Scepticism tempers enthusiasm after Kurdish referendum
Erbil- Iraqi Kurds in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), were jubilant as they celebrated participation in the referendum on their independence.
Although signs of celebration appeared to be more visible in Erbil than in the streets of KRG regions of Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, the referendum was undoubtedly the main topic of debate for millions of Iraq’s Kurds.
KRG President Masoud Barzani announced in June that the referendum would take place September 25 and insisted on sticking to the date despite objections from the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and regional and international pressure.
When the region’s most contested day knocked on the door, most Iraqi Kurds were exuberant.
“This has always been my childhood dream. I have been waiting for this for a long time,” said Wali Haci, a 29-year-old Kurdish man, prior to casting his vote in Erbil.
By the time the sun set and the referendum committee began counting the votes, Iraqi Kurds had poured onto the streets of Erbil, which were emblazoned with KRG flags. Signs of celebrations or promotion of independence were visible in most streets and neighbourhoods in Erbil.
Ferhad Huner, a 52-year-old Kurd, said he could not contain his jubilant mood. “This is what we have always been waiting for,” he shouted as he chanted for independence near the Erbil castle.
The referendum passed with 92% of the vote, the election commission announced, but the inundating international and regional pressure on the KRG may swiftly sour the mood in the capital.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran have staunchly opposed the formation of an independent Kurdistan.
The Turkish government took the case much further than expressing concern. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened the KRG with shutting off the oil trade, which is the lifeline of the Iraqi Kurdish region, and closing the Habur border gate, another staggering blow to Barzani.
The Iraqi Kurdish autonomous administration lives on oil trade. Selling 600,000 barrels a day, the KRG transfers 550,000 of them via Turkey. A breakdown of ties with Turkey could result in an unprecedented crisis for the young KRG.
The Habur border gate at the Turkish-Iraqi border could turn into another headache for Barzani. Shelves at supermarkets and counters in the bazaars in Erbil are filled with Turkish-made products and goods shipped via Turkey.
In spite of the buoyancy, people were aware of the utmost significance of trade with Turkey. “We would be finished if Turkey shut down the border gate,” said an Iraqi Kurdish businessman who asked to remain anonymous. “I have trucks waiting at the border. I would lose millions in dollars if the border were to remain closed for months.”
Data provided by Turkey’s Ministry of Customs and Trade indicated that 1,141,198 trucks passed through the gate in 2016.
Mehmet, a Kurd who did not wish to give his full name, said he was perturbed by the ongoing strife. Running a kiosk in Erbil, the Iraqi Kurd sighed over the possibility of his business going bust if Ankara imposes sanctions. “I am fully for the independence but sanctions would mutilate us,” Mehmet said.
While the Iraqi Kurds are excited about independence, they appear to harbour deep concerns at the same time.
The Iraqi central government’s sanctions are also capable of hurting the KRG. After Baghdad urged the KRG to hand over control of border posts and airports, it called on foreign countries to halt flights and deal with the central government for other businesses.
KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani admits the reality. “Of course, there will be problems. It will definitely have a negative impact on the people,” said Barzani about sanctions.
The KRG stressed that it sought dialogue and negotiations and that the referendum had not drawn any borders.
In such an environment where the pressure mounts on the autonomous region economically and politically, the KRG may have a mountain to climb before realising “the childhood dreams” of millions of Iraqi Kurds.