Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Northern Iraq Notes 1: Arbil Observations

On the twenty-fifth of July 2009, elections for the Kurdish Regional Government Assembly and the presidency were held in the Iraqi provinces of Arbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk. Along with many other countries, Turkey also sent a 15 person observation team to the elections.

The Turkish observation team, including Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), observed the election process to ensure that it took place in a fair and democratic environment. Along with this mission, we had the opportunity to observe the social, cultural and economic life of the cities we visited. In addition to Arbil, which was ORSAM’s duty station, we went to Sulaymaniyah in order to conduct field research on what political groups in Iraq think of the political atmosphere after the election and the results. Northern Iraq Notes will be a series of articles free of political analysis containing our observations related to these two cities.

It can be said that the political environment in Arbil is relatively calm and that the security situation is good. For four days, we were able to observe a colorful election campaign was going on in the city in the pre-election period. However, only Masoud Barzani’s and the “Kurdistan List”s campaigning were being made rather than the multi-parties’. When I said “a colorful campaign”, I mean that posters advertising the party and its leaders were hung all over town, parties in support of certain groups in the streets, with people dancing and singing, and vehicles circulating in convoys. The inhabitants of the region that we interviewed said it was the first time they had seen such a colorful and exciting campaign. Probably, this was because in these elections, for the first time there was a strong opposition. Their campaigns were perceived as a sign of dissatisfaction and unrest. Despite the power Barzani has in Arbil, the presence of the opposition pushed the KDP to look for a way to show its power, to control the streets and to influence the public. The results of the election have validated these concerns. Founded by important figures that broke away from the PUK, the “Change List”, still in the process of becoming a party, won almost %20 of the votes in Abril alone. The mono-party dictatorship has made its weight felt in every area from the campaigns to the freedom of political opinion and expression. As we are going to see in the following observations, Sulaymaniyah’s relatively calm and various voices are not to be found in Arbil. The senior administrators of the “Change Movement” told us that there was no chance that they would be able to campaign in Arbil.

Arbil’s politically homogeneous structure directly affects its security situation. The region’s most stable and safest city is Arbil. Women, children, young people and families can walk the streets comfortably until late at night. Since Arbil is the capital of the Kurdish Regional Government and has good security, it receives the biggest share of investments. According to what we learned from the local people in Arbil, the city is developing faster today than it was four years ago. On the other hand, the people of Sulaymaniyah are angry about the investments that have largely been allocated to Arbil.

We saw no economic life based on production in the city. The state is the biggest employer, and the majority of the people are civil servants. Most income derives from oil, and economic life depends on the state. This enables the KDP, the party in power, to influence directly political choices of people by means of resource allocation. During our time in Arbil, we visited a vocational high school and learned that 92 instructors work for 54 students there. This is one of the best examples of how resources are being used inefficiently in order to shape the public’s political choices. It seems that apart from gaining the public’s trust, the lack of a production economy also requires this kind of resource allocation.

An extremely active economic life draws the attention in Arbil. When we looked out of the hotel window, the first thing we noticed was the number of ongoing construction works. The city’s level of development is better than expected. Arbil, with its proper multilane roads, boulevards and green spaces, is applying good urban planning strategies. An active social and economic life is present in the many shopping centers, both completed and as yet unfinished. In addition, there is construction of modern residences and building complexes, many of which are being done by Turkish companies. Of course, these developments should be evaluated in comparison to Iraq itself. Otherwise, it’s impossible to say that Arbil has a good sanitation, order, infrastructure, municipal work, development and prosperity. However, the presence of rapid and positive change is obvious.

This new stability and development has profoundly changed public political opinion. Since people in Arbil think that they now have a lot to lose and since they are tired of conflict, they react to every incident that challenges the status quo. They long for a stability and development, rather than political conflict. Still, they have concerns in this sense. In particular, the rift with the Arabs has grown a lot. Having no confidence in Arabs, the public is worried about the possibility of internal conflict after the U.S. troop withdrawal. Some inhabitants said that it is impossible to drive a vehicle with Arbil numbered plates to Mosul, the nearest city. A separate checkpoint for Arabs has also been built at the access control points of Arbil. While Kurds and other foreigners are subjected to a relatively simple check, Arabs are only able to enter the city of Arbil after an extremely detailed procedure.

