For an ethnic entity under assault by a central power, there are two ways to go: to work for a central democratic regime that respects the existence and rights of that ethnicity or to attempt to secede if there is no hope of democratizing the center.
It would be wrong, however, to attribute the tendency to seek a separate state to only the nationalist drive of ethnic groups. I think the main responsibility lies with the center to demonstrate the possibility of coexistence and power sharing with ethnic minorities.
Without this, it is hard to put all the blame on the nationalist tendencies of ethnic groups. So long as their rights are denied and their demands for power sharing are ignored, no one can blame them for developing secessionist ambitions. While a separate state would not necessarily guarantee the enjoyment of these rights at the level of the individual, under such an independent political entity no one would be able to stop them from seeking such rights.
This has been the case of the Kurds of Iraq for decades.
“In 1970, a commission headed by Saddam Hussein visited Mullah Mustafa Barzani’s headquarter[s] in Saman, Arbil. There had been an ongoing Kurdish armed struggle for autonomy since 1961, and the Baghdad government was offering a new agreement in order to settle the Kurdish issue. Mullah Mustafa said that he would not lay down arms unless Baghdad recognizes the autonomy of Kurds. … Saddam Hussein accepted the conditions of Mullah Mustafa and the ceasefire began. During this meeting, [Massoud] Barzani, the son of Mullah Mustafa, asked Saddam Hussein how Baghdad would solve the democracy problem in all of Iraq. Saddam Hussein said that ‘the system [with which] we govern the rest of Iraq is none of your business. You will have autonomy in Kurdistan. Why do you care about this?’”
The relevance of Massoud Barzani’s question has come to be understood well over the years, according to Dr. Burak Bilgehan Özpek of the Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) Economy and Technology University, who wrote the provocative and eye-opening article on the future of Iraqi Kurdistan from which the above has been excerpted and that was published in the summer issue of Insight Turkey (www.insightturkey.com).
In his article, titled “Democracy or Partition: Future Scenarios for the Kurds of Iraq,” Özpek warns all interested parties that the maintenance of Iraqi unity requires a functioning democracy in Baghdad and respect for power sharing between the center and the federal entity. “The centralization policy of [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki threatens the unity of Iraq rather than helping with consolidating the country,” according to Özpek.
Let’s read further.
“Despite the Kurds’ establishment of their regional government and attainment of increased autonomy, they have not initiated an assertive policy agenda of seeking secession from Iraq. This means that their gains have not encouraged them to go for independence. However, Kurdish politicians have started to hint that they will consider independence if the centralization of power under Nouri al-Maliki continues.”
And it continues, according to Özpek.
“Maliki, through his efforts to centralize power by controlling the strategic ministries, the military, the electoral commission and the economy, and by excluding Sunni and Kurdish figures from the political and bureaucratic system, is undermining the de facto power-sharing tradition implemented in Iraq after the US invasion.”
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), defines Maliki as a dictator and, as quoted by Özpek, has said: “Unfortunately, after many years, the situation is being changed and turned into the previous version. We don’t accept the return of dictatorship. … The problem here is not only the Kurds, it is with all Iraq. If Iraq was democratic, federal and plural then it will be one and united. We don’t threaten the unity of Iraq; it is dictatorship that threatens the unity of Iraq.”
Massoud Barzani also said that “a dictator in Baghdad cannot rule Kurdistan and if Baghdad attempts to do so the Kurds would go their separate way. The process has already begun and it is only [a] matter of time and regional development to decide when and how it happens.”
While the Maliki government aims to subordinate the KRG by cutting their budget and imposing an Arab identity on the military, the KRG regards such attempts as those of a dictator to consolidate his power and centralize the political system. Thus, Maliki’s strategy reminds Kurds of their historical fears inherited from Baathist Iraq, which was a perfect model of a strong and central state.
If he were to meet Maliki, Massoud Barzani might ask the same question he asked Saddam Hussein 42 years ago and remind Maliki what happened to Iraq after Saddam’s arrogant response.
Unless a full-fledged democracy is established, it will be impossible to put an end to the secessionist tendencies of strong ethnic minorities that even hold regional autonomy. This is a lesson that Turkey should also seriously consider.