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Catalonia Said Independence Is Coming — Then Hit Pause. Here's What You Need To Know.

Spain's PM responded by asking the Catalan government to clarify whether it had declared independence or not.

Last updated on October 11, 2017, at 6:25 a.m. ET

Posted on October 4, 2017, at 3:13 p.m. ET

Tensions in Spain are higher than they've been in decades, as the region that's home to one of the country's largest cities announced on Tuesday that it will break away — eventually.

Chris Mcgrath / Getty Images

Catalonia, in Spain's northeastern corner, has been living with relative autonomy for the last nearly half-century. But now the region's leader has declared it's time to split with Spain — and take Barcelona with it.

"We can't be forced to accept the status quo that has been imposed on us," Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told the region's parliament on Tuesday, laying out his argument for separation as pro-independence supporters gathered outside.

Juan Medina / Reuters

"As the president of the Catalan government, I will tell you the results of the referendum. We will have an independent state as a republic," he announced to applause from the lawmakers.

But he immediately hit pause on the declaration. "We propose the suspension of the effects of the declaration of independence for a few weeks, to open a period of dialogue," Puigdemont said.

On Wednesday, Spain's PM Mariano Rajoy held a press conference where he asked the Catalan government to provide clarity on their position

BBC News

Rajoy said the Spanish government had asked Puigdemont to confirm whether or not he has declared independence.

He said this was necessary before any other measures could be taken, before accusing Puigdemont of creating "deliberate confusion."

The referendum took place earlier this month, when Catalans came out to vote in a move that the government in Madrid, the country's capital, had declared illegal, clashing with police in the process.

Dan Kitwood / Getty Images, Pau Barrena / AFP / Getty Images

The result — though skewed by the ban likely keeping people against breaking away at home — was overwhelming: 90% of those who actually voted were in favor of independence. That result has been a huge headache for Madrid and for other countries in Europe, a major boost to the Catalans' hopes for a country of their own, and a potential flashpoint for more violence between police and protesters.

To understand why the small region, which accounts for nearly 20% of Spain’s economy, wants to break away in the first place, you have to go back. Way back.

By the time King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella married in 1469, uniting the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon into what would become modern Spain, Catalonia had been a part of Aragon for over 300 years.

But the Catalans had their own language, own customs, and own history, and their union with Aragon afforded them a small degree of separation from the rest of Spain. But as the Spanish kingdom consolidated, and after a bit of messy drama involving the Habsburg dynasty and the now-ruling Bourbon dynasty, Aragon's autonomy — including that of Barcelona and Catalonia more broadly — was negated.

Catalan culture and independence would decline until an upswell of nationalism became all the rage in Europe during the 19th century. In 1922, the Estat Catal party became the first nationalist movement in modern Spanish politics.

After 1939, Spain spent several decades under the fascist rule of General Francisco Franco, a dictatorship during which Catalan independence was a bit of a moot point.

Str Old / Reuters

Though the region had been granted autonomy back in 1932, Franco canceled it because Catalonia had opposed his Nationalist movement. He also banned the speaking of Catalan language and abolished Catalan institutions.

After his death in 1975, a new constitution was drawn up and Catalonia and several other regions in Spain were regranted autonomy within the kingdom of Spain.

A referendum on a new statute — which called for the Catalan language to be given preferential treatment, declared Catalonia a "nation," and basically said the region doesn't have to cover the costs of other regions — was held in 2006.

Cesar Rangel / AFP / Getty Images

Turnout for it wasn't very high, given that the national government wanted it declared illegal and pro-independence politicians called for a "no" vote because it didn't go far enough, but it still passed with 73% "yes" votes.

BUT! That didn't last long. In 2010, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled that the statute didn't quite meet the standards of the 1978 constitution, canceling parts of it and essentially rewriting others. The Catalans weren't pleased and took to the streets in protest.

