while the February 25 “concentration” of the peace movement in central St James Square drew 2000.

In addition, on February 25, a separate march of Free Russians, which eventually joined the concentration in St James Square, drew 300–500, while a hundred or so joined a march against US imperialism convened by the Communist Party of the Peoples of Spain (PCPE).

Most participants in the Barcelona With Ukraine march were Ukrainians living in the capital, but many Catalans also came out in support. Amidst the sea of blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags, those of Georgia, Belarus, Bulgaria and Romania could also be seen, along with the white-blue-white banner of the Russian anti-war movement.

The mood was generally subdued, punctuated with the occasional chant of “Putin — terrorist!, Russia — aggressor!”, “Europe, united, will never be defeated!” and “Russian troops out!”, mainly chanted in Spanish but also with the popular “We are People of Peace” chanted in Catalan.

The demonstration ended in central Catalonia Square, with the singing of traditional Ukrainian songs and the national anthem, along with the reading of the manifesto.

There was only one incident: some Ukrainians objected to a placard saying “negotiated peace” which had been distributed among participants. This provoked a discussion between those supporting a negotiated solution to the conflict and those believing that in no way should an end to the war pass through negotiations with the Kremlin.

In the end those distributing these placards were persuaded to withdraw them.

Few, if any, Ukrainians

The February 25 peace movement concentration was held under the slogan “Catalonia For Peace”, and while the first point of the poster advertising the events said “Solidarity with Ukraine’s victims and those of all wars!”, the main title read: “Ukraine — For an Immediate Ceasefire!”

It was no surprise, then, that an event proclaiming solidarity with Ukraine was attended by practically no Ukrainians.

Their place was effectively taken by the contingent of Free Russians who, after marching down one side of Barcelona’s central Passeig de Gràcia calling for NATO help against Putin, entered St James Square to a hostile reception from some participants, including members of the PCPE’s march against US imperialism.

This had come down the other side of the same avenue and some of its placards called the Ukrainians Nazis.

In addition, the Free Russians were demanding a more direct intervention from NATO, while many of those booing them were anti-NATO activists opposed to using arms to end the war.

Júlia Taran commented afterwards: “I’m a pacifist and against NATO or any other military alliance, but now is not the moment to talk about NATO. Right now, the Ukrainians can’t stand for world peace. They must end their own pain and stop the rapist’s attack.”

These divisions in Barcelona were reproduced around the Spanish state, with Ukrainian communities demonstrating separately from the Spanish peace movement and the parties to the left of the PSOE.

The situation contrasts with that in France: in Paris on February 25, 5000‒10,000 trade unionists and members of left parties came out in solidarity with the Ukrainian resistance.