It is possible to run across traces of Turkey in Arbil’s social, cultural and economic life. Above all, when you go shopping, you definitely run into a few people who can speak Turkish. The number of Turkmens in the city is a lot and the vast majority of the artisans are composed of Turkmens. Although some of them can’t speak Turkish very well, most of them communicated with us easily. When we asked how they manage to maintain their Turkish, they said Turkish is the only language they speak at home. Moreover, there are five Turkmen schools in Arbil, and half of the lessons are in Turkish there. As for cultural life, you see the traces of Turkey everywhere. We observed that they like Turkish artists and movies a lot. The most popular singer in the city and the region is probably Ibrahim Tatlises, since you can hear him in taxis and restaurants more than you do in Turkey. Observing street life, we saw an old movie of Ibrahim Tatlıses and Hulya Avsar playing on a motion picture screen outside of a shopping center. People were watching it with great interest. What’s more, you see that many other Turkish artists are being watched enthusiastically in Arbil. Turkish TV series are taking the Arab World by storm, and influence Northern Iraq, too. Shown in the original Turkish or on Arabic TV channels, Turkish TV series attract great attention, and the actors are greatly admired there, just like in the Middle East. By the way, we need to say that watching Turkish channels is also important for the use and spread of the language because when we asked some Turkish speakers how they could speak Turkish, we found out that they learned it via Turkish channels. The Turkish presence in Arbil is probably felt most in the economic domain. There are many retailers of various Turkish brands selling items such as electronics, household appliances, furniture and textiles, and you can see these products in use around town. Turkish brands sell like hot cakes in many stores. When you visit the famous Kayseri Bazaar and look carefully at the accessories and the textile products for sale, you immediately understand that most of them are made in Turkey. Turkish products are famous for their quality among the public, and using them is a sign of prestige. From interviews, we found out that many Turkish construction companies play a leading role in the changing face of Arbil, and this can be verified by walking around the city. Turkish companies have invested nearly four million dollars within the Kurdish Regional Government’s borders, and construction accounts for an important part of that sum.

When we put together all the traces of Turkey in Arbil, we get such a picture of the situation: You may still feel like you are in Turkey while you are sipping your Turkish brand drink, listening to a song by Ibrahim Tatlises, and ordering a meal by speaking in Turkish at a restaurant in a shopping center built by a Turkish company. Honestly, the city is a copy of Turkey in many respects. It is said that the people of Arbil’s impressions of Turkey have improved in the last years. Above all things, we people from Turkey have had the opportunity to walk around the streets of Arbil comfortably. In fact, coming from Turkey made us more interesting to people and more comfortable in the city. However, these impressions are susceptible to rapid change according to political developments and current affairs. We’ve got the impression that the opinion of the public is directly influenced by the current affairs. In other words, while any positive development in, or statement about, relations with Turkey affects the people positively, military operations in Northern Iraq and political tension do the opposite. Therefore, it is vital to state that the current positive impression of Turkey is a variable dependent on developing relations. It is correct to say that the people of Arbil take Turkey as a model country when it comes to lifestyle. Many of the authorities interviewed stated that neither Iran nor Syria could save them, but that Turkey, with its developed economy, its proximity to the Occident, its relations with the EU and lifestyle, shows the only way out of their problems. It can be said that people in Arbil have a lifestyle quite similar to that of Turkey thanks to the prosperity of the last years. The best examples are the lively atmosphere in shopping centers, people moving from mud brick houses to modern residences and apartment complexes, and people driving brand new luxury cars. Thus, we can say that the last few year’s increase in Turkey’s “soft power” over the Middle East has affected Arbil, too.

In conclusion, I must say that the reality we encountered differed from our expectations and impressions of Arbil. We see that, if Turkey works out its own problems and eliminates the PKK, it can expand even more in the region since Arbil seems ready for that.