When gov­er­nance is a must, not a lux­ury

For the Iraqi Kurds, an in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan re­mains a cause worth pur­su­ing

The Washington Times Daily - - COMMENTARY - By Bilal Wa­hab

Whether a gam­ble or a cal­cu­lated move, the Kurds will head to the polls on Sept. 25 to choose be­tween in­de­pen­dence and stay­ing in Iraq. That a vote for state­hood will win is a cer­tainty. The Kurds see the stars aligned for the next push to­ward in­de­pen­dence — the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG) has been an is­land of sta­bil­ity in a tur­bu­lent re­gion, its Pesh­merga have de­fended the re­gion from ISIS and pro­tected mi­nori­ties, and it can gen­er­ate rev­enue through oil ex­ports.

To make their case for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion to the world, lead­ers in the KRG of­ten cite his­tor­i­cal griev­ances, in­clud­ing state­less­ness and episodes of geno­cide. In­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion of a Kur­dish state is be­yond Kur­dish con­trol, how­ever. Build­ing one is, and there­fore should be, the top pri­or­ity of Kur­dish lead­ers.

The KRG val­ues in­ter­na­tional le­git­i­macy and seeks to earn it for its push for state­hood. Quite an anom­aly, but the Kurds wel­come Western in­ter­fer­ence and seek to con­vince U.S. and Euro­pean cap­i­tals of their right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion through an in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum.

The KRG owes its ex­is­tence in part to the in­ter­na­tion­ally man­dated safe-haven im­posed in 1991. KRG’s rights and pow­ers in­creased af­ter Iraq was lib­er­ated from Sad­dam’s tyran­ni­cal rule in 2003. In­te­gral to the in­ter­na­tional coali­tion against ISIS, the Kur­dish Pesh­merga con­tin­ues to re­ceive praise as ca­pa­ble free­dom fighters who stood up to ISIS’s ter­ror and sav­agery. Seen as vote of con­fi­dence, the KRG of­fered at­trac­tive in­cen­tives to for­eign busi­ness, es­pe­cially in the en­ergy sec­tor, to in­vest in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan.

De­spite such an out­ward world­view, the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity did not wel­come the Kur­dish call for ref­er­en­dum and di­vorc­ing Iraq, al­though many voiced sym­pa­thy for Kur­dish

as­pi­ra­tions. Hap­haz­ardly drawn, yes, but Mid­dle Eastern bor­ders tend to stick. KRG’s neigh­bors and far­away friends alike re­it­er­ated their sup­port for a uni­fied Iraq. U.S. of­fi­cials have re­peat­edly crit­i­cized the Kur­dish move as dis­tract­ing from the fight against ISIS. Closer to home, Turkey and, more bluntly, Iran warned the Kurds against desta­bi­liz­ing the re­gion by threat­en­ing the ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity of Iraq.

Al­though the Kur­dish im­age is shiny in Western cap­i­tals, the Kur­dish home is far from be­ing in order. A po­lit­i­cal dead­lock has shut­tered the par­lia­ment for two years, and Kur­dish econ­omy suf­fers from low oil prices. The KRG has come a long way, but its suc­cess story is giv­ing way to new sto­ries of fac­tion­al­ism, eco­nomic mis­man­age­ment and cor­rup­tion.

Seek­ing ex­ter­nal en­dorse­ment for Kur­dish as­pi­ra­tions should not be at the ex­pense of lo­cal po­lit­i­cal and in­tu­itional le­git­i­macy. The ref­er­en­dum and ul­ti­mately sovereignty could bring about the ire of Kur­dis­tan’s un­friendly neigh­bors, which means the KRG needs the sup­port of its pop­u­la­tion as much as that of its far­away al­lies. There­fore, for their long-term state­hood quest to be taken se­ri­ously, the Kurds need to recom­mit to the demo­cratic process and in­vest in state in­sti­tu­tions.

