At a critical juncture in the Middle East, internally within Iraq and also in the context of global relations, the topic of KRG relations with its neighbours, its partners in Iraq and within the wider community takes ever greater significance.
The interview intended to gauge a number of critical factors affecting foreign relations and the Kurdistan Region”s onward strategic advancement on political, social and economic levels.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – First of all Kak Falah, thank you very much for your time with the Kurdish Globe. We have a few questions we would like to cover that encompass local and regional news, events and key political developments.
Perhaps, the first and best place to start for the Kurdish Region is its relations with neighbouring countries, specifically President Massoud Barzani”s recent visits to Tehran and Istanbul. What is your view of the current state of relations between the Kurdistan Region and both respective countries?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – You are welcome for the time, and thank you for the opportunity to shed some light on these issues. I believe that this is an important moment in our history and thus relations with neighbouring countries and the international community are essential for us. As you have mentioned, we have always wanted relations based on mutual trust, mutual respect and mutual understanding. And also to have the kind of relationships that are mutually beneficial for both sides.
As you know, President Barzani has just visited the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Republic of Turkey, and these visits underpin our belief that relations with our neighbours are very important for us. We have been able to make significant progress in our relations in recent years, and these relations will benefit this Region in terms of stability, security, economic development and overall prosperity.
As the president says, this kind of interaction and direct communication is a top priority for us so that our neighbours understand where we stand, what we stand for and what we want. By the same token, it is essential that we maintain an understanding of what our neighbours want, what kind of relationship they want and where they stand on key issues.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – As the centre of Kurdish nationalism and a landmark in Kurdish history, do you believe that the KRG can act as the key to peace in both Tehran and Ankara with regards to their respective Kurdish populations?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – We have always stated very clearly that we support and sympathise with the rights of the Kurdish people wherever they may live and have always encouraged them to find peaceful and democratic solutions to problems with the governments in their respective countries so that they could obtain a prosperous and bright future.
Our people have suffered a great deal; we have witnessed tragedies, oppression, denial and deprivation. It is time to enjoy a better future. We want to make clear that we abide by international law, and we are fully in favour of good neighbourly relations based on non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign countries. We are committed to this principle as well as to the respect, integrity and unity of each country. We desire relations that are based on respect, understanding and dialogue that will enhance the peace, stability and security of both sides. We understand that it is normal to have differences but at the same time we have a lot of common goals; thus, we try to focus on such commonalities so that through dialogue we can ease the tension, solve problems, and address the issues.
As the President said while we were in Turkey two weeks ago, the Kurdistan Region is prepared to fully cooperate and support any peaceful efforts to resolve the issues between our neighbouring governments and their respective Kurdish citizens. However, we will not endorse any plans that involve violence and conflict.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – In that regard, not necessarily just within Iraq but in the wider region and beyond, are people increasingly seeing Kurdistan as a strategic power in its own right?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – The Kurdistan Region has to be taken for the values it stands for, for its key strengths and also for its resources, including both human and natural resources. It has to be taken for the principles it stands for including tolerance, liberalism and democracy, where we not only believe in talking about of such values but also in actively practicing them.
We share the values of western democracies, the respect of human rights, individual and public freedoms, freedom of the media, rule of law, and an active and vibrant participation of civil society. These are the values and principles we stand for, and I believe those who visit the region and have a first-hand experience of it are greatly impressed by the progress we have made, particularly considering the troubled area in which we live. There are many problems, and we are surrounded by conflict, but we have been able to make significant progress in spite of these constraints.
Therefore, I believe we could be a key factor in helping to solve and address problems in the wider region as well. Through supporting and promoting tolerance, including political tolerance, religious tolerance and ethnic and cultural tolerance, we can stand as an example that democracy can work in this region. In addition, our commitment to the role of women in public and private life, to the empowerment of women, to benefitting from their special contribution and from that of the youth, we can serve as an example to others. As a society, and also as a government, these are areas that are of paramount importance to us.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – Taking that concept a step forward, with the Arab Spring that has arrived this year, many have realised the sway and velocity of people power that is still on-going specifically in Syria, what is your view of the Arab Spring and how it can benefit the Kurdish populations all over?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – In fact, it is easy to forget that the Kurdish Spring started much earlier, over two decades ago. We welcome this wave of uprisings because we believe at the end of the day, it has to be the people in these countries that determine their own future and decide on the system of governance that they will live under. We welcome democratic alternatives to the current regimes in power and we believe that everybody will be better off by having a democratic Middle East and North Africa.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – If the uprisings turned violent and the regimes go down fighting as we witnessed in Libya and now in Syria where the Kurdish population is directly affected by a harsh government crackdown, what is the stance of the KRG?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – History has proved that no ultimate solution can be achieved through weapons and military means. The only way problems can be truly resolved is through dialogue and negotiations, and through peaceful, democratic means. I believe in certain cases, such as Syria, when it passes the point of no return, the regime in Syria will have to accept this reality. It is a clear sign of weakness when the only means of sustaining power is through the use of force, and whenever even this fails, then there truly must be a change. History has shown that it is only a matter of time before an oppressed people will rise up and demand that their natural rights are respected.
