Georgia: Kurdish Minority Facing Oblivion

Georgia's Kurdish community say they are in danger of losing their culture, language and faith.

Georgia: Kurdish Minority Facing Oblivion

Georgia's Kurdish community say they are in danger of losing their culture, language and faith.

Thursday, 13 February, 2003

"We are all alone," mused Georgy Shamoyev, president of the Georgian Kurdish Rights Group. "All ethnic minorities in Georgia have the backing of their historical homelands, but not us. Even Assyrians, who have no state of their own either, are patronised personally by the Papal Nuncio to Georgia."

Launching his non-governmental organisation, two years ago, Shamoyev wanted it to be a mouthpiece for Georgia's Kurdish community, which had never formed any organisations before, and presently finds itself on the lowest rung of Georgian society.

"Our community is disorganised, politically indifferent and, for the most part, poorly educated," explained Georgian language teacher Lili Safarova, deputy chair of the Yezidi Association of Georgia. "Four schools in Tbilisi teach Kurdish, but none of them has any books for students or teachers.

"The authorities simply ignore us. That is not hard as we don't have a single representative in parliament, the town hall or the city authorities."

"We are no threat to Georgian Orthodoxy," Tenghiz Bakoyan, a Yezidi Kurdish priest (sheikh), told IWPR. "Our religion is not of the missionary kind: to be a Yezidi you have to be born one. Like Orthodox Christians, we also suffer from the onslaught of sects."

Last year, Bakoyan petitioned the authorities to allocate him land to build a temple, but officials tried to make him buy as site instead. "The price they gave me was a quite a bit above market value," he recalled. "I believe that Yezidi faith is on the verge of extinction in Georgia."

The Yezidi Kurds, who are neither Muslim nor Christian, migrated to the Caucasus en masse at the turn of the 20th century, fleeing from religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire along with Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians.

The Dutch scholar, Martin van Bruinessen, puts the total population of Yezidi Kurds in the world at 150,000. According to his records, most of them live in Iraq, while there may be up to 40,000 in both Georgia and Armenia, which are traditionally tolerant of non-Muslim Kurds.

No accurate statistics exist for the current Kurdish population in Georgia. "During the 2002 population census there was no box for 'Kurdish' on the nationality section of the form," explained Mrad Mrodi, a Yezidi lawyer. "There was a box for 'Turkish', although there are a few dozen Turks in Georgia as against thousands of Kurds. I refused to take part in the census in protest."

Last week, the Georgian Kurdish Rights Foundation issued a statement protesting what it called an "information war on Georgian Kurds". The group also claimed the life of the editor-in-chief of the Kurdish newspaper Glavezh Karim Ankosi was in danger. The foundation believes the authorities are acting to suppress the rising sense of national self-identification among Georgian Kurds.

The grievances of Georgia's Kurdish community were first addressed by a conference in Tbilisi last November. "We talked about the very real danger of losing our culture, language and faith, asked people to consider that if Kurds were to leave Georgia, this country would suffer for having lost an entire ethnic culture."

It was at this conference that the 70-year-old oriental scholar Karim Ankosi, editor of a small Kurdish paper, gained notoriety. "Should we take up arms, like Kurds in Iraq?" he asked at one point during a heated debate on Kurdish rights issues.

Ankosi's comments got him into such trouble that he even tried to conceal his identity by shaving his moustache off.

The Georgian press overreacted to his remarks with headlines like "New Ocalan in Georgia" and "Kurds Threaten Georgians".

"Some of the writers discuss Kurdish separatism in Georgia, but what kind of separatism can there be when there is not a single part of Georgia where large numbers of Kurds live together? We are scattered all over the country," commented Shamoev.

Since then, Ankosi has received numerous threats by telephone and letter. "Our group is trying to find him political asylum somewhere in Europe," Shamoev told IWPR.

Ankosi himself shuns journalists who, he claims, misinterpreted what he said at the conference.

Most of the Kurds' demands are focussed on winning greater cultural rights from the Georgian state - so far without much success.

"In 2000, we petitioned the authorities to begin the process of reinstating original Kurdish and Yezidi surnames which had been erased as part of the long migration process of the early 1900s," said Lili Safarova. "However, they refused us without any explanation. The authorities even refused to give us premises for an office. We are currently renting space from the German embassy."

Levan Gvinjilia, chairman of the Chamber of the Georgian Language, agrees that Kurds are an integral part of Georgian society and culture, but thinks many of their demands and complaints are far-fetched. "In a democracy, the government takes care of the entire society, not specific ethnic communities. All Georgians are on an equal footing, trying to survive in harsh economic environment," he said.

"It is not the government's fault that no Kurds have become state officials. Parliamentary deputies are elected by constituency, not ethnicity. They have to win their votes and, at the very least, should be able to speak Georgian.

"We are not in the Soviet Union anymore where they had quotas for ethnicities and occupations: one milkmaid, two tea growers, three Armenians, and so on. This kind of practice would be completely unconstitutional in a democracy."

While reluctant to agree that Kurds are suffering rights violations, Gvinjilia says he was outraged by anti-Kurdish articles in Georgian press, which he characterised as an offence not only to Kurds, but to all Georgians.

Kurdish culture witnessed a short-lived renaissance in Georgia in the 1970s, when Kurds were allowed to form a folk band and the world's only Kurdish theatre. A 15-minute Kurdish-language radio programme was broadcast on state radio every week.

This has all disappeared. "Ironically, Georgia's first democratically elected president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who is known for his chauvinistic statements, said he was proud to have the world's only Kurdish theatre in Georgia," recalled Muraz Jafarov, the theatre's former artistic director.

"On the other hand, Shevardnadze's government, which claims to espouse democracy and equal opportunity, closed our theatre down. They are simply trying to make us leave the country, as so many Kurds have already done."

And the Kurds are leaving. A few years ago, there were several villages in Georgia's eastern Kakheti region, populated exclusively by Kurds. Now, most of the villagers have gone.

The largest portion of Georgia's Yezidi Kurds live in Tbilisi's "dormitory districts", where housing is much cheaper than in the centre of town. Most of them do menial jobs. Street cleaners in the city have always tended to be Kurdish women. They stand out from the crowd in their bright-orange vests worn on top of long pleated velvet skirts.

"Kurds have been marginalised in Georgia politically, socially and economically. Unless we overcome this inferiority complex, Georgian Kurds will disappear as an ethnic group," said Georgy Shamoyev.

Giga Chikhladze and Irakly Chikhladze are freelance journalists in Tbilisi

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