The Kurds and the Catalans are voting for self-determination. It seems nothing can stop a people who have decided to vote for self-determination, although it seems not a single state is ready to accept it. The lesson from Somaliland, an unrecognised country since 1991, is: there is no need to worry about not achieving international recognition: you can live very well without.
Certainly these elections will be held, one way or another, and the outcome is predictable: overwhelming support for independence.
Background in Kurdistan
The vote for Kurdish independence will only take place in Iraqi Kurdistan, but it will obviously affect Kurdish aspirations in neighbouring countries. Iranian Kurds (the 3rd largest ethnic group in Iran) are overall quite well integrated into the Islamic Republic, but separatist and secular Kurdish movements are locked in a historic armed struggle with the Iranian regime that has escalated since 2015. The Iranian regime has accordingly reacted to Kurdistan’s plans for a referendum with vehemence. In Turkey Kurds are being violently suppressed by their government, and thus have little political space to manoeuvre in. But their position is clear: no to an ethnic Kurdish state, yes to a pluralistic democratic society spearheaded by Kurdish self-rule. Accordingly, Kurds in both Iran and Turkey have little sympathy for the current autocratic rulers of Iraqi Kurdistan, but they will definitely be fired by a ‘yes’-vote to continue seeking autonomy for their region.
Syria’s Kurds, meanwhile, are these days holding democratic elections, voting for their communal representatives who will then elect regional parliaments and a national assembly for the Kurdish-controlled region of ‘Rojava’ over the coming months. Syrian Kurds have stated clearly they do not wish independence: they just want to be left alone by Assad. The Syrian government has declared the elections illegal and clarified they don’t recognise the region of Rojava, but they have no means to disrupt the current process, and probably do not consider it a priority.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi addressed Kurds on television saying that the problems they were facing in their region were local, not caused by Iraq; he specifically mentioned corruption and mismanagement by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as the culprits. These comments are pertinent, and few observers would disagree; but Barzani’s reply was also apropos: given the sectarian nature and theocratic bent of the current Iraqi government, there is no place for Kurdistan within that Iraq.
Analysts point out that the Kurdish referendum, to be held five weeks before general regional elections (for president and parliament of the KRG), is meant to bolster Barzani and the current ruling clique as they face a serious economic and legitimacy crisis. It seems to work: his determination to hold the referendum, notwithstanding external pressure, is making him very popular. Probably Barzani also hopes to force Erdogan’s Turkey into continuing their cosy relationship, as it will make him an even more indispensable partner in the region. Erdogan, so violently against Kurdish autonomy in Turkey and Syria, accordingly has not made more than a few symbolic statements condemning the referendum.
However it is short-sighted to believe that a yes-vote tomorrow somehow signals public approval for Barzani’s ruling party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). It may help him secure the November 1 elections, but one can predict that his party, and also the rival PUK, will be swept from power in future elections. It is likely that to appease Erdogan and keep up his bargaining position with neighbouring countries, the KDP will dither with the implementation of independence. The venal semi-feudal economy Barzani, his family and cronies preside over will not see any change and Kurds, perhaps also looking at the positive results of communal self-governance in Syria and Turkey (insofar it hasn’t been crushed by Turkey), will probably want to equip their finally achieved independence with a proper, democratic economic basis. The genie that Barzani is unleashing from the bottle – popular aspiration – will not serve him in the medium term.
That genie has already been unleashed among Syria’s 1.200.000 Kurds, who are doing their level best to extend their experiment in stateless, community-driven democracy to neighbouring Arabs and minorities. The objective of remaining without a state, seen as the source of social inequity, in particular gender imbalance – the state being, with religion, the embodiment of patriarchy – explains why they are not interested in independence. Although the attempts to defuse their socio-political model may not bear fruit, it still seems inconceivable that the genie will return to its bottle.
The Catalan genie might also spread to Europe if Catalunya massively votes ‘yes’ to independence on October 1st. It will be interesting to see how the EU, that now has said it will not intervene, will then handle the situation. How can the EU ignore the democratic outcome of the referendum, supposing that the results will not be invalidated by technicalities? Just referring to the Spanish constitution, which is ambiguous in this regard, or deferring to the Spanish constitutional court, which is obviously partisan, will not suffice.
As soon as a yes-vote has been secured on 01 October, the Catalan leaders, faced with stiffening resistance from Madrid, will certainly appeal to Europe and its democratic institutions. It is easy to imagine that European popular opinion will stand behind the Catalans, putting pressure on national politicians.
The EU will undoubtedly try to avoid taking position as long as possible, but if Spain continues bullying Catalans with police and courts, European politicians will find it hard to continue remaining ‘neutral’. And once they accept Catalan independence, it will be hard for them to justify why other regions could not become independent, or at least autonomous within a federal Europe. How will French Catalans position themselves? Northern Italy, the Flemish region and maybe even Bavaria might follow the Catalan lead, while Scots may also be galvanised to secede from the UK and re-join the EU.
