Kurdish leaders must overcome their isolation

By Michael Rubin:

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.

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.


5 Responses to Kurdish leaders must overcome their isolation
  1. Balen Jamal
    June 21, 2011 | 20:27

    Firstly, I would like to thank Dr Michael for this concise yet comprehensive article in which he outlines the problem of isolation from public by the rulers in Kurdistan and Iraq. Secondly, there are obvious reasons for why president Barzani is isolated from the people of Kurdistan. For example, why we don’t see him interact with people, and give live interviews on TVs. It is simply a mistake to call president Barzani a politician. He is not a politician because he doesn’t possess any qualifications (experience or education) to make him one; he has simply nothing much to say concerning governance. Even when he was accompanying his father, General Mullah Mustafa, he would only learn about tribal politics (tribal marriages, resolving or participating in tribal inter-fighting, indulging in tribal conflicts on lands and properties, etc.). A politician, on the other hand, has ideas about governance to tackle unemployment, constantly propose political and social reforms, and learn about the changes in the systems of the rest of the world to quickly propose necessary changes in their own system. In one of his speeches, Barzani frankly expressed his ignorance concerning civil governance: “if you ask us to destroy a bridge, we have no problem in doing that, but if you ask us to build a bridge, we simply cannot do it because we don’t know how to do it”. Barzani’s only card when he plays the game of power in the region is “Kurds have rights to an independent state”, “I was Peshmerga”, “My father did this, KDP did that…”, apart from these, he is simply lucky to be the president of Kurdistan; pure luck, nothing else.

  2. Butan Amedi
    June 25, 2011 | 16:50

    Kak Jamal,

    First, thank you very much for your comment. Your description of a politician or perhaps a statesman is very reasonable. If President Barzani doesn’t know how to build a bridge, then I recommend him to learn how to build. “We don’t know it” is not a good excuse. I also like to add that the challenge is where to draw a line of responsibility between, on one hand, a statesman, a technocrat or a qualified administrator and, on the other hand, a former Peshmerge. It is indeed a dilemma to appoint an elementary, middle or high school drop out to lead a governorate or an influential authority. In my view, it is exactly the mentality of holding former Peshmerges as “first class citizens” what brought corruption upon Kurdistan. Of course, there are other reasons, such a general feeling of insecurity about the longevity of the No-Fly-Zone and the rivalry for power between KDP and PUK. However, almost all Kurds agree, even in Barzan, as Michael stated, that there is a challenge and must be confronted with dedication.

    But allow me to disagree with you on the final phrase, in which you state that Barzani is “simply lucky to be the president of Kurdistan; pure luck, nothing else.” I agree that luck and timing play an important role when in achieving a goal, but I believe, you are ignoring other important factors—circumstances. However, I do not want the change the focus of the main argument, which is about reforms. I will write about it if I find time.


  3. Hawar Osman
    June 25, 2011 | 16:56

    Rubin: What are your views on the oppression of the Palestinian people by the Zionist entity? Do you believe it is right that the indigenous people of Palestine deserve to live as prisoners on their own land?

    I would be interested in hearing your views on such issues. You seem to pick and choose human rights issues as it pleases you

    • Michael Rubin
      June 26, 2011 | 07:02

      Kak Hawar,

      I believe in a two-state solution, with an independent Palestine and an independent Israel living side-by-side.

      I do not often write on Israel and Palestine, however, because I seldom travel to either and they have never been part of my portfolio, either academically or when I worked in government.

      I hope this answers your question.

      With regards,


  4. Nizar Dahuki
    September 8, 2011 | 06:01

    Dear Michael

    When I read your words, it isn’t easy to believe that it has written by someone who doesn’t live in Kurdistan,do you think that president Masud Barzani gonna lost his popularity day after day, and who is the best person for his place.
    with my best regards.

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