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Across Iraqi Kurdistan, not only in Halabja and Sulaymani, but also in Erbil, Duhok, and even Barzan itself, Kurds agitate for reform. While Iraqi Kurdistan has witnessed great economic development over the past decade, people are dissatisfied. Corruption is rife. When young students seek jobs, merit plays little role: family and party connections mean far more. In the wake of this spring’s protests, Masud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, renewed promises to implement reform.
Reform is easy to promise but hard to implement. True leaders do not rest on their laurels: they identify problems in order to resolve them. To reform effectively, they must understand the problems which afflict society.
In Kurdistan, however, isolation has become an impediment to reform. Wealth and the need for security create necessary distance between Kurdish leaders and the general public. One of the reasons why Barham Salih a decade ago enjoyed a reputation for reform was because, upon his appointment to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s premiership, he remained in his family’s house in Sulaymani. Goran leader Noshirwan Mustafa, too, kept roots close to society, both living and working in the heart of the city. Even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, in the years before Saddam’s fall, mitigated the isolation of Qalachalan by residing often in a compound in central Sulaymani.
“That the protests this past spring shocked Kurdish leaders but no one else underscores the Kurdish elite’s isolation.” — Michael Rubin
In contrast, Green Zone isolation won Iraqi politicians nothing but ridicule from ordinary Iraqis. With few exceptions, the most prominent Iraqi politicians dined, drank, and even swam in the Green Zone while Baghdad burned.
Masud Barzani may be the most influential and powerful politician in Iraqi Kurdistan, but he has fallen victim to the Green Zone syndrome. While his father Mullah Mustafa retained close ties to the people and so remains widely revered today, Masud has become isolated from the people. When he returned to Iraqi Kurdistan two decades ago, he established his headquarters in Sar-e Rash, a former resort area once popular for its restaurants and hotels.
As the oppressive summer sun and continued electricity shortfalls leads Kurds to broil in Erbil, Barzani not only denies ordinary Kurds access to one of the closest and most attractive places to escape the summer heat, but he also seals himself in a bubble from which he has little exposure to ordinary Kurdish life. Because he does not live in Erbil, his convoy seldom navigates its streets or ring roads. He never will surprise patrons at a kabob or shwarma stand by stopping for a snack, nor will he see the excesses of his son’s security forces who bundle young people unto SUVs if they even look like they might appear to be on the verge of a protest.
He cannot rely on his advisors for insight into the reality of Kurdish life. His closer advisors live alongside him in Sar-e Rash, while the next tier of courtiers live in Salahuddin, a few dozen kilometers from Erbil. That the protests this past spring shocked Kurdish leaders but no one else underscores the Kurdish elite’s isolation.
It is against this backdrop that Barzani’s war on the free press is so tragic. Even if his closest advisors did not simply seek to please Barzani by reporting to him what they perceive he wanted to hear, he should still rely on the free press to keep his advisors honest. Rather than enable his party’s security forces to harass, kidnap, and perhaps even murder journalists, he should be among the first subscribers to Lvin, Awene, and Hawlati. They are far more valuable to his rule than Kurdistan TV, Xebat, or Hawler.
Masud Barzani may consider himself a great leader, and he may believe that he has matched the place in the hearts of Kurds that his father achieved. In both cases, however, he would be wrong. Still, he can regain his legacy if he ends his self-imposed isolation. He brags about the stability and security he has brought Kurdistan, and so he cannot use security to legitimize living a couple dozen kilometers from the people he rules. It is time Barzani returns to Erbil, breaks his isolation, and embraces the free press for what it is: the surest path to good governance.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.
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