Amid the unfolding events in the Middle East, a potential referendum on independence of the Kurdistan Region continues to be a hot topic on the domestic and international level. This comes after Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani announced earlier this month that Iraqi Kurdistan would hold a referendum before the US presidential elections in November so that Kurds could exercise their rights of self-determination in a nonbinding vote. Yet such a vote comes amid interrelated domestic and regional political challenges. Economic and transnational crises make it unlikely that the dream of an independent Kurdish state would translate into reality.
On the domestic stage, Iraqi Kurdistan faces debilitating political and economic hurdles. Fault lines between Kurdish political parties continue over the nature of the political system, finances, and the presidency of the Kurdistan Region, in particular between the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Change Movement (Gorran) led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, a veteran politician who broke away from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 2007 to protest corruption and mismanagement of the party.
Stumbling oil prices, the costs of the war against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL), and the burden of 1.8 million refugees in the three Kurdish provinces have placed increased pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cabinet to introduce austerity measures by decreasing salaries of civil servants by some 75 percent in some cases and other half-hearted reforms in the hope of addressing the dire financial crisis.
Unsurprisingly, such measures have triggered mass protests across Kurdistan, with public sector workers—including police—boycotting their duties. If not resolved, it could risk of rising domestic turmoil.
The timing of the call for a referendum has made both the public and Kurdish observers skeptical, given the domestic political and economic issues. They argue that the referendum is a political move by the Kurdish leadership to assuage a public frustrated by political stalemate between the Kurdish political parties, in particular, Gorran and the KDP and a stagnant economy.
Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani
At the regional level, ISIS poses a major threat to Kurdistan, given that its territory stretches hundreds of kilometers along Kurdish-controlled areas. While the Kurds have defended themselves and rolled back some of ISIS’s territorial gains, this has required US airpower, arms, and ammunition to the Peshmerga forces.
The declaration for a referendum has already faced stiff resistance by the Iraqi federal government and the West. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi urged Kurds to refrain from taking this step. Western countries also remain committed to a united Iraq.
In a panel at the Brookings Institute, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kurds can choose however they wish to proceed with the referendum, but called the potential move a distractor from the war against ISIS.
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“I think the danger is that introducing this element now risks creating a tremendous distraction that will get people focused on internal Iraqi debates and challenges and differences. It risks distracting the central government in Baghdad, the Sunni community and the only beneficiary in that will actually be Daesh,” Blinken noted, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Understanding the US static position, Hemin Hawrami a foreign policy advisor to Kurdistan Region’s President said in a panel at Washington institute that “independence would never be a Christmas gift” to be handed over to the Kurds by the West.
"Western countries remain committed to a united Iraq"
Hawrami confirmed that Kurds would go ahead with holding the vote regardless of the international community’s reaction, saying that “Kurdish friends” will be informed prior to the vote.
While the Kurdish leadership might hold the referendum this year, it still is not clear what message that would send, because if eventual independence is the end, then the first Kurdish referendum in 2005 when more than 98 percent of Kurds voted in favor of independence would already be a strong ground and mandate to act on.
In addition, some 11 years ago, Kurds were more prepared; there was a Referendum Movement actively working on the issue, informing people about the procedure, seeking international support and visiting the UN in New York to submit 1.7 million signatures of Kurds supporting independence. Not to mention that Kurds were more united and organized and Iraq as a state had been completely dismantled.
On the strategic level, KRG appears to lack a clear plan with defined means and ways to gain the support of the Western countries on this matter; it has not been able to engineer a roadmap to bring the disgruntled political parties onboard for this important step.
However, moving forward with the referendum will generate some excitement in Kurdistan that will help temper public frustrations temporarily and potentially, once more, rally all political parties behind a nationalistic cause, but it's quite doubtful that it will change the reality on the ground in the long-term.
But to manage its own economic and political problems, Kurdistan has to decide whether it's a region within a state or an independent state. The current status of the KRG has brought tribulation to the people and could get worse if such equivocation persists.