Josep Lago / AFP / Getty Images

On top of that, the rest of Spain faced serious economic woes following the global economic crisis of 2008. Despite being one of the most prosperous regions in the country — one analysis noted that it contributes more to the national economy than California does for the US — Catalonia still bore the weight of budget cuts, which created a lot more supporters for Catalan nationalism than had existed before.

Another vote in 2014 asked whether voters wanted Catalonia to become a state and if they wanted that state to be independent. After a lengthy court battle — which is really par for the course with this whole affair — the vote went ahead as a nonbinding matter, despite Madrid calling it illegal and less than half of the population turning out to vote, which really wasn't a huge show of support.

Yet another referendum was announced in June — and this time, the Catalan government said, it was going to be binding. That's something that the government in Madrid did not like. Again.

Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty Images

Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia, had warned Madrid that it was coming whether they liked it or not back in late 2016. Earlier that year, Puigdemont ~accidentally~ forgot to swear an oath of loyalty to the king and the Spanish constitution when being sworn in as president of the region. (It was not an accident.)

Once more the government called the vote illegal, the locals ignored those warnings, and the referendum was held anyway, with Catalans craftily finding ways to vote even as the police raided voting stations.

Eloy Alonso / Reuters

The scene was filled with violent confrontations between the federal police and voters, leaving 800 people injured, according to Catalan authorities, and the occasional standoff between the local Catalan cops and firefighters and their federal counterparts.

Spain’s fellow members of the European Union for the most part backed it in shunning the referendum.

Pool / Getty Images

Enough of them have separatists of their own — like the Scottish nationalist movement in the United Kingdom — to make it risky for them to support the Catalan movement. When Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy visited the US days before the vote, President Donald Trump agreed that Spain should remain united, in his own particular way.

As the vote approached, there were some fears that Russian meddling would try to cause chaos in another NATO country.

I ask everyone to support Catalonia's right to self-determination. Spain cannot be permitted to normalize repressive acts to stop the vote.

@JulianAssange / Twitter / Via Twitter: @JulianAssange

Most of the concern was less about the vote itself and more about any campaign to sway voters coming from Russia. WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange both played a large role in the US campaign and were out in force advocating for Catalonian independence. Spanish newspaper El País and other local outlets focused on Assange and alleged bot networks pushing the Catalan movement on Twitter but no evidence has emerged yet that it was a coordinated effort from Moscow.

Caught in the middle of this has been the extremely popular football club Barcelona. La Liga, the top-level Spanish football league, scheduled a home game for the same day as the referendum and wow did that backfire.

Alex Caparros / Getty Images

Rather than cancel the match or continue on as normal, the club decided to lock the doors and play before an empty stadium, with "Democrocia" signs draped over some of the seats.

"FC Barcelona, in remaining faithful to its historic commitment to the defence of the nation, to democracy, to freedom of speech, and to self-determination, condemns any act that may impede the free exercise of these rights," the club said in a statement.

King Felipe of Spain, who normally only addresses the country around Christmas, made a rare televised appearance after the vote, condemning the divisiveness it spawned.

Jon Nazca / Reuters

Catalan officials "have placed themselves outside the law and democracy, they have tried to break the unity of Spain and national sovereignty," he declared.

Unswayed by royal speechifying, Puigdemont and Madrid spent the next weeks locked in negotiations over what to do next. On Tuesday, he entered the Catalan parliament and announced that the region would form an independent republic — but not right away.

Lluis Gene / AFP / Getty Images

"We call on the government to start a dialogue with us so we can achieve our objectives," Puigdemont said, calling on the European Union to ensure that the Catalonians rights are respected.

David Ramos / Getty Images

"We want to be faithful to our history, to those who suffered and sacrificed themselves, we want a good future for our children," he said to conclude his speech.

The ball now enters Madrid's court — the federal government has previous rejected all calls for discussion and said Puigdemont "only one responsible” for the situation in Catalonia. If the talks are rejected, the tensions between those who support independence and those who stand with Madrid could escalate sharply.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.