Axel Rudi: Independence from Whom? The Aftermath of the Kurdish Referendum

 In the future, people will say, “On the 16th of October, it happened again.” The Kurds were once again betrayed by the international community. Afraid of losing their territory to the Kurdish self-governance authorities after the independence referendum, the Iraqi state responded with overwhelming military force, compelling the Peshmerga to lay down their arms. In the following days, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) lost approximately 40 percent of their territory and withdrew into the pre-ISIS 2003 borders at the behest of the regional powers. The hopes and dreams for Kurdish independence were dashed again, and “the Kurds’ only friends are the mountains.” Shock and disbelief at these recent developments, however, belie a certain naïveté.

The fact that the neighboring nation-states would go to great lengths to repress Kurdish independence should not come as a surprise for any actor. Aside from the purely materialist motivations—the massive oil wealth in Kirkuk, for instance, constituting a staggering 4 percent of the entire worlds found oil reserves (Romano 2014)—the fact that Iran, Turkey, and Syria all include large Kurdish minorities themselves would prove enough motivation to repress any attempt at independence. Exactly how far may be up for debate, but relying on the promises and goodwill of the chauvinist regional states is quite naïve. The same goes for the old (neo)colonial powers of Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States, who still profit greatly from the Kurdish disarray. States will colonize, and capitalists will capitalize.

The interesting question is rather what good independence would have done in any case, if they had been able to secure it. I say this not because of a tacit support for the Iraqi state, or because I have a clear answer. But that is rather the point; it is not clear, from my perspective, whether independence would have made things better—the obvious democratic right aside. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the surrounding states would still have done all they could to make it unviable as an economic entity. Even if the oil from Kirkuk had been secured, Kurdistan would still have been landlocked, meaning that they would have to secure access to the international market through the neighboring ill-willed states. It is probable that they would have remained in a similar position as before, namely, where the only options were smuggling oil through Iran and selling it to Turkey for under market price. Perhaps Iraq would have permitted access to the Basra port, but that is not certain, especially considering the nationalist fervor. No substantial agricultural production would mean that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would still rely on foreign imports for most of its subsistence goods, the majority of which would come from Iran. Yes, there would have been an opportunity for controlling currency, and perhaps a greater opening for direct foreign investment, but that does not necessarily entail a betterment of the conditions for the people living there.

Second, and more importantly, the same political system and parties would have remained in place, and would perhaps even have emerged strengthened. This is, I would say, the main reason why independence would not have guaranteed better conditions for the general Kurdish population. Considering the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan has had de facto autonomy since 1993, the amount of “development” is still extremely low. There are still no good roads between the two main cities, Slemani and Erbil, where there will often be long queues because of deep and treacherous potholes. Government electricity functions for approximately four to six hours a day, forcing people (who can afford) it to find expensive private aggregates. Water from the tap is not drinkable in any area. In all major cities, there are half-finished buildings everywhere with no future prospects of being completed, and unemployment abounds. In a region possessing billions in oil wealth, this has led massive amounts of people to ask, “Where has the money gone?” to which no convincing answers seem capable of being presented.

The two major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), who spilt the Kurdish region between them, answer this by saying that the other party has stolen a large part of the money and hidden it away. A lack of transparency into the KRG’s finances and the fact that the money from oil revenue goes not to a “state” but rather directly to the two parties make both of the accusations rather probable. The general accusation is that the parties have kept the money for their own families and party members, and shipped it off overseas or hidden it in banks in Europe. What cut of the profits the international oil companies receive is also shrouded in mystery. Mutual distrust, springing from the bloody civil war in the 1990s, still saturate their relations and spill into public discourse. Nepotism and “tribalism” have been core organizing principles for both parties, where scores of people close to the leading (sheikhly) families could often hold three or more official offices at the same time, and receive pay for all of them. The Barzani family, leading the KDP government, for instance, made sure to secure family members in all the important positions in the region; Masoud Barzani is president, his nephew the prime minister, and his son the chancellor of the KRG’s security council. Additionally, each of the two parties has its own armed forces, not a common military as such, and there are little or few arrangements made for public spending or pension funds.

Critique or change of these arrangements has also proved difficult. Barzani has now been president for 12 consecutive years, of which the last two have not been mandated in any way. In 2013, the Kurdish parliament agreed to extend his mandate for another two years, and that is now more than two years ago. Parliament has also not met for two years, and its speaker, from the Gorran (Change) party, has been denied entry into Erbil by security forces several times. Mysterious circumstances surround the deaths of several journalists from channels critical of the KDP (RSF 2017; Rudaw 2016), and news agencies are considered propaganda vehicles for the party they receive funding from.

