Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Sergey Markedonov

After a lengthy hiatus, the Reconsidering Russia podcast is back! The fifth and latest installment of the podcast series features Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov. Dr. Markedonov holds a PhD in history from the Rostov-on-Don State University and he is an Associate Professor at the Russian State University in Moscow. He is also a frequent contributor to the online news service Russia Direct.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and covered topics as diverse as the Don Cossacks, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Syria, NATO, Mikheil Saakashvili, Russo-Georgian relations, US-Russian relations, and Dr. Markedonov’s personal experience with the Caucasus region. Enjoy!

Be sure to subscribe to Reconsidering Russia podcasts on iTunes here.

Charting the historical development of protest in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

While the recent Baghramyan Avenue protests in Armenia over electricity price hikes may have surprised many observers, they are arguably part of a broader tradition of civic activism in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia.

How do the Baghramyan protests compare to other historical protests in Armenia? These latest demonstrations reportedly brought out as many as 30,000 people into the streets of Yerevan last week. This is a larger number compared to the 2013 post-election protests in Armenia, led by the pro-Western Raffi Hovannisian, which brought out at most 10,000 people into the streets. At the same time, the Baghramyan number is smaller than the 2008 post-election protests, led by Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, which reportedly brought out about 50,000 to 100,000 people into the streets.

Of course, none of these protests compare to the sheer size and scale of those of the Karabakh Movement during perestroika, in which as many as one million men, women, and children went out to protest on the streets of Yerevan in February 1988. That is approximately one-third of Armenia’s entire population. Of course, the reasons and circumstances for such massive protests were quite exceptional (as was arguably the era in which they took place).  For Armenians, Nagorny Karabakh (or Artsakh) is an existential issue.

Below are figures showing the growth of the perestroika-era protests in Armenia, from September 1987 to February 1988. These figures are derived from data compiled by Mark R. Beissinger, a political scientist at Princeton and author of the book Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge University Press, 2002):

1987:
September: 200
October-December: 2,000-1,000

1988
:
January (early): 5,000
January (early-mid): 30,000
January (mid): 200,000
January (late): 500,000
February: 1,000,000

How Moscow views Nagorny Karabakh

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh.  This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of the identity of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

One of many hotspots in the former Soviet space is the region of Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus. I have written about Nagorny Karabakh in the past, but this time, I would like to focus precisely on Russia’s view of the situation.

What is Nagorny Karabakh?

Nagorny Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region in the Caucasus. Its landscape is forested and mountainous, dotted with numerous historical Armenian monuments and churches. It is one of the most beautiful places in the former Soviet Union.

The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is a de facto independent state, closely allied with neighboring Armenia. Armenia, which does not officially recognize Nagorny Karabakh, maintains that its local Armenian inhabitants have the right to self-determination (whether or not to be an independent state, part of Armenia, or an autonomous region of Azerbaijan). This position is supported by the area’s majority-Armenian population. By contrast, Azerbaijan argues for the principle of territorial integrity and that Nagorny Karabakh’s future should be determined only within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Supported by Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh gained its de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s, one of a handful of post-Soviet ethnic conflicts. Today, the status of Nagorny Karabakh is frozen and can be best described as one of “neither war nor peace.”

The name of the region, a testament to its checkered history, is a Russian, Turkish, and Persian amalgam, which literally means “Mountainous Black Garden.” The “Nagorny” or “Mountainous” aspect is important because this distinguishes the area from the traditionally majority Muslim Azerbaijani Lowland Karabakh. The term “Karabakh” is often liberally used as shorthand in the West to refer exclusively to majority Christian Armenian “Mountainous Karabakh.” However, the term “Karabakh” can also be used to refer to both the Mountainous and Lowland areas in totality. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the area as Nagorny Karabakh (henceforth NK).

NK is also referred to by its historical Armenian name, “Artsakh,” by Armenians in Armenia and in NK. The local Armenian population of NK speaks a unique dialect of Armenian that even standard Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus.  Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus. Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Why is Nagorny Karabakh important to Russia historically?

