On the referendum: Independence Cannot be rushed
Kurdistan independence may fall victim to weak governance
Interview with Rudaw. Conducted in Kurdish 30-08-2017
The decision to hold the upcoming independence referendum was rushed, argues Dr. Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, a Kurdistan-based academic researcher. Though he will personally be voting ‘yes’ with optimism, he believes more international preparations should have been done first. He sees a possibility to delay the vote if the United Nations agrees to monitor a future referendum. Also, Baghdad can offer solutions to current problems and pave the way for a form of confederalism. A 2-3 year grace period can give a chance for mutual investment in co-existence, but if it failed, they can separate.
Ala’Aldeen also warns of the possibility of international ‘love’ for Peshmerga waning with consequences.
He says the leadership in the Kurdistan Region should be cautious because neighbors in Baghdad, Tehran, and Ankara are capable of resorting to violence,' but they know that adding yet another crisis to the region would further destabilize Iraq and the region. This is why he believes Kurdistan's neighbors will try to prevent the referendum from taking place.
Ala'Aldeen, living in London in the early 1990s, was one of the many Kurds in diaspora who through their lobbying and activism had an impact on US, French, and British officials deciding to enforce a no-fly-zone in northern Iraq which later allowed for the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government and then the Kurdistan Region as a de facto region. He is currently president of the Middle East Research Institute – Kurdistan (MERI), based in Erbil.
Rudaw: Foreign pressure on the Kurdistan Region’s leaders to delay the referendum is increasing. Do you as an academic think it should be delayed?
Dr. Ala'Aldeen: Holding the referendum is an important national step, which cannot be dealt with simplistically. The Kurdistan Region has now tied itself to a political and moral stance by setting a date for the referendum. It will come out of it empty-handed if it gives up on the referendum this early and without anything in return. But if delaying it was necessary, then it would in national interest in doing so.
What do you think should be given in return for delaying the referendum?
There are many options of which the easiest might be delaying the referendum until after the Iraqi elections are held and then hold the referendum under the support and monitoring of Iraq and the UN. This will give a chance for the Kurdistan Region’s leadership to make better internal and external preparations, and create a better environment in the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Kurdistan Region. The general elections in the Kurdistan Region might also contribute to putting the house of the Kurdistan Region in order and invigorating its external lobby.
What if the Iraqi government did not agree to this and asked for another alternative?
There are other alternatives that could be considered. For example, the Kurdistan Region has now gained degrees of political, economic and security powers. It is practicing sovereign powers in many areas, which are broader than the framework permitted by federalism and the constitution. In other words, the Kurdistan Region is currently behaving like an independent state. Moreover, the Peshmerga forces have control over oil resources and many Kurdistani areas outside the Kurdistan Region’s administration.
If Baghdad officially recognizes all these [powers] via a new political agreement and beyond the constitution, it will in effect help Article 140 be implemented and the Iraqi Kurdistan will be like an independent state, but tied to Iraq through a weak confederal bond. Baghdad and Erbil can agree to a 2-3 year grace period during which they invest in co-existence, and if Baghdad failed to satisfy the Kurds, the Kurdistan Region can hold its referendum and gain independence. In these circumstances, separation will be easier in the future. We discussed this subject with Iranian, American and European experts and diplomats at MERI Institute. They all think this kind of agreement deserves consideration.
Do you think the referendum will have legitimacy without the reactivation of Kurdistan’s parliament?
Holding a referendum is a kind of surveying which can be either formal or informal. The political leadership can choose whether to commit to it. Holding a referendum can be turned into a foundation to start the independence process, but a state can also be declared without holding a referendum. It is better for the referendum to have political, legal and governmental support. A law issued by the parliament should support the referendum, if you want the government to legally commit to its outcome. And for the time being, the reactivation of the parliament is necessary to resolve the current problems in the Kurdistan Region and restore confidence to the governance system. It is also necessary for holding the referendum so that the abstract and political message of its outcome is not weak.
To what extent do you think internal and international preparations have been made for holding the referendum?
Preparations for independence have been made since decades ago, but not by a proper design or in a systematic way. Many of the preparations have been either too little or too late. And this is largely due to the Kurdistan Region’s current political, security and economic conditions. Serious steps can now be taken in a better design to make up for the past. This campaign is complex and very important. It requires serious thinking.
What can be done on the international level that hasn’t been done? What is the level of Kurdistan’s lobbying at the moment?
The influence of lobbying at the international level is similar to, if not greater than, the armed movement. The fate of nations and the world’s political map is determined in influential capitals. What we have done so far as the Kurds is clear. Many good things have been done. However, [when] compared to the obstacles and the grandness of the cause, much more needs to be done. For example, influencing the decision-making process in these countries needs two types of campaigns.
First, influencing the thinking of the policy- and decision-makers inside the government and state institutions, making more friends and fewer foes within strategic research centres, the media, the intellectual and business class of the society. There has been much effort put into this especially by government representatives and some non-governmental organizations. But their capacity and the framework within which they work remains limited and party politics in this regard have often dominated their [thinking].
The second campaign should be to put pressure on the local governments and elected officials. For this, Kurdistan needs its diaspora to start lobbying in every corner of these countries. There are fortunately highly-motivated Kurds who command the language in all the important countries. They are professional and holders of citizenship in these countries. But we haven’t benefited from them as much and haven’t used their role. Most of these people are unhappy with the government, political parties, the weak governance system and the corruption phenomenon in the Kurdistan Region. I think the Kurdish diaspora is the greatest asset and a credit that Kurdistan has abroad. They should be part of the Kurdistan Region and made to feel like they share the ownership of the country. And this duty lies with the government and the Kurdish political leadership.
