Independence referendum in the Iraqi Kurdistan: “Made in Turkey”

The results of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan hardly surprised anyone in terms of the victory of supporters of greater independence of the autonomous region from the central government in Baghdad. Despite loud statements and subsequent symbolic steps against the referendum, the Turkish government, through its focused policy of supporting Iraqi Kurdistan, contributed to the success of the Iraqi Kurds’ struggle for their political independence.

In a referendum on September 25, the bulletins printed in Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic and Assyrian languages ​​asked one question: “Do you want the Kurdish region and the Kurdish territories outside of it to become an independent state?” Most answered “yes.” The final figures will be announced on September 28.

On the eve of the referendum, Ankara made it clear to the Kurds that it does not approve and even opposes plans for voting in the territory of Iraqi Kurdistan. So, on September 22, the National Security Council headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that the decision to hold a referendum poses a threat to the national security of Turkey. In the final statement of the Council, the leadership warned its Kurdish neighbors that, in the event of a vote, Ankara retains the right to take measures provided for by international treaties. If to read between the lines: Turkey hints at, allegedly, its right to introduce troops to restore the territorial unity of the Iraqi state.

The same day, at a meeting of the Council of Ministers of Turkey, the sanctions that the country can introduce against the rebellious Kurds in Iraq were discussed: the cessation of air traffic, the restriction of trade, the reduction of the volume of Kurdish oil delivered to the world markets through the Turkish territory, and sanctions against a number of firms related to the leadership Iraqi Kurdistan.

The leadership of the Iraqi Kurdistan did not start talking about plans to hold a referendum on independence yesterday. Public statements have sounded at least since 2014, but then the political crisis inside the autonomous region and the war against IGIL forced the Kurds to postpone the vote. Such an important decision was not taken in a hurry, and, moreover, could not be accepted by the Kurds without taking into account the opinions of the regional powers, above all Turkey, whose favors for many years depended on the fate of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is the long-term cooperation of Iraqi Kurds and Ankara that has instilled in the political elites of Kurdistan the confidence that the Kurds have a real opportunity to become independent, realizing the long-term aspiration of the whole people.

Turkey contributed to the strengthening of Iraqi Kurdistan as an independent region through mutually beneficial oil trade. Most of the income received by the Iraqi Kurdistan comes from the export of oil, which is delivered to world markets through the territory of Turkey through the pipeline. In addition, the Turkish leadership through a series of administrative measures has stimulated the Turkish business to invest in the region. According to recent reports, the volume of Turkish investments in Iraqi Kurdistan amounted to about $ 1 billion, in the region there are about 1500 Turkish firms. Through Kurdistan, the bulk of Turkey’s exports to Iraq (about $ 7 billion) passes.

Turkey is partly guilty of eroding Iraq’s sovereignty and weakening the central government in Baghdad. The above oil trade was carried out in violation of the Iraqi constitution. Turkey did not respond to the demands of the Iraqi leadership to direct revenues from the sale of oil to the federal budget, and not to the pockets of the autonomous Kurdistan. At the same time, the Turkish leadership in some cases openly demonstrated Iraq’s insolvency as an independent state. At the end of last year, a scandal erupted between Baghdad and Ankara about the status of Turkish military bases located on the territory of Iraq. The presence of the Turkish military had a vague legal status from the point of international law, and all the persistent requests of the government of Iraq to close the bases were ignored by Turkey. Ankara made concessions only after Iraq began to threaten to bring the matter to the discussions of the UN Security Council.

Finally, Turkey, in view of the growing military and political threats from international terrorism, has turned Iraqi Kurdistan into a wealthy political subject of international relations. Ankara not only invested heavily in training the military personnel of the Kurdish region, but also attracted the Iraqi Kurdistan to solve its political tasks outside Iraq: the Turks used the leadership of Kurdistan for a long time as a counterbalance to the political influence of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in eastern Turkey and Syria. The expansion of the diplomatic presence of the region was largely due to the support of Ankara.

Even if the Turkish leadership, as we see it, supports the course of the Iraqi Kurds for independence, it can not speak about it openly. In Turkey, any statement by the ruling party on supporting Iraqi Kurdistan can be compared to a political suicide. The nationalist electorate of the ruling Justice and Development Party headed by Erdogan, like most Turks, is opposed to any Kurdish ambitions. The growing wave of nationalism and the polarization of the Turkish society do not leave much space to the country’s leadership for maneuvering over the referendum issue. Thus it turns out that despite the long-standing policy of Turkey’s support to the course of the Iraqi Kurds for independence from Baghdad and their own involvement in the success of this quest, in the public discourse Turkish leadership is compelled to react extremely negatively to the voting in the Kurdistan region.