With regard to Russian history, NK is part of the reason that present-day Armenia (historical Eastern Armenia) and the South Caucasus generally became part of the Russian Empire. In the 18th century, Khachen (as NK was then known) and Syunik (today southern Armenia) were the only parts of historic Armenia that were able to retain a semi-independent status amid Armenia being overrun by the Mongols, Turks, and Persians. Formally, the two principalities were semi-independent vassals of Persia. Their princes (meliks), together with the king of eastern Georgia and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch (Catholicos), formed a coalition beseeching Tsar Peter the Great to liberate their lands from their larger Islamic neighbors.

Peter was interested in the Caucasus not only to help fellow Orthodox Christians, but also as a means for Russia to secure access to profitable trade routes to India, in order to gain access to silk and other riches. Thus began the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus that would eventually culminate in the annexation of eastern and western Georgia (starting in 1801), the further incorporation of historical Eastern Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan in 1813-1828, and the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1860s.

What are the origins of the present-day dispute over Nagorny Karabakh?

The origins of the present-day dispute over NK date to the Sovietization of the Caucasus in the early 1920s. It is important to understand how the dispute originated in order to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict today. There are two different theories in this regard that are widely repeated in the media. Neither is supported by factual evidence, but both fit conveniently into dominant political narratives.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925.  Though often blamed for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin's actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925. Though often held chiefly responsible for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin’s actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

One theory asserts that the dispute began when Stalin personally decided to assign NK to Soviet Azerbaijan during the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Those who support this theory have given different possible explanations as for Stalin’s exact motivation for such a step. Some claim that he wanted to appease Turkey, hoping that under Atatürk, Ankara would develop into a communist state. Others allege that Stalin had an anti-Armenian bias. However, most proponents of this theory claim that the motivation was for Moscow to divide-and-rule Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, this theory is undermined by the fact that Stalin was far from the zenith of his power and was not the sole decision-maker in determining NK’s fate, even though he was the Commissar of Nationalities at the time. Moreover, he had good relations with Armenian communists like Mikoyan and was actually sympathetic to Armenian claims over NK.

The second theory holds that the Soviets assigned NK to Azerbaijan because it was economically dependent on the city and surrounding area of Baku during Tsarist times. However, if this was true, then the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Tavush (which, together with NK, were part of the Tsarist-era Elizavetpolskaya Guberniya) would have been logically assigned to Azerbaijan on the same basis. Instead, they became part of Soviet Armenia.

In reality, according to recent research by Caucasus scholar Arsene Saparov, the actual reason behind NK’s assignment to Azerbaijan was the fact that, despite its majority Christian Armenian population, it was controlled by Azerbaijani forces at the time of Sovietization. It was therefore easier for the Soviets to sanction the existing situation on the ground, while also offering the “compromise” of local Armenian autonomy. Hence the “Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” of Soviet Azerbaijan was established. Again, it is important to emphasize that the Soviets were desperate to secure control of the region at the time and, being communist-internationalists, they believed that national borders would one day be abolished anyway. There were no sinister imperial schemes or machinations behind the assignment of NK to Azerbaijan.

How does Russia view Nagorny Karabakh today?

Today, Moscow ultimately wants to see some sort of resolution, but it realizes that devising one is virtually impossible right now, given current conditions. It therefore favors the status quo and continued peace talks.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Along with the United States and France, Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group which facilitates talks on the NK issue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are committed to these talks. However, the present government of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, which has engaged in high military spending and bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric, is unwilling to compromise on anything short of NK’s total return to Baku. Armenia in turn has stood firmly in favor of Karabakh’s self-determination. The unrecognized NK Republic is currently not involved in the negotiations, but states that it should be, due to the fact that it is the representative of the local Armenian population.

