From social and cultural prospective it is described as multi-ethnical society where different ethnical and religious groups coexist in peace. What is behind these praising labels, which Kurdistan Region acquired so quickly after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime? Will the young Kurdish democracy succeed to respond to the challenge and justify these high expectations at a time when the wind of change and political instability blows in the countries in the Middle East and North Africa?
We've just visited Federal Kurdistan Region 8 years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. While the rest of Iraq is still under the sign of instability, suicide bombs and terrorist attacks, Kurdistan Region enjoys relative safety and stability. The special trained Kurdish security forces and check points still exist, but they give to the citizens feeling of protection and calmness. We shared this feeling of security and it gave us good opportunity to observe the recent developments in the Region.
The tragic history of Kurds during Saddam
The history of Iraqi Kurdistan before 1991 is the history of destruction and displacement. Few decades ago one could hardly believe that in Kurdistan Region a city with high towers will emerge under the ruins and the trash; that a western type democracy would be born after centuries of massacres, deportations, chemical attacks (Anfal Campaign of the Baath regime against Kurds in 1986-1989, including ground offensives, aerial bombing, systematic destruction of settlements, mass deportation, firing squads, and chemical warfare, Halabja poison gaz attack -1988). Kurds in Federal Region of Kurdistan had been fighting for their rights nearly during the whole XX century. Several generations of grandfathers, fathers and sons have spent their life as Peshmerga (Freedom Fighters) in the mountains and nearly every family lost a family member in this long lasting hard fight.
Today 4.7 million Kurds enjoy autonomy in this "quasi-state" of about 40,643 square kilometres (about the same size as Netherlands or Denmark). They have directly elected Parliament based in the capital Erbil and composed of 111 Members. 10 % of them are representative of the ethnical and religious minorities and about 40 % are women. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) composed of 19 ministers not only governs the internal affairs in the Region, but also maintain foreign relations with different countries all over the world. In the KRG Foreign Relations Department about 50 young and educated diplomats and administrators speaking several languages (among them already more than 10 % are women) open up the new way of Kurdistan Region to the world. Currently, there are 11 KRG representations abroad, including to the USA and to the EU, as well as about 20 foreign consulates in Kurdistan Region. Recently, Kurdistan region opened its representation in France, while Bulgaria is the next EU member, which will open consulate in Erbil.
The Kurds have their own army composed of 100 000 Peshmerga and many thousand Special Forces, including anti-terror units. There are two intelligent services based in Erbil (Parastin) and Suleymania (Zanyar), which work closely and count mainly on the cooperation of the ordinary people to prevent any kind of external or internal threat.
Kurds keep strong positions in Bagdad
The Kurds are also represented in the Iraqi political life and in the security. The President of Iraq Jalal Talabani is the Kurdish leader of the second main political party in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Hoshyar Zebari, the Foreign minister of Iraq, and Babaker Baderkhan Shawkat Zebari, Chief of Staff in the Iraqi Joint Forces Army, also are Kurds. Kurdish parties hold 57 seats in the Iraqi national parliament (22%) and several Iraqi Ambassadors are Kurds.*
More than 11,000 companies are operating
In addition to the political development, Kurdistan Region has witnessed a real economic boom after 2003. Currently, there are more then 11 000 companies operating in Kurdistan and many foreign investments in the construction and infrastructure sector. The volume of gas and oil exports is constantly increasing and according the Ministry of natural resources it is expected to reach 1 million barrels a day by 2015. Currently 40 international companies from 17 countries are exploring for oil and gas in the Kurdistan Region and the international business interest is constantly growing.
Despite the fact that Kurds had already some experience with self-rule and transition to democracy before 2003, much of the political and economical progress has been achieved in the last few years after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. Shilan Abduljabar Abdulgani, Kurdish young female parliamentarian from PUK, with master degree in political science from Norway, is proud of these successful achievements: "Our Region has been developed in short time as much as some countries would develop for 100 years. Today we have Government, President and Parliament elected by the people and multi-party political system with opposition, which plays important role. We also have over 800 media and many tens of NGOs working actively for the democratisation of the society".