This detrimental state of affairs was compounded by a financial crisis starting in 2014. The war against ISIS and the massive influx of refugees certainly took its toll (Mamakani 2017), but political ineptitude did not exactly help. The financial crisis became so bad that the two parties could not even find enough money to pay the salaries of their armed forces fighting ISIS for most of 2015 and 2016. Stories circulated of Peshmerga selling their arms on the black market to have enough money to feed their families. In this context, coupled with a growing concern for a shift in power toward the Gorran party, which promised anticorruption measures and a meritocratic system of governance, Barzani and the KDP decided they would call for an independence referendum.

The independence referendum, as should be obvious, did therefore not spring from the people’s unrestrainable desire to “become free” at that precise moment, nor was it strategically tailored to an opportune moment by the party which proposed it. Participation rates in the referendum were said to be lower than 50 percent in the Slemani region, a tepid response to say the least, and after the victory in Mosul, the Iraqi Army was well positioned to swing into Makhmur—not exactly strategic timing. It was rather a political play from the part of the KDP and the PUK, which based itself on the misguided belief that independence would serve as a panacea for the ailments in Kurdistan or, in a more cynical vein, that it would distract people from the state of affairs they themselves had been partial to creating. Either way (or perhaps in conjunction) independence was not so much a play to “free” the Kurdish people as it was a play to secure one’s own party and family position.

The problem was, of course, that Kurds—like any other people—truly desire to be free and live prosperous, fulfilling lives. Most people hold the assumption that creating a separate nation-state can attain this. One of my friends in the region, who is usually viscerally hostile to the KDP, came out and said, “Now that the referendum is called, I have to vote.” I asked him if he did not see this as a ploy to bolster Barzani’s position as “the Leader of the Kurdish People,” “the Leader who liberated the Kurds,” and he told me that for him, the vote in the referendum was not a vote for Barzani, but “it is enough with Iraq—we cannot live together any more.” This is of course completely true and understandable. He was old enough to remember Halabca and the Anfal operations in which upward of 100,000 people were gassed to death by Saddam Hussein. The “Arabization” programs had moved him and his family around. He was sick of being a treated as a second-class citizen, and he was angry about the Iraqi state denying the KRG the constitutional right to 17 percent of the national oil revenue. “We will be better off alone” is a true statement, but unfortunately entangled with political parties and, I would say, a too hopeful idea of a future nation-state.

The dream of independence, and its connections with statehood, is what I see as exploited by the KDP and PUK. The idea of a separate nation-state as a solution to the Kurdish issue can be traced back to at least Sheik Ubeydullah Nehri in the 1880s and has been a potent political force ever since. Most Kurds still arguably dream of a Kurdish nation-state and believe this will have major curative effects for the injustices they have suffered for centuries. Many leaders have attempted to claim this cause, probably with the knowledge that the person or party who is successful in creating a Kurdish state will undoubtedly be the greatest leader the nation has ever seen. The KDP and PUK knew this and used the nation-state’s curative promises to bolster their own positions and cover up their own shortcomings, now, it seems, even wasting the opportunity for real progress for the people in the region.

The shame and anger at the lack of defense of Kurdistan’s borders was palpable. Whether the Peshmergas’ surrender was due to the parties’ strategic political scheming with Baghdad and Teheran, a distrust or desire to weaken the opposing Kurdish party, or even a truthfully held belief that it was not a fight that they could win, the parties betrayed the people they had forced to vote “yes” in the referendum. Not only will a nation-state not be secured, but it now seems like the parties were never serious about its construction in the first place. Assuredly, the struggle will go on, but nothing now points to it being resolved in the near future. The most pressing question for the time to come, however, as evidenced by the recent riots, is if this betrayal is enough to instigate political change internal to Kurdistan, and—even more timely—whether the idea of a separate nation-state will finally be disattached from the idea that it is a cure-all in itself, regardless of the failings of its representatives.

Axel Rudi is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Bergen and is affiliated with the ERC-funded project “Egalitarianism: Forms, Processes, Comparisons,” led by Bruce Kapferer.


Mamakani, Ehsan. 2016. Five reasons for Kurdistan Region financial crisis. Kurdistand24, 8 January., David. 2014. Iraq’s descent into civil war: A constitutional explanation. Middle East Journal 68 (4): 547–566.

Rudaw. 2016. Kurdish journalist killed in Duhok, evidence of torture. 13 August.

RSF (Reporters Without Borders). 2017. Kurdish journalist killed in Northern Iraq. Updated 18 April.

Cite as: Rudi, Axel. 2017. “Independence from Whom? The Aftermath of the Kurdish Referendum.” FocaalBlog, 1 November.