Abdul Rahman: There are mechanisms in place in the sense that there are laws for example, there are laws that govern how the media is run, trade unions, political parties. There are laws that protect the rights of minorities, the freedom of expression. So, there are all these laws that govern different aspects of the system and daily life, if you like, in the Kurdistan region. These laws together can be said to be holding the government accountable.
RFE/RL: But in practice, are they enforced? Has there been any prosecution of government of government officials for example, over issues of corruption?
Abdul Rahman: I don't know if there have been specific prosecutions of government officials over corruption, per se. It depends on what you mean by corruption. People use this word all the time. If you mean corruption generally to mean using your post or power for personal gain, there have been prosecutions in Kurdistan for people breaking the law, yes.
RFE/RL: And those were government officials?
Abdul Rahman: Among them, yes. But you know, there are people in all walks of life who are prosecuted for breaking the law.... There is corruption in the Middle East generally, and the Middle East unfortunately isn't alone in that either. But one thing I would say is that the perception of corruption is probably far worse than the rate of corruption itself. That in itself is a problem...perhaps the message isn't really getting through to people that we are doing these things. I think that's probably where we really have failed. We need to be much stronger and much clearer in delivering the message that we are coming down on corruption and that we are stamping it out.
RFE/RL: One of the criticisms we often hear from people in Kurdistan is that if they are not part of a party, then they have very little room as far as opening a business or establishing an NGO. And they say without party membership, they cannot navigate through the bureaucracy of the Kurdish administrations.... They feel like they can't move forward or undertake any kind of entrepreneurial enterprise unless they are a member of a party.
Abdul Rahman: That's really not the case. Kurdistan does give plenty of room for people with independent views to speak. For example, in the Kurdistan National Assembly, there are many members of parliament who are independent, who don't belong to any political party. We have a media, which admittedly is run mainly by the two political parties [the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)] but we [also] have some elements of an independent media and that's growing. There are NGOs. Again, many of them have been set up with the help of the Kurdistan government or with the help of members of political parties. But these things need years to develop. Kurdistan is a democracy that's been running since 1992 when we had our first democratic elections...but 1992, that's actually not that long ago when you compare it with democracy in Britain, which has been thriving for quite a few centuries. It will take time for these NGOs, for the media, for these organizations to become emboldened and to really take the bull by the horns.
RFE/RL: If we set 1992 as a [starting point], that's 13 years. Civil-society development is one of the first markers of [democratic] development in any country. And to say after 13 years, "Well, there's still no independent NGOs, for example, operating in Kurdistan," I would say that's a setback [to development] or that is a problem.
Abdul Rahman: I'm not sure that there are no independent NGOs operating in Kurdistan. There are some independent NGOs. But the majority have been helped by the government or by one of the political parties. That's one point. Secondly, the Kurdistan Regional Government is very aware of the fact that the democracy that we have is a fledgling democracy, and we never pretend that it's a perfect democracy. Part of the policy of the Kurdistan Regional Government is capacity building. That means building people's ability to run NGOs, to join trade unions, to have an independent media. Part of the democratization process is to build the capacity of our people, to build their skills, and training. Because of that, or as part of that strategy, the Kurdistan Regional Government is trying to develop relationships with organizations in Europe, in the United States, in other countries around the Middle East that have a democracy in place.
For example, we recently had a group of British trade unions come to Kurdistan. They were helped in their visit to Kurdistan by the Kurdistan Regional Government, [which] organized the entire tour for them, allowed them to meet whoever they wanted to meet.... So, the Kurdistan Regional Government is very aware of the need to progress, to deepen the fledgling democracy that we have, and we're doing our best.
RFE/RL: So you would deny that if there's an independent Kurdish individual who wants to [avoid] any political affiliation and start a civil-society organization, they will have a problem in doing so?
Abdul Rahman: If they come up with a coherent plan. One of the problems that we have is that many people come up with ideas, whether it's a business idea, whether its an idea for establishing an NGO, but their idea might not be as mature as it should be, not as developed as it should be, so they don't get the help that they want.
RFE/RL: But is it the government's place?
Abdul Rahman: The immediate reaction is that "We're not being helped because we don't belong to a political party. We're not being helped, because I'm not so-and-so's cousin, or uncle."
RFE/RL: But do you think that it's the government's place to step in and say that this person who wants to establish a civil-society organization is [qualified] or not to do so.... Is it really the government's place to interfere in an enterprise?
Abdul Rahman: I agree with you...and it's part of the Kurdistan Regional Government's policy to have free enterprise and to encourage these organizations that will help establish, and not only establish but deepen the roots of democracy in Kurdistan. This is our stated aim, and we are doing the best that we can. But if people are saying that they have not been helped or that they have had stumbling blocks in establishing an NGO, or an organization in Kurdistan, it may sometimes be just because their plans weren't mature enough, and maybe they need to think again....
RFE/RL: You mentioned the media in Kurdistan several times and I'm wondering if you can comment on the control over the media by the regional governments and in particular, the lack of dissent that we see in the Kurdish press.... We don't see a lot of dissent coming from inside Kurdistan, from local media.
Abdul Rahman: First of all, I agree that perhaps the media based overseas are more critical of the parties or the government in Kurdistan. I think that this is due to two factors. One is the Kurdish Diaspora...have been fortunate enough...to live in the West where they have been able to see a mature media, [from] living in democratic societies and they have learned from that and they're applying what they have learned to the situation in Kurdistan and that's why we have these websites that can be very, very, critical of the Kurdish parties and the Kurdish system. And there is no problem with that. We have absolutely no problem with that in Kurdistan.
The second point I would like to make regarding that is many people in Kurdistan now have access to the Internet, so it's not the case that the Kurds of Iraq will only see the Kurdish media. Many Kurdish people, particularly young people, are very Internet savvy, and they will get onto these websites and they will read them, and they will read other websites, they will read the Arab, and Turkish, and Iranian-language websites as well....
RFE/RL: On the issue of dissent, when we speak with people inside Kurdistan, many people tell us that it's not acceptable to criticize for example, [KDP head] Mas'ud Barzani. Actually, people argue that in the PUK-controlled areas, it's OK to criticize [PUK head] Jalal Talabani.... But in the KDP-controlled areas, it is not acceptable...to criticize Mas'ud Barzani in public.
Abdul Rahman: That's not been the case whenever I've been in Kurdistan. People have spoken their minds very freely.... People do feel very loyal to the Kurdish leadership, partly because Kurdistan has been under attack throughout its history...so there is that sense of loyalty, of wanting to be loyal to your party, to your tribe, to your group, if you like. There is that element of loyalty there, and there is that element of people being deferential, that people in the West just don't have.
RFE/RL: The people that I have spoken to myself in Kurdistan have told me that it's not a case of being deferential to the party, it's that they feel fearful that if they speak against Barzani, for example, in public, that there will be repercussions or some kind of adverse [action taken against] them.
Abdul Rahman: They may have said that to you, but as I've said, whenever I've been in Kurdistan, people have spoken very freely, so I really can't comment any more on that.
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