Jalal Talabani, the Kurdish leader and former president of Iraq, died earlier this month, five years after being incapacitated by a stroke and days after a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence. His life and legacy offer insights into the complex mix of leadership and identity in Kurdistan and Iraq—or, for that matter, in Catalonia and other places where identity does not align easily with the borders of a nation state.
Talabani was a towering figure in both Kurdish and Iraqi politics, and moved easily between these two magnetic poles. No one could doubt his devotion to Kurdish rights and the Kurds’ evolving political ambitions at the end of the Saddam Hussein era. Yet he also cared about the viability of Iraq as a multicultural nation, and as president from 2005 until he was replaced by another Kurd, Fuad Masum, in 2014, he played an exceptional role in cajoling various factions to work together. Even in the 1990s, when Arab opposition forces lived in the Kurdish region as part of the U.S.-backed Iraqi National Congress working to oust Saddam, Talabani was a charismatic presence who worked tirelessly to promote a more liberal and inclusive political culture for his country.
Born to a family of distinguished lineage in a village north of Irbil, Talabani joined the mainstream Kurdish Democratic Party as a young man and fought in the peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, against the Iraqi state. But he was drawn to larger causes, and moved to the left of traditional Kurdish politics. He would regale foreign friends with his adventures as a youth member of the Socialist International, and was inspired by his growing network of political allies in progressive parties and movements far beyond the Middle East.
By the 1970s, he broke away from the KDP and formed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a more secular, modernist party that until recently was a true counterbalance to the KDP. It now faces competition from other opposition parties, and in the 2013 elections its electoral strength was less than half that of the KDP.
The painful truth is that as Talabani’s personal control declined, due first to his presidential duties in Baghdad and later to his illness, the party reverted to the nondemocratic norms of the region, dominated by family intrigue and allegations of corruption. His commitment to progressive ideas has been adopted by the Goran party, which broke away from the PUK in 2009, and by the new Coalition for Democracy and Justice founded by Barham Salih, who was once Talabani’s heir apparent. Salih, like Talabani, has been an effective leader in both the Kurdish region and in Baghdad, and his new political group is dedicated to good governance and accountability.
Today, Talabani’s passing has reminded Kurds and Iraqi Arabs of his special qualities, and across the political spectrum people have recognized his contribution as a leader who worked to advance a vision of a modern and inclusive Iraq. Talabani may have hoped for independence one day, but he did not object to an Iraq in which Kurds enjoyed many of the attributes of self-government and cultural autonomy, while remaining tethered to the Iraqi state for taxation and revenue distribution, and for national security.
Contrary to a visceral belief that separatism is spreading and many nation states are potentially at risk, separatism is really not contagious.
Talabani was unable to convey his views about the referendum held Sept. 25, but one can speculate that he would have tried to manage the process with a bit more finesse than either the Kurdish regional president, Masoud Barzani, or the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, demonstrated. Those two were unable to find a way to avoid escalation and are now trying to walk back a dangerous standoff where Baghdad has taken tough measures to punish and isolate the KRG. Talabani’s funeral and a period of mourning may provide the needed opportunity for Iraqi Arab and Kurdish figures to meet and find a more conciliatory path forward.
In other recent and current cases of secessionist movements, the quality of leadership has often made all the difference to whether an expression of self-determination causes major disruption and violence, or not.
Catalonia stands out for the way its referendum led quickly to extremes, with the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, ready to declare independence unilaterally, after the aggressive behavior of Madrid’s forces who intervened to prevent the voting Oct. 1. But forces from the middle—namely, Catalans who still prefer to remain part of Spain and mostly did not participate in the recent vote—are starting to raise their voices, and they may help the overwrought politicians find a way out of the crisis, at least for now.
Contrast that to the Scottish referendum in 2016, the legitimacy of which was accepted by the central government in London, and where citizens were exposed to arguments on both sides before voting. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron’s slogan of Better Together, along with statistics about taxes, benefits and access to the European Union should Scotland secede, persuaded a majority of voters to leave things as they are.
Likewise in Quebec, voters have been given a chance to express their preferences, and separatists have been able to translate failed efforts at independence in 1980 and 1995 into more concessions from Ottawa on biculturalism and the use of the French language at the federal level.
Steve Saideman, a professor at Carlton University, has studied separatism and concludes that
, contrary to a visceral belief that separatism is spreading and many nation states are potentially at risk, separatism is really not contagious. Activists in one country may try to benefit from the experience of others, but when the separatist impulse is driven by ethnic identity rather than ideology, it really only matters to those of the same group. He also concludes that referenda do not directly lead to the breakup of states, but rather herald a long bargaining process that can easily result in preserving the status quo, since states will work hard to maintain their integrity.
That brings us back to the legacy of Jalal Talabani, a proud Kurd who understood a world where individuals have more than one identity and need not choose one at the expense of the other. He was not focused on ethnicity as the exclusive determinant of political affiliation. Rather he saw a multicultural, multiethnic Iraq as a worthy project, even as he experienced the lingering effects of dictatorship that destroyed trust among communities and made his task as president so challenging. The other cases reveal as much about the leadership qualities—or lack thereof—of those on both sides of the separatist charge as they do about the merits of separatists and their yearning for independence.
Editor’s note: The original version of this article misspelled Steve Saideman’s surname.
Ellen Laipson directs the International Security Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. She led the Stimson Center from 2002 to 2015, and served in government for 25 years. Her WPR column, Measured Response, appears every Tuesday.