Dr Mustafa Goran, the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Vienna, has a staff of more than a dozen people to help run daily affairs of the mission, as well as to facilitate diplomatic relations and official visits between Erbil and Vienna. The office arranges cultural events, connects the people of Kurdistan and Austria, and keeps in touch with the small Kurdish community in Austria. He spoke to Rudaw about decades of good relations between the Kurds and Austria, and said the office is an extension of those ties. Here is an edited transcript of his interview with Rudaw:
Rudaw: Austria was the first European country to start direct flights to Erbil. What does this mean in terms of Kurdish-Austrian relations?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: This was in December 2006. It was a game changer for the Kurdistan Region because it provided a first-class access also for exchanges with the international community, for business delegations, for political delegations. It saved a lot of time. Vienna is a good city; it’s a hub for connecting flights. It helped a great deal and it further added to the excellent relationship between Austria and the Kurdistan Region.
The relationship dates back to 1970, sometimes even earlier.
Rudaw: What is the Austrian and Kurdish relationship based on?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: The relationship dates back to 1970, sometimes even earlier. Austria, at the time of chancellor (Bruno) Kreisky, had a foreign policy that was very open to Kurds, not only from Iraqi Kurdistan but also from the Iranian part of Kurdistan. President Talabani or President Barzani or from Iranian Kurds (Abdul Rahman) Ghassemlou, they were all very welcome here and also on high level, ministerial level. They would be welcomed here, they would have talks and Austria was the only country really that had at the time high level connections with the Kurds. And in 1976, at the end of March, the time of the refugee crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan and Iran, Austria took 100 Kurds as refugees here in Vienna.
Rudaw: What happened to these 100 refugees? I read somewhere that some of them have become prominent members of the Austrian society.
Dr. Mustafa Goran: Many of them were academics, so they took up their studies here and finished them and they are now deeply integrated into Austrian society as doctors and engineers, and some have become politicians here in Austria locally and in Kurdistan. Also, in the Kurdish society, they are deeply involved. We have speakers of parliament, ministers, who all were part of this group, and some of them are also holding high offices right now within the parties or within the government of Kurdistan Region. It shows that those who came back then, they were really trying to integrate themselves here, and as a result also their children maybe are still here. Some of them returned. They were using the opportunities that were provided to them by Austria, which was education, which was very important at that time. I was part of the group of the 100 refugees and I took up my studies here, in medicine, and was a doctor in a prominent Austrian hospital. And now I'm the representative of the KRG here.
Rudaw: Who initiated the Kurdish-Austrian relations first? Did it help that Kurdish political parties had always been present in Austria long before 1991?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: Since the Kurdish Diaspora has been here from 1976, the first few engaged themselves here and set up representation offices of the main two parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Since then, the leading politicians from those parties also regularly visited Austria in the 80s, particularly President Talabani and Barzani. One of the first prime contacts was between -- then not chancellor at the time but the later chancellor -- Bruno Kreisky, who met with Mullah Mustafa Barzani in 1957 in Moscow when Mullah Mustafa Barzani was in exile in the Soviet Union.
The mutual business interests are primarily in the tourism sector, because Austria is a tourist destination.
Rudaw: Does Austria have investors and companies in the Kurdistan Region?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: The most prominent example, apart from Austrian Airlines, to some extent also OMV obviously, is Dopplemayr, which is the world-leading manufacturer of cable cars. Companies that are situated in the west of Austria did a big project in the Kurdistan Region on Korek mountain. They built a huge cable car up the mountain. Many other Austrian companies were a bit, not sceptical, but a bit careful with going to the Kurdistan Region, because the stories they heard in the media would always equal Kurdistan to Iraq. We see now that they are trying to engage more and more. But obviously, now the market is more saturated than four-five years ago. There are a lot of opportunities and many specialized, midsized companies try to get into the market. They also see it as a gateway to the rest of Iraq.
Austria also had one of the first commercial offices in the Kurdistan Region, when the commercial office moved from Baghdad to Erbil in 2006. Because Austria at the moment does not have an embassy in Baghdad, everything -- all the consulate activities -- are handled by the Austrian embassy in Amman in Jordan. But we have now also opened a visa acceptance office in January this year in Erbil, which will handle visa applications for Austria, for Schengen visa, which is a big further step to facilitate the process. Previously, you had to go to Amman or Ankara, which is obviously a burden for many people.
Rudaw: What kind of mutual interests do the Kurdistan Region and Austria have?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: The mutual business interests are primarily in the tourism sector, because Austria is a tourist destination. The Kurdistan Region can profit a lot from the know-how from Austria in that regard. Once the dispute between Baghdad and Erbil is solved we expect more Austrian companies to get in to the market in the Kurdistan Region. Another possible area would also be small industries, specialized industries like food production, in terms of, for instance, dairy products. Austria provides high quality services in all these sectors and the Kurdistan Region is in need of know-how in all these sectors, like dairy production, and also agriculture. Austria and Kurdistan are similar in many aspects -- mountains, small-scale industries.
European countries are well aware by now what the Kurdistan Region is, and what it has to offer.
Rudaw: Being here in Europe as a diplomat representing the KRG, how much do you think the Europeans, particularly their leaders, know about the Kurdistan Region?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: As most KRG representatives are actually located in Europe, European countries are well aware by now what the Kurdistan Region is, and what it has to offer. They have many delegation visits from the European Union, but also from the UK, from France, from Italy and also from Austria. We had a delegation in November 2011, with then foreign minister Dr Spindelegger, who led a big business delegation to Baghdad first, then Erbil. Most of these European countries now have diplomatic missions in the Kurdistan Region, as consulates or consular offices, honorary consuls. There are, actually, at the moment, 27.
Rudaw: In what sectors can Austria be involved in Kurdistan? For example, some countries have agricultural, health or technological expertise, which they offer to developing countries.
Dr. Mustafa Goran: Obviously, also the health sector is something Austria is known for and the Kurdistan Region can profit from the technology.
Rudaw: Is there a big Kurdish community in Austria? Are you in touch with them?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: We have a large Kurdish community but not as big as in other countries, comparatively speaking, because Austria is a small country and also due to the fact that the social security systems and all the circumstances and pre-conditions were sometimes better in Scandinavian countries. For instance, such as in Sweden. A lot of Kurdish people who came to Austria also moved there, so we have a community of about 5,000-8,000, I believe. Around 5,000 Kurds in the whole of Austria are from Iraq.
Rudaw: Has the relationship between Austria and the Kurdistan Region deepened since this mission opened?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: We have definitely seen an increase, there have also been delegations, not only business but also think tanks. Last May we had a delegation from Austrian think tanks that went into the Kurdistan region, had discussions with parliament members. So this office has helped a lot in that regard and I think there will be a continuing effort so it will only increase and deepen further.
Rudaw: How do you get along with the Iraqi embassy?
Dr. Mustafa Goran: We have a very good relationship with the Iraqi embassy in Austria. We work together closely on many aspects and they help us and support us and we also help them in many areas. There is a good symbiosis. We organize events together. For instance, this Newroz we organized with the Iraqi embassy.