Two referendums, on September 25 in Iraqi Kurdistan and on October 1 in Spanish Catalonia, will not just change borders, but pave the way towards establishment of two new, sovereign states. Baghdad and Madrid are categorically against this. They do everything possible to prevent the referendums. Constitutional Court suspended the Catalonian law on referendum, but Carlos Puchedemon, the Catalan leader, called the “referendum the only way to resolve the Catalonia issue.” Nevertheless, in democratic Spain, the dispute between Madrid and Barcelona will hardly grow into serious conflict.
Iraqi Kurdistan is a different story. Kurds appear to be the most organized and efficient force against ISIS (a terrorist group banned in Russia – editor’s note), “the best infantry” in present-day Middle East. U.S. extremely needs Kurds now to maintain its influence in Syria and Iraq. As to the Baghdad government, it is simply ignored in Iraqi Kurdistan. An old Peshmega (Kurdish fighter) once told me that under al-Maliki (former prime minister of Iraq – A.G.) ISIS easily seized half of Iraq with Mosul, all its weapons and money. There were billions there. That “old Peshmerga” is a minister now and knows what he is talking about.
Al-Maliki has vowed prevent establishment of Great Kurdistan, even by force (he said in an interview with Al-Akhbari paper). President of Iraqi Kurdistan yet last year warned to declare independence if Al-Maliki comes to power again. On October 10, 2016, Nouri Al-Maliki became vice president of Iraq.
Almost all countries have opposed the Kurdish referendum, except UAE and Israel. The latter even expressed readiness to recognize the referendum results.
However, a few days ahead of the referendum, French President Emmanuel Macron said France will not oppose independence referendum in Kurdistan. Macron told this to journalists behind-the-scenes of the UN GA in New York. Besides, Rosneft and Erbil have reportedly stepped up efforts to implement the gas pipeline project ahead of time and launch supplies to Turkey and EU as early as in 2019.
As to U.S., it has launched Jazeera Storm operation on the left bank of the Euphrates to get control over the Khabur River Valley.
Besides, Erbil is reportedly trying to attract (through restructuring of debts and providing economic preferences) such economic giants as Pearl Petroleum (Arab-Austrian-German concern), Genel Energy (UK), Rosneft (Russia), DNO (Norway), or Gulf Keystone Petroleum (evidently Arab company).
Anyway, the situation is favorable now for Iraqi Kurdistan to succeed in this undertaking. I have had a brief interview with Dr. Vahab Darvish, chairman of the Ukrainian-Kurdish Friendship Society, who has just arrived from Erbil. Citizen of Ukraine, Darvish moved from Syrian al-Qamishli three decades ago, but keeps ties with homeland and the political elite there.
Will the referendum take place or it will be postponed again under pressure of other states?
I wish it could take place. Not only me, but the vast majority of Kurds want this. Own state is what many generations of our ancestors had dreamed about. The idea of referendum has a years-long history. In 2005, we held an informal referendum or, somewhat, a poll on independent of Kurdistan comprising six provinces. Then more than 98% of the polled voted “for.” However, they considered a legitimate referendum untimely then. Afterwards, Al-Maliki’s disastrous government came to power in Iraq. Then came ISIS, war. Now, when fighting ISIS Kurds have manifested what patriots they are, they cannot wait any longer. They need guarantees. Besides, referendum will not bring independence immediately. There will be a transitional period after voting. Consequently, other countries have nothing to fear.
Meantime, both Turkey and Iran fear the idea of Kurdish sovereignty. The Syrian Rojava is actually an independent state now. In Mosul, you blatantly took Kirkuk that is rich in oil…
We live on our historical land. And that piece of land, Kirkuk, is ours. Referendum will be held on the territory densely populated with Kurds, though there is also Arab, Turkoman, Yazidi and Christian population there. In Kurdistan, we had almost no inter-ethnic clashes.
Meantime, media highlights regularly alarm about ethnic purges by Kurds. What is the ratio of Kurds to other national minorities in the territory where the referendum is planned?
