Overcoming Ethnic Division in Iraq: A Practical Model from Europe

The problem is that after the long strategic use of fostering ethnic conflicts by Saddam Hussein to maintain power, the real struggles will come out fully only after the transition of power.

 As most international observers have pointed out, among them Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in The Washington Post, Adeed and Karen Dawisha in Foreign Affairs, and Zareed Fakaria in The Gazette, the problem of ethnic division in Iraq is increasing from day to day. With more than 20 languages spoken, 3 major ethnic groups (Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds) and at least 8 minor ethnic groups (Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Mandaens, Yezidis, Turkmen of Iraq, Iraqi Jews, orthodox Christians) mixed among the major groups, the management of ethnic divisions will indeed play a decisive role for the destiny of democratization.

The problem is that after the long strategic use of fostering ethnic conflicts by Saddam Hussein to maintain power, the real struggles will come out fully only after the transition of power to the first elected Iraqi self-administration in June. In the meantime, we see the first clear signs that the struggle between ethnic groups in Iraq has already begun. For example, the Sunnis have formed - for the first time ever - their own united national ethnic council to confront the other ethnic groups in the forthcoming struggle for power; and the Kurds have asked for a far reaching regional autonomy.  Ethnic confrontation, due to the bloody oppression by Saddam, will become virulent without any progress or learning experience in the past decades; that means it will start at a point where it was "ended" artificially more than 40 years ago.

The past decades have shown us that cultural and ethnical struggles are always "deep" struggles: that means they easily run out of control, because they deal with value systems, traditions and beliefs. Their solution requires a rise in collective consciousness and awareness, which is very hard to achieve once they have begun causing victims. So the decisive point will be to find systemic institutional solutions before ethnic conflicts will break out openly and on a larger scale as, for example, pogroms between Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds in Northern Iraq have been in the last months of 2003.

Despite the repeated warnings of Samuel Huntington and others, many are still not aware that most of the current conflicts in the World are the result of struggles between different cultural and ethnic groups or between national minority groups in dispute with the majority groups within their state. The fiasco in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is only one - although the best known - example of the world-wide increase in separatist nationalism.

So how to deal with the forthcoming ethnic conflicts in Iraq? How to guarantee that Iraq will no longer be in the hands of one or two ethnic groups, but all citizens in its territory? And, most important of all: are there concrete, tried solution models that we can rely on?

Local self-administration, as suggested in most comments, will not be the magic solution to ethnic tensions, especially not in those regions where ethnic groups live mixed on a relatively small space like in northern and north-eastern Iraq.

The European Union has also managed a reduction of problems in some parts of Yugoslavia which have had historically fervent ethnic tensions. The best example for the positive handling of ethnic divisions found in Europe is the unique regional autonomy of the province of South Tyrol in northern Italy.

South Tyrol is a little area approximately the size of New York City along the mountainous alpine border between Italy, Austria and Switzerland. With a total population of 450,000, it has a high degree of political and cultural autonomy, and its model presents a working and practical solution to multi-ethnic co-existence. Here, the German speakers are the majority (69%) and have the majority in the provincial parliament, which disposes of an autonomous legislative and executive power. Italian state population amounts to 27%, and a third ethnic group, the Ladins, represent 4%. The primary competences of the provincial government include: the organization of provincial authorities and their staff, the obligation to bilingualism for all public employees, the protection and care for historical, artistic and ethnic values, provincial planning and building directives, conservation of the landscape, community easements, trades and crafts, fairs and markets, mining (including mineral and thermal waters), hunting, shooting and fishing, alpine agriculture, roads and public works, communication and transport, tourism and catering industry, agriculture and forestry, public care and welfare. There are special measures to protect and preserve the various languages (German, Italian and the ancient raetoromanic Ladin) and the different cultures; most important, the province of South Tyrol has separate school systems for the three language groups. The province furthermore spends a substantial amount of money on German, Italian and Ladin cultural activities. In order to ensure the independent cultural development of each linguistic group, each has its own administrative and organizational domain: that means that there are three parallel cultural ministries, one for each group, which are completely independent from each other and receive their part of the tax revenues according to the number of population they represent. Nevertheless there are a number of areas, for example, in music and art, where close cooperation between all three linguistic groups results in mutual enrichment. The Italian ethnic group cooperates closely with other Italian provinces and regions, while the German ethnic group maintains active contacts with the German cultural world.