Photo Credit: Flickr/Kurdishstruggle

Democracy of the Stateless: The Case of Rojava

What is a stateless democracy? This article explores the democratic experiment of Rojava to better understand what constitutes statelessness, and what a stateless democracy can do.

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Democracy. The mostly fair voting systems, the supposed balanced distribution of power, and the seemingly righteous governments that are as Abraham Lincoln, former President of the United States (US) said, “of the people, by the people and for the people”. The democracy that many are familiar with has definitely brought a plethora of positive changes to society over the years. It is the form of governance of the modern state, according to political scientists Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan. The sovereign state is therefore the supposed prerequisite to democracy. 

But, what if there is no state to begin with? Can a “stateless” democracy exist? 

Statelessness and Its Origins

When we think of statelessness and the notion of displacement, the first thing that comes to mind would perhaps be the refugee crisis — millions of people being forced out of their homes by conflict and persecution. In these cases, some people end up becoming stateless, while others who have already been stateless, remain stateless. Nonetheless, the idea of statelessness remains the same, that they are not considered as nationals by any state under the operation of its law. 

Four main causes of statelessness according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are: gaps in nationality laws, migration, the emergence of new states and changes in borders, and the loss or deprivation of nationality. 

The predicament of statelessness runs the gamut from the revoking of passports and freezing of bank accounts to discrimination and exclusion from state politics. Some states deprive citizens of their nationality through changes in the law that leave whole populations stateless, using discriminatory criteria like ethnicity or race. Undoubtedly, these scenarios seem to paint statelessness as nothing but a dystopian reality. 

However, not all who are stateless are hopeless.

The Democratic Experiment of Rojava  

Jonas Staal, the founder of the artistic and political organisation New World Summit, shared during the Chronicles of Displacement lecture held in November last year, that “statelessness does not only signify a form of oppression and destitution, but can also be approached as a term that signifies a potential liberation – a precondition to shape new social forms”.

One group of stateless people uses their statelessness to find a new common ground, a new democracy that includes them, one that is truly by, of and for people like them — a stateless democracy. 

The successful implementation of this can be seen in the democratic experiment in the Rojava Revolution (also known as the Rojava Conflict), a political upheaval and military conflict that mainly revolved around the Syrian Kurds.

Rojava is a region located along northern Syria, running along the border of Turkey and currently home to over a million Kurds and other ethnic groups. It is run by a self-rule administration: a democratic confederalism, which essentially means that it is an autonomous region within a democratic Syria that rejects the nation-state.

To achieve this outcome was no easy feat. 

When protests against Syrian dictator Bahar al-Assad erupted in 2011, Assad created an army out of the traditional Kurdish territories in northern Syria to defend major cities in the west. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), an existing Kurdish political party in Syria, took advantage of the regime’s security forces’ partial withdrawal from Kurdish areas to defend and govern the areas of Cizîre, Afrîn and Kobanê, which constituted the region they called Rojava.

But just as Rojava started taking shape, it came under attack.

The Islamic State (ISIS) swept through Syria, ultimately setting foot in the city of Kobanê in 2014. With the Kurdish fighters attaining reinforcements from the US, Kobanê was protected and liberated from ISIS forces. Kurdish military forces then started liberating other cities from ISIS, whose populations were then incorporated into Rojava, causing the region to expand. 

To encapsulate its multiethnicity, Rojava’s administration self-declared the establishment of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria in 2016, which was subsequently named the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES). This marked the birth of the young stateless democracy in Rojava.

The seven regions of North and East Syria. | Photo Credit: Rojava Information Center

Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan proposed that the Kurds should demand democratic autonomy without the state and unite based on these principles: a decentralised self-government by councils and cooperatives, gender equality and communalism, and confederalist models of coexistence and cooperation. 

Only then would the space for a new “social ecology” that renders society resilient against its internal enemy — patriarchy, and its external enemy — the forces of global capitalism, be created. This model was introduced as a “democratic confederalism”, essentially a “democracy without the state” — an attempt to liberate the practice of democracy from the patriarchal nationalist and capitalist construct of the state by developing a hopeful, new constitution that would embody true democracy in the midst of the chaotic Syrian Civil War. 

Much of Öcalan’s ideas were inspired by American ecological thinker Murray Bookchin, who believed in freedom and a return to “true” democracy at the local level. Bookchin based the idea on anarchism’s lack of authoritarianism and merged it with environmentalism to bring people closer to nature and have equal relationships with each other. 

The Stateless Democracy

In this young stateless democracy, decision-making is devolved to the most local level possible: the people. In other words, the higher levels only coordinate and implement the will of the communities that send their delegates to the general assemblies. 

So, what exactly is the differentiating factor between a stateless democracy and a state democracy?

