by Fréderike Geerdink
At least eight deaths already in the protests against partially paid and delays in unpaid salaries, unemployment, the deteriorating economic situation in general, corruption and nepotism in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. In Duhok, military vehicles are on the streets to prevent demonstrations from breaking out while in cities in the south of the region some protestors set bureaus of political parties ablaze after security forces suppressed the peaceful demonstrations. Maybe those in power in the Kurdistan Region think they are showing their strength.
But what we actually are seeing is their weakness.
The central issue that lies behind the reasons for the protests is a dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil and the federal government in Baghdad. It revolves around oil and the budget. Years ago, it was agreed that Erbil would not sell oil independently from Baghdad and in exchange for delivering its oil to SOMO, the State Organization for Marketing of Oil, Baghdad would give the KRG 17% of the national budget. It didn’t last long. Depending on whom you ask, Baghdad didn’t pay the 17% because the KRG didn’t deliver the oil, or the KRG didn’t deliver the oil because Baghdad didn’t pay 17%.
Currently, under the 2019 budget agreement, the KRG is entitled to almost 13% of the budget in exchange for 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude oil delivered to SOMO. Erbil says Baghdad doesn’t stick to the deal, Baghdad says Erbil doesn’t stick to the deal. Result: stalemate, with the citizens of the KRG being the victims. Many of them haven’t been paid their salaries, or only part of it, since April, some haven’t been paid since October.
Since last Sunday, pay-outs have commenced again, after the KRG borrowed $205 million. From whom? Unclear, but it’s likely that the money comes from the richest companies in the region, which makes the situation rather cynical: considering the level of corruption and nepotism, these richest companies are either owned or controlled by the most powerful party in the KRG, which is the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), which is again controlled by the Barzani family. They borrowed money from themselves.
In an address to the people, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani called on everybody – both security forces and the public, including protestors – to prevent further escalation and unrest, adding that ‘those who are caught violating the law will be held accountable’. Apparently, protestors can be extrajudicially shot even for being just present at a protest, while everybody knows that the ones holding the weapons are never held accountable.
Previous financial crises
What is the KRG, and specifically the KDP doing to make sure violence and unrest doesn’t escalate? Why don’t they just deliver the 250,000 bpd to SOMO and get this dispute over with? Well, it’s not that simple. It’s not even fully clear which part of the crude oil that Kurdistan is producing can be delivered to SOMO, since a huge part of it is going straight to oil companies active in Kurdistan that saved the KRG from previous financial crises by paying oil in advance. After the oil prices dropped, the KRG has to deliver more oil to these companies to compensate for those payments. Since the KRG hasn’t published it’s production figures this year at all, also in this matter a lack of transparency obscures the full story.
Baghdad is, meanwhile, dealing with a financial implosion itself. The poverty rate is lower in Kurdistan than it is in many other parts of Iraq, so for many MPs who represent poor parts of the country, it’s impossible to support a deal to transfer money to Erbil. Especially in the light of the protests that have swept through, among others, Baghdad and Basra again this year. It was clear for all to see what that lead to in parliament last month, when the Kurdish faction in the Iraqi parliament thought they made a deal with one of the blocks about the budget, only to be deserted when push came to shove. The Kurdish MPs walked out of parliament.
It’s part theatre. What if Baghdad did come through and would transfer all the budget Erbil has been asking for? What that would boil down to, is that Baghdad would be paying 100% of the salaries of Kurdistan Region’s civil servants. In other words: the KRG would lose the last bit of actual independence that it still has. It would remain autonomous only per constitution. The Barzani’s wouldn’t be able to control their population anymore the way they do now.
The KRG prefers to pay its citizens 80% of their salaries itself over having them paid fully and on time by Baghdad. And it works. As long as the people don’t get too angry, as long as they receive just enough not to push them over the edge towards full scale uprising. That is what the security forces, ordered by those in power of course, try to avert now. And they seem to manage, partly because the protests are unorganized, don’t have leaders and don’t have clear demands. That those in power are prepared to kill their own citizens, shows how close to the edge they are themselves – the edge of desperation, that is. For how much longer can they be this weak?