Moscow ambiguity on Kurdistan independence hints at Russian power play

Although Moscow acknowledges Kurdish aspirations to independence, it nevertheless has been avoiding taking a clear stance on the issue of the referendum in the Kurdistan Region. Russian officials may have current dynamics within Iraq in view: Kurds have expanded their control over vast swaths of territories in the fight against ISIS, and their desire to legitimize status of these newly gained territories as a part of the Kurdish autonomy may be driving Erbil into holding a referendum.

But the absence of a clear stance on the issue of independence was a long-time policy of Russia. The ambiguity and argumentation of why Russia neither favors nor opposes Kurdistan’s independence bid tells a lot not only about Russian policy on the Kurds, but more importantly it may shed light on Russia’s vision for the whole Middle East.

First of all, when arguing against immediate measures of the Kurds to hold a referendum, Russia points at the possible political implications of such a step for the whole region, implying that any serious changes in Iraq may cause tectonic shifts in neighbouring Turkey, Iran, and Syria. On the other hand, Russia, since its involvement in the Syria civil war, has indicated on several occasions that it favors an idea of giving unspecified scope of autonomy to ethnic minorities, including, of course, Syrian Kurds. Moreover, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs at the peak of the diplomatic crisis between Moscow and Ankara brought up the problem of discrimination against the Kurdish minority in Turkey, thus further contributing to regionalization of the Kurdish issue.

Furthermore, when talking about the Kurds’ right to self-determination, Russia tends to underline supremacy of the constitutional order and prefers dealing with the central government in Baghdad. On the other hand, Russia rejects any attempts to compare the case of Iraqi Kurdistan with Crimea, South Ossetia or Abkhazia, where people decided their political future by challenging central authorities. The logical conclusion from these examples holds that Russian decision-makers believe that political order in the region may be shaped by world powers, who ultimately decide to what extent local societies should enjoy independence or autonomy. When political processes are shaped by bigger powers (in the manner of a stable bipolarity during the Cold War), instability can be minimized because global powers usually control more things that local polities would otherwise do and as a result can better handle and carry out necessary changes.

Secondly, despite the fact that Russia perceives itself as a global power which along with other powers should channel political processes in the Middle East, it finds the region less and less susceptible to outer influence and far less conductive to any long-term policies due to high unpredictability of events. This is the reason why Russian officials put forward a thesis of tragic implications of the referendum for the whole region. Fragmentation of the regional political space may lead to deeper instability and due to perplexed geopolitical interests around Iraq and Kurdish-majority regions any attempt to reconfigure political settings may lead to deterioration of the security situation and, as a result, to the establishment of an environment where a democratic government can’t thrive.

But still it is insecurity and absence of stable government that may contribute to rising influence of Russia in the Middle East. Rhetoric on the inherent instability and binary logic that puts human rights and democracy to the political instability opens opportunities for Russia to increase its influence by using what it can do best: offer diplomatic support to the central governments and provide help in strengthening security infrastructure by selling arms. Russia can’t rely on soft-power tools: it doesn’t have ideology and economic resources that could expand its influence in the region.

Among the reasons why Russia is reluctant to approve the Kurdish referendum one can also name realization of the limitedness of its own influence in the region and, as a result, its reliance on regional powers. By constantly reminding that any attempt to change the status of the Kurdish polity must proceed within dialogue with Baghdad, Russia signals that a central government has a bigger role in its vision of the Middle East. Today, good relations with Baghdad doesn’t only contribute to stable development of strategic relations with Iran, through Baghdad Russia can potentially reach the Arab world, who, as we know it, opposes any attempts of the Kurds to redefine the status-quo in Syria and Iraq.

Lack of Russian support for the Kurds’ unilateral initiatives to change Iraq’s borders can also be explained by how Russia really acknowledges Turkey’s and Iran’s influence in the region. It is not only about possible escalation of violence as a result of secession attempts, but more about Ankara’s and Tehran’s ability to spoil the game global powers are trying to play in the region. If Russia goes against concerns of them both, it can lose the balance in its own competition with the USA. To succeed against the global influence of the latter, Russia must act in the regions that are very critical to the American interests. It means Russia has to have a good level of predictability of the processes in the region and by nurturing good relations with regional trendsetters Russia tries to channel regional dynamics in its own favor.

It is worth noting that Russian policy in the Middle East is not stable and coherent as one might expect. Russia is a relatively new player in the region, it has lost many positions in the Middle East, many political ties were gone forever as the region was changing over the last 20 years. But in light of Kurdish ambitions, modern Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East does still reveal similarity with the Soviet vision: Moscow prefers dealing with the established state actors. It furthermore sees the world and the region from a state-centric perspective and thus treats any regional non-state actors with great suspicion.



