Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A View From Northern Iraq On The 2011 Kurdish Protests, Interview With Journalist Wladimir Van Wilgenburg

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a Dutch national who is currently working and writing in Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He runs the blog Transnational Middle-East Observer and writes for several publications. Wilgenburg was in northern Iraq during the demonstrations that broke out there beginning in February 2011 until they were broken up by the government in April. This is an interview on his observations on the Kurdish protests.
February 2011 protest in Sulaymaniya
Please explain a little bit about yourself.

I am a Dutch citizen, and I will finish my Master’s (MA) degree in Conflict Studies and Human Rights this year. My Bachelor’s (BA) specialization was in International Relations and Political History. Furthermore, I finished a Minor in Journalism and New Media, and studied two years of Turkish Language and Cultures, but didn’t finish that study. My main interest is in intrastate conflict and Middle-Eastern politics. I also have a love for learning Middle Eastern languages, and want to learn more about the region’s culture and music.

How did you end up in Kurdistan and working for the Rudaw online newspaper?

I did an internship in 2009 during the Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections for the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw, for my Minor in Journalism. After the internship they offered me a job as a freelance writer.

What do you think were the main reasons why people started demonstrating in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in February 2011?

I didn’t do research into this issue, but like in the rest of Iraq, there are complaints about the lack of services, jobs and corruption, which is reflected by the demands of the opposition parties. The Kurdistan region is much better than the rest of Iraq, considering services, but there are still complaints, and there might be a lack of quality.

This might also be related to the Resource Curse, which is the fact that Iraq earns almost all of its revenue from oil. That leads people to be dependent on governmental jobs, and wanting the government to provide everything for the population. The government is seen as a big daddy that must provide for its children.

The huge inequalities, and the fact that some people were able to get rich easily, while others couldn’t, also created jealousies. The saying of John F. Kennedy doesn’t apply here: “Don’t ask what your country can do for you. Ask instead what you can do for your country.” I know someone who was supporting the opposition party, but said, if he got 10,000 dollars, he would forever support the ruling party.

Furthermore, Iraq is not immune to the developments in the rest of the region. The demonstrations and unrest in other countries in the Middle East was used by opposition figures and activists to launch demonstrations against the Kurdish government, like in the rest of Iraq. It created an opportunity for activists and opposition parties to use it against the government. Just like the successful anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, was an inspiration for other non-state actors, like Palestinian political parties, to use it in their claims against opposing governments. The Islamic revolution in Iran (1979) also inspired Islamist organizations in the region. The region is closely interconnected, and the spread of satellite TV creates an even bigger effect. In every household, restaurant or teahouse, there is a television broadcasting images of demonstrations and unrest in other parts of the Islamic world. Most political parties in Iraq have their own TV-stations and therefore can easily mobilize people on the streets or give outright support to claims of demonstrators or show security forces beating demonstrators or violating human rights.

Almost immediately the ruling parties blamed the opposition groups, especially the Change List, for organizing and manipulating the protests. Did you get a sense of that or do you think the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were just trying to pass blame?

One can be emotional, and claim that the opposition was not behind anything and that it was ‘the people’ that took to the streets, but this isn’t completely true. The opposition was calling for the removal of the government many days before the protests started, and announced that if the government didn’t listen to their demands, they would organize an ‘uprising’ like in Tunisia and Egypt. There were already rumors about an upcoming ‘Tunisian uprising’ being spread in Irbil and Sulaymaniya, many days before the protests started as a result of the claims of the main opposition party Gorran (Change list).

The first demonstration in Sulaymaniya was allowed, but took a different turn, when the demonstrators headed towards the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) building, and clashes erupted between the KDP’s security and protestors throwing stones at the KDP-building. After this, more demonstrations erupted, which caught the opposition by surprise. The opposition parties first claimed they didn’t have anything to do with the unrest, and claimed the protestors were trouble makers. Later they quickly changed their policies, and supported the demonstrations in Sulaymaniya. For instance, they set up an organizing committee, and their media organs heavily supported the demonstrations. This was quite successful. Some protestors in Sulaymaniya later had the feeling that the demonstrations were hijacked by the opposition parties.

There were lots of reports about the government cracking down on reporters and activists during the weeks that there were demonstrations. Did you personally see or hear about any such incidents?

