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 I do not see Iraqi Kurdistan becoming independent in the near future, a US professor says

 Source : The Hawler Tribune  
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I do not see Iraqi Kurdistan becoming independent in the near future, a US professor says  24.9.2008 
By Namo Abdulla

September 24, 2008

" I do not see the Kurdistan region of Iraq becoming independent in the near future. This is not because of a lack of will from the Kurdish elite or the Kurdish populations.

Various referendums have shown the emotional will to have an independent Kurdistan. However, statehood is not built upon emotions, no matter how legitimate these claims may be," says US professor Natali in an exclusive interview with The Hawler Tribune.

Dr. Denis Natali is an American political scientist currently teaching Comparative Politics at the University
of Kurdistan-Hawler. She is an expert in the Kurds and has followed Kurdish issue for about two decades. She has written a number of incredible academic articles about the Kurds and a book entitled “The Kurds and the State”.

Here, in this interview, in detail she talks about the nature of the Kurdistan Regional Government and some other crucial ongoing issues concerning the Kurds in Iraq.

If you classify governments where do you put Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)? Democracy or Non-Democracy?

I would classify the KRG as a transitional democracy. That is, a system attempting to move from a former authoritarian to a democratic structure. The KRG has attempted to incorporate some elements of democracy, particularly in the institutions established; a parliament in which laws are debated and created, civil society organizations, some free press, and election processes. However, like most transitional democracies, the KRG has not been able to consolidate democracy. Important structural constraints and political culture hinder regular and open elections. The socio-economic and political system is controlled by the political parties and there is limited space for individual liberties. Scholars of democracy often talk about a ‘democratic spirit’ that must coincide within institutions to help advance the transition process. The Kurdistan region is still lacking in this spirit, although not entirely.

Given Max Weber's classification: Is KRG traditional, Charismatic, or Bureaucratic?

The Kurdistan region is a transitional society moving from traditional agrarian economy to one based on market exchanges outside the family unit. Part of this transition involves the political institutions, and the attempt to move from a wasta-based, personality-driven system to a rational, bureaucratic one. Given the ongoing role of tribal and traditional power structures in the political system, the KRG has components of traditional and charismatic systems. The large and expanding bureaucratic function has not necessarily led to rational decision-making, or weakened the role of personalities in decision-making. Thus, I would place the KRG closer toward a traditional system than a modern one, although attempting to modernize.

By looking at the general image of the KRG, to what extent is current Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) legitimate to govern its people?

A government is legitimate to the extent to which it has the confidence of the people it governs. One can question the very legitimacy of the first KRG by examining its particular nature of representation and system of governance. I first came to the Kurdistan region in July 1992 to interview the first parliamentarians of this government. I remember clearly the euphoria of the situation and the initial willingness of both political parties to work together in the “fifty-fifty split”. However, from an institutional perspective, there was little legitimacy in this structure. The parliament had no opposition party, the KNA could not call a vote of no-confidence of the prime-minister, and new elections were not held systematically. The government was essentially a refabricated version of the Kurdistan Front. Much has changed since then, particularly as the newly unified KRG has become more representative of the diverse ethnic and religious communities in the region. Still, an important component of legitimacy is open and free elections for both a leader and the government. The other is the nature of representation of the legislature. In this sense, the KRG must re-new or recreate its legitimacy in the post-Saddam era through these mechanisms of democratic governance.

Kurdish main political parties claim that they are secular parties believing that "no secularism, no democracy" as this matters in the West that if you are not secular, you are not a democracy. Where is the relation between being secular and being democracy?

It is difficult to find any democratic country today that is entirely secular, that is, where religion is separated from the state. The United States claims it is, but the Christian Right under the influence of George Bush has been active in chipping away at the once secular system of the US. France could be a good case in point, although it is ultimately a “Catholic” country.

Even then, trying to making such a correlation depends upon how you define democracy. If you take a strict interpretation of liberal democracy, assuming a minimal level of civil liberties, institutions that assure free and regular elections, checks and balances of the political system and a support of individual rights, then one can argue that any religion or ideology based on underlying values of communalism can be at odds with liberal democratic values because individual rights takes priority over everything else. Francis Fukayama makes this argument when examining “Confusician and democracy”, arguing the role of ideology and political cultures counter to democratization. Similarly, other scholars have shown the failure of democratic transitions in the Middle East, using the ideology of Islam as an impediment to such change.

To the extent that democracy is more than institutions and the machinery of government, I agree that a certain type of ‘political culture’, values, or social structure is necessary. One can have a parliament and a prime minister but no democracy. The ‘spirit of democracy’ requires commitment and protection of individual liberties. This can only come from the way of thinking, political socialization processes and culture of a society based on the rule of law. At minimum, religion and religious beliefs must be separated from the state.