Since the centralised structures have the least political powers, while the lowest levels of political units or communities have the most political power, there is a fundamental redistribution of power over existing hierarchies of decision-making processes in Rojava’s stateless democracy, even on an administrative level. This construct, by basing its policies on a decentralised form of local self-governance, strives to achieve true gender equality and ethnic balance. 

This model of governance may seem too good to be true and unfeasibly utopic, considering how democratic countries usually claim equality for all but do otherwise. However, the people of this stateless democracy are obligated under a social contract to adhere to the principles on which this system of governance is based. In other words, everyone who is part of the stateless democracy must play an active role to ensure social equality.

For example, both men and women are entitled to the same opportunities, such as playing prominent leading roles and co-chairing meetings to make decisions (there are quotas for female participation in the various organising bodies). Gender equality across all public institutions, including Rojava’s military, is promoted as well. In fact, an all-women military group called the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) took shape and fought alongside the Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). 

Kurdish Female Fighters outside of Kobani in Rojava. | Photo Credit: The Kurdish Project 

Additionally, the justice system established alongside the self-government aims to replace the institutions of courts and punishment, deemed to represent the coercive dominance of the state with a community justice of sorts, where “social peace” rather than punishment, is pursued. 

Besides that, the democratic model in Rojava is focused on having a “social ecology” to overcome the environmental degradation and ecological crises caused by modern capitalism that go hand in hand with the exploitation of people. There is an emphasis on having a political and moral society where humanity renews its link to nature, seeing itself as being part of nature rather than separate.

Since 2012, the autonomous region of Rojava is now home to around five million people from multiple ethnic groups. It exists beyond the constraints of nation-state, patriarchy and capitalism while continuing to promote radically democratic and decentralised self-governance, gender equality, regenerative agriculture and a justice system based on reconciliation and minority inclusion.

A Triple Whammy 

Unfortunately, this peaceful coexistence of such stateless communities within the international system, which is dominated by nation-states, is difficult to achieve. Even for Rojava, some nation-states do not fully support their building of a stateless democracy and blacklist the stateless people of Rojava as “terrorists”. 

On one hand, the Syrian government denies its existence due to the history of their relations. 

The Kurds and other ethnic minorities who live in the contiguous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria have been discriminated against since the creation of the French Mandate of Syria after the Sykes–Picot Agreement of 1916, in which they were denied their own state when colonial powers drew the map of the modern Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The Kurds have long been repressed by the Syrian state; a central government decree in 1962 ordered a census of the population in Jazira that stripped about 120,000 Kurds of their Syrian citizenship. 

On the other hand, the possibilities of Rojava expanding also worry Turkey. 

Turkey has made efforts to invade the region to dismantle the democratic experiment, as Rojava is seen as a safe house for Kurdish nationalists, whom the Turkish consider to be terrorists. 

They claim that the Kurds in Rojava are a front for the Kurdistan Workersʼ Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that has been at war with Turkey since the 1980s. The PKK lost the support of the Syrian regime as a result of developments in Turkey-Syria relations in the early 2000s, which in turn led to the creation of the new party, the PYD, formed by PKK members in 2003. 

Furthermore, without a common enemy such as ISIS, Rojava’s partnerships with other nations like the US have weakened, especially since Turkey is a NATO ally the US relies on. 

The issue of being blacklisted remains a problem not just for the people of Rojava, but for other stateless groups around the world as well. Since most state democracies fear free people daring to create brave and successful experiments outside the globalised, extractive system, it is no surprise that stateless groups are prone to be blacklisted and labelled as terrorists. 

As Staal pointed out, the main reason as to why stateless movements are being alienated and blacklisted is that in most cases, “they are too democratic for a capitalist democracy to bear”. Their demand for a much more fundamental redistribution of power and wealth, as well as their desire for a deep democracy, stands in conflict with the capitalist democracy as we know it. 

Darkness Before the Dawn   

But as the world becomes more aware of the presence of stateless groups and organisations, it is reassuring to see support being garnered for them. Staal, in particular, developed the Stateless Assembly in 2016, which included parliaments with and for stateless people, autonomist groups and blacklisted political organisations that find themselves excluded from democratic processes. 

Staal’s Stateless Assembly also acknowledges their problems and aids them in raising awareness of the issues they face, providing them with a conducive environment to share and learn from each other. 

Sharing of ideas at the Stateless Assembly. | Photo Credit: Jonas Staal

That being said, stateless people in the world are still discriminated against and are still facing several problems. The struggle to find a common ground and to form a stateless democracy is deemed nearly impossible, but some stateless groups have succeeded anyway. This comes to show one thing: democracy can be formed without a state. The journey to establish one may not be easy, and maintaining the status among other state democracies has proven challenging. But, one can remain hopeful that with more awareness on the issue and with more people embracing the existence of stateless democracies, the status of being stateless to many in the world could end up being a ticket to potential liberation.

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