South of Turkey, east of Syria, west of Iran and north of Iraq lies Kurdistan.
Today, South-Kurdistan is called the „Autonomous Kurdistan Region“ or the „Kurdistan Region of Iraq“. (Dieser Text auf Deutsch / read this article in German)
Kurdistan has its own army called the Peshmerga, its own police forces, borders, an old and rich culture and Sorani as its own language. It also has a constitution, a democratically elected government (Kurdistan Regional Government, the KRG for short) and is financially independent. When I go there I get a Kurdish visa upon arrival with which I would not be allowed to travel to Iraq, and it is the same thing the other way around. That’s more than just a region like the „East Coast“ in the US or the „Ruhr Area“ in Germany, and also more than a federal state, that is a country of its own!
But how come that in most parts of the western world nobody knows about the millions of Kurds living there in near independence from Iraq? To make it short: the driving forces in the country have been setting up their field of operation carefully and calmly before they really got going. But in order to explain and understand the whole story and why this year will become really exciting, we will have to start much earlier.
Kurdistan’s history has been turbulent and could not be explained adequately in just a few sentences; a few facts will have to suffice for our purposes. Since 1974 the region of Kurdistan should have been partly-autonomous from Iraq, while in fact it was still under control of Baghdad. After the Second Gulf War (1991) there were multiple big fights with Saddam Hussein’s troups. Since the fall of the Saddam regime in 2003 the region has begun to develop rapidly, and soon it became relatively autonomous. There has been a regional parliament since 1991, which in 2002 adopted a draft constitution for the Autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Kurdistan’s political development is complicated and can be looked up in detail e.g. here. Since 2009 the government consists of members of an alliance of parties called the Kurdistan List. This alliance includes the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (PDK), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as well as five smaller parties. PDK and PUK are by far the biggest parties of Kurdistan. For comparison: When PDK and PUK competed against each other during the first national elections in 1991, they both gained about 40% of the votes, respectively. During the last elections in 2009, the Kurdistan List won an absolute majority, receiving 57,3% of the votes; the Goran Change List got 23,8%, the Service and Reform Party 12,8%, and two smaller parties 1,5% and 0,8%, respectively. In total, 11 parties competed for 100 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament. 11 additional seats were distributed among parties representing six minorities. To have 17 parties represented in 111 seats in parliament is definitely not easy but it shows that Kurdistan has a vivid democracy. Nevertheless, the clan concept remains important to the government: Important political positions often remain in the hands of a few powerful clans. Mostly, these are the same people who risked their lives fighting for freedom for the Kurds 20 years ago.
But how is it regarding the rights of women, homosexuals, minorities etc.? I already wrote about political representation of minorities in the regional parliament. After talking to several politicians and people in the streets about homosexuals I came to the conclusion that they might not be able to lead their lives as freely and openly as in Germany, but their situation is definitely better than in states like Russia, either. It seemed to me like a „don’t ask, don’t tell“ mentality: You don’t get problems living as a homosexual if you do not do so overtly publicly. That definitely leaves room for improvement, but considering the situation in certain neighboring states it could be worse.
Kurdish women often have control over the finances of the family; their husbands call them „the interior ministry“, which has to be asked in case of bigger expenses. In parliament there is a strict quota for women of 30%; in the German parliament women have about 33% of the seats at the moment. There are also quotas in other areas of public administration. It seemed to me that, mostly, women have a good standing in the society. Nevertheless, there also remain groups or families in which a „classic“ distribution of roles persists.
During my stays I talked to Assyrians, Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists, to Arabs, Kurds, Europeans and Americans. All of them felt secure and were content with their lives. Naturally, there were some reservations against other groups, but to be honest, these were more harmless than a lot of the talk you can hear in German pubs and bars. And of course one does not have to like everyone – it is enough to accept them.
Now, what about technical infrastructure? Erbil, the capital, is a growing city whose infrastructure is constantly being worked on. The Autonomous Kurdistan Region has several international airports, the biggest of which is the highly modern one in Erbil. The streets are getting better, the network coverage of Korek, the local mobile network operator, is incredibly good and affordable. Medical care, schools, universities and much more is free of charge. There is still much left to do, but it is unbelievable how fast the infrastructure is growing. I have also seen quite innovative ideas like street lights with solar cells that are charged by the sun over the day. When it became clear that there was too much dust for the solar cells to be effective, they were given a kind of wiper.
