What do you do when you have walked your cat the wrong way? The reasonable answer is that you walk it right back. This is what Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani should do regarding his talk of a referendum on independence for Iraqi Kurds. Unless he does that, and does it quickly, he risks undermining his credibility as a serious political leader.
Why did Barzani, a seasoned politician, decide to fly that kite at this time? Cynics claim he wanted to divert attention from his seizure of Kirkuk. A Persian proverb says that if you want an adversary to accept fever, threaten him with death. Thus, Barzani is inviting Iraqis to accept the loss of Kirkuk as a lesser evil compared to secession by the Kurdish autonomous region.
While Barzani may not be immune to occasional opportunism—which politician is?—I doubt he would stoop that low. Iraq is facing an existential crisis that affects all its communities, not only Arabs. Another no less cynical explanation is that Barzani wished to hide his party’s electoral setback by casting himself as a champion of statehood. However, that explanation, too, may be questionable. Thanks to Barzani’s father, the legendary Mullah Mustafa, the name Barzani has become synonymous with the Kurdish cause. In any case, the election setback that Barzani and other traditional Kurdish leaders suffered was due to voters’ concern about corruption and opportunities missed by the governing parties, not an outburst of desire for independence.
In fact, independence was not part of any election manifesto. Nor was it at the center of any debate before or during the campaign. If Barzani wishes to respond to the views of his electorate he should offer programs for rooting out corruption, improving the performance of his government and implementing overdue economic and political reforms.
The referendum gambit is a bad idea under any configuration. It has divided the Kurds, including Barzani’s own party, because many activists believe this is no time to raise so vital and complex an issue.
Leaders from different Kurdish parties have publicly criticized the referendum idea. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Jalal Talabani’s party, is campaigning to retain the position of the Iraqi President by fielding Barham Salih as candidate. You cannot seek the presidency of Iraq while planning to carve up the country. “We are passing through a political earthquake,” one Kurdish leader told me on condition of anonymity. “One cannot talk of redecorating a room when the whole house is shaken to its foundations.”
The suggested scheme could, in fact, produce the opposite effect by uniting rival Arab Iraqi factions in opposition to a plan to dismantle their state. Even if nothing concrete happens now, the very attempt at secession may poison Arab–Kurdish relations for some time. Arab chauvinists might be able to claim that they were right after all in suggesting that the Kurds cannot be trusted.
The referendum idea has also reunited rival powers whose divisions have always offered the Kurds some room for maneuver. It is remarkable that the United States, Turkey, Iran and all Arab states are singing from the same hymn sheet in their rejection of a Kurdish secessionist bid, at least at this time.
First developed in 19th-century Europe, by the 1920s the concept of a nation-state had been recognized as the standard format for international relations. Thus, ethnic and religious minorities across the globe, Kurds among them, were persuaded that they, too, would one day end up having a nation-state of their own.
However, the fulfillment of such a dream would mean redrawing virtually every frontier in all continents including Australia, where Aborigines have long dreamt of their own state. In 1993 a European Union conference hosted by France in Paris reported the existence of 113 “national and/or ethnic minorities” within the union. The conference ended with an agreement whereby EU members committed themselves to recognizing their respective minorities and helping them maintain and develop their cultures. Thus, for example, the British declared the Cornish people to be a legitimate minority, and Denmark extended the same favor to its Frisian minority.
The United Nations recognizes many more minorities. According to the UN’s latest estimate, between 600 and 1.2 million people, 10 to 20 per cent of the world’s population, live in more than 190 states as minorities. Giving a state to even some of them could mean creating more than 100 new nation-states.
The Kurds represent one of the largest of those minorities. In addition, the overwhelming majority of them live in contiguous territories in seven countries: Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Iraq and Syria. The four versions of Kurdish spoken in those territories are linguistically close enough to be accessible to all Kurds. As far as religion is concerned there is more diversity with various versions of Islam, Sunni and Shi’ite as well as Sufi and “Ghulat” (“those who exaggerate”) not to mention heterodox communities such as Yazidis. Interestingly, there are more ethnic Kurds in Western Europe, especially Germany, than in Iraq.
As far as Iraq is concerned one problem is that only half of the estimated six million ethnic Kurds live in the three autonomous provinces. Even then, the three provinces are home to other minorities, including Christians, agnostics and Faylis.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against statehood for any minority, let alone Kurds, wherever they are in the world. However, I believe such a scheme should have the genuine support of a majority of the group concerned and be pursued through peaceful, legal and democratic means. Thus, the first step to statehood for Iraqi Kurds is the consolidation of a democratic culture in Iraq.