Tito’s lessons for Iraq

The late Yugoslav leader knew the importance of constraining states’ dominant factions

Tito’s lessons for Iraq

Despite all that has happened, the situation in Iraq is just as it has been for many years: the state is moving toward a centralised economy supported from abroad, armed militias dominate various forms of public life, and structural corruption has become impossible to root out.

The levels of poverty, unemployment, and inflation are staggering. Slums abound. The problems seem to have no end in sight.

This is all happening even though Iraq recently witnessed a civilian-led revolution lasting several years that was both massive and peaceful.

Millions participated, tens of thousands were killed, yet it was crowned with general elections that resulted in the clear defeat of the country’s traditional pillars of political power.

Despite that, things have remained the same, largely because the underlying structure of the country’s ruling regime reconfigured itself to regain control over the executive, the legislature, the economy, and the state security apparatus, as if it were never responsible for Iraq’s destruction.

Pushing back against change

This dichotomy is revealing. It demonstrates that for whatever will or effort there is to change Iraq’s destiny, there is an even bigger and more tyrannical force pushing back in the opposite direction.

Some analysts have even described the Iraqi regime and the ruling elites that dominate both state and society as a “foreign occupier”, as if they were somehow alien to the deeper social structure and central balance that makes up political life in Iraq.

The regime reconfigured itself to regain control of the executive, legislature, economy, and security apparatus

The reality of Iraq suggests something different. It clearly indicates that what is happening is largely the result of central 'Shiite' actors and their ongoing ability to blackmail society and national institutions within the Iraqi state. 

They do so under the pretext that there is an "internal threat" that could undermine the "balance of power" between Iraqi groups and geographies. This gives them the ability to create security, economic, and political dynamics that revolve around exceptional emergency measures originally designed to respond to imminent danger, even if they entail restoring their hegemony over the Iraqi state.

Shelly Kittleson
A billboard of assassinated Iran Revolutionary Guards leader Qasem Soleimani in the Iraqi city of Karbala.

This is the basis for preserving the group's dominance, a supposedly temporary measure that should be overlooked for the sake of the fundamental issue at stake.

Tito's golden rule

To solve this dilemma, or at least to try to understand it, perhaps we can borrow a political or ideological principle from the former Yugoslav leader Josip Tito. He believed that the "weakness of the Serbs and of Serbia" was an essential condition for the "unity and strength of Yugoslavia" - not the other way around.

Yugoslavia was established at the same time as modern Iraq, in the years following World War I. Owing to its own balance of powers, it was identical to Iraq in another way: it was an entity composed of a variety of races and geographies united politically and regionally into a federal system.

The experienced Tito, whose father was a Croat, knew the role that Serbs and Serbia played as a major group and a central state respectively within Yugoslavia's federal system.

For him, the Serbs were the only group capable of upsetting the precise political and symbolic balance held between the various Yugoslav groups. Serbia, meanwhile, was the only state within Yugoslavia capable of dismantling the political contract of the federal system. 

Thus, for Tito, the weakness of both Serbs and Serbia was a permanent prerequisite for the survival and stability of Yugoslavia's consensual makeup. The strength of the Yugoslav state and its ability to overcome adversity depended on it.

This protected Yugoslavia from the ethnic and regional proclivities and rhetoric that resonated, but which could undermine the country's larger ambitions.

Balancing Serbs and Shiite

History ultimately proved Tito prescient. As soon as the state of Serbia – led by the nationalist leader Slobodan Milošević – tried to build its own military and ideological structure in the late 1980s,  abolishing the autonomy of the Kosovo and Vojvodina regions, the Yugoslav civil war broke out. After that - and following international intervention - the federal entity disintegrated into a bloodbath.

Within this context, the intention behind weakening the Shiite faction is to transform Iraq into a political entity able to overcome its dilemmas, not to deprive the Shiite of power or to marginalise their role in the public or political sphere.

Within this context, the intention behind weakening the Shiite faction is to transform Iraq into a political entity able to overcome its dilemmas, not to deprive the Shiite of power or to marginalise their role in the public or political sphere.

Turning them into a normal Iraqi faction that is equal to other sectarian, ethnic, and regional Iraqi factions, and whose representatives do not have any patriarchal aspirations, would bring about a healthy and balanced constitutional and social contract. 

But first, Iraq has to be purged of its tensions, suspicions, and cold wars, and allow for new forms of interaction and competition between the different groups.

Over the past few years, Iraq has seen countless examples of how its central hegemonic forces reject this type of re-balancing, at the expense of the peace and harmony that Iraq ought to enjoy as a democratic country rich in natural and human resources.

These hegemonic forces have rejected the constitutional establishment of the Iraqi Federation Council, which would act as a parallel legislator, representing various factions equally and balancing the power of the Iraqi parliament.

They have also refused to pass a decentralised law for oil, gas, and other resources so they can maintain the upper hand among different actors. 

The same applies to the army, security institutions, and unconstitutional groups. Every example demonstrates an exceptional eagerness to accumulate power, even if it means weakening all other parties.

This has led to a country in which civil groups are suspicious of each other and challenges are difficult to overcome.

Perhaps, if Iraq's coherence and progress are not to be forfeited, the option of things staying the same must be taken off the table. 

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