Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 3

The Kurds remain caught in the “Transcaucasian Triangle”

by David Nissman

Turkish charges that Russia and Armenia are supporting the KurdishPKK movement in Turkey, and the May 17 decision by Kurds livingin Armenia to refuse to take part in the upcoming Armenian electionsare only the latest episodes in the complex history of Kurdishlinks with Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia. Both separately andtogether, these three ties help explain the fate of Kurds bothwithin the former Soviet Union and outside its boundaries.

Since the end of the eighteenth century, the Transcaucasus has been a place of refuge for the Kurds. From that time until the beginning of World War I, Kurdish tribes moved into Armenia, Georgia and ultimately Azerbaijan in a search for pastures for their herds and flocks. In the twentieth century, the Kurds continued to move into this region but this time for reasons more political than economic. In 1914, the Kurdish leader Sheykh Ahmed of Barzan appealed to Russia for help against those powers who were occupying his lands. Receiving no response, he and his people nonetheless took refuge in the Transcaucasus which was then part of the Russian Empire. Ten years later, his brother did the same. And in 1947, after the fall of the Mahabad Kurdish Republic, Sheykh Mustafa Barzani led still more Kurds into the Transcaucasus.

As a result of these various migrations, the Kurds settled throughout the region. Kurds who were Yezidi by belief tendedto settle in Armenia and Georgia because they felt their religious practices would arouse less hostility in Christian countriesthan in Muslim ones. (They had been subject to religious persecution by the Ottoman authorities and by Muslism Kurds in Anatolia.) Kurds who were Muslim, on the other hand, tended to settle in Azerbaijan. These religious differences remain critical to the fate of the Kurds there and have often been exploited by the authorities. Thus in July 1994, the few Muslim Kurds living in Armenia were driven out of that country even as Yerevan triedto retain as many of the Yezidi Kurds as it could.

Armenia has been the primary center of Kurdish culture since the Russian revolution. In 1921, the Armenian communist party’s central committee established a special section to work withthe Kurds. Two years later, Yerevan convened a conference ofKurdish nomads. And as a result of this sympathetic approach,additional Kurds began to migrate into Armenia from Turkey andIran, two countries where they were subject to intense discrimination.

During the 1920s, the Azerbaijani authorities sought to establishan autonomous Kurdistan between Armenia and the Azeri-controlledbut Armenian-populated district of Nagorno-Karabakh. The capitalof this entity was to be Lachin. But these plans came to nothing.Instead, Baku was able to create only a Kurdish district, andthat small region was occasionally called Kurdistan. While thatname might be expected to have a cultural meaning, in fact, itwas a purely ethnographic one with no uniquely Kurdish administrative,educational or cultural structures. Indeed, the Kurdish populationof the district amounted to only 30 percent of the total. Onereason for this is that the Muslim Kurds of Azerbaijan were alwaysmore subject to assimilation pressures than the Yezidi Kurdsin Armenia.

With the rise of Stalin, Moscow ended even these slight achievementsof the Kurds, and during World War II, almost 90,000 Kurds weredeported to Central Asia, with an enormous loss of life. Allcontact with the outside world was cut off. Only after the deathof Stalin were the Kurds rehabilitated and allowed to returnto their original places of residence. And by the 1960s, Yerevanhad once again become a center of Kurdish intellectual activity,with two Kurdish language papers, and Kurdish radio broadcastsfor Kurds in the USSR, Turkey and Iran.

But if Yerevan was the cultural capital of the Kurds within the USSR, Moscow was the political, financial and administrative one. Scholars and other Kurds were supported, and by the timeof Gorbachev a number of Kurdish organizations had sprung up.Out of these has emerged the current CIS Kurdish Council, oneof whose leaders said recently that its purpose was to uniteKurds living in the CIS and to "create favorable conditionsfor the Kurdish national liberation struggle." One of theprimary sections of the Kurdish national liberation movement,of course, is the Kurdish Workers Party–the PKK so often criticizedby Ankara.

One leader of the Kurdish Council, Yuri Nabiyev, said in November 1994 that Moscow continues to support the Kurds, andhe stressed that there are now "close links" betweenthe 10,000 Kurds in Moscow and the Armenian community there.The two groups have organized demonstrations and the Armenianshave helped the Kurds to publish a magazine, Kurdish Report.The basis for these links, of course is the shared antipathyof the two groups toward Turkey. But both drew as well on Moscow’sefforts, beginning in the late 1980s, to support the then-SovietKurds.

Among these Moscow steps was the establishment in 1990 ofa Supreme Soviet commission on Kurdish problems, a body that examined the constitutional rights of the 153,000 Kurds livingin the Soviet Union and the status of the 30,000 Kurds who had arrived in the Soviet Transcaucasus in the same year. Some of these newly arrived Kurds ultimately settled in Krasnodar kray. Another step Moscow took was the establishment of a Center for Kurdish Culture, a body that sought to maintain ties with Kurds abroad. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, this center has provided financial support for Kurdish groups both within the Russian Federation and in other CIS states and helped to bring Kurdish students to Moscow. As a result of these developments, the Kurds established a Kurdish "Unity" Front in June1990. That group announced that its goal was "the establishmentof the national-cultural autonomy of the Kurdish people."

In October 1991, officials of the Moscow Kurdish Cultural Center met with senior Soviet and Russian officials to discuss among other things "the relationship in practice of interethnic contacts to the attachment of peoples to their historical places of residence." Evidently, Moscow was considering the willingness of the Kurds to accept a new homeland outside of the Caucasus. That turned out to be a tragic miscalculation.

In the summer of 1992, representatives of Kurdish organizationsthroughout the CIS met in Krasnodar. The Armenia Action, a PKKinitiative backed by several PKK members from Germany, announcedthat its goal was to support the Kurdish struggle in Turkey.The meeting was attended by Mustafa Vekili, the president ofa hitherto unknown country called the Lachin Kurdish Republic.At the end of the meeting, a certain Ishhan Aslan, a Kurd fromArmenia and former employee of the Kurdish section of Radio Yerevan,was named military commander of this new Republic.

Throughout 1992, the Azerbaijani media routinely complained that Armenia was using the Kurds to destabilize Azerbaijan. Statements by some Kurdish leaders only added fuel to the fire. Alikhane Mame, the deputy president of the Kurdish Liberation Movement, suggested that the fate of the Kurds depended on an Armenian victory in Karabakh. If Mame had not been quoted inthe Yerevan press, many would have dismissed reports of an Armenian-Kurdishconspiracy as "anti-Armenian" propaganda.

But now that Armenia is a country, Yerevan has definite geopoliticalinterests, which may mean that it will be less willing to supportKurdish efforts against Iran and Turkey. Thus, the status Armeniahas long enjoyed as a refuge for the Kurds may be at risk–forto the extent that Armenia is demonstrated to be a base for thePKK, Yerevan’s standing in the world community will be endangered.And the Kurds may have to look for another refuge–no easy taskfor a people that has seldom been able to find one.

David Nissman is an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University.