As of a result of the NK war of the 1990s, the NK Republic also controls a handful of districts of Azerbaijan proper, giving them contiguous frontiers with Armenia and Iran. A potential compromise solution may require forfeiting some of these districts, such as Aghdam. The status of refugees and other issues also need to be discussed, but the main sticking point for both sides remains the determination of NK’s ultimate status.

It is important to note that Armenia relies on Moscow for security vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have closed their borders with Armenia since the 1990s. However, Turkish-Armenian relations have improved significantly since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to office. For instance, though Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the issue is no longer a taboo in Turkish society and is now openly discussed. However, largely due to pressure from Turkey’s domestic nationalists and from official Baku, the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, despite the obvious benefits for both Ankara and Yerevan. Nevertheless, Turkish-Armenian relations will continue to improve and will be further helped by growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on issues such as the proposed Turk Stream gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, relations between Yerevan and Baku remain tense. In this regard, Armenia looks to Moscow for security and is therefore a close ally of Moscow and Russia’s main “center” in the South Caucasus today. By contrast, Azerbaijan was engaged in a flirtation with the West for some time, especially with oil lobbyists and neoconservative politicians in Washington eager to undermine Iran and Russia. The latter two groups have been very interested in creating alternative energy pipelines from post-Soviet Central Asia through Azerbaijan and to Europe, at the expense of traditional energy routes from Russia.

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

However, Azerbaijan’s flirtation with the West appears to have diminished in recent years, amid mounting criticism regarding Baku’s human rights record. Baku has therefore engaged in new thaws with Moscow and Tehran. However, it is unlikely to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union any time soon, given Aliyev’s interest in keeping Azerbaijan independent of any supranational union or alliance. However, Baku has a finite supply of natural energy reserves and will have no choice but to turn to regional cooperation, compromise, and economic diversification in the future. In this respect, it would do well to discard the bellicose discourse and adopt a more balanced and constructive approach.

In Moscow’s view, a resolution of the NK dispute is not only desirable for regional stability but also for Russian security. Russia continues to face challenges on its troubled southern frontier in the North Caucasus with Islamic extremists. In order to help contain and isolate this threat, Russia seeks to solidify its position in the former Soviet South Caucasus states. A strong “buffer zone” of secure and friendly countries to the south of the North Caucasus is therefore an important vector of Russia’s policy toward the region.

Russia is also concerned about the potential expansion of NATO in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. Additionally, it is concerned about the expansion of US-supported energy projects designed to undermine Russian energy exports to Europe. Moscow is puzzled by these American-backed steps, which are viewed as a throwback to Cold War “containment” and as a provocation intended to isolate and weaken Russia. They are also regarded as spurning potential cooperation on serious matters such as fighting Islamic extremism in the area. Indeed, Georgia has recently faced problems with Islamic radicalism in the Pankisi Gorge and attempts by ISIS to woo the region’s local population of ethnic Kists (a Chechen subgroup). Notably, the infamous ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani is originally from Pankisi. Given such concerns, it is clear that if Moscow, Tbilisi, and Washington all worked together to combat this common threat, the benefits would be optimal.

Whatever the future, for Moscow, the Caucasus remains an important area within the post-Soviet space and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite the dispute over NK, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have co-existed and lived together side-by-side in the past. Peace is possible, and indeed NK would greatly benefit from cooperation between Russia and the West.

Equalization and Dehumanization in Eastern Ukraine

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Donbas refugees in Rostov Oblast, Russia. (Reuters / Maxim Zmeyev)

Dehumanization is a central component of war propaganda. By removing the humanity of individuals and reclassifying them as anonymous “others,” it becomes easier for combatants in a war to kill them. Such is the case with eastern Ukraine, a conflict rife with dehumanization.