You’d better ask the High Electoral Commission about this. Incidentally, the Commission says the referendum is ready by 95%. As far as I know, about six million people live on that territory, of which four million are Kurds. I’d like everyone to understand that the referendum is not just a Kurdish decision. You can believe in media leaks, but you can also learn that a discussion of political movements of Iraqi Kurdistan took place this summer and Arabs, Turkomans, Armenians and Assyrians and even Communists supported the referendum.
What result of the referendum do you anticipate?
I have already said, the moment is favorable now. Leaders of the two major parties of Kurdistan, Democratic Party of Masoud Barzani and Patriotic Union of Jalal Talabani, have met quite recently.
Do you mean the irreconcilable enemies who even fought against each other?
Yes, “Fratricide” (“Birakujî,” civil war of 1994-1997 –A.G.) is a tragic episode in history of Kurdistan. Even after war, by present, Iraqi Kurdistan has actually remained separated into two zones of influence: zone of Democrats of Barzani (Erbil-Dohuk) and zone of Patriots (Suleimania). We have a negative experience. Nevertheless, Barzani and Talabani have made an agreement. And that agreement will enable them to resume activity of the parliament on September 14. Then the decision on referendum will be approved by a parliamentary enactment.
What will be the result, after all?
Turkomans will evidently oppose sovereignty at the referendum. Assyrians and Armenia will vote “for,” they are Christians and will not survive under radical Sunnites or rapidly radicalizing Shi’ites. Arabs will split up. The Gorran Movement (Movement for Change) and Kurdistan Islamic Group of Kurdistan (KIG) oppose referendum before the parliament is reanimated. However, as far as I know, they are not going to vote “against,” they will just not attend the voting. I think, about 60% of the population will vote for sovereignty.
However, 60% is not a resounding victory. Will referendum prompt a conflict?
I will repeat myself, we have a very negative experience - the war of Barzani and Talabani. Now, Kurds will not shoot each other. In addition, Talabani and Barzani have made an agreement. So, there will be no problems inside Kurdistan. There will be some with Iraq.
Why? Will it happen because the referendum will cause a collapse of Iraq or because Kurds will take economically promising territories like Kirkuk with its oil or Sinjar with its Yazidis?
Yes, Kirkuk will become a reason for discussion that may well grow into shooting. God forbid! Let’s wait and see. One thing is clear now: Kurdish referendum will finally “bury” Iraq’s vice president Nouri al-Maliki and prime minister Haider al-Abadi. That is why they are buying as much weapons as they can now. Maliki even travelled to thank Putin for heavy weaponry this summer.
Dr. Darvish, who do you think is stronger: Erbil or Baghdad?
Baghdad has better arms, but Kurds have the best fighters and more experience. Besides, we have a strong ally U.S.
Can Turkey interfere?
You mean by use of force? It is not likely to happen… You know, enmity between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan is rather exaggerated. In Erbil, for instance, Turks do all kind of construction activity. More than five hundred Turkish companies work on our territory. The annual trade turnover of Ankara and Erbil is due to reach $10bln. Though, it must be admitted that the sovereignty issue of Iraqi Kurds will be finally resolved by U.S.-Russia-Turkey-Iran format and not by Erbil or Baghdad. More precisely, the U.S.-Russia duet will decide everything. I hope the referendum will take place anyway, since it will strengthen the political positions of the Kurdish autonomy.
Thank you for the interview and let’s hope for the best.
A 1.5 year ago, I outlined three political directions in the Kurdish environment: Loyalists, who seek a united but secular country with proportional representations in the government; Federal Nationals, who suggest a federation of self-governing regions on the example of the United Arab Emirates; and Sovereignty seekers, who seek an unconditional sovereignty of Kurdistan and establishment of an independent state. Ahead of the referendum, sovereignty supporters dominate in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The reasons to hold referendums are nearly similar in Kurdistan and Catalonia. If at least one of the two referendums takes place, the political map of Middle East and Europe (both Western and Eastern, including Ukraine) may collapse. I cannot say what will happen in Spain, but the Kurdish “sovereignty seekers” are armed and experienced. They can insist on their choice. Then, a new bloody phase of the Middle East crisis will start: “war for ISIS heritage.”
Andrey Ganzha for EADaily