Therefore it is important for the governments around us, those still not under democratic systems to know that the time of totalitarian based regimes is over. At the end of the day it is the people who lie at the source of countries prosperity and its future direction. So In the case of Kurdistan that has produced two generations who have now lived in democracy and freedom, it would now be impossible for them to live under a dictatorship again.
I believe that as time passes, people will also realise more and more that Iraq was in a unique position having its spring in 2003, while the Arab Spring started much later. I believe the Middle East region is on the right track towards a new brighter future, but the concern now is ensuring that these revolutionary waves lead to the establishment of democratic alternatives in order to promote the interests of the people, to generate equality, justice, distribution of power and wealth, and at the end of the day, to allow people to live better lives.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel - The use of force obviously works both ways. One is the use of force by the government on the people and the other is the use of force by the people against the government as in the case with both PJAK and PKK that seeking greater rights. With the positive statement from both President Barzani and also Tehran regarding the end of the issue with the PJAK, do you feel that peace can really be achieved after decades of conflict and social turmoil?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – It is important to clarify that the KRG is not part of the problems in neighbouring countries as both the PKK issue in Turkey and the PJAK issue in Iran are internal issues. However, at the same time, we do realise that these groups are present at the border areas of Kurdistan region and we want to help, as much as we can, to find peaceful solutions to these issues. If our assistance is desired, then we are ready to do whatever we can, for the sake of a peaceful and democratic solution to these problems.
We believe that the time has come for governments and political organisations to understand that there is a lot that can be achieved through peace and dialogue. History has proved the limitations of military confrontation through the experiences of the IRA, PLO and others. If fighting continues then the end result is only more bloodshed. At one point you have to say, enough is enough, let”s try another way. These problems should have been solved earlier. Force has been used by both sides. Even here in the Kurdistan Region, force was used against the Iraqi regime and the Iraqi government used tools of destruction, chemical weapons, the Anfal campaign and all kinds of weapons, but they were not able to annihilate the Kurdish people, they were not able to solve the problems. With the uprising of 1991, we were able to free our region from the dictatorial regime that was in power.
In Turkey, where there are democratic elections, parliaments and elected Kurdish politicians, the best way is to fight for rights within parliament, using democratic tools and using peaceful means including the media and civil society. There is a lot that can be achieved through peaceful means, and killing will never bring about a solution.
Since the PJAK and the Islamic Republic of Iran have agreed to stop fighting, all parties now have a chance to focus their energy on initiatives that can achieve long-term peace, stability, economic growth, investment, job opportunities etc.
These problems are of a political nature, they”re not militaristic problems. Cultural activities, artistic development projects, economic activities, commercial activities, are all factors that can help bring about solutions, so it”s not just about weapons being used.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – Therefore, the underlying message is that for that elusive peace to be achieved, it will take both sides to reach out a hand. Turkey to listen and reach out a hand to the Kurds and for the Kurds to embrace Ankara.
Falah Mustafa Bakir – The Turkish government, with the onset of democratic initiatives and the courageous steps that have been taken by Prime Minister Erdogan in order to address these problems have all shown their desire to reach out. However, we have to be realistic and appreciate that this process will not happen overnight; it takes time, it takes patience, perseverance, hard work and mutual trust. Confidence must be built so that both sides can trust each other.
What”s important for us is that the relations between the Kurdistan Region and Turkey remain strong. Turkey, as an important neighbour, wants to have a key role in Iraq. We can be a gateway for Turkey”s economic interests, commercial activities, investment, and cultural exchange programs in Iraq, so there is a lot of room for cooperation and understanding. I believe that with the right policies and understanding at the leadership level, we will be able to make progress on both sides. The facts that the Turkish Consulate General is active in Erbil, that the largest proportion of international companies in the Region (about 900 or so) are Turkish and that Turkish banks, schools and universities have been established in the region all speak volumes. We want to build on our common ground and further encourage this business and cultural exchange.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – Perhaps those external relations can only be driven that much stronger, with strong relations internally with Baghdad. The Kurds are part of a coalition government in Baghdad that many describe as fragile or tentative and with the withdrawal of US forces at the end of the year to compound matters. What is your view on the current state of relations and will it be a factor for reconciliation or further feuds after the US withdrawal?
