There's clearly something about March that makes it a good month for secession. Because while Crimea might have monopolised the front pages, another independence referendum was recently launched in the Italian region of Veneto.
The northeastern province is an area with a long history of demanding more autonomy, or even independence, from Italy. After being an independent state as part of the Republic of Venice for more than a millennium, it was annexed by the Austrian Empire following the Napoleonic Wars and eventually ceded to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866. Ever since an economic boom in the 1970s, a number of Venetian micro-parties have formed that mostly call for separation as a way to protect the region's economy from the corruption they say is rife in southern Italy.
The most recent campaign for independence kicked off a few months ago, when a committee called "Plebiscite2013" – led by entrepreneur Gianluca Busato – announced that there would be an online vote, opening this past Sunday and ending tomorrow, called "Referendum for Veneto's Independence".
As expected, all the big names from Veneto's separatist history – such as Franco Rocchetta, former leader of Liga Veneta (one of the first separatist parties) – are backing the referendum. And yesterday, Luca Zaia – the president of the region – publicly voiced his support, saying there is "across the board" approval from Veneto's five million citizens. (He might have been exaggerating a little; according to a poll in February of this year, only 47 percent of Venetians would vote for the region's secession from Italy.)
None of this really means anything, of course, as there's been no official recognition of the referendum. However, that apparently hasn't stopped people from voting, with organisers claiming that 750,000 votes have already been cast.
The origins of modern separatism in Veneto – dubbed "Venetism" – can be traced back to the formation of the Liga Veneta party on the 9th of December, 1979. “The moment has come today for all Venetians,” said Venetist Achille Tramarin at the time, "to take back control of our natural and human resources after 113 years of unitary Italian colonisation; to fight against the wild exploitation that brought us misery, emigration, pollution...”
Four years later, during the 1983 elections, Liga Veneta won a surprising percentage of the vote. Achille Tramarin, the party's first secretary, was elected to the Italian Chamber of Deputies, and party member Graziano Girardi to the Senate. However, soon after that initial success, the separatist party committed an agonisingly drawn-out political suicide through a series of internal disputes, divisions, betrayals and breakups. The Lega Nord (Northern League) party was founded soon afterwards, and proposed turning "Padania" – a major plain in northern Italy – into an independent state.
Although nothing resembling a legitimate political project ever surfaced, people continued to call for a return to the "Most Serene Republic of Venice" throughout the rest of the 80s and into the early 90s.
Then, on the 9th of May, 1997, eight militant members of the nationalist organisation Venetian Most Serene Government drove a tank into Venice and hoisted their flag up onto the St Mark's bell tower, pissing off pretty much everyone involved in Italian politics at the time (even the Lega Nord) and provoking a harsh reaction from the state.
However, polls at the time suggested that the majority of Venetians sympathised with their bizarre show of separatist force. Author Paolo Rumiz, for instance, wrote in his book La Secessione Leggera (The Light Secession) that it was "a sign of deep telluric movement" that proved there was considerable Venetian opposition to remaining a part of Italy.
In 2009, over a decade after the bell tower incident, an investigation by the Prosecutor of Treviso revealed the existence of another “separatist paramilitary association”. The so-called “Polisia Veneta” (“Venetian police”) was a sort of Venetist gang formed by members of another small separatist party, the Self-Government of the Venetian People.
Investigations uncovered battle dress uniforms, weapons (nine semi-automatic pistols and two shotguns) and munitions. One of the members, whose phone had been tapped, was caught saying: “We need to die for the children – for the new generations – to make a turning point and stop the nightmare of this shitty Italy.”
Luciano Franceschi promoted a similar brand of separatist extremism, storming into a bank in February of 2013 and screaming that he was "willing to die as a martyr for the cause of the Venetian people’s liberation".
Besides those slightly more radical cases, stories of smaller separatist actions are always making the local news in northern Italy. For example, when somebody introduced Venetian Republic driving licenses that didn't recognise the Italian state's authority, or the time people refused to speak Italian at school.
Looking at the events over the last 40 years, the Plebiscite2013 referendum is nothing new. But since the argument has always been that the region would be stronger economically if it was set apart from Italy, it makes sense that the call for independence has reared its head again after five long years of recession.
From a constitutional and legal point of view, Veneto cannot detach itself from Italy – no matter how many people vote in favour of doing so. But in the minds of the many separatist movements, it's likely the region has already been independent for years.