Opening Portals – the Kurdish Drive to Foster Cultural, Economic and Political Ties with the Rest of the World

As the Kurds strive to continue their development and advancement apace, ironically it is neighbours within Iraq that are proving the obstacle

After years of neglect and isolation in the aftermath of the setup of the Kurdish safe haven in 1991, and decades of literal repression and destruction before that, the Iraqi Kurds have been as keen as ever to open political portals and cultural and economic channels to the outside world with view to building vital bonds and strategic relationships with the international community that is so crucial for long-term survival. 

De-facto relationships and diplomatic understandings were common between 1991 and 2003, but with hostile neighbours on every side, not forgetting in Iraq itself, it is only since 2003 that the Kurdish region has been truly able to break from its enclosure.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is now enshrined in the Iraqi constitution and the region has experienced an economic boom and in a short period of time implemented a number of infrastructure projects and established notable social and educational institutions. The region has been the focus of much attention, particularly as the rest of Iraq has been devastated by bloodshed, insurgency and a rather rocky transitional road to democracy.

With the new-found prominence and stability in Northern Iraq, the Kurds have steadily opened up to the world. Mentioning ‘Kurdistan’ in the same breath as Iraq is common with the region no longer perceived as a de facto and isolated piece of Iraqi land.

Opening Portals to the Outside World

The Kurds have worked tirelessly to entice much-needed foreign investment and to win international recognition. After all, the Kurdish infrastructure was all but bare after decades of complete neglect by successive Iraqi governments. Everything from schools, power plants, hospitals, roads and shopping centres was needed to bring the region inline with the fast growing requirements of the population and its emerging economy.

While progress from a virtual standing start has been notable, much more progress remains and the building of core infrastructure is a long-term project. Key assistance of global powers is needed for Kurdish prosperity to assume the next gear.

The Kurdish leadership have done well to build bonds with key countries. The recent international outcry against a possible Turkish incursion into Northern Iraq was as much do with the easing of the PKK-standoff as any real US or Iraqi action.

For the Kurdish region to solidify as a credible entity, formal recognition is of paramount importance. This week Russia opened a consulate in Arbil, serving as a great political symbol and a proud token for the region.

The opening of the Russian consulate is the second accredited consulate, following the inauguration of the Iranian consulate.

Once a few other European and regional powers follow suit, the number of consulates springing up in the region will only increase at a more rapid rate. Similarly, the hardest task is winning support of the first few key airliners and reputable international companies, when the initial symbolic contracts are signed, this sets a positive precedence for others to follow suit.

News of the opening of a Russian consulate was followed by the opening of a regional UN office in Arbil. Earlier this year, Greece had announced a decision to open a consulate in Kurdistan. Currently, a number of countries including the UK, France, US and the Republic of Korea, maintain diplomatic representation in the region.

Meanwhile, with the aim of boosting ties and economical relations, the Kurdish government announced intentions to open 15 regional offices abroad, in mainly key European countries. 

The KRG has worked particularly hard to foster trust and mutual ties with neighbouring countries. Iran and particularly Turkey, perhaps still a long way from official and all-important acknowledgment of the KRG, has played a major role in the economic advancement of the region.

A Land Far from Baghdad

They key problem for Baghdad in the last four years, is that while they have been battling to get grips with security and formation of an elusive national unity government, development and reconstruction has been largely sidelined.

Whilst the KRG is not dogged by the same disasters further south, they have managed to take the lead in development and reconstruction, while aggravating Baghdad in the process. Arguably, the mess in the rest of Iraq has worked in the Kurds favour, facilitating their drive and determination to go alone. After all, why should all portions of Iraq suffer and linger indefinitely, whilst the majority of violence is in mainly Arabic neighbourhoods.

Furthermore, their strategic standing as key allies to the US has allowed them to leverage US support at key times and work on developing their region at a more productive rate.

Officially Kurdistan rejoined the Iraqi framework in 2003, but in all but name, the Kurds have continued as a de-facto independent entity.

