In past years, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has sometimes gone unnoticed in the wider story of Kurdistan. He is not in charge of its security directly, and so does not attract attention at a time when there is a security crisis. Yet it is important not to underestimate his role, or the importance of his contributions to Kurdistan as a whole. He has been one of the most stabilising forces in the Kurdistan Regional Government, has been a steadily modernising force, and has been instrumental in preparing Kurdistan for life after its eventual independence.
At a time when it seems he is moving to the fore in Kurdish politics, it is vital to understand the roles he has already played, and what he offers to Kurdistan. Doing so may allow us to understand some of the directions Kurdistan might take in the future, since it seems likely that he will play a key role in shaping that future.
As the prime minister of Kurdistan, it seems odd that Nechirvan Barzani might not be well known in international terms. But his focus has often been domestic, and it is only now that he is coming out more into public view. Even so, he has been a vital part of Kurdistan’s government, and in many ways his approach represents the most appropriate option for Kurdistan in the long term. It is a moderate approach, a generally inclusive approach, and one that seems to understand the importance of gradual change within Kurdistan’s political processes.
The reason for this lack of focus on his efforts might be seen as the consequence of his efforts in domestic and economic affairs. It is natural in the current security situation that defence should attract the lion’s share of attention, but it is these other areas that have helped to get Kurdistan into a situation where it is already effectively functioning as a country. Nechirvan Barzani has played key roles in ensuring the continuation of Kurdistan’s oil exports, in modernising some of its domestic structures, and in ensuring that the KRG has responded to calls for it to open up the way it works.
Nechirvan Barzani is a moderniser. The temptation in Kurdistan is always to focus on the past, but he has recognised the importance of building for the future as well. While there has been a general focus on the threats faced by Kurdistan, Prime Minister Barzani has been quietly trying to attract investment for the future and ensuring that social issues such as the role of women within society are addressed. It is a role that has not always been in the international news, but it has been vital for Kurdistan’s growth.
He has had roles in many elements of Kurdistan’s life. He has played a key role in producing legislation against domestic violence, has ensured funding for arts organisations, and has been instrumental in talking to groups outside the structures of his own party. These might sound like small things, but they represent a recognition that a country is about more than just its security situation, and an understanding that life must go on in every aspect even in the midst of a conflict.
That is not to say that he has been purely concerned with domestic affairs. Increasingly in the last couple of years, we have seen his role expand so that he has become one of the faces of Kurdistan abroad. Articulate and persuasive, he has played an important role with Kurdistan’s international partners, and in attracting commercial partners to the region. Perhaps that is a reaction to the need for enough public figures to fulfil all the existing international responsibilities, but I would like to think it is also a recognition of Nechirvan Barzani’s suitability for the role. By being able to talk to a wide range of different groups, he has played an important role in attracting oil companies to the region, but also in trying to diversify Kurdistan’s economic base by attracting other sectors.
Abroad, he has met with a wide range of political figures, from Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel to Turkey’s president, Recep Erdogan. This diplomatic role is obviously a part of his job as prime minister, but it is notable that he is increasingly the figure turned to for such talks, and increasingly the figure able to get results in often difficult negotiations. Nechirvan Barzani represents the image of a Kurdistan that is willing to talk to the world.
More than that, he represents the image of a Kurdistan that is open to change and willing to listen. He has been willing to accept criticism of both himself and his politics in the past, and to adapt in the wake of calls for change in the nascent country. He is a politician who seems to accept that the present situation in Kurdish politics is not perfect, and who is willing to work towards something new over time.
What is he working towards? He has often been described as a moderniser when it comes to Kurdistan, pushing the implementation of better IT systems, new political approaches, and changes in Kurdish industries including agriculture. He seems to be in favour of more open approaches to Kurdistan’s political processes, allowing for a fairer, more transparent form of politics that both Kurdistan’s people and its international partners can be happy with.
The crucial issue here is the extent to which Nechirvan Barzani favours dialogue as a way of solving domestic issues. He, perhaps more than any other senior Kurdish politician, seems to understand the importance of talking to those who might not agree with you, of accepting the will of the population, and even of giving political ground where it is required. Approaches that only seek to silence dissenting voices might seem effective, but ultimately they foster conflict, and Prime Minister Barzani’s more consensus based approach is likely to be more effective in maintaining the stability for which Kurdistan is known.
Why does this matter? Why does it matter what kind of politician he is, or what he stands for? The answer to that lies in the nearness of independence for Kurdistan, and in the future that lies after that. At this point, it seems almost inevitable that independence for Kurdistan will come in the near future. The question is more one of what will happen next. What kind of society will it grow into following independence? What will its economic basis be? What will its politics, arts, culture, and more look like?
Those are questions that it seems Nechirvan Barzani has been trying to answer. He has understood that the moment of Kurdistan’s independence is one of tremendous potential, and that this potential could be used or misused by any number of groups. Without a plan for the future, pressures for change in Kurdistan could tear apart its political system. Conflict could arise with other political groups, or Kurdistan could find itself without sufficient economic options to sustain itself.
Yet none of these potential threats seems very likely to come to pass, and the reason for that is, to at least some extent, the efforts of the prime minister. By focusing on building Kurdistan as well as defending it, he has helped to craft the future. By seeking consensus even with opposition groups, he has crafted the foundation for a continuing political system where other parties feel that they can play a meaningful part rather than trying to break away. By putting so much effort into issues such as rights, culture, international relations and modernisation, it seems like Nechirvan Barzani is trying to minimise the impact of independence. By helping to make sure that Kurdistan’s society is already moving towards the future, he is ensuring that drastic changes will not be needed when Kurdistan does become a country in its own right.
Part of that is a focus on delivering results for Kurdistan’s population. There are sometimes arguments about the ways politics are conducted in Kurdistan, but there can be little doubt that Nechirvan Barzani has consistently aimed to produce benefits for all of the region’s inhabitants, with a focus on infrastructure that has delivered measurable enhancements to the lives of the population.
In this, we can possibly see the next step for Kurdistan. To date, many of the efforts there have been about emphasising Kurdistan’s differences, securing its borders and building its alliances. For Nechirvan Barzani, the structure of the country in the long term has proved to be just as vital. If so far the country has been able to build towards independence, Nechirvan Barzani is one politician who is trying to build the Kurdistan that comes after it.