Will the Kremlin support the Kurds and an independence referendum?
It is more than a little ironic that the military violence that has scarred Iraq since 2003 is diminishing and being replaced by increased domestic political turmoil. The lessening violence is obvious as Baghdad continues fighting remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The source of domestic instability is the long-deferred independence referendum scheduled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for September 25. It was planned for 2014 but became mired in disagreement between the KRG and Iraq’s federal government. The intervening three years, which have seen the KRG take a leading military role against ISIS, has intensified the disagreements.
The Iraqi government has repeatedly expressed strong opposition to the KRG vote but it is uncertain if Baghdad has the political and military clout to enforce its will should the Kurds vote for independence.
There is no international consensus on the issue, though the United States and European Union have expressed strong opposition to the referendum, as have neighbouring Turkey and Iran. Perhaps Russia, which is expanding its Middle Eastern influence, will play a significant role.
Russia has made it explicit that it views Iraq’s unsettled state as a by-product of bungled US policies. In July, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Kurdish media source: “If we look at the history of Iraq, especially when in 2003 an illegal war started, when under American leadership foreign forces destroyed that country, what is there now and what is happening will not be easily mended. That certainly did have an impact on Erbil-Baghdad relations.”
This harsh interpretation of contemporary Iraq fits well with Russia’s policy towards the KRG referendum, which it insists must be carried out in conformity with international law and under the auspices of internationally accredited observers. Should such conditions be met, the Russian government has said it would support the results of the plebiscite.
That is a significant break with the rest of the foreign community. When asked if Russian support would affect other countries’ views, Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the Kurdistan High Referendum Council, said: “Very much so. It had a very extraordinary impact. We consider it a very progressive stance.”
Russia’s interest in the Kurds is long-standing and extends well beyond diplomacy. Russia has had a consulate in Erbil since 2007 and the KRG maintains representative offices in Moscow.
Russia has an economic interest in relations with the KRG. In July, KRG spokesman Safeen Dizayee said: “In more recent months the KRG signed contracts with several oil and energy companies in Russia and this is developing into a much more solid relationship with Russia and we are quite happy with this.”
These contracts include Gazprom and Rosneft, two of Russia’s largest energy companies. Rosneft and the KRG signed a series of agreements in June with a 20-year cooperation time frame on the exploration and production of hydrocarbons. Gazprom oil subsidiary Gazprom Neft is working on three oil projects in Iraqi Kurdistan. It owns a majority stake in two of them, Shakal and Halabja.
Assuming the referendum goes ahead, what effect will Russian support for it have on Moscow’s relations with Iran and Turkey? Russian relations with Turkey have been strained for several years because of Moscow’s Syria policy. Russia’s relations with Iran have been much warmer and include economic collaboration and defence.
As the Kurds move towards the contentious referendum, KRG President Masoud Barzani offered to delay it in return for the international community’s promise to accept the results of a future vote. Barzani was under international pressure to defer or cancel the plebiscite. He said on August 30 that the Kurds needed “guarantees” from the Iraqi government and parliament, as well as the United States, European Union and the United Nations, that a future vote would be accepted.
However, the international coalition he asked for guarantees responded with resounding silence. So did the Iraqi government. This indicates that if the KRG proceeds with the referendum, it will do so bereft of diplomatic support other than Russia’s. The consequences of Moscow’s assistance on its regional influence remain to be seen.