The Kurdish Regional Government in Iraqi Kurdistan is organising a referendum on independence on 25 September. For the Kurds the referendum is a first step towards fulfilling an old dream of national self-determination and a state of their own but Iraq and neighboring countries, with significant Kurdish minorities, oppose the referendum.
EU on its part is concerned that the referendum may result in further destabilization of a region already in turmoil after civil wars and the still on-going fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria which have claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian victims and the displacement of millions of people.
The referendum will include the whole territory of Iraqi Kurdistan and adjacent areas including the city Kirkuk and the Sinjar Mountains which have been liberated from the Islamic state and are controlled by the Kurdish government. Altogether the Kurdish Regional Government controls about 17 % of Iraq.
At a recent press conference in Brussels (5 September), representatives of Kurdish organizations in Europe argued for the right of Kurdistan to organize the referendum and decide about its destiny.
Kahraman Evsen, president of the Kurdish-European Society, explained that the Kurds have been waiting for a state of their own since the First World War.
“We suffered for years under Saddam Hussein. In the current war against the Islamic state the Kurdish Peshmerga army has been an effective fighting force where the Iraqi Arab army failed. We have earned our right to national self-determination. It’s about time for the Kurds to implement their own state as other nations in the region.”
“We want to establish a secular society with equal rights for all citizens and minority groups,” he said and referred to Christians, Yezidis, Arabs, and Turkmens living in areas under Kurdish control. 1.5 – 1.8 million people have fled the terror of the Islamic State and taken refuge in Kurdistan.
“According to the Iraqi constitution we have a right to arrange a referendum,” he said. He described the referendum as a first step and not as a unilateral act of independence. “After the referendum we plan to start negotiations with Baghdad. There is no plan B in case of failed negotiations.”
Whether negotiations on Kurdish independence will start seems to be an open question. The government in Baghdad has stated that it will not recognize the referendum and its results. However, according to a report by the research service of the European Parliament (December 2016), Baghdad has little legal basis to challenge Kurdistan’s right to hold a referendum.
The geographical scope of the referendum is another contentious issue as it includes areas with a non-Kurdish population. For this reason there has been talk about two referendums or a two-question referendum but if this actually will take place in the forthcoming referendum is not clear.
Important oil reserves are also located in the areas and the two parties, the Baghdad government and the Kurdish regional government, have been discussing sharing the revenues without reaching a binding agreement. Oil revenues represent more than 90 % of the budgets of both governments.
“The EU as the biggest democratic union of states should respect the right of the Kurdistan Region to hold a referendum on independence and support a dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. We ask you to understand the legitimate aspirations of the Kurdish people,” said Delavar Ajgeiy, head of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s mission to the EU.
Asked by The Brussels Times if international election observers will attend the referendum, he replied that they would be welcome. Observers would no doubt render legitimacy to the referendum. But a spokesperson for the European Parliament told The Brussels Times that referendums in principle are not observed by the Parliament and cited also security concerns.
EU and the surrounding countries in the region fear that the Kurdish minorities in those countries – where they have been lacking cultural and political rights and even citizenship as in Syria – would be attracted to join an independent Kurdistan.
The Kurdish response is that an independent and viable Kurdistan would contribute to the stability in the region. While members of the Kurdish diaspora might immigrate to Kurdistan, the best way to prevent changing international borders is to grant the Kurdish minority groups in surrounding countries local self-government or some form of autonomy.
If Iraq will not be reorganized to a federal state with broad autonomy for the different ethnic groups and proportional sharing of oil revenues the only alternatives left is an independent Iraqi Kurdistan or a confederation of two states with some common functions. Such an arrangement might benefit both parties according to a recent article by a Kurdish journalist (The New York Times, 6 September).
The Kurds are the Middle East’s fourth-largest ethnic group but reliable census data are missing. The total Kurdish population of in Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria is estimated to about 35 million but may be much more. A Kurdish diaspora of approximately 2 million is living in Europe, Russia and former Soviet republics.
In the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which was established according to the Iraqi constitution, with its own government and parliament, there are 5.5 million Kurds living.
Both Iraq and Syria were created in the wake of the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement from 1916, when Great Britain and France secretly divided the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East into spheres of influence, without regard to the religious-sectarian divide and the different ethnic population groups living there.
At the peace conference 1920 in San Remo the map was redrawn again. The promises of independence to the Kurds were not kept because of European colonial interests. Oil had been found in the Kirkuk area and the British insisted that it should belong to Iraq under their influence and dominated by the Sunni Muslims which only accounted for 20 % of the population.
The EU position was expressed in the Foreign affairs council conclusions (19 June 2017) where EU “reiterates its steadfast support for Iraq’s unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” A local statement to the same effect was issued on 24 July by the EU delegation in Iraq in agreement with the EU heads of mission in the country.
On the basis of the conclusions, the Council invited the High Representative and the European Commission to “present in due course elements for an EU strategy for engagement with Iraq”. The European External Action Service (EEAS) declined to respond to questions from The Brussels Times and to elaborate on the EU position on the referendum.
The latest resolution by the European Parliament on Iraq was issued in November 2016 and deals with the refugee and security situation in Northern Iraq and Mosul without mentioning the Kurdish referendum.