Like Somaliland, Taiwan and the Palestinian Authority, the Kurdistan Regional Government is a de facto state whose sovereignty is disputed, yet which aspires to institutionalize its independence. But unlike other entities which have achieved de facto statehood in spite of lacking international legitimacy, the KRG’s success, as Yaniv Voller explores, has been achieved because of a lack of legitimacy.
By Yaniv Voller
In 1991, following Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War, the Iraqi army was forced to withdraw its forces from the three predominantly Kurdish populated provinces in the north of the country. Shortly after, the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein ordered the withdrawal of the Iraqi state apparatus and bureaucracy from the region. This decision was motivated by the hope that Kurdish rebels, facing soaring unemployment, shortage in food and collapsing infrastructure, would end up begging Baghdad to take responsibility over the three regions. The Kurdish leadership, nonetheless, had other plans. Notwithstanding lacking experience in running civilian affairs, subjected to a double embargo both under UN Security Council Embargo and by Baghdad, and still facing the threat of invasion by Iraq, Turkey, or Iran, the Kurds saw this as a historical opportunity for autonomy in the region they have considered part of their historical homeland. This decision witnessed the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government and of the Kurdistan National Assembly, and the beginning of a process of state-building in what has become a de facto autonomous region.
During the first decade, this process was far from consistent: after a successful election campaign and euphoric two years of governance, the KRG was torn by an internecine war between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the two leading elements in the Kurdish nationalist movement. The Kurdish civil war last until 1997, but the KRG remained divided officially until 2005. After some stagnation, however, the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 gave a new boost to the process of state-building in the region. Playing an important part in the invasion, the Kurdish autonomy in the north was legitimised by Baghdad, as a new agreement was signed between the new rulers of Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership, accepting the idea of federalism in Iraq.
Indeed, throughout the second decade of its existence, the KRG has experienced some major success in the process of state-building in the region. Amid the total collapse of the Iraqi state and society, the raging terror in the country and the outburst of sectarian violence, the KRG has exhibited stability and relative economic prosperity. Since reunification it has had two successful election-campaign, in the second of which the opposition movement, Gorran, gained nearly a quarter of the seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament. And during these two decades, some important measures have been taken in an effort to guarantee the rights of ethnic and religious minorities, women and the media, as well as measures to counter corruption in the region.
The KRG is, in essence, a de facto state. It has gained domestic sovereignty, run its own civilian affairs and has independent (informal) relations with other states. Yet, its right to have such sovereignty is constantly disputed by international society, so does any aspiration to institutionalise this independence. Thus, it falls into the same category as other entities such as Somaliland, Taiwan, Kosovo, the Palestinian Authority, Nagorno-Karabakh and more. Interestingly enough, most of these states have gone through successful processes of state-building. Most students of the phenomenon of de facto statehood stress that such success has been achieved in spite of these entities’ lack of international legitimacy.
The case of the KRG, nonetheless, reveals that such success has been achieved because of the lack of international legitimacy. The pursuit of international legitimacy has meant that the Kurdish leadership has tried to demonstrate to the international community its success in state-building, emphasising not only its success in institution building but also in meeting standards of international society about “good statehood,” such as democratization, protecting the rights of minorities in its territory and more. This has had a major impact over the KRG: it has meant that the KRG, much like other de facto states, is more exposed to international society, its ideas, but also its scrutiny. The KRG’s constant commitment to meet the standards of international society has meant that those committed to such standards could use the KRG’s statements to pressure it to actually meet them. This has involved members of local civil society, members of the diaspora community in Western Europe and North America and international NGOs. This has meant a potential for continuous changes and progress in the KRG.
The Kurdish aspiration for separation from Iraq has not ceased; since 1992, nevertheless, it has gone through a thorough change. Guerrilla warfare has now been replaced by state-building in the Kurdish path for achieving such separation. We should bear this in mind when examining future developments in the KRG’s status and its relations with Iraq and international society.
Yaniv Voller is a PhD Student in the LSE International Relations Department, conducting his research on the Kurdish nationalist movement in northern Iraq. He is the recipient of an Emirates Foundation PhD Support for Middle East Studies Award, 2010/2011.