Today, September 25th, voters in the Iraqi region of Kurdistan are voting in a referendum to decide whether the country should become independent from Iraq. While the referendum is non-binding, it’s likely passage will give Kurdistan’s government additional leverage in its ongoing negotiations with Baghdad. At most, the referendum may initiate independence for Kurdistan’s five million people. At a minimum, it will force Baghdad to make greater budget concessions to Kurdistan.
Becoming a new country is a difficult process, with no exact formula. Kosovo is the most recent example. The small Balkan nation of just 1.8 million persons declared independence from Serbia in February 2008 and was immediately recognized by the United States and most European nations. However other nations like Russia, China, and Serbia, refused to recognize its independence declaration – and still do not to this day. In fact, only 115 of 193 United Nations member states currently recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state.
More recently, the spring 2014 Russia annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine has raised the issue of what constitutes being a sovereign state, as well as what independence referendums are considered legitimate. For example, an armed band of mercenaries backed by the Russian army in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), announced their independence on April 7, 2014 and quickly called a referendum for May 11, 2017 – just 34 days later. A gang of armed mercenaries in the neighboring region of Luhansk took even less time. They proclaimed the independence of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic on April 27, 2014, and held their referendum two weeks later (on the same day as the DPR, May 11th). In both cases international observers were not allowed and the hastily called elections allegedly passed with 89% in the DPR, and 96% in the LPR (according to “official results”).
Therefore, the question is, “how does Kurdistan’s referendum differ from the fake referendums in the DPR and LPR?” The contrast is quite stark. First, Kurdistan has been de facto autonomous since the United States led coalition liberated it from Saddam Hussein during the First Gulf War in 1991. American President George Bush’s supported the Kurdish uprising against Hussein and his enforcement of a ‘no fly zone’ over the region gave it the needed protection to drive out Saddam’s armies. Keeping in mind that Hussein used chemical weapons against Kurds in the region of Halabja in March 1988, the Kurds immediately seized the opportunity to govern themselves. The 2003 US led removal of Hussein, further strengthened Kurdistan’s autonomy, resulting in the 2005 Iraqi Constitution enshrining its special autonomous status in law. However, Baghdad’s deference to the Ayatollah’s in Iran, stinginess with the state budget, and continual disregard for the rights of the Kurdish minority, took a toll on the relationship. Finally in March of this, after more than a decade of neglect, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani announced plans to hold an independence referendum “before October”. This announcement led to the September 25th vote. Thus, unlike the fake DPR and LPR referendums held within 2-5 weeks of being announcing, the Kurdistan referendum gave voters six months to consider the issue following 26 years of wide autonomy.
Next, the Kurdistan referendum is being conducted in a democratic manner. In contrast, the DPR and LPR “elections” were held at the point of a loaded gun. Literally, armed gunmen were present at polling stations and not for security, but rather to ensure that locals voted as the junta demanded. Tonight’s vote will be confirmation of the conduct of the election, but all signs are that the Kurdistan Independent High Election Commission (KIHEC) is doing a good job of enfranchising voters across the 6000 polling stations in the region, and that voters are free to express their will.
Third, Kurdistan has a unique culture, history, and language which helps reinforces the arguments in favor of its independence. In contrast, the DPR and LPR are simply extensions of the Russian empire with no unique culture, history or language. Fourth, Kurdistan can be economically self-sustaining. Kurdistan has 20% of Iraq’s oil reserves, ensuring its financial stability, and giving it sufficient resources to provide for the population. In comparison, the DPR and LPR have ruined much of the industry and infrastructure of the region, and now rely on humanitarian convoys and contraband for needed goods. Fifth, and quite critically, Kurdistan has fought for its freedoms and independence: first in 1991 against Saddam, again in 2003, and more recently against Daesh (ISIS). It was the Kurdish army that immediately secured the city of Kirkuk in 2014 to prevent it from falling to Daesh – unlike Mosul which the Iraqi army abandoned to Daesh. The Kurdish “Peshmerga” army is well known for its bravery and professionalism, leading the successful retaking of Daesh occupied territories over the last two years. Contrast that commitment with the DPR and LPR, which rely on the backing of the Russian army to maintain control of the occupied territories of eastern Ukraine.
Finally, the key component to Kurdistan’s path to independence is international recognition. So far, this has been slow, but as President Barzani aptly noted, “it’s never a good time for the Iraqi Kurds to become independent”, and the world is always slow to embrace new countries. However, Israel is the exception and has openly stated its plans to recognize Kurdistan as independent. France appears not far behind, by stating that it will “not oppose” the referendum. This is a classic Euro-crat maneuver designed to give a “yellow light” (not “red light”) from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. The United States has issued statements from mid-level, official organs that “now is not the time” for the referendum, but it’s clear that many members of Congress and Executive branch would welcome an independent Kurdistan. Even Turkey and Iraq, despite their public rhetoric against the referendum, are appearing not particularly troubled by the development. Thus, if the voters deliver a strong mandate on Monday, expect the international community to follow Israel’s bold lead and begin recognizing Kurdistan as independent. By comparison, only the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, which is also currently occupied by the Russian army, has “officially” recognized the DPR and LPR. Even Russia has refused to recognize the DPR and LPR as independent (not to mention other breakaway regions of the former Soviet Union in Moldova, Georgia and Azerbaijan).
Thus, there is a clear difference between what constitutes a real referendum and what constitutes a fake referendum. If there is a case to be made for a referendum being real, Kurdistan’s is one such instance. Best wishes and good luck to the world’s newest nation of Kurdistan.