ERBIL, Iraq — These are critical times in the quasi-independent Kurdish entity in Iraq better known as the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, or simply Iraqi Kurdistan. Buoyed by a burgeoning energy sector, its leaders loved to boast that Kurdistan was going to be the “new Dubai.” Today its economy is collapsing, and so are its spirits.
Decades of mismanagement, internal feuding and graft have caught up with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Relations with the central government in Baghdad are at an all-time low. Since February 2014, Baghdad has refused to pay the Kurds’ share of the national budget. The Kurds subsequently moved to sell their oil independently. The onslaught of Islamic State (IS) forces in 2014 coupled with a sharp drop in oil prices proved a tipping point. Ordinary citizens have taken to the streets in protest.
Yet despite such adversity, Massoud Barzani, the Kurdistan Region’s veteran president, says he is determined to lead his people to full-blown independence after a popular referendum that is scheduled to take place this year. Barzani’s critics accuse him of using the independence card to deflect attention away from the financial crunch and the festering dispute around his presidency. Yet in some ways, conditions have never been riper for realizing the Kurds’ long-cherished dreams of statehood. Baghdad is bogged down with its own problems. IS’ retreat from the so-called disputed territories, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurds and the central government alike, have allowed the Kurds to assert their control over them. Turkey, a long-feared foe, has embraced the Iraqi Kurds as never before. A few dispute that the quietly determined Barzani is best fitted to shepherd his people to independence. He inherited the mantle of his late father Molla Mustafa Barzani, who is counted among the fathers of Kurdish nationalism. No other figure enjoys Barzani’s stature in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at his office overlooking Erbil, Barzani talked about the challenges that lie ahead.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: You are talking about a referendum and about independence more loudly than ever before. Some people express skepticism, saying it’s a ploy to distract attention from your economic and political problems. They don't really believe you are serious. Are you serious? And if so, are you going to give us a date for a referendum, and what will the referendum be about?
Barzani: Do you really believe that I would instrumentalize such a critical issue, one that concerns the fate of millions of people, after all the suffering they have endured, all the sacrifices they made, just to advance my own political future? I have come to this decision after all the very bitter experiences of these long and hard years because there is no other path. I ask you, what other way do we have? Let us look at our relations with Baghdad. There are roughly two periods. The first was from 1922 to 2003. During that time, 2,500 of our villages were destroyed; 182,000 people perished; 12,000 Kurds remain unaccounted for; 8,000 members of my own family, the Barzanis, were killed; 5,000 people were gassed to death in Halabja. There’s the balance sheet of that first period.
In 2003, we took part in the overthrow of a regime that brutalized all Iraqis and we looked forward to living together in a new Iraq based on a new and democratic constitution with full and equal rights for all of its citizens. We helped write that new constitution and voted in favor of it. We showed goodwill and acted in good faith.
It was clearly said in the constitution that committing to its principles was the key to Iraq’s unity. But the Iraqi prime minister, with a single stroke of a pen, put an end to this. The [central] government froze the Kurds’ share of the budget and failed to uphold its commitments to us on numerous critical fronts. So now we are faced with two options. This first is that we abjure all our rights — that we give up on federalism and become just another province in Iraq. The other is that we go to our people with a referendum and ask them what they want. The status quo is not sustainable. If things continue as they are, we will descend into the bloodshed and destruction of the past.
Al-Monitor: And what will the question to your people be?
Barzani: We have not yet finalized it. We are still having discussions about this.
Al-Monitor: What are the options?
Barzani: There will be one question.
Al-Monitor: You mean whether the people want independence for Kurdistan or not? Or will the proposed referendum be held in the disputed territories as stipulated in the Iraqi constitution, asking people there whether they want to remain part of Iraq or be part of an independent Kurdistan?
Barzani: This is part of the process as well
Al-Monitor: Are you saying that you may put these two separate questions during the same referendum?
Barzani: We haven’t decided yet. The questions may be put concurrently, or separately. But there will be a referendum
Al-Monitor: But will it happen for sure this year?
Barzani: I can say with utter conviction that, barring circumstances beyond our control, that yes, we are trying to do it this year.
Al-Monitor: And do you have a date in mind?
Barzani: I think it will be before October [before the US elections in November].
Al-Monitor: It is universally agreed that in order for Kurdistan to sustain itself as independent, it needs the backing of at least one of the neighboring powers, Turkey or Iran. Over the past few years, we have seen Turkish policies change dramatically in your favor. Will Turkey support an independent Kurdish state carved out of Iraq?