Most of the days I was spending my time in the Rudaw office. I tried to see these events, but it was difficult since I was in Irbil, and most of the  demonstrations were in Sulaymaniya. There were some claims that the KDP’s security forces cracked down on demonstrators and journalists in Irbil, but when I went to the places were the incidents allegedly happened, I was too late or it didn’t occur. It was difficult for me to verify these incidents, but the reports of human rights organizations are very clear, although some went too far to compare the crackdowns to the former Baath-regime. [Human Rights Watch released a report in May, “Iraqi Kurdistan: Growing Effort to Silence Media,” which compared the KRG’s tactics to those of Saddam Hussein.] The Kurdistan Region might be more comparable to Israel and Turkey, than other countries in this region.

After two months of protests, the KRG finally decided to end them. What do you think were the driving forces behind that move?
Kurdish security forces breaking up protests (Karzan Kardozi)
I don’t think I can give a good answer to this, because my focus those days weren’t the protests in Kurdistan, and I didn’t interview many opposition or ruling party officials about this issue. I can only speculate about the reasons for ending the demonstrations.

Maybe it’s because the Kurdish government got tired of the ongoing protests, and had enough of the opposition parties attempting to bring the government down. It could also be related to the economy, since the KRG argued that the demonstrations badly hurt the economic situation, and investments. It kept the KRG busy with the opposition, instead of inviting foreign delegations or trying to attract foreign investment. It badly hurt the KRG’s image and also the economy. Furthermore, the KRG didn’t expect these demonstrations, and seemed to be very occupied by thinking about how to deal with them. The KRG probably didn’t expect the number of negative reports from non-governmental organizations and the Western media about the crackdown either.

Do you have any idea why almost all of the protests were in Sulaymaniya, which is the stronghold of the PUK, and there were few if any in Dohuk or Irbil where the KDP is stronger?

I argued in a column for Rudaw, “Why Are There No Demonstrations In Erbil,” that there were more opportunities in Sulaymaniya to demonstrate, because of the divisions within the PUK, and the strength of the Kurdish opposition there, compared to the KDP-ruled regions. People from Sulaymaniya or those supporting the opposition, argued that there were more freedoms in Sulaymaniya compared to Irbil. Others said Irbil was more interested in business than opposition activities, although they might complain a lot about corruption. Sulaymaniya also has a historical experience with demonstrations against the Baath-regime, and is known for its civil society and student life. I heard that one researcher found out with focus groups that the people of Sulaymaniya were more angry about the lack of services, compared to Irbil, but I didn’t see this research with my own eyes.
There could be many factors playing a role in this, but as I said, I can only speculate, since I didn’t study the situation on an academic level, and these are my personal observations. Its difficult to grasp the real reasons behind it. I know someone who was fiercely against the demonstrations in Sulaymaniya and Gorran, but at the same time, was also fiercely against corrupt officials in the KDP, while still supporting the party. It’s very easy to generalize, but more difficult to really understand this complex situation. Maybe it’s a good subject for others to write a Master’s-thesis or a PhD-thesis about, and to compare it with other provinces in Iraq where protests were quickly quelled (like in Kirkuk) or lasted longer (like in Mosul).

The three opposition parties, the Change List, the Kurdistan Islamic Group and the Kurdistan Islamic Union, eventually took up the cause of the protesters, and tried to push their demands within the Kurdish parliament. Do you think they can bring about any real change now that the protests have been shut down?

I don’t expect any changes in the leadership of the ruling Kurdish parties, the KDP and PUK, but they might carry out some policies to decrease corruption. These demonstrations already resulted in some reforms, like firing alleged corrupt officials, and canceling some contracts, which involved corruption or nepotism. The Kurdish government is new in dealing with democracy, and it might take a while before it really develops. Turkey’s democracy is much older, and is still plagued by corruption, abuse of power, and other issues, like press freedom.

Could you see the demonstrations coming back or have they effectively been dispersed?

I think there is a big chance that people will again take the streets, but I don’t know when. I doubt that the government can satisfy all the demands of its citizens, and there is still a support base for the opposition. These demonstrations were a learning experience for those groups and people opposing the ruling Kurdish parties. Maybe if demonstrations in Iraq grow, after the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to implement the promised reforms within the 100-days deadline, this might inspire the opposition or activists to launch new demonstrations in Kurdistan, although I haven’t heard any talks about this yet. Otherwise the opposition could use this experience in the future. Maybe it could take 1 year, 2 years or even 10 years. I don’t know.


Human Rights Watch, “Iraqi Kurdistan: Growing Effort to Silence Media,” 5/24/11

Van Wilgenburg, Wladimir, “Why Are There No Demonstrations in Erbil,” Rudaw, 3/25/11

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