In the Ukraine conflict, the greatest victims of such dehumanization are the 5.2 million Russian-speaking civilians of the industrial eastern Ukrainian region of the Donbas. Lifelong residents, they are caught in the crossfire between the pro-Russian rebels and the pro-Kiev militias. Regardless of their political sentiments, the locals have been cast by officials in the Kiev government variously as “terrorists,” “Colorado beetles,” “Moskali,” and “subhumans.” Very little distinction is made among the civilians, the actual rebels, and the rebels’ supporters in Moscow. Civilians who remain in rebel-held territory are often considered “traitors” by the mere fact that they chose to remain in their homes.

This lack of clarity, combined with attacks against east Ukrainian civilians by far-right battalions (accused of war crimes by Amnesty International), has driven the majority of the population to support the rebels. If they were ambivalent toward the rebel cause before, the rhetoric and actions of the Kiev government and its supporters changed their stance. Further, since the start of the conflict, the dehumanization has extended to anyone in Ukraine deserting the army, dodging the draft, or explicitly voicing opposition to the war, like the journalist Ruslan Kotsaba.  He was arrested by Ukrainian authorities for openly expressing his views in a YouTube video and now potentially faces 15 years in jail for treason. Amnesty International has declared him a prisoner of conscience.

The dehumanization of eastern Ukrainians has also spilled into the discourse of Western politicians, pundits, and analysts. One of the most vocal of these, the Ukrainian-American academic, Alexander Motyl, has called the people of the Donbas “the most retrograde part of [Ukraine’s] population” and has attempted on more than one occasion to draw parallels between them and white US southerners who supported Jim Crow. His discourse has only fueled the flames of the conflict, pitting Ukrainians against Ukrainians. It also drew strong criticism from Lev Golinkin, a writer originally from Kharkiv, in The Huffington Post.

Motyl was not alone. Other Western commentators have also dehumanized the people of eastern Ukraine. Further, this dehumanization has seeped into a general dehumanization of all things Russian. From the start of the crisis in Ukraine, the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement was presented to Western readers as a “civilization choice” for Ukrainians between a “civilized Europe” and a “barbaric, Asiatic Russia.” During the Euromaidan protests in December 2013, Sweden’s former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, the co-architect of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) program, tweeted that the growing conflict between the protestors and police symbolized “Eurasia versus Europe in [the] streets of Kiev.” Even more extreme, former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared Moscow to be the “new Tatar-Mongol yoke.”

Such characterizations and stereotypes imply a superiority of one people, culture or civilization over another. They allude to destructive racial ideologies from the darker chapters of the 20th century. The implicit message is exclusion and separation, not cooperation and engagement. These discursive Social Darwinist formations have absolutely no place in the discourse of the 21st century. Yet, somehow they persist.

There is also dehumanization in the Russian media. However, it is important to highlight the distinct nuances here. Dehumanizing rhetoric in the Russian media has largely concentrated around liberal oppositionists who are derided as “fifth columnists” and potential “traitors.” The discourse is purely internal, though it is undoubtedly exacerbated by external affairs. Western policies toward Russia and the former Soviet space since the dissolution of the USSR have fueled greater distrust and suspicion on the part of the Russian government toward the opposition, making freedom of speech more difficult. In this respect, one can make a very strong case that Western policies like NATO expansion, missile defense, the unilateral cancellation of the IBM treaty, or the sponsorship of pro-Western revolutions in ex-Soviet states have harmed the development of democracy in Russia, not helped it.

This stands in contrast to the dehumanization of east Ukrainian civilians and Russia by the present Ukrainian government and its supporters in the West. In fact, official Russian-backed media has refrained from engaging in any dehumanizing rhetoric toward the people of Ukraine proper. True, they have liberally used terms like “Nazis,” “fascists,” and “Banderists.” However, they have not used these terms to describe the Ukrainian people as a whole. Rather, they have used them to describe the government in Kiev, a very important distinction. In Moscow’s view, there is a clear delineation between what is regarded as “the government” and “the people.”

