Bankrupt Kurdistan is no longer 'the other Iraq'

Bankrupt Kurdistan is no longer 'the other Iraq'

Comment: The Kurdistan region of Iraq has hit rock bottom. What was once a promising 'other Iraq' is now a politically and financially bankrupt disappointment, writes Judit Neurink.
6 min read
29 May, 2020
'The demands of the people have been left unanswered' writes Neurink [Getty]
"Welcome to 'the other Iraq,'" tourists would be told when holidaying in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The three Iraqi provinces the Kurds have governed since 1992 were not only lush, green and mountain cool, but also more liberal, democratic and safer than the rest of Iraq.

It was the promise of democratic development that brought me to Kurdistan's cultural capital, Sulaymaniyah in 2008. After years of regularly visiting Iraq to train journalists, I had come to set up a media centre focused on developing the role of media, politicians and police in their new democracy.

Here, intellectual freedom - struggling in the region as a whole - finally seemed a given. Independent media started up, we organised debates, people dared to speak out. It was a completely different situation from the rest of Iraq and would only get better with time.

Twelve years later, that promise seems to have vanished behind the mountains. Soon after I settled in Kurdistan, one of my students was murdered for exposing ties between politicians and prostitution. More colleagues have been killed since. Tribal loyalties and overeager party members were usually blamed, in order to hide the darker and still less palatable truth.

A press law was now in place, but most courts still tried journalists using older laws that allowed them to impose punishments for reporting on taboo subjects like fraud, self-enrichment and abuses of powers.

I have seen TV studios set on fire and journalists beaten, harassed and arrested. Independent papers have now disappeared from the streets, and are now fighting for survival online. The freedoms the Kurds had worked so hard to prioritise, have been taken away by politicians who always put their own survival first.

Here, independent media started up, we organised debates, people dared to speak out

Politicians from the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, have been at odds for years, even before the civil war they fought in the 90s. But they also managed to rule together, dividing the spoils between them: the income from the borders and - later, when Kurdistan drew up its own contracts with international oil companies - the spoils from running those wells.

At the same time, they copied a system of clientelism put in place by the former Iraqi regime, using it to buy the loyalty of their voters. Those who voted for and worked with the parties could share in the spoils, receiving jobs, cars, houses and pensions in return.

It was a system they knew, but it also left out large groups of people. It wouldn't take long for them to rise up and demand change: first in 2011 and many times since, until very recently. But the demands have been left unanswered, presumably because the system is too profitable for those in power.

The loyalty system came under fire in 2014, when Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki decided to punish the Kurds for not handing their oil over to the Iraqi state oil company SOMO, as they were obliged to, in accordance with his reading of the constitution. He stopped sending the Kurds their share of the Iraqi budget, while also criticising the unacceptable number of people on the Kurdish payroll.

Read more: Press freedom activists condemn Iraqi-Kurdish authorities' arrest of journalists

The number of people receiving payments, sometimes without actually working, had passed the million mark out of a population of just 7 million.

His timing was bad, as the Kurds had to finance their war against the Islamic group (IS) and support the millions of refugees seeking safety in their region. As its oil income was far less than the Kurdish share of the budget, the Kurdistan region was heading for bankruptcy.

When, in 2015, billions in loans from Turkey and financial aid from Kurdish businessmen was no longer enough, the payment of wages to civil servants and other people on the government payroll stopped. It took almost two years and the renewal of assistance from Baghdad to restart it, but with deductions for all.

Because of the good years and savings under the mattress, most people somehow managed. But now the oil-for-budget-talks with Baghdad are ongoing again, and salary payments have been cut once more. The Kurdish Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who promised reform when he took over from his nephew Nechirvan last year, has disclosed that total Kurdish debts now amount to 27 billion dollars. The Kurds can no longer repay their foreign debts and their bankruptcy puts them in a poor position for negotiating with Baghdad.

The prime minister has openly blamed his predecessor for the disaster, but offers no solutions. Yet Barzani's party now has more power than ever, with a majority in parliament, with the help of minority seats. At the same time, protests are rocking the region once again, as Kurds who survived the earlier wage cuts can no longer cope.

Twelve years later, that promise seems to have vanished behind the mountains

The protests have always been loudest in the east of the region, home to Kurdistan's second party, the PUK. This time, too, teachers and others have taken to the streets there. In KDP-dominated cities, people have been less willing to show their anger, afraid of the possible fall-out from their disloyalty. When, in May 2018, teachers and doctors in the Kurdistan capital Erbil finally got so angry at the cuts to their salaries that they took to the streets, the government put a stop to the protests with a heavy hand.

This made it even more daunting for the teachers who recently protested in Duhok, a city known to be loyal to the Barzani family. It shows that even among their own supporters, patience has run out. The teachers were intimidated, and many were arrested. Some of the journalists who reported on the protests are still in jail.

I remember the first demonstrations I joined, in 2008 in Sulaymaniyah. People were so proud to be able to show their dissatisfaction, and still hopeful their voices would be heard. The years since then have taught the Kurds a hard lesson. Their calls for change led nowhere, and everyone now knows the dark truth that politicians will stop at nothing to prevent it from happening.

For a while at least, prosperity made people's lives more pleasant, even if not everyone benefited equally. But electricity and water services were never extended to cover everyone, and dissatisfaction with the 
government's handling of the problems plus the ever-increasing corruption can no longer be ignored. 

At the same time, faced with problems that seem unsolvable, Kurdistan's rulers only know one way to react: oppressing the people and setting them against one another. The divide between the PUK and KDP is wider than ever, with fears of the region splitting the region in two. 

My Kurdish friends and allies mourn a broken dream and a nation that is both politically and financially bankrupt. We feel cheated that our hopes have been smothered by the corruption of politicians who refuse real change. And that today, "the other Iraq" is not so different anymore.


Judit Neurink is a Dutch journalist and author specialised in Iraq. Her latest book, Geweld is nooit ver weg, (Violence Recycled) about her decade in Iraq, was recently published in the Netherlands.

Follow her on Twitter: @JuditNeurink

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.