Free Market is a mark of liberal democracies. What is Free Market? Does Kurdistan have Free Market?

A free market usually is referred to as an economic system in which the state is separate from the economy, or one in which the government does not intervene in or control the market. There is no really free market in the world today. Even in the US, which prides itself on having a free market liberal democracy, the government in Washington, as well as within federal states, have intervened to regulate prices or assist in times of turmoil. Look at the recent housing crisis in the US. The US government has attempted to ‘bail out’ homeowners and assist in regulating the crisis. Yet, overall, the market is one that is ‘self-regulating’ in that prices of goods and services are determined by competition of the market, and supply and demand. This can be opposed to controlled market economies, or those in centrally planned economies with a large government role, like the former Communist states and current day France. A free market should also have mechanisms in which private loans can be available as well as an independent banking system.

Given its historical legacies and institutional weaknesses, the Kurdistan region does not have an entirely free market. The Kurdistan region has a “controlled Free Market”. The political parties and leading families monopolize certain sectors, such as telecommunications and lucrative projects. The fact that borders have opened a various cheap goods from China have been dumped on the Kurdistan markets does not mean a free market has emerged. Rather, it reveals the absence of quality-assurance and controls of goods entering the region. Further, a real free market would also be a market in which employment opportunities would be enlargened to private sector opportunities, and not one in which the government provides over 76% of its income to pay for jobs of its local populations. This is counterproductive and a hindrance to a health productive semi-free market economy.

You have written a book entitled, the Kurds and the State, how do you see the close future of the Kurds? Are they going toward becoming independent?

No. I do not see the Kurdistan region of Iraq becoming independent in the near future. This is not because of a lack of will from the Kurdish elite or the Kurdish populations. Various referendums have shown the emotional will to have an independent Kurdistan. However, statehood is not built upon emotions, no matter how legitimate these claims may be.

My forthcoming book is called “The Kurdish Quasi-State” and it essentially argues that the logic of quasi-statehood leaves the Kurdistan region weak and dependent. That is, without external sovereignty the Kurdish quasi-state needs an external patron (the US), international support, a weak central government for its economic and political survival. There are no quasi-states in the world today that have attained statehood. The Kosovars recently declared independence with the tacit support from the US and its NATO allies, however, the UN and international law has not recognized this declaration.

The logic of quasi-statehood also means that the Kurdistan region can receive the “benefits of stalemate”, which allow it to maintain its political legitimacy and economic development in a federal Iraqi state. Some of these benefits include about eight billion USD budget in 2008, and ongoing support from international corporations and governments.

Finally, the very structural constraints inside the Kurdistan region – weak institutions, traditional social structures, lack of social capital – prevent a self-sustaining region at this time. The Kurdish elite will first have to establish a generation of highly education citizens committed to the idea of Kurdistan and to be proud to be part of the Kurdistan region. This sense of pride has certainly weakened since I have first arrived here, and it is an important component for any potential nation-state.

Parag Khana, senior researcher in New American Foundation, predicts that by 2016 the Kurds would have their own independent state with being 20,000 American troops based in.
• What do you make of this prediction?
• Do you have the same prediction?

In general, I avoid point predictions because they are contingent on a variety of factors, particular when it relates to the Kurds and Kurdistan. I find it hard to be so certain that by 2016 the Kurds will have an independent state with such a certainty of US troop level! There are important geopolitical conditions that need to be considered before making such as prediction, such as the resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, the PKK issue in Turkey and in Iraq, the role of political Islam in shaping future Kurdish nationalism, and the extent to which the Kurdish secular nationalist parties will reform and attain legitimacy from their populations. One could also predict that if the Kurdish nationalist parties continue on their road to corruption, then Islamic groups will have an increasingly open avenue to penetrate the political system, just like they did in Turkey and Palestine. This could affect the regional balance of power and internal dynamics of the nationalist project. There is nothing linear about the move toward independent statehood, and at any point in the trajectory of the Kurdish quasi-state, a crisis or key transforming moment can move the nationalist project on a different path. Thus, for instance, one can also predict that if the security and economic situation in Baghdad significantly improves and the Kurdistan region stagnates or becomes unstable, then the likelihood of this 2016 deadline for independence weakens.

You are as an American, how do you interpret current US-policy regarding the Kurds?