The first directly elected parliament of Kurdistan Region has been established in 1992 after the Kurdish uprising (1991) and the withdrawal of the Iraqi administrative institutions from Kurdistan. The Kurdish parliamentarians moved to the former 6-floors building of the Iraqi controlled authorities in the centre of Erbil. Today the Kurdish parliament still holds its meetings in the same building, but projects for new House of the Kurdish Parliament will be soon considered. The Parliament is facing the huge Sami Rahman Park built on the former site of one of Saddam's detention centers. The Park is named after the KRG Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdulrahman, who was killed alongside with 100 other people in Islamic terrorist attack in 2004 during the Islamic holidays.
Zagros Ahmed Kamal, responsible for the media relations of the Parliament, underlines the importance of the gender equality in the Kurdistan Assembly: "After the elections in 2009, out of 111 members, 39 are women. The legal requirement is that at least 30% of the parliamentarians in Kurdistan are women". Just for comparison, on European Union's level, women make up only 35% of the members of the European Parliament and 33% of the European Commission…
In addition to the gender equality, the Kurdish parliament also maintains ethnical and religious balance. 11 out of 111 seats are reserved for the minorities: 5 Members of the Parliament are from Chaldean, Syriac and Assyrian parties, 5 are from Turkmen parties and one Member is representing the Armenian community. The respect for minorities' rights as well as the stable security situation in Kurdistan region attracted many Christians from all Iraq in Kurdistan.
Two main parties have been dominating Kurdistan political life in the last 20 years: Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Since 2003 the two parties have united to maintain their power and the stability of the region.
Many new parties have been also founded in Kurdistan. On the last parliamentary elections in 2009, 42 political parties and dozens of candidates participated in the electoral campaign. Today there are 15 different political groups represented in the Parliament.
The movement Goran (Kurdish for Change) appears as main opposition party with 25 seats while KDP-PUK coalition has 59 parliamentarians. During February and March 2011, Goran was seen as main organizer of the protests in Suleimaniya, the second biggest city in Kurdistan Region. The demonstrations denouncing the "corruption and the lack of public services" are still continuing.
The violence between the Kurdish security forces and the demonstrators resulted in loss of lives. It was a negative development for the young Kurdish democracy. The Kurdish President Barzani, as well as the Iraqi President Talabani and other politicians strongly condemned the acts of violence in Suleimaniya and called for peaceful discussion and reforms.
In a televised speech President Barzani declared: "I call on the parliament to engage with all sides to study the possibility of holding early general elections so that the people can make their voices heard and have the final say". The Kurdish President is also expected to pass a 7-point ruling to the government to enforce the law and bring those responsible for the violence in Suleimaniya to justice.
The Kurdish Prime Minister Barham Salih also agreed with the demands of the protesters to the government and promised the formation of a joint committee to implement reforms.
After the clashes in Suleymania, nine Kurdish political parties, among which PUK, KDP, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and Goran, singed a peace deal against any sort of violence and terror used in internal conflicts. It was a positive step in resolving this internal conflict in peaceful way.
Some observers analyzed the protest movement as echo of the political changes occurring in the Middle East and North Africa. Others suspected the influence of the rest of Baath regime and neighbouring countries as Iran, Turkey and Syria in the internal Kurdish politics. Journalists watching closely the region estimate that several hundred active secret cells of Iran, Turkey and Syria operate in Kurdistan under covered by different kind of activities. Their main aim is to use terrorist groups to destabilize the Kurdistan region and threat its security.
However, it is difficult to predict if these mass protests will bring major political changes in Kurdistan. The fact that the Region have held regular elections in recent years, the existence of opposition groups and press freedom, as well as the high economic growth in Kurdistan strongly differentiate it from many other countries in the region. The recent activation of the opposition could perhaps have constructive role of catalistor of democratic changes and improvements without completely destroying the existing system.
