KURDISTAN REGIONAL Government President Masoud Barzani gestures during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, in April. .
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
As progress continues toward Kurdistan’s independence referendum on September 25, negotiations have continued with Baghdad to try to ensure that the process takes place smoothly and peacefully. The intent has been to try to reassure those who see the referendum as being likely to provoke a descent into conflict and to ensure that any move to independence increases stability in the region rather than damaging it.
In particular, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has sought to stress its determination to maintain good relations with Baghdad, with its ally the United States, and with the neighbors around it. Although there have been many opinion pieces since the announcement of the referendum discussing its possible implications, Kurdistan remains committed to its independence not creating problems for the countries around it, or for the wider region.
Because of this, its government has already stated that there will be no immediate declaration of independence following a yes vote in the referendum. Instead, there will be a move to discuss the terms of Kurdistan’s withdrawal from Iraq, establishing separate Iraqi and Kurdish states on terms that will allow them both to survive in a stable form.
There have been those commentators who have assumed that the younger population of Kurdistan will be unwilling to wait for such a move, and that the pressure to declare independence will be too great. Nevertheless, the KRG remains determined that any move to independence will take place in a responsible, negotiated fashion, as part of a continued and expanded dialogue.
That there are such comments is understandable. The KRG does not expect direct support for the referendum, as it knows that many of its neighbors are either worried about the integrity of their borders or actively engaged in conflicts with their own Kurdish minorities. Yet the negative outcomes they warn of are really only likely if Kurdistan’s neighbors choose to bring them about.
What the KRG expects of them is that they engage in a sincere dialogue, taking into account the outcome of the referendum once it happens. There are issues to be addressed, over the exact extent of Kurdistan’s borders and the nature of its relationship with other countries, but those issues can be dealt with through mutual discussion and honest engagement. At the very least, that would represent an improvement over the mutual distrust and lack of dialogue that has characterized some relations with Kurdistan’s neighbors in recent months.
The situation around Kurdistan may actually make such discussions simpler than many commentators believe. The de facto situation in Iraq is one of disconnection from the Baghdad government, so that any return to a united Iraq would require as much effort, if not more, than sensible negotiation.
Internally, both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are united within Kurdistan in their desire to produce a smooth transition. While there are those who suggest that a desire for independence is not enough, and that internal divisions remain, that is natural, even desirable. Kurdistan is not, and does not wish to be, a one party state, intolerant of other opinions. That this is the one issue that brings together Kurdistan’s various political factions should show its neighbors just how important it is to the region.
The last thing Kurdistan wants is a situation where it holds its referendum and then the result is ignored or eroded by the hostility of its neighbors or the tepid response of its allies. It cannot have a situation where Kurdistan is good enough to fight the world’s war against Islamic State (ISIS) for it, but not good enough to have the desire of its people for independence recognized.
Such a move would set a dangerous precedent on two levels. First, it would penalize one of the few countries in the region that is trying to work toward genuine democracy, instead tying it to one where the voices of minorities are subordinated to the needs of the rest of the country.
Secondly, it would send a message to the people who cast their votes in the referendum that democracy only counts when it follows the views of the powerful. The referendum has the potential to be a starting gun for democracy in the wider region or its death knell, depending on how those in power around the world respond to it. There is an opportunity in the referendum to contribute to the democratic experience of millions, showing them that their voices can effect change without the need to back it up with violence. That opportunity must not be snatched from them.
The referendum has the chance to be more than that. It represents an opportunity for Kurdistan to reshape what has become a toxic relationship with Baghdad. A connection based on attempts at dominance and control will only lead to conflict, but one built as mutually independent allies could lead to peace.
It is an approach that will build strength in Kurdistan and in Iraq, allowing both to stand as allies of their US and other partners, while simultaneously stabilizing conflicts in neighboring states. It is not a move that will weaken the region, but one that has the potential to strengthen it, provided that all sides are prepared to talk.
Kurdistan is. The question now is whether others are.The author is former secretary-general of the Kurdistan Students Union in Iraqi Kurdistan