Clearly, many a nationalist voice in Iraq have expressed their discomfort and anger at literal Kurdish separation and even today the Kurds are still viewed by some with suspicion.

The current stand-off between the KRG and Baghdad over the authorisation of oil contracts is testimony to this. Much to the dismay of the oil ministry in Baghdad, the Kurds have signed 15 exploration and development contracts with international companies since passing their own law in August.

Meanwhile, the chance of passing a national hydro-carbon law is fast-evaporating after months of bickering and protracted negotiations.

Iraqi Oil Minister, Hussain Shahristani, has branded such agreements by the KRG ‘illegal’ and deemed all contracts as void. In his recent speeches, Shahristani even went as far as saying that they would blacklist all companies who negotiate with the Kurdish administration and warned the KRG leadership that they would be prevented from exporting oil.

Can the Iraqi Tiger Change its Spots?

In further heated exchanges this week, the KRG delivered a damning verdict on the statements aired from Baghdad. Clearly, talk of an understanding by Baghdad with all neighbouring countries preventing the exporting of oil by the Kurds, ruffled the politics feathers of the north and reeked of regional conspiracy.

A broad agreement with neighbours historically hostile to the Kurds speaks volumes about Kurdish perception in Baghdad. Such Arab chauvinism as witnessed so brutally under Saddam Hussein is still alive in Iraq and it is delusional to believe that just because one Baathist leader is eliminated and democracy is proclaimed, that the roots of Baathist chauvinism no longer remain.

The idea of a broader Baghdad cooperation with neighbouring countries reinforces the belief and paranoia in the north, that no one in the region really wants the Kurds to succeed. It only encourages the age old myth amongst Kurds that they have no friends but the mountains.

Key facts about the essential fabric of Iraq can be swept under the political rug by declarations of federalism, plurality and national unity but in truth the key problems presiding over Iraq are deep rooted. Iraq is an artificial framework of Kurds and Arabs and Sunnis and Shiites. No matter how much democracy and multi-ethnic harmony and co-existence is preached, Iraq will always remain fragmented with hostile factions holding deep suspicions and historical mistrust for each other.

The Kurdish Drive Towards Self-Sufficiency

In the case of development, while the Kurds are reaching out to the world for investment and recognition and undertaken oil deals in the unilateral progression of their economy, this has only threatened to cut the last remaining ties between the north and south.

Baghdad, anxious about national sovereignty and a deadly break-up of the country, is keen to maintain some jurisdiction and stranglehold on the north. If all economic dependencies were severed, then Baghdad will all but lose any influence and control over the Kurdish administration.

Ironically, as the alienation between the Arbil and Baghdad administration only increases, the gulf between the north and south, socially, economically and politically only widens.

A young generation of Kurds are now accustomed to a society of relative freedom, far away from the Arab dictatorships of the past. The Iraqi flag is seldom seen and Arabic is slowly diminishing as second language in the region. Over time, the social ties between both sides may evaporate further if the rest of Iraq continues to perceive the north as some kind of rogue break-away state, rather than promote a sense of common unity and brotherhood. With their own parliament, army, flag and customs, Kurdistan will over the years become even more distant from the rest of Iraq.

With a drive towards self-sufficiency, their will reach a time in the near future, where there will be any lack of reliance on the south. This is perhaps the real contributor to government feet-dragging over the issue of implementing article 140 of the Iraqi constitution.

Lack of Desire to Implement Article 140

Once a referendum has finally been conducted, with the likely annexing of Kirkuk to the KRG and its huge oil-wealth along with it, the government fears a more deepening break-away by the Kurds. The Kurds are likely to press-ahead solitary with their development and strategic standing, firstly for a period of time under the Iraqi umbrella but at some point in the future  as a fully independent state.

When you become self-sufficient, have huge economic under-pinning and all the institutions to become fully independent in all but name. The change of the ‘name’ itself, to mark official independence would be much easier and inevitable.

