MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 166: Kurdish minority in Georgia

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 166, February 13,
2003.

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE FEBRUARY 13

INGUSHETIA STRUGGLES WITH REFUGEE BURDEN Ingush authorities face
financial ruin over locals' compensation demands for housing Chechen
refugees. By Yakub Sultygov in Nazran

RUSSIA TAKES OVER ARMENIAN ATOM PLANT The expected management takeover
of Armenia's nuclear power station hands even greater control of the
country's energy sector to Russia. By Peter Magdashian in Yerevan

GEORGIA: KURDISH MINORITY FACING OBLIVION Georgia's Kurdish community
say they are in danger of losing their culture, language and faith. By
Giga Chikhladze and Irakly Chikhladze in Tbilisi

AZERBAIJAN: CHLORINE FOR SALE Industrial collapse in Azerbaijan has
spawned a popular street trade in a poisonous substance. By Leila
Amirova in Baku

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GEORGIA: KURDISH MINORITY FACING OBLIVION

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

By Giga Chikhladze and Irakly Chikhladze in Tbilisi

"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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