Do you think neighboring countries will cause military or trade problems to the Kurdistan Region if the referendum is held on time?
The political leadership should always be cautious as long as the Kurdistan Region has such difficult neighbors which resort to security and military means to resolve problems. In other words, violent decisions are not impossible in this region. However, in light of the current conditions — the reality and the mentality of the governments in Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara — these kinds of possibilities are less than what people fear, because using force is a very weak instrument that will not help achieve the aim of these countries.
For example, mobilizing the Hashd al-Shaabi forces or having Iran or Turkey invading the Kurdistan Region, will add another crisis that will further destabilize the already unstable Iraq and the wider region and nobody will know what this will lead to eventually. That is why the neighboring countries are currently trying to prevent the referendum from happening in advance. But they are also capable of working indirectly to undermine the endeavours of the Kurdistan Region for independence after the referendum is held.
There are also many internal problems. Why do you think the people of Kurdistan are not as welcoming of the referendum?
The problem for people doesn’t lie with the ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote. Nor is it to do with the timing of holding it. Rather, it is to do with the political and economic reasons which stem from a weak governance system in the Kurdistan Region and weakness in law enforcement, unequal opportunities, weakness in crisis management, especially the financial crisis. These weaknesses are long-term problems, and if they are not resolved, the communities in the Kurdistan Region will continue to splinter and the national security issues and independence will become victims of the rivalry as a result.
Why do you think some political parties in the Kurdistan Region are against the referendum?
No political parties have so far been against the referendum. They just have different opinions on the preparation, timing and the way the process is run. Most of them think the timing is not right because the Kurdistan Region is politically divided and the problems of the governance system remain unresolved. They appear to think that holding the referendum in this way and at these current conditions will pose a danger to the Kurdistan Region itself and the region, especially if the people of Kurdistan are not united on this national process. And the position of the other parties is that the problems of the Kurdistan Region are complex and the house might not be put in order that quickly and easily.
Time is passing quickly and it is likely that the current love and international support for the Peshmerga forces might change. The question of the referendum showed that most countries are more pro-Iraq and more committed to the integrity of Iraq. They might distance themselves from the region after ISIS is defeated and neglect the wishes and concerns of the Kurdistan Region, just like they did before the emergence of ISIS.
What do you think of those campaigning for the ‘No’ vote?
In a democracy, it is the right of the voter to vote the way they think is right. Voting is done in secret so it is a reflection of the convictions of the voter, which is a human right. Holding a referendum is a democratic process in which the opinions of the voters should be respected whether they vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ Voters will have two options to choose from and both should be accepted without one complaining about the option of the other.
What do you think will be the response of the political leadership if the outcome of the referendum is not positive?
The question should rather be whether the referendum could be held without securing its positive outcome. If the Kurdistan Region’s leadership is not sure that the overwhelming majority of the people will vote ‘Yes,’ it is better for them to be patient because winning the referendum with a small margin will have a negative impact on the independence process. Its wound from a political and morale perspective will remain for tens of years, and the foes of the Kurdistan Region will be louder than they are at the moment.
Will it be a big failure if the referendum is not held or delayed?
No, because Kurdistan’s drive for self-determination will continue and there will be tens of other tools, ways and opportunities in the future.
What do you think should be the Kurdish leadership’s stance after the referendum is held on time?
Holding the referendum is a first step in a long process for independence. The difficult and complex process will start after the referendum. If the referendum is held, its outcome cannot be used later as a card for temporary achievements and then be suspended. Rather, it should be the start of a process that will result in independence. To this end, the Kurdistan Region needs to use the science and art of state-building and nation-building, to further strengthen its institutions. It should take steps in many directions to design a program for the state institutions and lay down the foundation of a stable country.
Do you think this science and art have been used? Is it possible to use them this early?
Good things have already been done. But in general, the Kurdistan Region is somewhat weak in this regard. There is still a chance, though. This subject should be prioritized and academics should be involved in this.
What role can you play in this regard at MERI?
MERI Institute was formed to fill an important gap in the area of strategic studies and assist decision and policy makers to arrive at long-term visions and practical roadmaps. It was formed to help with nation-building and state-building processes, to promote good governance and help make the law sovereign. Moreover, MERI’s network is wide and effective among the world’s academic institutions and think tanks. That is why MERI has played its role in lobbying for peace and stability abroad and trying to influence decisions of world powers. MERI does not advocate the government or political parties; rather it advocates human rights, good governance, and stability.
What is the position of MERI with respect to the 'Yes' or 'No' vote?
MERI is an academic establishment that should be an observer and protect its impartiality like universities. It cannot take sides. It can deliver assistance and consultation through research. If asked for its opinion, it will respond through academic analysis without representing any positions.
What is your position as Dr. Dlawer?
The decision to hold the referendum is not vested in me. Rather, it is vested with the decision-makers of the Kurdistan Region. If I were consulted on this matter, I would have given my opinion on the timing, the manner and preparations for holding it. I might have been one of those who would urge patience, better internal preparations. I would have also helped all the parties in drawing the roadmap. Remember, I have all my life lobbied for Kurdistan’s statehood, and I am waiting for this dream to be realized in my lifetime. As Dlawer, I will go to the ballot boxes and vote 'Yes' if the referendum is held, hoping that from then on, we all together embark on the mission of statehood. And I will be optimistically taking part in it.