The role of the political parties in the public life is also at the root of much of the social unrest today in Kurdistan. The Region still has not independent and strong national institutions and the institutional vacuum is fulfilled by the parties, which concentrate all the power. According the parliamentarian Shilan Abduljabar Abdulgani: "In some cases, political parties have too much influence. It is important that we make power separation between institutions and politics".
The existence of independent national institutions will also prevent the dangerous relations between politics and economy. Many Kurdish and foreign observers believe that the accusations of corruption against the authorities today are in big part due to the involvement of the political parties in the economic life.
The economic boom Kurdistan region witnessed after 2003 in terms of property development, roads and urban planning have brought to the Region a lot of foreign investments, but also interdependence of political and economical interests. The legal frame of the economic life had been put in place in 2006 with the adoption of Investment law and the establishment of KRG Board of Investment (BoI).
According the BoI database for 2011, there are more then 11 400 registered companies in Kurdistan. Haider Mustafa Said, Director General for Department of Studies and Information, and Acting Director General Industrial Cities in BoI, estimates at US $ 4.669 billion the total investments for 2010: "Local investors have the largest share in last year's investment reaching 79 % for 2010. International investors have a 20 % share, and the remaining 1 % comes from cooperation between international and local partners."
Mr. Haider Said says that: "In 2010 Turkish companies have been much more active than before and they are at first place among the foreign investors. Second is UK, followed by Egypt. In the banking sector, Lebanese and Kuwaiti investors are leading". Mr Said also points out some regional differences: "Turkey is more active in Erbil and Duhok, while Iran is more present in Suleymania region".
Construction is the most developed sectors in the Kurdish economy. In the capital city Erbil, it's nearly impossible to look in any direction and to not see construction site or sign announcing a future project for new tower. According BoI, in 2010 some US$ 2.14 billion have been invested in the housing sector alone, which amounts to more than 45 % of the total investment in the year. The government is doing considerable efforts to solve the housing shortage by building thousands of new housing units and apartments throughout the Region.
However, providing the necessary infrastructure and facilities often takes time. François-Xavier Lovat, a French journalist and writer who watches closely the Kurdish issues since 1960s and has lived in Federal Kurdistan in the last 15 years, is aware of the time factor in the development of the Region: "There are electricity problems" People want these problems to be solved overnight. They don't even think that, when you built a dam to get electric power, it will take between 7 to 10 years to build the dam. Then it will take another 5 to 7 years to fill it up with water! So it takes 12 to 17 years before you can get electricity from your dam!?
Lovat underlines that: "It is only after 2004 that Federal Kurdistan started to get a certain amount of the national Iraqi budget from Baghdad, so a tremendous amount of work has been already done, but a lot more is still expected".
Similar observation can be made for the industry sector. Despite the fact that the industry occupies second place by volume of investments, Kurdistan Region is still importing a lot of products from neighboring countries and their quality is often not good. Shilan Abduljabar Abdulgani, Member of the Parliament who grew up in Norway, insists on the importance of making the Kurdish Region self-sufficient: "It is important that we produce our own goods in agriculture and industry. Kurdistan climate and land are very favorable for agriculture production. Therefore, we have to support our farmers and build our own industry. Kurdistan region's production has to be self-sufficient. This will also create more jobs".
Another very dynamic sector in Kurdistan is the tourism. Kurdistan Region has two international airports, which provide direct flights from several capitals in Europe; a third international airport is going to be built. According UNESCO, in Kurdistan Region is situated "one of the most dramatic and visually exciting cultural sites not only in the Middle East but also in the world" — the Erbil Citadel. The Citadel represents a unique example of a town that has nested on top of a hill for several millennia and possesses a very important traditional architectural and urban heritage. It is from the 5th millennium BC and it is related to the ancient civilizations of Sumerians and Acadians. Therefore, it is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. The Citadel currently is under restoration, but it is open for visitors.