Indeed, in the Russian worldview and discourse, the Ukrainian people are seen as either a deeply kindred people or an extension of a greater East Slavic whole, along with Russia and Belarus. Further, a larger partition of Ukraine, which would certainly involve more conflict, is decidedly not in Russia’s interests. Therefore, Moscow has little to gain from dehumanizing a large number of Ukrainian civilians through the mass media. This explains why they have been careful to distinguish between the government of Ukraine and the people. In fact, in the Russian narrative, the people of Ukraine are often presented as being “naive” or “duped” by Western policies, though their struggle against corruption is viewed understandably.

By contrast, the distinction between the breakaway governments of Donetsk and Luhansk and the locals living there is barely made by the Ukrainian government. This is why the dehumanization of civilians in the Ukrainian media and in the Russian media simply cannot be compared or “equalized.” Equalization often has the intended goal to bring people together. By creating a false symmetry, the thought is that people will recognize the flaws of “both sides” and work toward peace. The goal is indeed noble, but the aims of achieving it, which obscure the facts of a given situation, are questionable.

Analytical equalization has likewise been applied to another part of the Soviet Union: the conflict over Nagorny Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia is a hybrid regime among the ex-Soviet states, embracing elements of liberalism and authoritarianism. Yet, it largely has a free press and free media (including a Daily Show-style satirical news program). Armenia simply cannot be described as an “authoritarian state.”

This is in contrast to Azerbaijan, which is indeed an authoritarian state. The country boasts a pervasive personality cult of the ruling Aliyev family, especially the current president Ilham and his father, Heydar. Dissent is systematically muzzled and there is little room for free expression or free speech.

An objective assessment would illustrate the differences that exist between the two states. Yet, Western commentators, eager for an immediate peace over Karabakh, gloss over these differences and instead generalize that “both are exactly the same.” Such a formation excludes critical thinking and prevents one from observing nuances between the conflicting parties. Consequently, the search for that all-elusive resolution becomes even more challenging.

Overall, the key to ending any war or conflict is to first and foremost stop the senseless dehumanizing and malicious rhetoric. Dialogue becomes possible when people begin to realize their common humanity – that which they share. Consequently, instead of talking in exclusionary terms of “Europe” vs. “Eurasia,” “West” vs. “East,” we should be reflecting collectively in terms of cooperation among all peoples on the vast Eurasian landmass, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Only then can there be true peace.

Correction (8 March 2015): It has been called to my attention that I made a typo on this piece.  I accidentally referred to Amnesty International declaring Ruslan Kotsaba as a “prisoner of consciousness” as opposed to a “prisoner of conscience.”  This has now been fixed, but the mistake was somewhat ironic, given concerns of Europe “sleepwalking into war.”  Kotsaba was indeed “conscious” enough to see that danger.

Upcoming Elections in the Former USSR, 2015-2018

Considering the ongoing Ukraine crisis and rising tensions between Russia and the West, the former Soviet space is definitely a region to observe in 2015.

Elections in the former Soviet republics are especially important to watch. In some cases, like the authoritarian states of Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, the results are foregone conclusions. However in other more open states, such as Georgia, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan, they are not. In Russia’s case, it will be interesting to see what happens in 2018, and whether or not Putin will stay on for an additional term.

Below is a schedule of upcoming elections in the former Soviet space over the course of the next four years, from 2015 to 2018.

Correction: Transnistria’s parliamentary election will be taking place in November 2015, not February 2015.

2015

  • February
    Voting in Transnistria (TASS).  In 2015, the locals of this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    Voting in Transnistria. (TASS) In 2015, the locals in this breakaway region of Moldova will be voting in new parliamentary elections.

    • Tajikistan: parliamentary election
  • March
    • Uzbekistan: presidential election
  • May
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): parliamentary election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: parliamentary election
  • November
    • Belarus: presidential election
    • Azerbaijan: parliamentary election
    • Transnistria (Md.): parliamentary election

2016

  • March
    Longtime Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win re-election in 2016. (Photo: AP)

    Kazakhstan’s longtime President Nursultan Nazarbayev is widely expected to win a landslide re-election in 2016.  He is seen here casting his ballot in the 2011 presidential election with his wife, Sara. (Photo: AP)

    • Abkhazia (Ge.): parliamentary election
  • September
    • Belarus: parliamentary election
  • October
    • Georgia: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Kazakhstan: presidential election
    • Transnistria (Md.): presidential election
    • Russia: parliamentary election

2017

  • January
    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh (Photolur). In 2017, locals in this disputed majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president.  It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent Bako Sahakyan.

