Kurdistan: Corruption Crisis, or just Crisis?

Claudia Roth, one of the vice presidents of the German Bundestag, has recently been “quoted” as saying that Kurdistan’s political structures are corrupt and undemocratic, and that oil revenue is not going where it should. It is not the sort of thing that we should see in a government functioning normally. In fact, the apparent issues in Kurdistan are not the result of corruption, but simply the symptoms of a wider situation that is anything but normal.

Photo/ NRT website




It is worth beginning by noting that Vice President Roth never actually said any of the things attributed to her. We were able to contact her via email, and she assured us that while she had been asked questions on the issues, she had declined to comment, and refused to call Kurdistan corrupt. Anything reported on the subject must, therefore, be either the inference or the invention of the interviewer. In my opinion Even if it were not, it would only be the opinion of one member of the German parliament, rather than any official position of a government that has proved to be a great friend to Kurdistan in the past.

The interesting question here is not so much why Ms Roth should be reported as describing Kurdistan in these terms as why it should be so popular to do so in recent times. There have been plenty of assertions that Kurdistan is corrupt, based mostly on a combination of assumptions about a Barzani dominated government, the lack of pay for many public sector workers and military personnel in recent months, and the fact that oil revenues are not going through the “proper” channels agreed with Baghdad. There have also been complaints about a general lack of democracy in the region.

Yet, all of these things can be seen, not as symptoms of some kind of corruption crisis in the region, but as simply the results of a wider crisis situation. It is a situation that encompasses an ongoing war against a determined enemy, a financial crisis caused in large part by falling oil prices, and a refugee situation that has seen numbers of IDPs equal to almost thirty per cent Kurdistan’s population arrive in the area.

In short, the situation is anything but normal, and has been that way for some time. This must be considered before making any accusations. Consider the assumption, for example, that because public servants are not being paid their full salaries, members of the government must be pocketing the money. The truth is that the Baghdad government has not provided the KRG with a budget for at least two years now, while an ongoing conflict on home soil is one of the most financially draining situations a government can find itself in. There is no money in public coffers to pay salaries, even for those such as the peshmerga who so obviously deserve it. While foreign guests are sometimes entertained in style, this is simply a part of the process of building international relations, a process that it is hoped will generate more revenue in the near future.

As for the channels through which oil is being sold, it should be obvious that in the absence of the required budget payments, the deal on the matter with Baghdad is long dead. That does not mean that oil is being sold off by private individuals. It is still being sold by the KRG, trying to use the most important resource Kurdistan has to fund an increasingly difficult situation.

That situation also does a lot to explain the claims of a lack of democracy in the region. It is true that at the moment, the government of the region is a long way from operating in the ways that it would prefer to. It is true that there have not been elections recently, and that the situation is one where freedoms we would normally take for granted do not always exist. Yet this is a consequence of the ongoing military operations, not of any desire on the part of the government to deprive the Kurdish people of their voice.

The issue is simply the impossibility of conducting normal government in such an extraordinary situation. There is no hope of conducting free and fair elections when there is an immediate threat to Kurdish territory from IS. There is also often a need to circumvent normal processes in order to meet the urgent needs of often difficult situations. That does not mean that there is any intent to maintain that situation long term, or to deprive the Kurdish population of its freedoms, when that is precisely the reason Kurdistan has so little trust of Baghdad.

Yes, there are signs in Kurdistan that would be considered worrying in most other places. That will rightly be considered worrying if they continue past the point where Kurdistan breaks free of the threats posed to it militarily and economically. Yet these are not signs of corruption or a lack of democracy. Instead, they are signs of a crisis situation, in which a government equipped with few resources must deal with a combination of military threats and the pressures of a human disaster on a massive scale. It is a situation where Kurdistan needs all its international friends, and where attempting to inflame difficulties between it and Germany can only decrease its ability to deal with those issues.


The New Mail Staff