War Crimes Museum?
Many local tourists from the rest of Iraq and the neighboring countries also visit Kurdistan because of the stability and security in its territory. However, for the moment the Region lacks cultural tourism infrastructure, including important museums and cultural monuments, which will valorize the rich historic past of the Kurds. The tragic part of the Kurdish history could also find its place in a War Crimes Museum in the memory of many hundred thousand victims of massacres in Kurdistan Region.
Important oil and gas reserves
Apart from the construction, the industry and the tourism sectors, foreign companies are also attracted by the oil and gas reserves in Kurdistan Region. According the Kurdish Prime Minister Dr. Barham Salih, recent geological surveys estimate the oil reserves in the Kurdistan Region to be as high as 45 billion barrels and around 3-6 trillion cubic meters of natural gas.
The opening of the market and the economy liberalisation in Kurdistan open many new working places and currently there are about 100 000 immigrant workers, mainly from Asia. They work in the private sector, in the commerce and the construction, but also at the airport and in the public sphere. According Mr. Lovat the fact that today many Kurdish young people get University diplomas, raises higher their carrier ambitions and the low qualified jobs are left to the immigrants. At the same time, the lack of legislation regulating the payment of the immigrant workers creates new problems on the labour market because of the salary gaps between migrant and local workers. Some Kurdish politicians believe that the establishment of minimum salary in the public and private sector could protect both the Kurds and the migrant workers.
The recent fast economical development also brought corruption allegations against the Kurdish authorities. Critics against corruption were one of the main reasons for the recent protests in the Region. According Haider Mustafa Said from KRG BoI: "The corruption index of Transparency International for 2010 puts Iraq on the fourth place among the most corrupted countries in the world and Kurdistan Region is not exempt from this negative picture existing in the whole the Middle East. Corruption in Kurdistan is not more than a quarter of the Iraqi corruption".
However, Mr. Said underlines the efforts made by KRG to improve the situation. The BoI has contract with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, one of the world's leading financial and accounting consultancy firms, to monitor and evaluate the government procedures and operations and to fight against corruption. The Kurdish Parliament has also Integrity committee to monitor the corruption and the misuse of funds. The KRG Council of Ministers has recently endorsed a draft law establishing a Transparency Commission to stop corruption and promote good governance, and has introduced a Code of Conduct for public servants.
Youths are priority
The good governance is also matter of education of the young generations. In 1991 there was only one university in the Kurdistan Region — Salahaddin. Today there are 7 universities, as well as many private institutes and colleges. The American University of Iraq – Suleimaniya and the British Royal University are among the prestigious foreign educational institutions in Kurdistan. Kurdistan region has very young population with more than 50 % under 20 years old and the investment in the education is one of the priorities according the government. The KRG has launched a $100 million Human Capacity Development Program, which provides scholarships for students to study Master's and doctoral degrees at renowned international universities.
The growing number of young university graduates and the lack of regulation of the labour market is also a reason for social tensions in the modern Kurdish society. The university students were among the most active demonstrators in Suleymania at the end of February 2011. This young generation born in the post-1990s era has been brought up without having to learn Arabic history or language. They have witnessed the process of political, social and economical construction of the Kurdistan Region. They have grown up with the Kurdish flag on every administration building or public place. They have also experienced the arrival of the globalisation in Kurdistan – the big shopping centres, the modern attraction parks, the opening to the world. This young generation knows the burden of the past, but it could also bring a new fresh vision of the future development in Kurdistan Region. Perhaps precisely this new young generation will help the young Kurdish democracy to achieve its maturity?
Editor's note: In the original article the Kurdish members in Iraqi parliament counted as 41 however the correct figure is 57.
ANP (Ararat News and Publishing) "