By Amberin Zaman, for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.
Massoud Barzani vows to fight corruption with same dedication as KRG has fought IS
These are critical times in the quasi-independent Kurdish entity in Iraq better known as the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, or simply Iraqi Kurdistan. Buoyed by a burgeoning energy sector, its leaders loved to boast that Kurdistan was going to be the “new Dubai.” Today its economy is collapsing, and so are its spirits.
Decades of mismanagement, internal feuding and graft have caught up with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Relations with the central government in Baghdad are at an all-time low. Since February 2014, Baghdad has refused to pay the Kurds’ share of the national budget. The Kurds subsequently moved to sell their oil independently. The onslaught of Islamic State (IS) forces in 2014 coupled with a sharp drop in oil prices proved a tipping point. Ordinary citizens have taken to the streets in protest.
Yet despite such adversity, Massoud Barzani, the KRG’s veteran president, says he is determined to lead his people to full-blown independence after a popular referendum that is scheduled to take place this year. Barzani’s critics accuse him of using the independence card to deflect attention away from the financial crunch and the festering dispute around his presidency.
Yet in some ways, conditions have never been riper for realizing the Kurds’ long-cherished dreams of statehood. Baghdad is bogged down with its own problems. IS’ retreat from the so-called disputed territories, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurds and the central government alike, have allowed the Kurds to assert their control over them. Turkey, a long-feared foe, has embraced the Iraqi Kurds as never before.
A few dispute that the quietly determined Barzani is best fitted to shepherd his people to independence. He inherited the mantle of his late father Molla Mustafa Barzani, who is counted among the fathers of Kurdish nationalism. No other figure enjoys Barzani’s stature in Iraqi Kurdistan. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor at his office overlooking Erbil, Barzani talked about the challenges that lie ahead.
The text of the interview follows:
Al-Monitor: You are talking about a referendum and about independence more loudly than ever before. Some people express skepticism, saying it’s a ploy to distract attention from your economic and political problems. They don’t really believe you are serious. Are you serious? And if so, are you going to give us a date for a referendum, and what will the referendum be about?