Lessons from Somaliland
The example of Somaliland, however, demonstrates that a vote for independence can be followed by a long period of statehood limbo. This region of 3-4 million people, as big as Uruguay, declared its independence in 1991, shortly after the fall of the Siyad Barre dictatorship which plunged the country into chaos. Somaliland ticks all the boxes for statehood but has never been recognised by the international community.
Somaliland has even been hailed as an island of stability and relative democracy within a troubled region, in marked contrast to the state it has decided to secede from. But a functioning government with its own currency, widespread popular support and a relatively good track record on UN civil, political and human rights standards has not been sufficient to secure recognition. As a result Somaliland cannot participate in the community of nations and its passport is not accepted abroad, save for Ethiopia.
The reasons for this rejection are similar to those facing an independent Kurdistan, and up to a degree also Catalunya: it really boils down to a fear that such recognition will open the Pandora’s box of claims to regional autonomy, a particularly acute fear in Africa. It appears that, the ideal of self-determination notwithstanding, the international community of states will only grant a place to a newcomer if it is the only possible internationally mediated outcome of a protracted conflict (think of Eritrea, South Sudan, Bangladesh, the Balkans…).
Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Somaliland has continued to function as an independent state for the past 25 years, and it is relatively successful according to most measures: the following are lessons that the Kurds may learn from, and even the Catalans may contemplate:
- Lack of international recognition is favourable for democratic development. A government not bolstered by foreign governments and inter-state organisations must perforce rely more on its own population, and its legitimacy among them. Access to loans, for example, has made many a government in developing countries corrupt and autocratic, and ingratiating itself with powerful countries such as the USA or Russia allows governments to bypass their own populations. Somaliland’s rulers must, by contrast, go to great lengths to include as large a population as possible in their support base, because that is their only source of effective power.
- Isolation enforced by neighbours can be overcome in many ways. Threats to impose sanctions by powerful neighbours may sound frightening, but in fact the economy, society and culture are already so interwoven across borders and globally that such sanctions are not so effective. In Rojava, surrounded by enemies that have imposed blockades on the land-locked region, the population lives in relative prosperity and does not miss half as much as one would expect. In Somaliland too, remittances by diaspora, lucrative cross-border smuggling opportunities and steadfast relations with neighbouring population groups all help overcome the worst effects of isolation. On the other hand, isolation propitiates autarky, and the resulting self-reliance strengthens the communities under siege.
- International support remains available. Private investment does not need diplomatic recognition to flow to a region, it just needs reliable returns. The same principle seems to apply to bilateral and multilateral aid: Somaliland receives more aid per capita, despite not being recognised, than the rest of Somalia. The EU, the UK, and even multilateral institutions such as The World Bank fund many development activities in Somaliland, albeit as support to a region of Somalia. Ultimately the best guarantee for continuing support is sympathy among international public opinion. This is limited in the case of Somaliland, because of unfamiliarity, but it seems secured for Kurds and Catalans.
- Passports can be bought. One of the most grievous results of not being recognised is that your citizens cannot travel abroad with locally issued passports. However, the mother country that does not want the region to secede is unlikely to refuse passports to those that it still considers its citizens. Any Somalilander can obtain a Somali passport. But a market is also likely to emerge to satisfy the demand for useful passports. Somalilanders, for example, can buy a Djiboutian passport for 1500 USD and an Ethiopian passport is also not too difficult to obtain.
Ultimately, the solution of the Syrian Kurds, to become independent and self-ruled de facto, without seeking to form a state that could be recognised by the international community, makes beautiful sense. It may have been the pitfall of every independence movement, to seek de jure recognition and therefore betray the original popular impulse that led to its success. Why even bother to fight or beg for international recognition, when the world we live in already provides all resources to self-governing groups of people, regardless of their political status?
Perhaps unrecognised states like Somaliland and Rojava are spearheading a global transformation, where people will come to live without being defined and limited by the state they are subjected to, connected in a self-governing community of communities. Catalunya could precipitate the European Union along a similar path, and an independent Kurdistan, if it overcomes its quasi-feudal crony-capitalist ruling class, could help redraw the Middle East in a manner more congenial to its peoples. Rojava has outlined its vision for a Syria based on solidarity between self-governed Sunni Arab, Alawite and Druze regions alongside Rojava, and Somaliland’s experience inspired the creation of a federal Somali state that may well, one day, make federal superstructures superfluous.
The message to Kurds and Catalans is: there is no need to worry about not immediately achieving international recognition: you can live very well without.