When Iraqi Kurds demand change

Violent demonstrations, brutal repression · While the Islamic Republic of Iran is experiencing violent street demonstrations widely covered by the Western press, little attention is paid to the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan which is in the throes of a serious political and economic crisis.

Demonstration in Sulaymanyah to demand payment of civil servants’ salaries, December 2017.

With this new episode of street protests and riots, in which the crowd attacked the offices of the various political parties in the Sulaymaniyah region, Iraqi Kurdistan is not facing its first challenge of the sort. Similar incidents, some more violent than others, have marked the region over the past decades. This latest episode, however, has been characterized by the celerity with which the authorities deployed the police and security forces in the towns under pressure and closed down a number of media outlets, accused of fomenting the anger of the protesters, such as the TV channels of the press group Nalia and the nonconformist network NRT.

The many infringements on the freedom of the press in the region have been mildly protested by the Western chancelleries, as was the arrest of prominent opponents of the main political parties, such as Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir, founder of Nalia, apprehended at Sulaymaniyah airport by men in uniform and kept incommunicado for several days before he was released. At the same time, the protesters and those who sympathized with them were labeled “terrorists” by the media outlets close to Masoud Barzani’s Democratic Party of Kurdistan (DPK).

In the words of Niyaz Abdulla, Iraqi journalist and Kurdish activist, interviewed on NRT, “all the laws passed by the executive and all its institutions are tools in the hands of the political parties in power. Whenever they wish, they can use the so-called ‘political parties act’ and its article 13.1 which enables them to interfere with the private media and any others that disagree with them. Which is why the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government), though its Minister of Culture or the executive branch can at any time call upon the security forces and any other political institution to serve the interests of a particular group or political party. All of this is due to a mindset originating in the civil war which makes them feel authorized to go after anyone who disagrees with the way they see things.”

Green Zone and Yellow Zone

One thing is becoming clear: almost all the protests are taking place in the “Green Zone”1 under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), founded by Jalal Talabani. After the bloody conflict with the DPK in the nineties, an agreement was reached to separate Kurdistan between the two rival movements in order to put an end to their dispute. Since that time, the two parties have shown quite different approaches to democratic dialogue: the DPK tolerates no significant opposition on its territory2, while the PUK has made room for pluralism and the expression of dissident opinions, relatively speaking.

Therefore the absence of street protests and violence in the DPK’s “yellow zone” does not necessarily reflect the contentment of the local population, subject to the same restrictions as the region controlled by the PUK. “Ever since the Saddam Hussein period, the people in the Sulaymaniyah region have been known for their courage and spirit of sacrifice. There have never been protests Erbil or Dohuk. Mentalities there are completely different. People can’t mount a demonstration in Erbil because it would be automatically repressed,” says Taha Betwayi, the father of one of the victims of the Ranye3 protests. However, it must be noted that the difference between the two zones goes no further, insofar as both parties have the same militia-like military corps which serves their special interests. In this sense, the PUK and the DPK occupy a position of power in the Kurdish political arena which is challenged by other parties possessing no such military advantages.

Reasons for Wrath

In the Green zone, students, teachers, civil servants and ordinary citizens have been voicing their exasperation with Kurdistan’s catastrophic situation for a long time now. Civil servants have not received their wages for three months, wages that have already been cut back for over a year on account of the country’s economic crisis. Considering that the situation is growing steadily worse, it is hard to see how the authorities will succeed in reversing the trend. The Kurdistan Regional Government suffers from a debt of over twenty billion dollars (16.6 billion euros), its economy is broken, especially since the loss of its oilfields in Kirkuk province. And it has to be said that a large share of those revenues had already been depleted by corruption.

The reasons for Kurdistan’s poor economic performances are also structural. Insufficiently diversified, the Kurdish economy suffers from a strategy of specialization modeled after its oil industry to the detriment of other activities and from an unwieldy and opaque public sector. Now that oil revenues have practically disappeared, an entire economic model has to be rethought. The absence of an efficient financial sector and worse still the flight of capital and investors of public service employees in the Kurdish regions to make sure there are no abuses. In the meantime, the daily lives of the working class remain unchanged.

