Self-determination issues tend not to go away. Sometimes they lie dormant for years, even decades, but if not resolved they generally bubble up again – often when least expected.
At the start of this year it was Scotland in the news, but its plans for a fresh push for independence went to the back burner after the Scottish Nationalists lost 21 seats and more than a quarter of their vote in the June general election. Their time may come again if Britain succeeds in leaving the European Union.
Then it was Catalonia in the headlines, with the regional government’s plan to hold a unilateral referendum on independence in October. But that’s now looking very shaky; the separatists have only a narrow mandate at best, and as Spain’s economic recovery gathers pace, enthusiasm for independence is visibly waning. Last week’s terrorist attack in Barcelona may well serve as an excuse to kick the can further down the road into an indefinite future.
So, step forward the Kurds. The autonomous Kurdish government in northern Iraq plans its own independence referendum in a month’s time, on 25 September. Originally scheduled for late 2014, the vote has been postponed several times in the interests of a united front in the war against IS/Da’esh. But with the recapture of Mosul last month, the Kurds feel that the way is now clear to proceed.
If the vote is held, there is no serious doubt as to what the result will be. This is not like Scotland or Catalonia, where opinion is fairly evenly divided; it is much more like East Timor or South Sudan. Every Kurdish party is committed to independence, and every survey has shown Kurds overwhelmingly in favor. An informal referendum in 2005 produced a yes vote of 98.8%.
But it doesn’t follow that Iraqi Kurdistan will then declare independence. The rhetoric from its leadership suggests that they view a referendum more as a bargaining chip than as an irrevocable step towards establishing their own state. Given the comprehensive autonomy that they already enjoy, the advantages of moving to statehood are not necessarily so great that they will outweigh the angst it would cause for both the Iraqi government and its neighbors.
The reaction of Turkey, home of the largest Kurdish population, is a matter of particular concern. The government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, having spent years talking peace with the Kurds, has recently gone back to demonising them, and has now voiced its support for “the territorial integrity of Iraq.” Nobody knows what it would actually do if Iraq’s Kurds took the next step.
On the other hand, no-one can deny that Kurdistan has been the most successfully functioning part of Iraq for a good 25 years. So most of the comment from both the Iraqi government and its allies does not actually deny the Kurds’ right to self-determination; it merely suggests that this is an inappropriate time and that matters should proceed by negotiation and agreement.
For the Kurds, this must be a frustrating argument. Having done the right thing three years ago and postponed their own ambitions while Iraq faced an existential threat from IS/Da’esh, they now find that their reward is to be again told to wait. It’s understandable if patience is running out.
Despite the difference in underlying political sentiment, there’s some similarity with the case of Catalonia. Its leaders, up to and even after the first (“unofficial”) independence referendum of November 2014, looked to be pursuing not so much an immediate drive to independence but more an ambit claim, hoping to draw the Spanish government into negotiations that would lead to a better autonomy deal. That strategy failed because the central government, partly due to Spain’s own political turmoil, failed to play ball.
Kurdistan’s leaders, having been educated in a much tougher environment, may well prove to be better politicians, and more alive to the risk of letting their own strategy run away with them. So while the long-term outlook for independence is good, don’t expect a new nation to emerge in northern Iraq just yet.