To that end, the ref­er­en­dum and state-build­ing need not be se­quen­tial or mu­tu­ally exclusive. Here, the Kurds can learn a key les­son from Is­rael, whose suc­cess de­spite the odds, im­presses the Kurds. Kurds of­ten credit Is­rael’s chance at state­hood to Amer­i­can sup­port.

Not en­tirely. Is­rael’s suc­cess story owes more to its com­mit­ment to democ­racy, in­clu­sive gov­er­nance and rule of law — do­mes­tic le­git­i­mat­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics that at­tract in­ter­na­tional po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sup­port. The foun­da­tions of th­ese in­sti­tu­tions pre­date the Is­raeli flag and cur­rency.

As they march ahead with the ref­er­en­dum, the KRG owes it to its cit­i­zens and the world, whose sup­port it seeks, to recom­mit to a good gov­er­nance agenda. Whether or not it will even­tu­ally gain state­hood sta­tus, the KRG needs to have an in­de­pen­dent and pro­fes­sional ju­di­ciary that rig­or­ously up­holds rule of law; a pri­vate­sec­tor econ­omy driven by small busi­nesses and en­trepreneurs, not gov­ern­ment pa­tron­age; a strong par­lia­ment that is a co­equal branch of gov­ern­ment with the Ex­ec­u­tive; a flour­ish­ing civil so­ci­ety and free press that pro­vides over­sight and ac­count­abil­ity; an ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor that teaches young peo­ple to be cit­i­zens, not sub­jects.

Th­ese are hall­marks of strong, pros­per­ous and demo­cratic states. Work­ing to achieve them must not wait un­til af­ter in­de­pen­dence — that is what ev­ery dys­func­tional, post-colo­nial state has claimed. Sadly, there is lit­tle in the KRG’s current po­lit­i­cal ar­range­ment that pre­vents its evo­lu­tion along th­ese lines. With out­side help, the KRG has made some head­way into im­prov­ing gov­er­nance.

For ex­am­ple, the World Bank is help­ing re­struc­ture and di­ver­sify the KRG’s oil-de­pen­dent econ­omy, and the U.S., United King­dom and Ger­man gov­ern­ments are help­ing pro­fes­sion­al­ize the Kur­dish Pesh­merga. In­ter­na­tional au­dit­ing firms are boost­ing the trans­parency of the re­gion’s petroleum sec­tor. Such ex­ter­nal help is nec­es­sary and there­fore wel­come. Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, the KRG needs to in­vest in its own in­sti­tu­tional ca­pac­ity to boost its le­git­i­macy in the eyes of the cit­i­zenry.

This is a re­al­is­tic vi­sion pre­cisely be­cause the KRG has been mov­ing in this di­rec­tion since 1991 — fit­fully and im­per­fectly, yes, but progress has none­the­less been un­de­ni­able. Build­ing such in­sti­tu­tions is the real jour­ney that Kurds must now ac­cel­er­ate — not about bor­ders and flags and seats at the U.N., as­pi­ra­tions be­yond Kur­dish con­trol, but the hard work of bet­ter govern­ing the ter­ri­tory that is un­der their con­trol.

Demo­cratic and ef­fec­tive gov­er­nance, in turn, will ad­vance the le­git­i­macy of the Kur­dish state­hood quest. The ref­er­en­dum is a Kur­dish knock on the door of the com­mu­nity of na­tions. De­serv­ing a state won’t cut it; the KRG needs to act like one.

And this is where the Kurds need help and en­cour­age­ment from their friends. Since 1991, the United States has in­vested in KRG’s democ­racy and sta­bil­ity. An in­de­pen­dent Kur­dis­tan re­mains a cause worth pur­su­ing, and the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum is the right way to go about that. Ul­ti­mately, how­ever, true state­hood is less about in­ter­na­tion­ally rec­og­nized lines on a map than what hap­pens (or doesn’t) in­side those lines.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY GREG GROESCH

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