Clashes Between Kurdish Politicians

Massoud Barzani was quick to resign after the resounding defeat of the referendum on independence he had instigated and was temporarily replaced by his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani. His party still has the upper hand as the result of what amounted to a coup by the last president of Parliament, Yousif Muhammad Qadir. Meanwhile, the legislative elections, originally scheduled for November 1, have been adjourned sine die on the pretext that the political crisis resulting from the loss of Kirkuk and other disputed territories has made it impossible to hold them in a suitable environment. Qadir finally resigned on December 2, five days after several ministers had done the same, in protest against the brutal repression of the rioting across the country.

On the other hand, neither the DPK nor the PUK deemed it necessary to withdraw from the government or reconsider the way they were running the country. While the PUK is going though an unprecedented crisis, with the clan of the heirs of Jalal Talabani trying to wrest the party leadership away from other players like Barham Salih or Kosrat Rasul Ali, the DPK is paralyzed by a quasi-tribal modus operandi based on nepotism. Aware of the difficulties involved in trying to reform the PUK4, several leaders are on their way out, like Barham Salih who launched his own movement last September and is even thought to be considering a coalition with Gorran, the opposition party to which the former president of parliament belongs. However, none of this is likely to settle the political crisis until transparent regional elections have been held and the thorny issue of the militias working for the political parties has been resolved.

Baghdad Profiting From the Disorder

While the leaders of the GRK cling to their hold on power, Iraqi authorities are taking advantage of their position of strength to impose ever more severe restraints, sapping little by little the Kurdish dream of independence. Having closed down the international airports in the Kurdish region (until next March), they have managed to impose a land blockade with the help of Turkey and Iran (a blockade which has gradually been eased and completely ended on 2 January 2018 after the opening of the last two Iranian border crossings). Moreover, the Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi militia, whose allegiance to Teheran is still ambiguous, have taken advantage of the situation to encourage the Shi’ite minorities in the mixed and disputed zones previously under the control of Kurdish forces. In the Tuz Khurmatu region abuses committed against the Kurdish or Sunni minorities are in reaction to the way the KRG favored the Kurds when they were running the city.

The punitive measures taken by Baghdad have a significant impact on a regional economy already devastated by the fall of oil prices and the war against the Islamic State (IS). Devoid of resources, the Kurdish leadership is obliged to await the verdict of the audit of civil servants and the Peshmerga launched by Baghdad against the institutions of the KRG. Nor does the central government have scruples about trying to interfere with Kurdish internal affairs by urging the parties allied with the KPD to break with Massoud Barzani’s party and make him lose his majority, which paradoxically enough might further the democratization of politics in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Whereas Iraqi parliamentary elections are set for 12 May 2018, no date has yet been set for the regional parliamentary elections in Kurdistan. The Gorran party is also calling for an audit of the voter record in the region following a report which identified 900,000 fake names on the election roll, the equivalent of 40 out of the 111 seats in the regional parliament (private conversation with a Kurdish Iranian law professor). Meanwhile, the regional government is doing its best not to comply with a decision by the Iraqi Court of Justice which demanded it recognizes as null and void the independence referendum, which would be the ultimate humiliation. Even though the risk of seeing the central government completely dismantle the regional government appears now somewhat remote, Baghdad nonetheless means to curb once and for all any future separatist temptations. It remains to see whether the current negotiations between the different parties will result in a normalization of the situation, in the return of the refugees to their regions of origin, in a genuine representation of the various populations in all their diversity in the disputed areas and last but not least a real democratization of the political process in both Kurdistan and Iraq as a whole.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: Since the Kurdish civil war (1994-1998), there are two de facto administrations in Kurdistan: the “green zone” (Sulaymaniyah province) controlled by the PUK, and the “yellow zone” (Erbil and Duhok provinces) controlled by the DPK.

2A group of lawyers based in Erbil put in a request for an authorized demonstration last month. The leader of the group came under pressure, the power and water supplies to his home were cut off the day the request was submitted.

3His son and another youth were killed by security forces shooting from an office which belonged to the DPK in that zone.

4The PUK intended to organize its Fourth Congress in January 2018 to reform the party’s internal structures, but this was adjourned sine die as Latif Sheikh Omar, head of the PUK political bureau, told during a private conversation in Sulaymaniyah.