An Interview with Rostom Atashov, President of the Union of Yezidis in Georgia

Armenian News Network / Groong
September 25, 2006

By Onnik Krikorian
TBILISI, REPUBLIC OF GEORGIA


    Rostom Atashov was born in Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of
    Georgia in 1963, and received his law degree from Yaroslavl State
    University in Russia in 1987 and worked in the Prosecutor's office
    after graduation.  He returned home to Georgia in 1988 and joined
    the Ministry of Justice, sitting several terms as a judge. He
    currently serves as President of the `Union of Yazidis of Georgia'
    NGO, the larger of two Kurdish organizations in Georgia. The
    organization has approximately 10,000 members and works to promote
    Kurdish language and culture in Georgia and also assists ethnic
    Kurds integrate into Georgian society.


ONNIK KRIKORIAN:	How was life for Yezidis and Kurds during the
Soviet era?


ROSTOM ATASHOV:		Life was much better for ethnic minorities in
Georgia, and not just the Kurds, back then because the Government
provided lots of assistance for supporting folklore, theatre and other
kinds of cultural events. There were lots of students at the
Universities and many doors were opened for us so that we, along with
other ethnic minorities, could move forwards. We also had
representatives in the [Soviet] Government and this didn't just apply
to the Kurds, it also applied to other ethnic minorities. Everything
was provided for ethnic minorities to establish themselves in society.



OK:	When independence came how did the situation change?


RA:	In 1990, the first President of Georgia, Zviad Gamsakhurdia,
was quite openly racist and said in public speeches that Georgia is
for Georgians. Lots of emigration from Georgia to other countries
started and life for ethnic minorities including the Kurds was very
difficult.  Even when Eduard Shevardnadze came to power in 199 life
was still quite difficult because gun crime, corruption, looting, and
other problems emerged. We couldn't even go out after 5 p.m.


It was so difficult then, but slowly Shevardnadze managed to implement
a constructive plan for ethnic minorities to integrate rather than
leave the country or assimilate. Life started to get much better and
in 1998-9 the Government gave us some funding to establish our
community [center].  In 1989 we had a center called Ronahi, but in
1992 its name was changed to the Union of Kurds in Georgia, and in
1997 it was again changed to the Union of Yezidis of Georgia. I was
elected President in 2000.



OK:	How many staff do you employ at the Center?

RA:	Nine people work at the Center and most Yezidis in Georgia are
members.



OK:	What kind of activities do you engage in?

RA:	Culture, folklore, language, help for young people, and free
legal assistance.



OK:	What kind of legal issues do you deal with?

RA:	We help Yezidis who have various problems with their neighbors,
for example, and inform them of their rights. A while ago someone was
arrested so we helped his family. We acted as his legal representative
and the community is well aware that we can help in such matters.



OK:	Can everybody in the Yezidi community speak Georgian?


RA:	Yes. The majority can all speak Russian, Armenian and Georgian
as well as Kurdish.



OK:	You also publish a newspaper for the community. When did that
start?

RA:	The newspaper was started in 2003 and we publish 1,500 copies
once a month. Because of economic reasons we couldn't publish the
paper for eight months until we received funding from the Regional
Government in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, we haven't published any
issues for the past few months while we wait for finance.



OK:	So the Government of Georgia doesn't assist in any way?

RA:	The Government says that there are lots of ethnic minorities
in Georgia, and not just Kurds, and that we have to rely on our own
people through donations. However, we are working with the Government
on other matters and the Presidential Advisor on National Minorities
is in good relations with us.



OK:	None of the other ethnic minorities in Georgia receive funding
from the Government?

RA:	No.



OK:	Do you think that should change?

RA:	It will change. At the moment there are many economic problems
in this country. Once everything starts to go smoothly in the right
direction the Government will support us.



OK:	When U.S. President George Bush visited Tbilisi last year, you
and other ethnic minorities were invited by [Georgian President]
Saakashvili to meet him. Do you think that was an important event?

RA:	Yes, And the Georgian Government only invited seven
representatives of ethnic minorities ` Kurds, Assyrians, Jews,
Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians and Greeks. We met with President
Bush and this means that our communities were known in the country by
the Georgian President so this is good.