Falah Mustafa Bakir – We want Baghdad to look realistically at the current situation. If Baghdad thinks time is in their interest or if they have no political will to solve problems, we will never solve any problems or achieve any semblance of a stable, secure and prosperous Iraq. Iraq is a rich country, but this richness is no guarantee to a bright future if there is an absence of right polices.
What we need in Baghdad is a visionary leadership working for a better future, with commitment to that future and the political will to solve problems. Baghdad does not have a firm understanding of some key facts. The Kurds are the second largest nationality in Iraq. We are not guests and we will no longer submit to being repressed, oppressed and treated as second class citizens. The Iraq constitution even before the fall of the regime was clear that Iraq is comprised of two nationalities, Kurds and Arabs. Arabic and Kurdish are the two official languages of the country.
We have all the characteristics of a state including people, land, language, history, civilisation and culture of our own. The only reason we don”t have a state of our own is due to political complications and past injustices. Since we are determined to work for a better future for our people, we have committed ourselves to a federal, plural and democratic Iraq. An Iraq that lives in peace with its own communities and its neighbours. An Iraq where all are equal, an Iraq that works for peaceful and long lasting solutions. We have confidence in ourselves, trust in our leadership and trust in our people, and we know that the future is in our own hands. But we want a peaceful and long-lasting relationship with the rest of Iraq.
Therefore we have been patient, flexible and endured a lot, but it is time for Baghdad to play their part in keeping a peaceful and united Iraq. The moment Baghdad is ready and willing, these problems can be solved. These are not unsolvable issues.
The underlying political problems in Iraq have to be resolved as well as economic problems before the situation can change for the better. Because there are a lot of possible hazards on the table (the Sunni-Shiite disputes, ethnic struggles, economic and political challenges and external threats), Baghdad must find the will to solve problems in new ways rather than trying to use the commonly accepted methods of the past. If Baghdad abides by the constitution, has enough political will and understanding then Iraq can remain on the right track, but there has to be common acknowledgement that only dialogue and understanding can resolve any problems.
Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel – It seems to me that withdrawal of US forces may not change a great deal of the political landscape. The common Iraqi problems were there and will be there regardless of US forces, so really the onus is on Baghdad.
Falah Mustafa Bakir – The security mechanisms and the balance of power will change. Although we have the UN, and we believe they need to be heavily engaged in supporting political issues in Iraq by aiding, advising and helping to seek solutions, we strongly welcome the EU to be more present. We encourage greater participation and assistance by more EU member states and we encourage other Arab countries to have a greater presence in Iraq, and of course, when I say Iraq, I mean they also need to be present in the Kurdistan Region. The EU should have an office here, Arab countries should open their consulates as we need to be part of whatever goes on in Iraq as a whole. There are potential threats and problems that include both domestic and external factors, so as Iraqis we need to put aside our differences, be open with each other, and work with each other so we can have a better future.
We are a people that have suffered a lot, but we are not captives of our own history. We are a forward looking nation that wants to secure a better future for our people, but this cannot happen overnight, nor can it happen without external assistance. We need the support of the international community, we need to have a democratic system in Iraq, and we need people to understand that.
People in the rest of Iraq are not doing us a favour by trying to solve problems apart from the federal constitution. There are commitments, there are political agreements and there are issues that are enshrined in our constitution. Identity is an important thing for us, and we will not allow anybody to take our identity from us. We refused to surrender to the will of Saddam Hussein, and we will certainly not surrender to any similar dictatorial regimes that may come after his.
Kurdish identity has to be respected. People in this region have to feel that they are equal citizens of Iraq and that they are free to enjoy their full rights within this country. We are a model and a success story with a vibrant economy where the growth rate is over 8% per year, GDP per capita is over $5000 a year. There is political maturity, a vibrant civil society and institutions, and day after day the region makes progress as it works with the outside world. We are what we are because of the values we stand for. We believe in equality, justice and tolerance. We are proud that there are over 20 foreign representations in the region, which have benefited from their presence politically, economically and culturally. The KRG is constantly reaching out to international partners, and we are actively looking to bolster foreign representations in this region. Currently we have 12 KRG representations abroad and hoping to actively increase these also, as they are an essential means of encouraging people, businesses, universities and institutions to grow in Kurdistan.