Öztürk Yılmaz is deputy leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP) in Turkey. He discusses with Rudaw the implications of the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum. Yılmaz expressed that the Iraqi constitution allows areas to hold referendum to declare regions, but not for independence. He believes nothing will change immediately after the referendum, but when areas in places like Nineveh and Kirkuk become partitioned.
The deputy believes Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin’s Karim support of holding the referendum in the Kirkuk province is an attempt to distance Kirkukis from Baghdad and gain support for a Karim bid for the presidency. Öztürk Yılmaz is deputy leader of the Republican People's Party (CHP). He was formally Turkey's Consul General to Mosul, where he was kidnapped for 101 days along with 48 other diplomats in 2014 by ISIS. He believes Kurdish independence could lead to further regional splintering, but an independent Kurdistan Region would not be a direct threat to Turkey
Rudaw: The Kurdistan Region is due to hold an independence referendum on September 25. As a social democratic party, what is the position of the CHP on this question?
Öztürk Yılmaz: [Masoud] Barzani has broached the subject of independence, and we see it in two ways. First, he wants to take a step, a step for the post-ISIS reign, to put the question of independence in the agenda. But imposing this is very different. We believe that he wants to implement this at another time. Second, our position is clear. We support the integrity of Iraq. The administration of the Kurdish Region is legitimate according to the Iraqi constitution. We support the elevation of the relations between Kurdish brothers and Turkey to the highest level, especially in terms of humanity, politics and economy. And we want all our relations to be within the framework of Iraq. The international community sees this subject in the same way too. We think taking unilateral decisions on the question of independence are not right.
The regional actors and the US have also voiced their opposition to this. Last month, UNAMI and the Security
Barzani is Barzani in Iraq. The PUK, [Jalal] Talabani’s party, is splintered. Gorran is splintered too.
Council discussed the question of the integrity of Iraq. All the main five members of in the Council declared their support to the integrity of Iraq. There is also this: Independence as a nation, is it the right of the Kurdish nation or not? Surely, all nations have the right to be independent. It is a right to the nations in waiting for freedom and independence. But there are also international rights, and the integrity of countries. This subject will cause great complications in the region. Holding the referendum in this tough manner, without considering internal and regional balance, will do harm to the region.
But they have called for the referendum in accordance with the Human Rights Charter and the Iraqi constitution. Do you not think the international law permits this referendum?
No section in the Iraqi constitution refers to this.
Are you saying the Kurdistan Region doesn't have the right to hold a referendum according to the Iraqi constitution?
The Iraqi constitution grants the right to create regions. Several provinces can form a region. But the Iraqi constitution hasn't granted the (Kurdistan) Region the right to hold a referendum for independence.
But the Kurdistan Regional government (KRG) has said that Baghdad has cut its budget, Article 140 has not been implemented, and hence there are no other alternatives other than holding a referendum for separation. Do you not give the Kurds this right?
It is true that it is their right, that the share of the Kurdish Region’s administration was 17 percent of the Iraqi budget. It’s been a while [that] salaries of the employees have not been paid. This is certainly the mistake of the rulers in the central [government]. In addition, the central government behaved independently for some time, especially in the term of the previous Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during which wrongs steps were taken. We know this too. There were also high-level discussions. We are aware of this too. We are also aware that there are big problems with
Then 144 Iraqi MPs accused Najmaldin Karim of going against the Iraqi constitution. These MPs have sent a letter to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in which they accuse [him] of dividing Iraq. Abadi will bring this letter to the parliament after Eid
respect to the oil revenue and salaries of the employees.
But this shouldn't be used as an excuse to distance or separate from Iraq. In this respect, one would give the right to the Kurdish Region’s administration. But when this subject turns into separation, one would think this is used as a reason and preparations are being made for this. Baghdad should certainly give the financial entitlements of the Kurdistan Region. The Kurdish administration has accommodated a large number of refugees. Baghdad shouldn't forget this stance. That is why there should be a peaceful solution. That is, dialogue should be held in a way that the current conditions shouldn't give way to.