OK:	What are the main problems facing the Yezidi community in Georgia?


RA:	There is no problem from the State. We are accepted as
citizens of the Republic of Georgia like other national minorities as
well as [ethnic] Georgians. We are citizens of this country and there
is no problem in that area. We have the same rights as everyone else.
The main problem is that the younger generation is not very aware of
the traditions of their ancestors and this Union was established to
inform people of their culture and about their heritage.

Another problem is migration. Georgians, Yezidis and other minorities
are leaving to find better lives and work abroad. I've held meetings
with the Council of Europe as well as the Embassies of France, Germany
and Great Britain about this matter. One of the reasons is because
there's no work so I've requested assistance to create some kind of
center that will help Yezidis stay here and not move abroad. If we can
help people find work they might stay here instead.

My argument is that the money spent on immigrants abroad is better
directed here in support of attempts to prevent a new wave of
immigrants. The Germans were more interested in this [because of the
large number of Yezidis in the country] and supported us in this
endeavor. On the other hand, I also told them not to expel any Yezidis
currently living and working in Germany.



OK:	Talking of employment, is there any discrimination against
Yezidis in Georgia when applying for work?

RA:	No.



OK:	And with regards to surnames, what's the standard here? Are
Yezidi surnames ended with Russian, Georgian or Armenian suffixes?


RA:	When the Yezidis moved to Armenia, Georgia and other former
Soviet the endings of their names were changed. The Russians added
`ov,' for example, and the Armenians, `yan.' In our culture it's
always our name, father's name, and tribe, but when we moved over
people were given these suffixes specific to the country. However, a
few years ago I held meetings with the Government and asked them to
change this. Now we have permission to do change our surnames back and
the majority of people have done this.

Because there are many Kurds traveling between Georgia and Azerbaijan
this is particularly important because many encountered problems with
their Armenian sounding surnames. They were detained in Azerbaijan,
and I held a meeting with the [Azerbaijani] Embassy here so that when
Yezidis go over to trade they have a document from us stating that
they are Kurds, not Armenians, and explaining that they have Armenian
surnames because their families originally came from there.

That's another job for our Center.




OK:	There are about 20,000 Yezidis in Georgia and most are in Tbilisi?

RA:	About 22-25,000 and maybe about 8,000 situated outside Tbilisi in
Rustavi, Telavi and Batumi. We have offices there as well.



OK:	In the Soviet era you probably had very strong links with
Yezidi in other Republics?


RA:	Yes, and they're still there, but obviously not as strong as they
used to be. Traveling is expensive, for example. If you want to go to
Russia you have to pay for a visa let alone the traveling costs. The
same is true for Azerbaijan, and it used to be the same for
Armenia. We used to have to pay $60 to enter Armenia, but after some
meetings with the Council of Armenians here, we could visit for three
days for Roja Merzela [special Yezidi event honoring the dead].

Now we can visit Armenia without restriction for the past two or three
months after both countries agreed to open the border for more
unrestricted travel.



OK:	You have a very strong link with Armenia because your wife is
from there. Do many Yezidis from Georgia marry those from Armenia?

RA:	There are cases of this as well as marrying those from Russia
and Europe.



OK:	There also appear to be many cases of Yezidis from Georgia who
moved to Armenia during the Soviet era. How many do you think came?

RA:	Ninety percent. My parents, for example, come from Armenia.



OK:	Where did they come from in Armenia?

RA:	Riya Taza. My family initially moved to Armenia from Turkey at
the end of the 18th Century, and in 1940 my parents moved to Georgia.



OK:	One important issue is that there doesn't seem to be any
confusion regarding the ethnic roots of the Yezidi in Georgia. You
consider yourselves to be ethnic Kurds with Yezidism as your religion.
In Armenia, it's a little different with a division in the community
as to their ethnic origin. How do you view this problem and why do you
think it's different?


RA:	There's no such problem in Georgia and we've never even
debated this problem. Yezidis are Kurds, and we all believe that we
are both Yezidis and Kurds. In Armenia, however, people such as Aziz
Tamoyan created this problem and we don't want to listen to him. This
is a problem there and not here.