I will answer this as a political scientist first because I do not see any relationship between my national origin and analysis of US policymaking. Foreign policy is about assuring one’s national strategic interests – it has nothing to do with charity or philanthropy. This all sounds very Kissingerist, but the US is only doing what any other country would do in the region - to protect its national security interests. The US came into Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein, not to create an independent Kurdistan. Although the US has made unpardonable errors in the southern and central Iraq, it has enabled the Kurdistan region to realize important financial and political gains.

My criticism of US policy is that it is a non-policy. There still is no specific policy toward the Kurds or the Kurdistan region, and in fact, an imbalance and contradictory approach to dealing with the different Kurdish communities. One can no longer divide the Kurds into neat categories by country of origin and devise policies accordingly. The transnationalization of the Kurdish problem means that the Kurdish problem in Iraq must be managed alongside the problems in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Failure to address the larger Kurdish problem, particularly that in Turkey, is likely to result in a more expansive and lingering Kurdish problem in the future. More simply put, the US is going to have to put more real pressure on Turkey to resolve its Kurdish problem if it wants to see stability and prosperity in the region.

You, as an expert of the Kurdish issue, how do you see the level of successfulness of Kurdish foreign policy makers with the US and other sects in Iraq?

The Kurdish leaders have managed to use their leverage well since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. They have compromised their nationalist agenda, worked with the Americans and reaped the “spoils of peace” from the war. Instead of demanding independent statehood they played by the new rules of the federalist game, which often required more compromises, to attain economic benefits of stalemate.

Some people have criticized the Kurdish leaders for having pulled out of Kirkuk or negotiated away key territories or issues immediately after the war. I disagree. The Kurdish leaders were actually pragmatic and had little real alternatives. They could have unilaterally occupied Kirkuk with their peshmergas, but would have lost the legitimacy and support from the US and international community they have worked so hard to attain over the past years. Even today, with 95% of the budget of the KRG derived from Baghdad, the only route is for compromise and negotiation with the central government, as well as regional states. One cannot forget that the KRG has new forms of leverage, but it is still a landlocked region surrounded by states hostile to the idea of Kurdish nationalism. These states will continue to impede Kurdish nationalist activities.

Second, the Kurdish elite have also pursued a path of economic development first as a means of increasing their leverage and stability of the region. I think this is a wise strategy because the emotional calls for nationalism and the decade of victimization has ceased, or at least weakened. It is time to focus on economic strength and reconstruction, which can only further legitimize the Kurdistan region and its economy in the ideas of foreign governments and international investors. Once this stability and economic power is established, then they can possibly open social and political avenues as well.

Turkey was a strategic allay of the US and it supported the US logistically in almost all its military in preserving safe-heaven for Kurdistan. How do you interpret the current Turkish paranoia about a possible Kurdish independence? Was it a short-sightedness by the Turkish foreign policy?

The Triangular strategic relationship between the US, Turkey and Iraqi Kurds is not mutually exclusive. The US needs both Turkey and Iraqi Kurds for regional stability, and Iraqi Kurds and Turkey also need each other for economic and political development, as well as quelling their own political problems. The fact that Iraqi Kurds and the government of Turkey have differing views on the PKK or the Kurdish problem in Turkey does not necessarily make them “the Nemesis” of each other. Politically some components of the Turkish establishment, mainly the military, continue to refuse to recognize the KRG and its leadership, particularly the Barzani family. However, there are moderate civilian leaders, policymakers and intellectuals that argue that the government must recognize the KRG and that the Kurdistan region’s quasi-independence is a reality. The current AKP government is making efforts to close this gap and reach some type of accord with the Kurdish leadership in Iraq.

Secondly, one should look beyond the political landscape to realize the important economic interrelationships that have emerged between Turkey and the Kurdistan region since 2003. The Turkish government exports nearly 4 billion USD worth of goods to the Kurdistan region and has important investment projects that are likely to continue for decades ahead. I believe that as economic linkages become more closely intertwined, avenues for political cooperation can become possible. In this regard there is a high level of cooperation between the countries.

Look at this recent military incursion that barely lasted a week. I was here in the early 1990s and traveling throughout the Kurdistan region of Turkey during the civil war. Silopi was bombed out and there was no business to talk about. The Iraqi Kurds had no real economic stake or leverage on Turkey, and the Turkish military had no important investments or commercial interests in Iraqi Kurdistan. The military incursions went on, often for weeks, and with the cooperation with the different Iraqi Kurdish political parties as a means of keeping the border open.
The political and economic context today has fundamentally changed in the sense that both sides have more to risk financially, as well as diplomatically. If I were an Iraqi Kurdish entrepreneur or political elite I would try to entrench Turkish commercial interests in the region as much as possible, with guarantees that can be established along the way.

Copyright, respective author or news agency, The Hawler Tribune   


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