Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani has announced that the autonomous Kurdish region will hold an independence referendum on September 25, 2017. The announcement has elicited mixed reactions. While an overwhelming majority is expected to vote ‘yes,’ a significant domestic opposition to the vote has been witnessed.
Opponents make a three-fold argument against holding the independence referendum this year: lack of a functioning parliament, struggling economy and international opposition.
Indeed, suspending the parliament was a setback for democracy in Kurdistan as there was no legal basis for it. Yet, none of the mentioned concerns warrants the reversal of the decision to hold this historic vote.
The most ardent opposition seems to come from the supporters of the region’s Change Movement (Gorran). One of their major concerns is that the decision has been made by a president whose term has ended rather than by a majority vote in parliament, which has not convened in more than two years. They contend that the parliament must reactivate before holding the referendum.
Although Barzani has repeatedly said there is “no turning back” on the date, his ruling party, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), following a meeting with Kurdistan’s High Referendum Council on July 30, announced an unconditional offer for the reopening of the parliament – a welcoming news which resumes the much-needed dialogue that may result in reconciliation on many issues. And one which eliminates one of the obstacles to the referendum.
Another argument against the referendum is the poor state of the region’s oil-based economy. “Why should we hold a referendum while the government cannot even pay salaries of its employee on a regular basis?” They ask.
I rather want to ask: will the remaining part of Iraq result in a thriving economy for Kurdistan? History offers a disappointing answer.
It’s an important reminder that the expected result of the referendum will not automatically translate into unilateral secession. Kurdish leaders have rightly said they are seeking independence through dialogue with Baghdad. If a peaceful breakup occurs, there is little reason that a nation, which has been subjected to genocide, would not achieve a de jure status in the United Nations.
As a result, it is reasonable to assume that an independent Kurdistan will become home to much more foreign investment. Major corporations no longer need to be reluctant because of Baghdad’s objections and its restrictive laws to invest in an otherwise business-friendly, oil-rich Kurdistan. True economic growth is only achievable with political independence. Besides, whatever the strength of the economy might be, it is better to deal with the shortcomings and problems as an independent country than as an occupied region.
The last argument is that Kurdistan’s neighbors, namely Turkey and Iran, will remain opposed regardless of the circumstance in which independence is declared. Both of these countries fear that their restive Kurdish populations would follow suit.
There are two points to this argument. The first one depends on the wrong assumption that there will come a day when the two countries will support Kurdish independence. Since this expectation is a fantasy, the question then becomes: how favorable are today’s circumstances for Iraqi Kurdish independence?
To start with Turkey, the current government has developed an unprecedented degree of political and economic ties with the Kurdistan Region. Turkish export volume in Iraqi Kurdistan reached $8 billion by 2013, turning the region into Turkey’s third largest export market. Since Kurdistan is rich in oil and gas, it will always be the cheapest and most convenient source of energy for an oil-hungry Turkey. Would the Turks be willing to close their south-eastern border on a friendly and profitable neighbor? They might. But I doubt that any wise Turkish leader would maintain hostility toward Kurdistan in the long run.
As for the other point of the argument, that Turkey’s 20-25 million Kurdish population will similarly seek independence, this has been an exaggerated claim. Kurdistan’s Worker’ Party (PKK), militant Kurdish group from Turkish Kurdistan abandoned the goal of an independence Kurdistan almost two decades ago, instead opting for autonomy within Turkey. It is also true with People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a Kurdish-led pro-minority who is Turkey’s third largest party.
Iran is a different story. It remains the biggest outside barrier to Iraqi Kurdish independence. It has the leverage to seek destabilizing the newly born state. This fact, however, will remain unchanged no matter how much independence is delayed. There must come a time to declare. Since the creation of the modern Middle East, time has never been this auspicious for the Kurds.
How much risk is Iran willing to take to oppose a declared Kurdistan? Iran would refrain from taking actions that might isolate it again from the world after the nuclear deal it signed with the world power. Plus, the presence of US bases and other Western militaries in Kurdistan is a bulwark against any military threat.
There is an American idiom that goes, “freedom is not free.” After all the suffering they underwent in Iraq, Kurds must know that independence will not be a risk-free endeavor.
Also, even if you think the timing is not right to declare independence, you should still vote ‘yes.’ This referendum will become a strong political tool vis-à-vis Iraq and the international community in the future when it is time to declare; however, if the referendum yields a weak result, then the referendum will still remain a strong tool but not for the Kurds.
The September 25 referendum will be historic for the Kurdish nation. It will be the day the Kurds strongly and with one voice will tell Iraq, the regional countries and the rest of the world that they will become free and independent; that they will no longer accept to remain part of Iraq against their will.