Barzani: In the beginning, Turkey was against the federalism of Kurdistan, and look at our relations today. As long as the referendum is only for Iraqi Kurdistan, it has nothing to do with the Kurds in Turkey [there should be no problem]. So we do hope that Turkey understands and comprehends what Kurdistan is asking for. But at the same time we are talking to Baghdad, we will talk to Iran at the same time that we talk to Turkey. We want to do it in a peaceful and balanced way.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe that if you declare independence, the current government in Turkey will accept it?
Barzani: If the current Justice and Development Party [AKP] government does not recognize and accept an independent Kurdistan, I don't think any other government in Turkey would.
Al-Monitor: Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be president [of Turkey] until 2019. So you are saying something needs to happen between now and then?
Barzani: What do you mean something has to happen?
Al-Monitor: Well, independence ideally should happen during this time, correct?
Barzani: When Erdogan was prime minister, it was he who came to Erbil, and in Erbil said that the era of denying the Kurds was over. This was a very important development. I have met Erdogan many times, and I have seen that Erdogan has a better understanding of the Kurdish cause than most. What I heard from Erdogan, I heard from no one else.
Al-Monitor: But Turkey has a big problem with its own Kurds, and it is getting rapidly worse. It seems to me that unless Turkey fixes that problem, even if Turkey supports your independence, it won’t be on a sound foundation.
Barzani: We wish that the peace process had not stopped, and we have tried our best to keep the peace process going. I don’t want to go into details, but I think that, after the June 7, 2015, elections when they [the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, HDP) got 80 seats in the parliament, we issued a statement saying that it would be a historic mistake if they were not going to be part of the coalition government [with the AKP]. And at that time, I thought that the [AKP] wasn't accepting HDP to be part of the coalition government, but later I heard from the people within HDP that it was they who didn't want to be part of the coalition. I think this was a big mistake.
Al-Monitor: Because they didn't want to support Erdogan becoming a "sultan"?
Barzani: The era of the sultan is over. On the contrary, if they had been part of the coalition, they could have said no to some of the issues that concerned them. I think that as long as there was a chance of them being in the parliament, to fight to make changes, they should have seized it. Now, I am very concerned and afraid. When we witness bombings in the cities, terror acts in the cities, in the name of obscure terrorist organizations, in the end they [the Turkish people] will hold all the Kurds responsible. And I fear that this will lead to ethnic conflict between the Kurds and Turks.
Al-Monitor: It appears that there is going to be more and more pressure on you from Turkey to take action against the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], maybe in Sinjar. Do you feel that pressure?
Barzani: No, we have our own agenda.
Al-Monitor: But I have heard your son Masrour Barzani [the KRG intelligence chief] say that the PKK has to leave Sinjar.
Barzani: Definitely, the PKK should leave Sinjar, and we want them to leave Sinjar peacefully — not by force.
Al-Monitor: And are the Americans intervening on your behalf on this matter?
Barzani: The Americans don't intervene in domestic territorial issues. But the Americans know that there is no value to the PKK presence in Sinjar.
Al-Monitor: How do you assess the recent declaration of a federal northern Syria?
Barzani: I believe that the concept of federalism suits the situation in Syria. But there must be consensus on this among the Syrians themselves. When we declared federalism in the Kurdistan region [in October 1992], we didn't do it unilaterally.
Al-Monitor: The Democratic Unity Party (PYD), which appears to be one of the driving forces behind this declaration, says it is committed to respecting other groups and to democracy.
Barzani: Through its actions on the ground, the PYD does not appear to be sincere about democracy.
Al-Monitor: What do you think of the deepening military and perhaps political ties between the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units [the armed wing of the PYD] and the Americans?
Barzani: Any support to the PYD means support for the PKK.
Al-Monitor: Do you believe the PYD and the PKK are the same?
Barzani: They are exactly one and the same thing.
Al-Monitor: Do the Americans believe that?
Barzani: They know very well, but they don't want to say they know very well. … You know the top priority for us and the Americans is the fight against [IS], so they might turn a blind eye.
Al-Monitor: So let's talk about the fight against [IS]. Do you believe that Mosul has to be taken care of before independence?
Barzani: There is no relation between Mosul and the independence of Kurdistan.
Al-Monitor: No? You can be independent and still have [IS] in Mosul?
Barzani: Why not?
Al-Monitor: Dangerous neighbors.
Barzani: The Kurds are used to living in a tough neighborhood.