OK:	So, as far as you're concerned, it doesn't affect your ability
to communicate with Yezidis living in Armenia?


RA:	There is no problem at all. We are Kurds and nobody accepts
anyone saying something different. All Kurds were Yezidis until they
adopted Islam, but we didn't. Our religion is different, but we are
still Kurds.  All over the world people have one language and so do
we, so how can anyone say we are not one nation? We can understand the
Soranis and they can understand us, and we can understand the Goranis,
Bedinis and vice-versa.

We have one language and it is Kurdish, and if you look at where the
Yezidis came from geographically it's Kurdistan. We do not accept Aziz
Tamoyan or his ideology in Georgia and nor does any Yezidi living in
villages in Armenia such as Alagyaz or Riya Taza.



OK:	Another interesting difference between Yezidis in the two
Republics is that you have stronger links with Iraqi Kurdistan whereas
in Armenia there are stronger links with Kurds in Turkey, and
particularly the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). What is the reason for
that?


RA:	In Armenia there are lots of problems and political parties
such as Dashnaksutiun like the PKK. On the other hand, the Armenian
Government doesn't like to recognize Yezidis as Kurds so the only
people willing to help Yezidis in Armenia with their identity are
groups such as the PKK.  However, when the PKK first went to Armenia
they were very strong, but since the establishment of [Iraqi]
Kurdistan more Yezidis are becoming increasingly passionate about
South Kurdistan, which is Northern Iraq.

In Georgia it's different. The PKK was strong here until 1995 when,
because they are neighbors, relations between Georgia and Turkey
became stronger. As a result, the PKK lost its influence on the
people. Now, in Armenia, as people become aware of what's going on in
Iraqi Kurdistan they establish links with the political parties there
and become more passionate about Iraqi Kurdistan as well.

The PKK are also quite undemocratic and try to force people to believe
what they want. As a result, they also lose influence.



OK:	You travel to Iraqi Kurdistan, but when you do is this in an
official capacity?

RA:	The invitation always comes from [President of the Autonomous
Kurdish Government] Masoud Barzani's Office or the Regional
Government.



OK:	And how do you feel when you travel to Iraqi Kurdistan?

RA:	It's a great feeling because it's my country and as the Kurds
are divided between various countries I'm happy that there is now
freedom in Iraqi Kurdistan. Also, I have to say that the Kurds in Iraq
are very educated and aware of what is happening not only in their own
region, but also worldwide. They are also very helpful and hospitable.
When I visited Lalish [Yezidi Religious Center in Iraq] I was impressed.



OK:	Was it only after the breakup of the former Soviet Union that
you managed to visit Lalish or did you visit before?

RA:	No, it wasn't possible before then. It was very difficult and
problematic during the Soviet years.



OK:	Interestingly, none of these political divisions regarding
Iraqi Kurdistan or the PKK seems to affect personal relations between
Yezidis in Armenia and Georgia.


RA:	It has always been like that. We are one people and as I
mentioned before, 90 percent of Yezidis in Georgia originated from
Armenia so we have our loved ones buried there. We often visit their
graves in Armenia and it has to be said that during the Soviet years
many Yezidi were educated there. As a result, most Yezidi
intellectuals were from Armenia, and relations are still the
same. Even if someone tried to destroy this relationship it wouldn't
succeed. It's impossible. We are relatives.



OK:	During the Soviet era, Yerevan was considered one of the main
centers for Kurdish culture?

RA:	Yes, that's right.



OK:	Has that situation changed in the post-Soviet space?


RA:	Things were very good during the Soviet Union and now it's
still there, but not quite like it used to be. I also have to say that
Armenians are not our enemies and they don't oppose us. We used to
listen to Radio Yerevan during the Soviet era. Now we receive both the
Ezidiki and Kurdish broadcasts from Armenia, and of course, both are
in the same language [Kurmanji Kurdish]. Of course, in the Soviet
years they didn't say `This is Radio Yerevan,' they said `This is
Kurdish Radio' and I would listen to it along with everyone else.


--
Onnik Krikorian is a freelance journalist from the United Kingdom
living and working in the Republic of Armenia for various
international and local organizations and publications. He has a blog
from Armenia at http://oneworld.blogsome.com.

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