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The independence referendum on 25 September 2017 heralded a new period of upheaval for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The unofficial vote attracted widespread criticism, principally from Iraq and its neighbours but also from the Kurds’ historical allies including the United States. Although Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence, the vote was not recognized internationally and has made the prospect of a Kurdish state even more remote.
But perhaps the most devastating loss post-referendum was far more physical. Worried about the Kurds unilaterally declaring independent the territory that Erbil, the regional capital, had de facto annexed after Iraqi troops abandoned their positions to the Islamic State in 2014, Baghdad soon set about restoring the KRG’s pre-2003 borders.
In October 2017, Iraqi troops and Shia militias successfully recaptured the city of Kirkuk and its valuable oilfields, without a shot being fired. Troops allied to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KRG’s second political party, were ordered to abandon their positions, gifting the city that Masoud Barzani – the long-time KRG president – once described as the Kurds’ Jerusalem. These orders reignited political animosity in the KRG, with Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), accusing the PUK of “high treason”. In the following days, protestors torched the offices of non-KDP political parties in Dohuk, north of Erbil.
The loss of Kirkuk was painful, given its symbolic and economic value. However, Baghdad has pressured Erbil in other ways too. Iran and Turkey agreed to Baghdad’s demands (no doubt with their own anti-Kurdish independence interests in mind) to close their borders with the KRG, thereby isolating the region. Although the land borders have since reopened, the Iraqi government has extended to the end of February 2018 the international flight ban it imposed on Erbil’s airport, strangling the region’s wider business interests. As such, border crossings have become a key bargaining chip between Baghdad and Erbil. On 20 January 2018, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met the KRG’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, nephew of Masoud Barzani, for the first time since the referendum. Al-Abadi renewed his demands that the KRG’s airports and border crossings, as well as Kurdish oil exports, be returned to Baghdad’s control.
Power Back in Old Hands
Despite the ongoing negotiations, Baghdad seems to hold the reins of power. In November 2017, Barzani effectively conceded sovereignty to Baghdad by recognizing the legitimacy of the Supreme Court ruling that affirmed Iraq’s territorial unity. Although the KRG still enjoys a form of self-rule, the referendum has, for now at least, extinguished all political hopes of independence.
Yet while change has dominated the Kurd’s relations with external forces, internal political change has been almost non-existent. Chastened by the failure of the referendum, Masoud Barzani stepped down but has not disappeared from Kurdish politics altogether. He remains head of the KDP and sits on the High Political Council, a non-governmental body that emerged after the refer-endum. As such, power remains firmly in Barzani hands.
Nechirvan Barzani, 51, who has spent all but three years since 2006 as prime minister, is a less polarizing figure than his uncle, who called his rivals in the PUK traitors for giving up Kirkuk without a fight in October 2017.
A Costly Decision
The upheaval of the past months has done little to help the KRG’s economy. A third of marketplaces in Erbil have shuttered since the referendum. The flight ban and new visa restrictions has more than doubled the cost of reaching Erbil, deterring business travellers and tourists alike.
However, the most painful economic consequence has been Erbil’s failure to pay the salaries of government employees. Baghdad stopped paying these in 2014, following a long-running oil dis-pute, and since then, conflict and economic mismanagement have forced Erbil to stop paying them as well.
After months with no income, thousands of civil servants, along with students, finally took to the streets in December 2017. In several towns, government party buildings were set alight. At least six protestors were killed and hundreds arrested by the security forces. The police also used live ammunition to disperse crowds of protestors calling for the resignation of the entire Kurdish government.
Protests on this scale occur rarely in the KRG, and the outpouring of anger is surely a sign that the Kurds’ patience is wearing thin. While the political elites’ focus has been squarely on their political legacy and independence, little benefit has reached regular Kurds. Although independence would no doubt have been celebrated across the KRG, earning valuable political capital for those who brought it about, the failure of September’s vote returned attention to the region’s more pressing economic concerns.
On 27 December 2017, al-Abadi announced that Baghdad would resume paying government salaries, apparently after concessions made by the KRG leadership. Although Baghdad re-shouldering this bill is a concession of sovereignty for Erbil, it buys the Kurdish leaders some time to reboot the economy. With such high levels of discontent, Baghdad has done Erbil a favour – a fact that will not be lost on the Iraqi government.
Worryingly, during the December protest, PUK authorities issued a call for vigilante action and warned media outlets against ‘provoking’ unrest in the name of freedom of the press. The same day, the Kurdish secret police raided the offices of a local TV channel, taking the channel off the air. Signs of authoritarian tendencies in the KRG leadership are not new, but with little in the way of political alternatives and with the Barzani family enjoying an almost tribal hold on power, there seems little hope for a new beginning in the region.
In light of the authorities’ violent response to the protests, the opposition Gorran party announced that it was resigning from the government along with the Kurdistan Islamic Group in solidarity with the protestors. Given the party’s limited political power, however, this seems unlikely to amount to any real change.
The referendum sent shock waves around the world, inspiring Kurds to the possibility of an independent state and alarming governments across the region. But if Erbil went ahead with the vote from a position of strength, the KRG is now in its worst state for years, wracked by internal dissent and with old political wounds freshly opened.