    Voting in Nagorny Karabakh. (Photolur) In 2017, locals in this disputed, majority-Armenian Caucasus region will be voting for a new president. It is uncertain who will succeed incumbent president, Bako Sahakyan.

    • Kazakhstan: parliamentary election
  • February
    • Turkmenistan: presidential election
  • March
    • South Ossetia (Ge.): presidential election
  • May
    • Armenia: parliamentary election
  • July
    • Nagorny Karabakh (Az.): presidential election
  • October
    • Kyrgyzstan: presidential election

2018

  • February
    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters)  2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia.  Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president.  It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term.  In 2015, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote for a new mayor.

    Voting in Vladivostok. (Reuters) 2018 will be a big year for elections in Russia. Nationwide, voters are expected to choose a new president. It is unclear whether or not incumbent President Putin will find a successor or will stay on for another term. In 2018, Muscovites will also go to the polls to vote in the Moscow mayoral election.

    • Armenia: presidential election
  • March
    • Russia: presidential election
  • September
    • Moscow: mayoral election
  • October
    • Azerbaijan: presidential election
    • Georgia: presidential election
  • November
    • Moldova: parliamentary election
  • December
    • Turkmenistan: parliamentary election

Who Are the Yazidis of the Former Soviet Space?

Yazidis Girls Near Mt. Aragats, Armenia (Bo Løvschall)

Yazidi girls in the vicinity of Mt. Aragats, Armenia (Bo Løvschall)

Recently the news has been replete with headlines about the atrocities being committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or simply the “Islamic State”) against the Yazidi people. Who are the Yazidis, exactly?

The Yazidi are an ethnoreligious group of Kurds who speak the Kurmanji dialect of Kurdish. Approximately 640,000 live in Iraq.  The next largest concentration of Yazidis in the world is actually in the former Soviet Union where about 100,000 reside. These ex-Soviet Yazidis are divided among three former Soviet republics: Russia, Armenia, and Georgia. In Iraq, they write Kurmanji using the Perso-Arabic script. In the former USSR, they use Cyrillic.

Melek Taus

Melek Taus

The Yazidis follow a unique faith that seemingly fuses together Islamic Sufi, Christian, and Zoroastrian beliefs. They worship Melek Taus, the “Peacock Angel,” who, according to their tradition, temporarily fell from God’s grace but was later redeemed. The mistaken association of the Melek Taus with Satan by other religions has led to the persecution of the Yazidis as “devil-worshipers,” the atrocities by the ISIL being among the worst in their history. They observe many ritual traditions, including an annual pilgrimage for seven days to the tomb of Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir in Lalish, north of Mosul in Iraq. As previously mentioned, the Yazidis also speak Kurmanji and have Kurdish cultural traditions. Yet, many prefer the designation “Yazidi” over “Kurd.” In some Western publications, they are occasionally referred to as the “Yazidi Kurds.”

Yazidis Fleeing Violence in Iraq (Reuters)

Yazidis fleeing violence in Iraq (Reuters)

Traditionally, Yazidis lived between northern Iraq, northeastern Syria, and southeastern Turkey. However, due to oppression and religious persecution, many have fled. In recent years, especially due to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict and the Iraq War, many emigrated to Europe, particularly to Germany and Sweden.

However, the first community of Yazidi immigrants emerged in the 19th century, when many fled to Tsarist Russia, escaping religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire. They fled over the border into the Russian Caucasus where they principally established themselves in Armenia and Georgia. Others fled further north to Russia proper. A second wave came in the early 20th century when they were targeted alongside Armenians during the Armenian Genocide in the Ottoman Empire.