The Kurds feel that they have been patient for far-too long about the proposed referendum on Kirkuk. A referendum was due to be arranged by the end of 2007 to decide the final status of Kirkuk. However, when a census set for the end of July was missed, a delay became all but predictable.

In reality, the writing has been on the wall for many a year now. Firstly, under the Transitive Administrative Law (TAL), calling for the normalisation of Kirkuk, the committee setup under Paul Bremer’s supervision (former head of Coalition Provisional Authority) was laboured and unhurried to say the least.

Later Kirkuk’s normalisation was enshrined under article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which was elected by over 80% of the Iraqi population in October 2005. However, two years later and progress has been painstakingly slow. Fair enough, technical obstacles have halted progress but most obstacles were anticipated long before the last few weeks remained to implement the article and could have been mitigated in 24 months.

The key issue was the idea of caving in to the Kurds. As neighbouring countries would notably observe, if Baghdad stalls and delays for the foreseeable future, once it has recovered sufficiently and has stabilised, it may then have the power to postpone such a debate indefinitely.

Perhaps the speed of development in the Kurdish north has taken Baghdad by surprise. If the Kirkuk referendum is completed and the Kurds are allowed to press on with oil contracts unilaterally, this will give the carte blanche for Kurds go their separate path as the Iraqi engines further south misfires and stutters for many more years to come.

Time for Practical Steps

This week KRG Prime Minister Nerchirvan Barzani stated his dismay at the frequent delays over the settling of the Kirkuk issue, “The Kurdish people and the KRG has been patient thus far, waiting for a peaceful and legal solution. The time for talks has passed, it is now time for practical steps.”

Barzani expressed his reservation at a lack of seriousness employed by the federal government in Baghdad. While they have worked hard to compromise, promote accord amongst warring factions and reach agreement as coalition partners in the Iraqi National Assembly, its demands have been continuously ignored.

As calls by Turkey, Iran and some elements in the US and Iraqi government have intensified to postpone the referendum on Kirkuk, fearing that as a microcosm of Iraq, it will act as powder-keg for civil strife and bloodshed, ironically for the Kurds, it is the delay of this issue that will ultimately spark civil war and mayhem.

Even the US has been hesitant to employ enough pressure on the government to fulfil their obligations on the normalisation of Kirkuk. Only in August, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker expressed much scepticism that any referendum would take place by end of the year, citing the “lack of preparation, sectarian wrangling, and missed deadlines”.

Some Sunni groups had warned that the holding of the referendum would harm the integrity of Iraq and promote partition. However, Baghdad has come to take for granted the support of the Kurdistan Alliance and the KRG, and has frequently called their bluff.

The Kurds have long been accommodating about delays and have compromised over the new shape of Iraq, while been often by-passed in certain circles in Baghdad. It is time for the Iraqi government to deliver and for the Kurdish leadership to follow boldly on their threats if Baghdad continues implementing motions which directly favour progression of Kurds at a leisurely pace.

Echoes of Baath Nationalism

While Arab nationalists object to forcibly relocating Arab settlers, it is ironic that the forcible resettlement of Kurds in the first place is been forgotten. At least, the Arabs, many of whom were simply given houses and lands of ousted or killed Kurds, can receive $15,000 dollars and a plot of land in their lands of origin. The displaced Kurds had the choice of relocation or a bullet. 

The ultimate litmus test for the new democratic and federal Iraq is the appetite to adhere to democratically-elected articles. Key articles such oil exploration and sharing, federalism and article 140, were voted in favour by millions of Iraqis.

If wishes of a nation and result of the ballot box are ignored, then any glimmer of hope in Iraq, if there was any to start with, has all but vanished.

The recent by-passing of Kurds in Baghdad negotiations with Turkey over the PKK, further represented Baghdad claims of sovereignty over all of Iraq and was designed to undermine the Kurdistan leadership, in the face of regional pressure.

Somewhat ironically, as Baghdad tries to keep a noose and influence on the north and alienates the region, this in turn actually increases the divide between Arabs and Kurds even more

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

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