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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