It appears that the referendum is not only held within the framework of the current borders of the Region. The regions whose statuses have not been settled are incorporated in the referendum, including the areas whose status remained to be resolved up until 2007. See, the areas in the Nineveh plains are incorporated in the referendum too. The referendum even includes Kirkuk. When you think about it, this is a very big thing that will cause complications. I think this splintering and independence has no legitimacy. In other words, it is a step that is against the constitution and international law. I hope they give up on this demand, and Baghdad fulfills the demands of the Kurdish Region, otherwise the problems will increase especially with respect to Kirkuk after the Eid al-Adha where we approach the date for the referendum.
As you know, Kirkuk’s governor Najmaldin Karim decided to raise Kurdistan’s flag in the city. He was later criticized for this. The Iraqi constitution court considered this illegitimate. Then 144 Iraqi MPs accused Najmaldin Karim of going against the Iraqi constitution. These MPs have sent a letter to the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in which they accuse [him] of dividing Iraq. Abadi will bring this letter to the parliament after Eid, then the governor will be distanced from his position by MPs according to the Iraqi constitution. When the majority votes win in the parliamentary meeting, then Najmaldin Karim will be distanced, and this is another pressure on the Kurdistan Region.
Meetings were held between Erbil and Baghdad before the referendum. But they led to no results. Do you think they can reach an agreement before September 25?
I believe this is likely. At the end of the day, Barzani is a reasonable politician and will assess the situation well. Baghdad should reorganize its relations with the Kurdistan Region and deliver the financial entitlements of the Kurdish administration. Baghdad and the Kurdish administration should protect the integrity of Iraq. This is the best
See, why does Najmaldin Karim want the referendum to be held? Najmaldin Karim now wants to be the president of Erbil and he cannot guarantee this with only the votes of Sulaimani, without the votes of Kirkuk.
way. The Kurds participating in writing the Iraqi constitution made Iraq a federal country. The Kurds voted for it.
There is a big vacuum in Iraq because of ISIS. Taking any such steps will lead to a big danger. See, I am speaking about a big danger to you. The Tal Afar operation will finish in a short period of time. Then the Iraqi army will pull out to the surrounding areas of Kirkuk, among whom there are many Hashd al-Shaabi fighters. Do you think nothing will happen under such situations? Do you think the situation will continue this way without Iraq interfering in it? How do you think the region’s situation be like if Baghdad interferes in it? Are you not afraid? This is what I see.
I have also stayed in this region. When you shake and put pressure on the status [quo] here, it will lead to undesired consequences. I believe this will lead to a big wave of immigration. It will cause a war between the Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds, engulfing the whole region in it. I am concerned that it will cause this. Barzani is a reasonable politician who has been doing politics for many years. I believe he sees this too.
What consequence do you think the referendum alone will lead to, without declaring independence?
Barzani is Barzani in Iraq. The PUK, [Jalal] Talabani’s party, is splintered. Gorran is splintered too. If the
The AKP doesn’t look at Turkey, let alone look to see what is happening in Iraq. I don’t believe they are as concerned in this matter as we are.
independence referendum is held in these conditions and he doesn’t take any steps, then other parties will criticize him. There are different calculations in the Kurdish administration. See, why does Najmaldin Karim want the referendum to be held? Najmaldin Karim now wants to be the president of Erbil and he cannot guarantee this with only the votes of Sulaimani, without the votes of Kirkuk.
This is why he wants the referendum to be held in his city. He wants to strengthen the base in Sulaimani and Kirkuk and guarantee all the votes. He wants to cross over to there. Nothing is done just like this. Everyone wants something.
What do you think of the stance taken by the Justice and Development Party (AKP)? Is there any difference between the attitude of the CHP and AKP?
The position of the AKP in this regard, when I look at the position of the foreign ministry, they don’t want the referendum to be held and they will not accept its result. They show that there are different opinions within the AKP.
Is the Iraqi Turkmen Front supporting this? Are the Arabs supporting it?
