After the vote, does the Kurdish dream of independence have a chance?
IRBIL, Iraq — After a century of yearning, the Kurds of Iraq have managed, at last, to pull off a vote for independence, but not without antagonizing nearly everyone in perhaps the world’s most volatile region.
The question now is whether an arid, landlocked proto-state dependent on hostile neighbors can overcome is own shortcomings — and Iraq’s disruptive retaliation — to build a viable path to independence.
With its troubled economy and dearth of democratic institutions, its prospects were already tenuous. Its best hopes lay in its oil reserves and U.S. support, but Turkey has threatened to cut off its oil pipeline, and the relationship with the United States soured after the Kurds rebuffed its entreaties to cancel the vote.
Rather than negotiate and then seek international recognition, as the United States and others had asked, the Kurds forged ahead with the referendum.
But if anything, the vote, while satisfying the Kurds emotionally, may have set back their national aspirations.
Now, after a 93 percent “yes” vote Monday, the Kurds are beseeching Baghdad to negotiate. Baghdad is not only refusing, but has demanded that the vote results be annulled and has moved to isolate the region, known as Kurdistan.
The last nation to win independence, landlocked South Sudan in 2011, has had a rocky start but at least was internationally recognized and had U.S. backing. Kurdistan is all alone in a dangerous neighborhood.
For the Kurds, the vote was a potent and historic touchstone, a declaration to the world that this is their moment and they are not turning back.
“This is an irreversible step toward independence,” said Peter W. Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat with close ties to the Kurdish leadership.
But the Kurds may have underestimated the depth of international opposition.
Before they had even stopped celebrating, Iraq and its two powerful neighbors, Turkey and Iran, immediately went to work to negate the vote. Iraq fears losing a third of its country, as well as oil and natural gas reserves. Turkey and Iran fear that independence for Iraq’s Kurds would embolden separatist ambitions among their own Kurdish minorities.
The fierce reaction has exposed Kurdistan’s distinct vulnerabilities and shortcomings. The region’s first days after the vote were spent not laying the groundwork for statehood, but struggling to escape a tightening noose.
On Saturday, Iraq moved to take control of the international border crossing leading into the region from Turkey, officials said in Baghdad.
Iraq has forced the suspension of international flights to Kurdistan’s two international airports, and threatened to close land crossings linking Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq.
Iraq’s parliament has asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to bring charges against Kurdish leaders who participated in the referendum and to send troops into disputed areas claimed by both the Kurds and Baghdad.
Turkey and Iraq are conducting military maneuvers on Iraq’s borders near Kurdistan. Turkey has threatened to close its border crossing into Kurdistan, which relies on imported goods and food from Turkey and, to a lesser extent, Iran.
Iraq and Iran plan joint military maneuvers along their border next week, aimed at securing Iraqi control of three border crossings from areas controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government, Iran’s military said Saturday.
A healthy democratic government might weather the storm. But the Kurdistan Regional Government lacks the foundations of a democratic state — rule of law, free and fair elections, civil society and a legislature with real power to challenge a dynastic executive leadership.
“We don’t have rule of law — we have a monarchy,” said Rabbon Marof, a member of the Kurdish parliament and a leader of the “No for Now” movement that opposed the vote.
The region’s president, Massoud Barzani, remains in power two years after his term expired. The Kurdish parliament was paralyzed for two years until it met two weeks ago to rubber-stamp the referendum Barzani had already set in motion.
The government is a Barzani family enterprise. Barzani is the son of former Kurdish leader Mustafa Barzani. Massoud Barzani’s son Masrour Barzani heads the Security Council in his father’s government.
Massoud Barzani’s nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister. The president’s uncle is Hoshyar Zebari, Iraqi’s former foreign minister and Barzani’s top adviser on the referendum.
Denise Natali, an expert on Kurdistan at National Defense University in Washington, says the issue for the Kurds may not be whether the region can transform itself into a state but the kind of state it would become: “poor, failed, and unstable.”
Zebari acknowledged in an interview Friday that the regional government had “shortcomings,” but he said it was more democratic and secure than the rest of Iraq. He said the independence vote would force more accountability.