Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan region, rattled many cages this month when he announced in parliament that the KRG would be moving ahead soon on a referendum on independence from Iraq. If Kurdistan goes ahead with such a vote, it would be joining two other parts of the world embarked on similar paths: Scotland and Catalonia.
In Scotland, First Minister Alex Salmond has set the referendum on Scottish independence from Britain for Sept. 18. The Catalonian government, led by Artur Mas, has scheduled its referendum for Nov. 9. Although the British government in Westminster has not stood in the way of a referendum, Scottish opinion polls show a narrow lead for those who want to stay within the United Kingdom. In Catalonia, by contrast, the central government in Spain has declared the referendum illegal, but the polls overwhelmingly favor independence.
Independence for all three of these regions makes little sense at this point in time.
Kurdistan probably has the best case: It has been divided and repressed, and its population subjected to unspeakable horrors, especially during the Baath years and Saddam Hussein’s murderous dictatorship. Today, the Kurds have fashioned a stable region for themselves. After the disintegration of the Iraqi army in Mosul, the Kurdistan government, confronted by a determined Islamic State-led insurgency, sent in its own forces to protect nearby areas not recognized as being within its boundaries. Some have a Kurdish plurality, others a majority.
The Kurds are unlikely to withdraw from these territories, which include the vast Kirkuk oil and gas reserves. Independence is likely to be contested by all of the putative state’s neighbors, including the rest of the Arab world, which refuses to recognize a separate existence for Kurds.
But Barzani would have been better off remaining silent and waiting for a weak and imploding Iraqi state to one day concede to the inevitable. Certainly, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has done his best to alienate just about everyone, whether Sunni Muslim Arabs or Kurds; in a recent fit of pique he replaced all the Kurdish ministers in his Cabinet. By acting too quickly, the Kurdish government is unnecessarily perceived as usurping lands that in all likelihood would willingly have elected to join it in a breakup of Iraq.
If the Kurdish demands are understandable, what of the others? Neither Catalonia nor Scotland has suffered as much as the Kurds. Catalonia, to be sure, was not a favorite during the Francisco Franco dictatorship years. Nevertheless, with a population of 7.5 million of the nation’s 47 million, it is today Spain’s most prosperous region. Unlike the Kurds, who are landlocked, Catalonia borders France and enjoys a coastline on the Mediterranean.
Were Catalonia to secede, its status in the European Union would be indeterminate. Would it have to apply as a new member state? Would the rump state of Spain, out of spite, then veto Catalonia’s efforts to join? That would be worrying since much of Catalonia current prosperity depends on its continued membership in the EU.
Scotland, like Kurdistan, has oil, and, like Catalonia, faces the prospect of having to apply for EU membership. Unlike Spain, though, Britain is not part of the Eurozone, and Scottish independence leaders have signaled that they would prefer to continue using the English pound as their official currency. Of course, that assumes the government in London would allow an independent government to use its currency. There are precedents: Panama uses the U.S. dollar, but the small size of the Panamanian economy has little effect on U.S. monetary policy.
Scots may elect to remain in the United Kingdom, especially because Westminster has followed a policy of not alienating the Scottish voter. Catalonia, which may face a more uncertain future in Europe, could be persuaded by Madrid to not secede if the latter were more accommodating on budgetary and other issues. Madrid’s generally uncompromising role has exacerbated separatist feelings.
Of course, there are probably many who secretly root for these new countries to emerge. For one, international relations specialists, who would love to have “new countries” to study, new inter-state relationships to explore, new entry points for data sets and concomitant occasions for new grant proposals to write.
What of diplomats? New countries mean openings for new ambassadors, deputy-chiefs of missions, political officers, etc. Even future would-be campaign funding bundlers, be they soap opera producers or Long Island shopping mall builders, can dream of representing the United States in Barcelona. The embassy in Irbil, in Kurdistan, on the other hand, would more likely go to a career foreign service officer.
But those advocates notwithstanding, the prospect of independence for these regions does not look promising — at least not yet.
Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.