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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Kurds: An Inconvenient People

In parts of the northern regions of the country called Iraq there is a majority of people who consider themselves to be of a Kurdish ethnicity: as there are in a large swathe of Turkey and parts of other 'national' territories; not the least important being Syria. The vast majority of the Kurds were subjects of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War, when that monarchy [like the Austro-Hungarian 'dual monarchy'] was dissolved.

In Europe the victorious allies imposed the Versailles Treaty on Germany, and the Trianon Treaty was supposed to resolve the territorial boundaries of the successor states to Austria and Hungary; including much-reduced 'rump' states called Hungary and Austria. The US President had published his ''Fourteen Points" during the war, setting out America's war aims: to which the British and the French subscribed, insofar as the postwar settlement of Europe was concerned. Prominent among these points was the 'principle of nationality': some groups who had been subject to Austria and Hungary had declared themselves to be separate nationalities and small armies [for example, cohorts of Czechs, Poles and Slovaks] had fought with the allies;  or claimed to be ethnically related to the people of neighbouring states, as with Romanian-speaking subjects of Austria and Russia. All these claims came out at the peace conferences, and an attempt was made to accommodate them.

The distribution of people and languages in Europe did not easily lend itself to a process of drawing clear frontiers around the ethnic groups. Thus German speakers were allocated to France in Alsace and Lorraine, alongside French speakers, and to Poland and to the Czecoslovakia that was cobbled together after the great Slovak leader Stefanik was conveniently removed in an 'air accident'.
Hundreds of thousands of Hungarians were deposited in frontier areas of Slovakia and Romania. The great German port of Danzig was created a 'free city', the polyglot Austro-Hungarian port of Trieste was severed from its hinterland by its allocation to a sliver of Italian territory, and the German-speaking former capital of Hungary - Pressburg - was considered for free city status until it was designated the capital of Slovakia and given the newly-minted title of Bratislava.

Some of these territorial allocations - notably those in Czechoslovakia and Poland - were the trigger point for the Second World War; and hangover border issues still remain as with the Slovak-Hungarian minority. New ethnic mixes were created by Stalin, who rebuilt the USSR by moving millions of people so that Donetsk is an almost-entirely Russian-speaking city and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have large Russian-speaking minorities. Spain faces an urgent crisis over the much longer-running claims for independent sovereignty for Catalonia; and Scots nationalism is not dead. Rich Dubliners send their children to centres in the west of Ireland where they are expected to improve their pronunciation of a language that they are most unlikely to deploy in their careers; while the Ulster protestants are fiercely resisting demands for their province to adopt the formal bilinguality that prevails [at great cost] in the Irish Republic.

With so many loose ends quietly festering in Europe, there can be no surprise that similar problems exist elsewhere; as with Tibet, and with the Muslim minority who are currently in flight from Myanmar.

The Kurds have the misfortune to have had no advocate of significance in western capitals in 1919, when the majority of them were allocated to the newly-defined Turkish state and others were simply in the way of the mapmakers as the British and French arbitrarily delineated new states which defied both the aspirations of the Arabs who had fought with the 'allies' in the First World War and the interest of minority populations within those artificially designated states. After all, it was what the Europeans had done at the end of the nineteenth century in delineating their colonies in Africa: which led to the absurd situation of today, whereby the posit-independence states in Africa bear little or no relevance to the ethnicity of their populations. There is scant chance of Kenya electing a President Obote as long as the Kikuyu are the majority ethnic group.

The Kurds of northern Iraq provided tough and useful allies for the USA in the resolution of the mess that Bush II and Blair created in that country. Yesterday they voted to be a sovereign nation. That is utter anathema to Turkey. A festering sore that is ninety-eight years old is about to swell into a major international crisis. The Kurds surely have their rights; as do the rulers of Turkey, Syria and Iraq. The times call for new thinking: the fraught political situation will not permit that to have any effect.

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