North Africa, West Asia

Not another story of failed liberation: tensions in Bashur and Rojava in the light of the referendum

Kurds need to rely on their own strength. The people must directly participate in and control their affairs if the fate of many other postcolonial countries is to be avoided.

Huseyin Rasit
22 September 2017

Oslo Architecture Triennale 2016: New World Embassy, Rojava: installation view, Oslo City Hall, 2016. Democratic Self-Administration of Rojava & Studio Jonas Staal. Flickr/István Virág. Some rights reserved.The situation of the Kurds in a drastically changing Middle East has received little attention in academia and less in the media despite their growing impact on regional and international politics. The biggest stateless people living in the Middle East are on the verge of a new status, not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, where a referendum for independence takes place on September 25, 2017, but also in Syria and Turkey. Then there are the Iranian Kurds. Their stories and the conditions they live in are the least known, not only by the international community but also by fellow-Kurds living in three neighbouring countries, due to an intense isolation. This week’s short series looks at current political struggles of the Kurds in four neighbouring countries or in a country that does not exist on the world map but in the hearts and mind of 40 million people. Mehmet Kurt, series editor.

In less than a week, the people of Bashur will go the polls to vote on independence. As the referendum decision has created ripples through the Middle East and beyond, the reactions of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq have been predictably hostile. After all, in the last hundred years since the World War One, these states have repeatedly tried to keep the Kurds in line through a combination of war, repression, and even attempts at genocide.

So, one should not be so surprised as they throw various threats at the KRG now. More interesting, however, is how the political fractures among Kurdish people and different parts of Kurdistan have become more manifest. Indeed, we now have at least two Kurdistans: Bashur with its capitalist modernization and Rojava and its allies with their democratic confederalism.

It is difficult to say how the relation between these two projects will unfold in the long run. Yet we can say for now that the tensions in both of them have become more obvious during the referendum process. If we want the future of Kurdistan to be bright one, we need to discuss these tensions and how to move beyond them instead of focusing solely on the question of independence.        

One issue the referendum has revealed might be the Achilles’ hill of democratic confederalism: the tension between the ideal of transcending the nation-state and Kurds’ century-old desire for their own state. The adherents of democratic confederalism repeatedly argue that the Kurds do not need or even want a nation-state. In itself, making such claims is certainly understandable since political struggle necessitates a defence of the plausibility of your ideology. Nonetheless, the reality does not exactly match up to ideals. It seems that many Kurds are simply not ready to abandon the idea of a state.

Moreover, some of them are quite ready to equate any criticism based on a rejection of a state paradigm with outright treason against Kurdistan. This is apparent from how the initial criticisms from the PKK wing largely fell on deaf ears, or how anyone voicing a no vote is harshly rebuked. Indeed, even parties like Gorran campaign for “no” not because they reject states, but because they are against the way the referendum is being handled.

However, the current atmosphere does not mean that the political project of the KRG has been affirmed as the ultimate choice, or that its powerholders are off the hook. The region is suffering, caught in a mire of political, economic, and social problems. For example, economic crisis is now manifest for everyone to see. Wages are sporadically or never paid; electricity and other resources cannot be provided in a regular manner; production is low; and supermarkets are invaded by products coming from Turkey. Economic hardships are both caused and aggravated by relations of clientelism and nepotism. Many are complaining that corruption in key revenues such as oil are controlled by a handful of powerful people with little public control. On top of these problems, it is difficult to argue that Bashur has achieved decolonization. Turkey and Iran exert enormous influence in the region. Especially the Turkish government has established a certain economic and political dominion, with its arms reaching many things from oil trade to the construction to military operations. As people see themselves more and more as citizens, it will be impossible to sustain a system based on a combination of state institutions and militia structures.

All of the problems above have their roots in how power is held in the region. For so long now, the people have not directly held power in Bashur. Of course, one can immediately make a counter claim and say that direct democracy is not a must for prosperity and progress, and a liberal democracy with a functioning state would do as well.

Ignoring many problems of liberal democracies, we can contend that this counterpoint would have some merit. But here is the problem that we have in Bashur. Power operates in the region neither through an overarching and functional liberal state nor through direct democratic institutions. Instead, Bashur is divided between power groups that essentially correspond to parties and militias. Different parties control different regions, employ separate peshmergas, control checkpoints, use resources, and act as gatekeepers. Moreover, people themselves are deeply divided along party lines. Largely a heritage from a century-long armed struggle and subsequent civil war, this situation is extremely inimical to institutionalization or democratization. It simply cannot be sustained without moving either to a liberal state or a direct democracy.

