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!

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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.”

Moscow’s Kurdish Question

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Reuters / Lucas Jackson)

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu voiced his support for an independent Kurdish state. Israel is certainly in a good position to do this. It has bad relations with Syria, Turkey, and Iran, while Iraq appears to be disintegrating. It also has long had sympathy with the Kurdish cause and it would view an independent Kurdistan as a boon to its “periphery doctrine.”

The Kurds are the largest nation in the world (around 30 million people) who do not have their own country. They are a largely nomadic people who primarily live in the mountainous borderlands of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran. They speak an Indo-European language closely related to Farsi and that is subdivided into several dialects such as Kurmanji, Sorani, and Gorani. The Kurdish language has been written in three different alphabets: Latin (in Turkey), Perso-Arabic (in Iraq, Iran, and Syria), and Cyrillic (in the former USSR). The majority of Kurds practice Sunni Islam, though a significant minority also practice the Yazidi faith, a religion associated with Zoroastrianism. The Kurds who follow the latter usually identify themselves as a distinct ethno-religious group altogether (the Yazidis), even though they speak Kurdish and follow Kurdish traditions. For the most part, the Yazidis live in Iraq and Syria, though significant communities also exist in Armenia, Georgia, and Russia.

CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions from 1992, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

1992 CIA map of Kurdish-inhabited regions, courtesy of the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at The University of Texas at Austin

Denied their own state, the history of the Kurds in the 20th and 21st centuries has been one of near-endless uprisings and bloodshed. In particular, the Kurds in Turkey have been in almost constant revolt against Ankara since the beginning of the Turkish republic. Turkey sought to forcibly assimilate the Kurds as “Mountain Turks” and to actively suppress Kurdish culture and language. The Kurdish uprisings became especially heated under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). In the war between Turkey and the PKK, human rights abuses were committed by both sides, but especially by Turkey. Kurdish uprisings also occurred in neighboring Iraq, Syria, and Iran. In Iraq, the plight of the Kurds gripped headlines in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein used poison gas to suppress a Kurdish uprising, killing hundreds of thousands of Kurdish citizens. His Al-Anfal Campaign is today referred to by many Kurds as “genocide.”

Netanyahu’s move to support Kurdish independence comes as the Kurds of Iraq and Syria remain almost entirely isolated from Damascus and Baghdad, cut off by territory seized by the radically militant Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL has menaced the southern border regions of Kurdish-controlled territory and has appalled and shocked the world with its flagrant abuses of human rights.

In an immediate response to ISIL, Russia has dispatched fighter jets and advisors to assist Baghdad in its fight against the self-proclaimed militant Islamic state. Russia has issues of its own with regard to militant radical Islam. In the North Caucasus, the war in Chechnya in the 1990s began as a more nationally-based conflict. However, as the conflict progressed, radical Islam began to overtake nationalism as the dominant ideology of the Chechen rebels. Soon, this ideology spread, facilitated by the work of Saudi missionaries, to other parts of the North Caucasus, notably Daghestan, thus widening the scope of the situation. Russia’s recent aid to Baghdad and its very strong support for Bashar Assad’s Syria need to be comprehended in this context.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Meets Masoud Barzani in Moscow (KRG)

But what about the Kurds? Will the Kremlin too back Netanyahu’s call for an independent Kurdish state? This does not seem likely for the immediate future. Russia has good working relations with Turkey and Iran and, as mentioned above, it has both stood by Assad’s Syria and has aided official Baghdad.

At the same time, Russia also has a lengthy relationship with the Kurds, dating back to the Soviet era. In 1946, the USSR supported the creation of a Mahabad Kurdish Republic in Northern Iran.  After the fall of that state, Moscow gave refuge to one of its key figures, the famous Iraqi Kurdish rebel leader Mustafa Barzani, and his followers.  Barzani was the father of Masoud Barzani, the current President of Iraqi Kurdistan.  In February 2013, the younger Barzani paid an official visit to Moscow where he was greeted warmly and met with President Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and others.  His “independent” attitude reportedly shocked Baghdad.

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Kurdish Children at a Kurdish Demonstration in Moscow (PUK Media)

Beginning in the 1960s, Kurdish-language radio broadcasts were made from Yerevan in then-Soviet Armenia and could be received by Kurds from other countries like Turkey where broadcasting in Kurdish was officially prohibited. Some Turkish Kurds even believed that broadcasting in Kurdish was impossible until they heard the Soviet broadcasts.  There were also Kurdish-language Soviet newspapers like Riya Taze.  Earlier, there was also the brief experience of the so-called autonomous “Red Kurdistan” in the Caucasus.  Further, it has been alleged that when the PKK began its insurgency against Turkey in the mid-1980s, it received support from the Soviet Union.

There is also a significant and active Kurdish diaspora population (both Muslim and Yazidi) in Russia. In Soviet times, this population was even larger since it also included Kurdish populations in the now-independent republics of the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Given this history and the situation on the ground, it is possible that if the situation between the ISIL and Syria and Iraq continues to worsen, Russia may well follow Israel’s lead and back Kurdish independence. Ultimately, though, it remains to be seen what will happen next and how Moscow’s Kurdish policy will evolve.