Avant-garde poster for the NEP-era Soviet Armenian film Zare (1927) about the Yazidi Kurds.

Avant-garde poster for the NEP-era Soviet Armenian film Zare (1927) about the Yazidis.  Watch the full film restored on YouTube here from EzidiTV.ru in association with ArmenFilm.

In Armenia, the Yazidis form the country’s largest ethnic minority (about 1% of the population) in an otherwise homogeneous country (98% Armenian). Most are largely concentrated in the provinces (marzer) of Aragatsotn, Armavir, and Ararat. They generally tend to be well-integrated into Armenian society. They have a history of good relations with the Armenians. The 19th century Armenian writer Khachatur Abovyan was a great friend of the Yazidis.  Some Yazidis even fought alongside the Armenians during the Turkish invasion of Armenia in 1918 and again in the war over the disputed region of Nagorny Karabakh in the 1990s. The Yazidis also have a place in Armenian cinema.  During the NEP era, in 1927, the acclaimed Soviet Armenian filmmaker Amo Bek-Nazaryan directed the film Zare about the Yazidis of Armenia.  In 2003, the Kurdish filmmaker, Hiner Saleem directed yet another film, Vodka Lemon, depicting Yazidi life in post-Soviet Armenia.

Further north, in Georgia, the Yazidis are primarily concentrated around the Georgian capital Tbilisi, where they enjoy good relations with the Georgians and the city’s other ethnic groups. However, since the Soviet collapse, many Yazidis from Armenia and Georgia have emigrated due to poor economic and employment opportunities. Most of them fled to Russia which had already developed a sizeable Yazidi community. The largest concentration of Yazidis in Russia is in the Krasnodar Krai in the North Caucasus. There are also significant communities in Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Stavropol, Novosibirsk, Tambov, Rostov, and Moscow.

Yazidi demonstration in Tbilisi against ISIL's atrocities against the Yazidis in Iraq. (Georgian Union of Kurdish Youth)

Yazidi demonstration in Tbilisi against ISIL’s atrocities against the Yazidis in Iraq. (Georgian Union of Kurdish Youth)

The most recent persecution of Yazidis in Iraq by ISIL has catalyzed their compatriots in the former Soviet space into action. As early as May, Yazidis in Armenia have been protesting ISIL’s actions in front of the UN building in Yerevan.  In July, in Tbilisi, the Yazidis there banded together with representatives of various Christian churches in Georgia along with Georgian MPs, human rights activists, and lawyers to protest against ISIL’s attacks on Yazidis and Christians also in front of the UN building. Even larger rallies have since been staged in both Yerevan and Tbilisi.

On 15 August, official Yerevan announced that it was “deeply concerned by the violence against the Iraqi Yazidis perpetrated by extremists” and that Armenia shares “the indignation of Yazidis living in Armenia concerning the ongoing tragic events.” Earlier on 13 August, the Armenian government announced that it would send $50,000 of humanitarian assistance to help Yazidis who have been displaced by ISIL. Meanwhile, Georgia has accepted Yazidi refugees fleeing from Iraq. On 8 August, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the treatment of the Yazidis. The Yazidis in Russia also called on President Vladimir Putin to lend Russian assistance to their Iraqi compatriots.

As the plight of the Yazidis in Iraq continues, the aid from the former Soviet space will likely continue to expand. The post-Soviet Yazidis will do their best to ensure this.

UPDATE (19 August 2014): Armenian President Serj Sargsyan has voiced his concern about the Yazidis of Iraq and has called ISIL’s actions “absolutely unacceptable.” In addition, the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic has pledged to accept Yazidi refugees fleeing from Iraq. In Stepanakert, Davit Babayan, a spokesman for the President of Karabakh, stated that “the Armenian people cannot remain indifferent to what is happening to the Yazidi people now.”