Al-Monitor: Why do you believe now is the right time to pursue independence?
Barzani: I have always believed in this. When someone asks us “Why now?” I ask them “Why not now?”
Al-Monitor: Because it hasn't worked with Baghdad?
Barzani: It failed.
Al-Monitor: How do you figure out the borders of your state, and how do you get the central government to agree? What do you do about Kirkuk?
Barzani: Article 140 of the constitution, which was never implemented by the central government, calls for a referendum on the disputed areas, in Kirkuk and in Sinjar. If the people say they want to be part of Kurdistan, their voices must be heard and respected. If they decide not to be part of Kurdistan, we will hear their voices and respect their voices.
Al-Monitor: But do you think the US has a role to play in helping a smooth transition?
Barzani: Nobody can play a big role like the role the US can play, if they want to play that role. US security guarantees are vital for the viability of the Kurds, and we will be grateful if they don’t oppose our independence.
Al-Monitor: The other problem, of course, is the lack of unity between the Kurds.
Barzani: We are seriously engaged with the PUK [the other main political party Patriotic Union of Kurdistan], and we will be with other parties. Gorran [the opposition Movement for Change] has played a destructive role, and they have made themselves irrelevant.
Al-Monitor: As you move toward independence, do you have a road map?
Barzani: Yes, definitely. We are going to reactivate the parliament with elections of a new speaker of the parliament. The independence of Kurdistan is bigger than parliament and political parties. Whoever wants to be a part of it is most welcome, and whoever wants to stay against it, they have to leave and find their own way.
Al-Monitor: And you believe that you must remain president during this critical period?
Barzani: My objective is to reach that point, to have an independent Kurdistan. And that is a pledge from me. The day we have an independent Kurdistan, I will cease to be the president of that Kurdistan. And I will congratulate the Kurdistan people and let someone else take my place. This is a pledge from me — I will not be the president of Kurdistan.
Barzani: Yes. My goal is to establish an independent Kurdistan, not to remain president.
Al-Monitor: Your plans were based on the idea that oil/energy wealth was going to finance your country. Oil prices have crashed. Aydin Selcen, the former Turkish consul general, suggested that Turkey should buy out the shares of all the producing assets in Iraqi Kurdistan and finance the construction of a natural gas pipeline all to the tune of some $8 billion. Is this a good formula? Have you discussed this with the Turkish government?
Barzani: I really don't want to go into details. It's best to address this detailed question of the economy and oil to the council of ministers because they are responsible for it.
Al-Monitor: But there is a general criticism of the way the energy deals are being made and that it's not transparent enough.
Barzani: There must be shortcomings, but I don’t have the details, so it's better to ask the council.
Al-Monitor: A PUK delegation is going to Ankara soon to talk about the gas.
Barzani: Gas belongs to all the people of Kurdistan. The KRG must deal with it — not the political parties. On the oil and gas, it is the business of the KRG. It is not the business of the PUK.
Al-Monitor: The issue of corruption, though, seems to be talked about a lot more during these very difficult times. What do you plan to do to clamp down on corruption? Are you ready to set an example by punishing guilty parties even if they have a high rank?
Barzani: Yesterday, I had a meeting — a very important meeting — with the chief of the judicial institutions. These are the institutions that are responsible for implementing financial reforms.
Al-Monitor: So we are going to see some arrests or judicial investigations?
Barzani: I told them one thing: Nobody is excluded. If you find something on me, call me. And I will come to the court. [Nephew] Nechirvan [Barzani, the prime minister] must come to the court. Masrour [Massoud Barzani's son] must come to the court if there is something on him. First, we must start within my family, then start with the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], and then start with the other political parties. So that's why whoever exploits their positions, I told these institutions that they have my full support [to pursue them]. You are legally responsible to fight corruption. So I want you to fight this. But if you don’t do your job, then I will bypass you and fight corruption myself, but later don't blame me that I bypass laws in Kurdistan, because this is very important for us in Kurdistan to fight corruption and to fight those people who exploited their government position for oil contracts, sales of agricultural land and things like that. Whoever will be responsible from the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Peshmerga, prime minister, any minister, any leader of the party, any security official — they all must be held responsible for what they have done.
Al-Monitor: I spoke to many young people, and they are complaining about corruption.
Barzani: For us, it is an existential issue — fighting corruption. So how I fought [IS] with all of the motivation and forces we have, I will fight corruption with the same dedication.
Sherin Zadah contributed to this report