Reality is twisted in Turkey to serve political ends

There are today hot debates in the academic circles on whether Turkey can be still considered a democracy. Some point out that although a current political regime still tries to get legitimacy through elections, it nevertheless resorts to non-democratic methods of securing its power, be it through deliberate politicization of state bureaucracy or oppression of dissent. Since elections are still regarded by a political regime in Turkey as an essential rule of the game, a ruling party is trying to influence voters’ opinion by limiting free flow of ideas and, with it, stifle any criticism that can potentially harm regime’s image in the long run. The major element of this policy is manipulation of facts and distortion of reality in the country.

Creating a suitable narrative based on a myth about foundation of a new Turkey is the primary goal behind Turkish regime’s current propagandistic efforts around judicial process on the coup attempt of July 15. Regime tries to persuade society in an idea that current political party was spearheading popular resistance against non-democratic elements, thus, presenting itself as a champion of Turkish democracy. Pro-government propaganda machine suspiciously avoids mentioning a long history of productive alliance with the would-be coup plotters between 2002–2012 with whom a current ruling party managed to suppress secular Kemalist opposition in the army and state bureaucracy using methods that are hard to consider democratic. To make a picture more surreal, political regime in Turkey accuses a main legal political opposition party of cooperation with forces behind the last year coup.

But regime’s efforts to manipulate reality are not limited exclusively to the past. Turkey’s ruling political party, having enjoyed since 2002 victories on several national elections, that are getting with each season less and less free and fair, managed to put under its influence major state institutions making them serve narrow political ends but not national interests. A glaring example of this is manipulation of statistical data on national economy’s performance: the Statistical Agency of Turkey has been demonstrating astonishing creativity in devising new methods of calculation of basic macroeconomic data, allegedly to conceal cases of malperfomance of the Turkish economy.

But is not only reality at home that gets distorted by the Turkish government. Ruling party purposely misrepresents how Turkey as a nation as treated on the international arena. Main focus of state propaganda is directed at the object of frustration in the Turkish national consciousness — Europe. When Turkish authorities arrest European human-rights advocates and get criticized for politically motivated and inappropriate application of anti-terrorism legislation — government officials don’t wait too long to portray criticism as an effort of Europe to meddle in domestic affairs of Turkey. Turkish government, however, often than not avoids mentioning the fact that Turkey is a candidate-country to the European Union and has certain obligations it has to fulfill like the ones concerning further liberalization, upholding human-rights and reviewing terrorism-related laws. In other words, besieged fortress mentality is fostered by authorities to secure own positions under heavy storm of criticism from the Western capitals.

Yet another interesting point to mention is how Turkish regime tries to create an image of a broad societal support by limiting any free space for political discussions and at the same time investing in government-friendly substitutes of opinion setters. Under emergency decrees issued by the Turkish President more than 560 foundations, 1125 associations and NGOs were closed. Existing institutions of a civil society struggle to survive and face permanent pressure from pro-government network of media.

Furthermore, many academicians critical of the current government were either suspended or fired as a result of the Turkish government’s radical policy to purge alleged pro-coup and pro-terrorist elements from academia. It is, however, difficult to say to what extent such radical measures are justified and whether they will result in producing more stability in the country since, as the July coup itself evidenced, Turkish judiciary is subjected to deep politization and loss of integrity.

The most profound effect of the post-coup policies of the Turkish regime was felt by dissent media: journalists get arrested and forced to wait to stand before the judge for many months. Though many cases take place in a framework of anti-terrorist legislation and the accused theoretically have a chance of an acquittal, the way how case are scrutinized produce a chilling effect on journalists who dare to criticize regime’s policies. Meanwhile pro-government media is gaining more relative weight in the informational environment letting the regime to control a critical flow of ideas.

Finally, there is a coordinated policy of fueling debates in the society on topics that are important, though don’t have prime importance in today’s Turkey who is facing slowing economic performance, souring relations with the West , increased political and military threats on its borders and corruption of democratic system of governance. Instead of addressing these problems, pro-government media seem to focus on an issue that has been always dividing Turkish society: a role of religion and its place in state policies, education and private lives of the Turks. No doubt, this issue needs to be discussed, but excessive attention to it seems to be provoked by the government to divert public eye from real problems.

There is no objective reality in Turkey. Facts are cherry-picked by the political regime, served and altered by pro-government media outlets and, finally, offered to broader public and potential voters. Though, it is natural and understandable that the regime is trying to manipulate reality to serve its political interests, it is however worrying that Turkey, who is living through profound changes after the coup, gets deprived a slightest chance for progress through sincere self-criticism and genuine self-reflection. Sooner or later current ruling political forces will be gone, but Turkish democracy will be still there, coping with the very same problems that it is facing today, if nothing is changed now.