The referendum and the nationalist sentiments it brought to the surface might have slowed down these processes for now. However, the region is still moving towards a reckoning, as the underlying conditions will not be magically solved by independence. On the contrary, the referendum might deepen these problems since an independent state itself will further the citizenship process in Bashur. In other words, as people see themselves more and more as citizens, it will be impossible to sustain a system based on a combination of state institutions and militia structures. Because, simply put, one cannot have an institutionalized state/democracy on the one hand and a society based on a militia/party complex on the other. Thus, the current war-based system of Bashur cannot go on like this.

Moreover, the democratic confederalist project of Rojava is further highlighting the contradictions in Bashur. The former espouses direct democratic control and communal economic structures. It thus offers a deep contrast to the limited control that the people of Bashur wield over their deepening problems.

The point here is not that democratic confederalism is fully functional. There are certainly many gaps in the praxis of Rojava. Yet unlike 15 years ago when democratic confederalism was only a theoretical possibility, it is now being implemented in reality. The warm reception of Rojava by the Kurds of Bashur might initially have been about Kurdish solidarity. In the long run, however, Bashur will be more and more inspired by what is happening in Rojava. 

So, what might the effects of these longstanding issues be in the long run? Unfortunately, they have the potential to corrupt the century-old dream of the Kurdish people. It is not difficult to imagine a future in which Kurdistan is independent but nonetheless not free and prosperous. History, after all, is full of postcolonial countries which have substantially failed in achieving their liberatory goals. These examples, liberations betrayed as Edward Said would say, show us that it is not enough to achieve nominal independence. Unless a liberation movement transforms political, economic, and social relations towards an egalitarian, just, and democratic future, the new system very likely devolves into a graveyard of ideals and dreams. Oppressed nations have already had enough of these failed cases. The question now is how Bashur will avoid this fate. 
In the long run, however, Bashur will be more and more inspired by what is happening in Rojava. 

Measures that could be taken

There are certain steps that could be taken. First of all, there should be a rigorous twin push towards economic and political democratization/decolonization. Economic democratization would require tackling corruption, redirecting revenues of oil and other sources to infrastructural and social programs, investing in education, moving towards increased domestic production, and establishing necessary programs for the redistribution of wealth.

Yet these by themselves do not guarantee sustained democracy and decolonization. Therefore, there must also be simultaneous efforts for people to wield real power. The parliament should certainly become functional again as many others have argued. Yet this is not enough. The people must directly participate in and control their affairs if the fate of many other postcolonial countries is to be avoided. New local, regional, and national committees should be established for execution and control of economic, political, and social policies. These should be populated by directly elected and independent civilians.

If the steps above are also reinforced by social campaigns to encourage people to mobilize, organize, and participate, Bashur can create the necessary foundations for decolonization and establishing beneficial relations with the rest of the world. I have no illusions at this point. Turkey and Iran are formidable countries, not to mention the US and Russia. It will especially take much effort to shake off the colonizing effects of Turkey. But why do we even discuss independence if we cannot dare to create a truly free and democratic country? And what better way to achieve this than relying on people themselves? Re-energizing the masses and passing the power to them can give Bashur the necessary resources to move forward. Besides, the people of Bashur do not even have to look far. Their own sisters and brothers in Rojava are offering possible solutions and recipes.

On their part, adherents of democratic confederalism in Rojava and other parts of Kurdistan should be prepared to face the tensions inherent in their project. Sentiments that powerfully resurfaced during the referendum process can be looked upon as a learning moment. If democratic confederalists want to secure the future success of their project, they need to be able to overcome various tensions stemming from ethnic sentiments and nationalist desires.

Specifically, potential conflicts between Kurds’ long desire for a state and the project of the Northern federation; between nationalism and the ideals of democratic confederalism; between Kurds and other groups in Rojava; and between Rojava and other parts of Kurdistan need to be acknowledged and tackled.

It seems to me that women might be the key element here. Their central position in Rojava and the revolution’s emphasis on women’s liberation are well-known facts. As an oppressed group cutting through ethnic and religious line, they have the potential to guide people in transcending sectarian conflicts and to safeguard democratization and liberation against destructive tendencies. To the extent that they can keep their central position as a highly mobilized, democratic, and liberationist group, women might offer the solutions to our problems. To the extent that they can keep their central position as a highly mobilized, democratic, and liberationist group, women might offer the solutions to our problems.

Ultimately, the referendum process has shown that the Kurds need to stand together. It is true that there are fault lines among many different groups, and politically there are now more than one Kurdistan. Still, all the regional states that tower above their Kurdish components have once again proved how hostile they are to the Kurds.

In such a geopolitical situation, in which one also cannot easily trust the US or Russia, the Kurds need to rely on their own strength. For this, dialogue, cooperation, and integration should be increased through institutions like the KNK. The Kurds indeed have the potential to guide the peoples of the Middle East towards a better future. Therefore, their success in solving the problems of the different parts of Kurdistan and coming together as a unified force of democracy and liberation is important for us all.


New World Embassy: Rojava_Oslo Architecture Triennale. Flickr/Istvan Virag. Some rights reserved.

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