The country finances itself primarily via its big oil fields. Especially Kirkuk, a city with primarily Kurdish population along the disputed internal Kurdish-Iraqi boundaries, has great oil occurrences. During the past years Baghdad sold the oil and gave a share to the Kurdish government. After the arguments over the amount of this share escalated, the Kurdish government decided to begin exporting the oil on its own, handing out permissions to several foreign companies.
The two most important of these companies are Exxon and Gazprom, and there is a pipeline through Turkey which transports the crude oil to a harbor. With this strategy, Kurdistan has brought two big oil industry players and a neighbor on its side. Germany is also part of the deal as Select Energy, a company based in Hamburg, takes part in the maintenance of the pipeline. Kurdistan’s economy booms, and foreign investors from various other countries are entering the market, as well. When I was being driven around the country in March 2013, we were often asked which oil company we belonged to and where we had our projects. This must be the most obvious reason for foreign businessmen to be visiting Kurdistan.
Alas, it is exactly this development that fuels the tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Baghdad. While the KRG manages to keep its country secure and attractive for tourists, to sell oil and enhance the infrastructure, Iraq sinks ever deeper into the violence of rivaling armed groups. In addition to that prime minister Maliki is on the verge of becoming a second Saddam Hussein as he does not tolerate deviations from his line of action. But due to all of the problems in Iraq he is simply too weak to stop the KRG. This became especially obvious when the violence in Kirkuk increased, leading to a situation resembling anarchy. The KRG sent the Peshmerga in order to keep the people of Kirkuk safe, thereby securing the city. As a side effect, they got access to the oil fields in the area. When I visited the country in March 2013, Kurdish and Iraqi troops faced each other near Kirkuk; nevertheless, nothing really serious happened. While the Peshmerga know exactly what they have fought for during past decades and also know what they still fight for, the soldiers on the Iraqi side are mostly badly payed and depleted and do not want to be shot for someone like Maliki. Up to now, Kirkuk remains under Kurdish protection with Maliki unable to change the situation.
Daily news confirm again and again that Maliki is not able to get a grip on the difficult situation in Iraq. It is obviously quite ironic that Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, even offered help for Maliki in securing the „Green Zone“, which is the – supposedly – secure zone in Baghdad.
As a result of its booming economy, the Autonomous Kurdistan Region is not only a peaceful but also a rich country. Now, what does a country like that do when increasing numbers of Kurds from other countries want to come there? It simply grants them access. The north-western district called Dohuk shares a border with Syria. Near the city of Dohuk a refugee camp was built up, called the „Domez Camp for Syrian Arrivals“. I visited this camp in March. By now, it has already been vastly expanded. In order to come to terms with the big influx of refugees during the past weeks a new camp is being built near Erbil. By now, about 200,000 Syrian refugees have found refuge in Kurdistan, which has about six million citizens. In the past week alone, nearly 40,000 new refugees crossed the now open border.
In addition to that, Barzani announced that he would be „ready to defend the Syrian Kurds“, if necessary. This is a very big step indeed as it could lead to Kurdistan’s first ever intervention outside the Autonomous Kurdistan Region in order to help other Kurds – without Baghdad having anything to say in the matter.
In September, the Kurdish National Conference will be held. It will be the first time that nearly all Kurdish political groups will come together for one big conference in order to talk about the possibility of a shared future. Representatives of groups that fought against each other not so long ago and delegations from countries that don’t talk often will be brought together at the same table, which can be regarded as a great success – or as a threat, depending on your position. Quite a lot of politicians fear this conference as an opportunity to unite diverse Kurdish groups. If they remain at odds with one another, their quarrels could easily keep them busy with themselves. But if they work together, a truly sovereign Kurdish state could quickly become reality.
I would be happy to be able to celebrate New Year’s Eve in an independent Kurdistan!
Text translated by: Verena Henssen, Hannes Paul and Kath Koe