A young woman who voted in Kurdistan's independence referendum on September 25. Photo: Hejar Jawhar/Rudaw
By Michel Wieviorka
The idea of nation is today readily associated with that of nationalism and hence with images of the worst excesses – right-wing extremism, racism, xenophobia, calls for closure and for ethnically or racially homogeneous societies. But this has not always been the case in history and recent referendums on the question of self-determination in Scotland, Catalonia or Iraqi Kurdistan have attested democratic demands far removed from the nationalist instincts which are the driving force of extreme-right voters and sometimes of the most extreme Far Right movements.
The case of Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps more clearly than any other, deserves closer examination. This is a nation for whom the promises of the Treaty of Versailles, at the end of World War One, have not been kept. It is a population that has been subjected to massacres, gassing and all sorts of brutalities at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is an organised quasi-state whose armed forces have played and continue to play a decisive role in the war against ISIS. It is a democracy that explicitly includes equality between men and women in its constitution and whose political system, despite many weaknesses, is no more in crisis than that of many Western countries. Who can do better than that, or as well, in the Middle East?
By organising a referendum which, like the one in Scotland and unlike the one in Catalonia, took place without conflict, the president of what is for the moment an autonomous region in Iraq, Masoud Barzani, may perhaps have had personal, collateral ambitions, a desire to retrieve his former position in Kurdistan at a time when it has weakened. But this is not the central issue. The main point is the massive number of ‘Yes’ votes in favour of Kurdistan’s independence.
Does this mean that the legitimacy thus acquired by those in power will lead them to declare independence in the near future? Definitely not.
Indeed, President Barzani has clearly indicated that he would now like to begin negotiations. It is not difficult to imagine what the next important stage in proceedings of this sort might be. In between the present situation, namely Iraqi federalism and the independence so longed for, it is in fact possible to conceive of an intermediary model of the confederal type and therefore with increased autonomy, which Iraqi Kurds might accept within the Iraqi state.
A scenario of this type would immediately come up against the Iraqi state. But this state is very weak. Without the Kurdish Peshmerga, it would never have been able to contribute to the downfall of ISIS. The reconstruction of Iraq could become a realistic project if it were to seek a negotiated agreement with Kurdistan. The issue here is not one of dismembering a state, as could be perceived to be the situation in the case of the Catalan demands, but of the assertion of a Kurdish state on a confederate model within an entity which is for the moment in very bad shape.
The Kurdistan referendum has aroused negative reactions in many countries; only Israel has signaled its support. It is true that a state, instead of a Kurdish quasi-state, would change the geo-political situation in the region. But it is an error to see this as a source of reinforcement for other Kurdish demands, in particular in Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan is a far cry from the PKK in Turkey.
It is urgent for the countries that bear the most influence on the course of events in this region to cease refusing to take Masoud Barzani into account. It is time for them to agree to support a process wherein a nation strives to put in place a state that is capable of contributing militarily to peace in the Middle East and of ensuring for its own population both democracy and respect for human rights.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.