But if we want to know what their opinion is in general on this matter, we don’t completely understand what they say. The AKP doesn’t look at Turkey, let alone look to see what is happening in Iraq. I don’t believe they are as concerned in this matter as we are. I tried to explain our opinion to you. We know and deal with the Kurdish administration according to the Iraqi constitution. We will be using all our power to [protect] the integrity of Iraq. It appears that it should be in a way such that the Kurdish region administration should get their rights otherwise insecurity will emerge in this region. We don’t want it to be this way. And we don’t want our Kurdish brothers in the region to be flattened by Baghdad.
The Turkish government is asking the Kurdistan Region not to hold the referendum. What will the reaction of the Turkish government be if the referendum is held?
It acts as if nothing has happened. It says: the referendum is with its result, it is nothing. It is illegitimate and not in its interests.
What reactions should there be?
The process is not in its interests and I don’t believe there will be practical reactions. That is, things shouldn’t be
You can find people and parties in every country which support independence. But these are those who are in the margins.
allowed to continue until it reaches this level. We shouldn’t have any negative reactions toward our Kurdish brothers, and it shouldn’t reach this level either. It will go beyond the brotherhood rights then. We should develop our relations and Turkey should help resolve the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad. In other words, it is unacceptable for an administration to be unable to pay salaries (of its employees). Money matters shouldn’t be allowed to lead to deep and bigger matters. Moreover, they shouldn’t also say that Iraq has become weak and there is ISIS, let’s separate.
You are concerned about the Turkmen. But Barzani has said that they will not be creating a national state. Rather, a state on the basis of citizenship, multi-linguals, and multi-ethnicity. Is this not a guarantee for the Turkmen in your opinion?
Are you making this decision with the Turkmen? Who did you consult when you decided to hold the referendum in Kirkuk?
But there are some Turkmen parties supporting the process.
There are many which do not support the referendum. Is the Iraqi Turkmen Front supporting this? Are the Arabs supporting it? See who is supporting it and who not. You only see the ones supporting it. You can find people and parties in every country which support independence. But these are those who are in the margins.
Suppose that the Kurdistan state is built after all. In your opinion, will this state be a danger to Turkey or the other way round?
I don’t see it as a danger. I don’t think it will be a threat to Turkey. I don’t see the Kurds as a threat to Turkey. When I
The integrity of Iraq is currently the right thing. But this doesn’t mean we should cut all our relations with the Kurdistan Region.
was in Iraq, I was feeling safer when I was in Erbil. I felt like I was in Turkey when I was in Erbil. But there is the Iraqi army there saying Kirkuk is theirs, saying: Diyala is our city, Tuz Khurmatu is our city, Mosul areas are ours and we won’t give up on them. And you say that you will be holding the referendum in these areas and declare independence. And I say this will cause confrontation.
In brief, you cannot settle this question if you do not come to an agreement with Baghdad. Otherwise there will be problems. There is an international aspect to the problem. They too should accept it. Kosovo was broken away from Serbia by the EU, although Serbia stood against it. But 24 countries recognized it in the first day. Do we have the same thing for the Kurdish administration?
You say that you don’t see Kurdistan state as a danger to Turkey. But leader of the MHP, [Devlet] Bahçeli, has said that the referendum will lead to war.
You can ask him and the government this. The Prime Minister will answer this. They are friends. We should leave this to them.
Turkey’s Kurds supported the AKP especially in amending the constitution. Some say this support was in part due to the Kurdistan Region. If relations between the two become strained after the referendum, will this not impact on the Kurdish voters of the AKP?
It is not correct to take internal political movements as a criterion. I say this again, I don’t see the Kurds as a threat. But it is clear that there are some people who do. On the contrary, we support the obtaining of brotherly rights. We won very few votes in the election. But what is important in politics is to stand for the right thing. The integrity of Iraq is currently the right thing. But this doesn’t mean we should cut all our relations with the Kurdistan Region. On the contrary, let’s develop them. Iraq has a federal system. It is not a backward or closed country. The Kurdish administration has too many things on its way. There is a saying in Turkey: ‘give up on this love.’ This will cause many problems in the region. If regional forces come and mediate in this area tomorrow, the region will be worse than the current Syria.