By any reasonable standard of history or justice, Kurdistan should be an independent country. The Kurds have a documented history as a separate ethnic group going back centuries, if not longer, and even have their own language. Kurdistan has a bigger claim to statehood than any of the states created from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.
But by another standard, the issue of whether an independent Kurdistan would make the world a better place, even for the Kurds themselves, is a more complicated one.
There was a time when Iraqi Kurdistan looked (at least by Middle East standards) as if it was developing into a progressive, democratic and prosperous country. The capital, Erbil, was a forest of construction cranes, and elections were real and held on time. Kurdistan was safer and more stable than any of its neighbors and was hosting refugees rather than spewing them out. Kurdistan’s fighting force, the Peshmerga, was the only local army that could stand up to Islamic State.
Indeed, the image popularized by the media of female Peshmerga fighters on the front lines in the war against ISIS gave the impression that Kurdistan was different from its Arab neighbors – an oasis of equality and opportunity, in a region where women are second-class citizens.
Much of this was an illusion and the part that was real proved to be just as ephemeral.
The real part was Kurdish democracy, but Masoud Barzani’s term as the elected president ended in 2013, his parliament-appointed term expired in 2015, and two years later he is still in power and shows no signs of quitting. Even if he does eventually step down, the Barzani family controls key institutions and jobs in and out of government, as well as businesses that will ensure their continued power. Iraqi Kurdistan's Parliament was suspended two years ago and since then has met only once – this month, to approve the referendum that was held on Monday.
The vaunted Peshmerga army is in fact a collection of party-affiliated fighters who could just as easily turn on each other once they finish off ISIS. The Peshmerga women are mostly fiction: In a fighting force estimated at 275,000, they account for just a few hundred soldiers and almost all of them serve behind the front lines in support roles.
But the biggest illusion of all was the Kurdish economy, which depends on oil. In the boom days, there was much talk about diversifying to create jobs and broaden the economic base, but as with other petro-states, Iraqi Kurdistan couldn’t resist the easy profits from hydrocarbons. What business there was in the country that wasn’t related to oil – mainly tourism and construction – couldn’t exist without oil money. Kurds who didn’t have the connections to start a business on oil profits could rely on the government for a job: Seventy percent of the Kurdish workforce is employed by the state.
All of this gave the impression that Kurdistan was prospering, but when oil prices collapsed, as they did in 2014, the economy tanked. Unemployment is probably in the double digits, construction has ground to a halt, and the government has run up debts to foreign oil companies and its own citizens that have reached an estimated $20 billion.
Kurdistan has no easy way to climb out of this mess. It has none of the tools an ordinary government has at its disposal, such as a currency it can devalue or access to international funding. It doesn’t even have a tax base it can use to encourage growth because it was reliant on oil profits and transfers from Baghdad that are no longer coming.
Worse still, the vast reserves of oil Kurdish leaders were counting on for the future have been recently downgraded by experts. In any case, no one thinks we’ll be seeing a $100-plus barrel of oil in the foreseeable future.
All in all, Kurdistan looks less like the next Dubai, a rich, relatively progressive Muslim-majority state, or even the next Turkey, before that hope was dashed by Erdogan’s authoritarianism. Kurdistan is, in fact, looking more like many of the other "stans" to its north, like Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan – repressive, corrupt regimes presiding over economies based on oil, gas and crony capitalism.
The history of post-World War II independence movements is less than encouraging: For every Singapore, there are 20 Zimbabwes, and right now, Kurdistan looks more like a Zimbabwe in-the-making. On top of its unpromising domestic situation, Kurdistan in landlocked and surrounded by countries that are either in disarray and/or are dead set against independence. Moreover, due to the referendum vote, Turkey is now threatening to cut off the pipeline Kurdistan needs to export its oil.
Unlike a lot of the drives to independence seen in recent years – like in Kosovo, South Sudan and East Timor – Iraqi Kurdistan isn’t in the midst of humanitarian crisis or under the boot of a repressive government that demands immediate action. It’s already autonomous; in fact, in many respects already independent. None of this means an independent Kurdistan should never come about, but it does make a strong case for it to wait and focus on getting its politics and economics in order first.
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