"The Yezidis of Georgia – On the Verge of Extinction?" by Jenny Thomsen

by Jenny Thomsen

The migration of Yezidis to the South Caucasus has occurred in several movements. The first wave of Yezidis migrated into Georgia in the early 1770s seeking assistance from non-Muslim allies as a result of increasing religious oppression in the Ottoman Empire. A second movement occurred in the first quarter of the twentieth century due to the religious persecution that took place in the Ottoman Empire, particularly during the Armenian Genocide in 1915. Also the Yezidis were subject to the massacres, which caused the group’s mass-migration into the Caucasus.

From some 2,262 Yezidis in 1926 the number has increased significantly to 33,331 Yezidi-Kurds in 1989 (Yezidis and Kurds were counted together in the 1989 census). However, Georgian independence in 1991 drastically changed the situation for the Yezidis, leading to a rapid decrease in numbers to a mere 18,329 in 2002, excluding 2,514 who self-identified as Kurds. The post-Soviet period brought along economic hardship, political instability and mounting nationalism, which had negative consequences for the small minorities in the country. The independent Georgian state was unwilling to implement mechanisms to protect the rights of minorities. The Yezidis were, and still are, particularly exposed due to their lack of a kin state and hence a source of financial measures. The lack of support and resources has resulted in difficulties for the community to maintain its religion, culture and language.

There is a general under-representation of ethnic minorities in parliament, government and local authorities. Due to the fact that there are no Yezidi representatives to lobby the interests of the minority, the participation level of the community is very low. Language courses in Kurmanji are no longer taking place and with only 30% of the Yezidis speaking Kurmanji the risk of language loss is substantial.

The largest threat of assimilation lies in the gradual disappearance of Yezidism, which can be explained by the significant ongoing emigration and the high conversion rate mainly to Georgian Orthodoxy. Christianity is the only religion offered in secondary school and hence young Yezidis do not gain knowledge about their own religion. As a result, the younger generations tend more and more towards the Orthodox faith. A lack of a temple and cultural centre is another factor behind the fading Yezidism. There are several reasons for this lack of place for worship. Financial problems and internal conflicts within the community have been causing a delay in the construction of a cultural centre. Another aspect is the agreement between the state and the Georgian Orthodox Church, declaring that the Church needs to give its consent to any construction of religious buildings, something it has not yet done in the case of a Yezidi temple or cultural centre.

Current difficulties for the Yezidis basically stem from the poor economic situation in the country. The economic crisis has caused an extremely high unemployment rate from which exposed groups like the Yezidis suffer the most. Especially persons without education face difficult conditions with no prospects for the future. Negative stereotyping creates further problems for members of the minority in finding employment. They are often found at the bottom of the social ladder, working as street sweepers or rubbish collectors. Although Yezidis also hold other positions in the society, stereotypes make it difficult for members of the minority to obtain positions other than low-status jobs. The hard socio-economic situation in Georgia has caused numerous Yezidis to leave the country in favour of Russia and European Union countries. In the end of 2008 it was estimated that as few as 12,000 Yezidis were left in Georgia. The large numbers of emigrants together with a high level of religious conversion make it increasingly difficult for the community to continue in the country.

Georgia has ratified the major treaties of the United Nations and the Council of Europe guaranteeing human rights protection. Additionally, the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) has been ratified and entered into force in 2006. Upon accession to the Council of Europe the country undertook the commitment to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages (ECRML) as well as to adopt a Law on National Minorities, none of which has been fulfilled. Regarding the implementation of the international obligations there has been little progress. The state does not focus on minority policy implementation and inadequate financial resources further add to this low priority. Unless the Georgian state is willing to direct its resources towards its minorities, a probable outcome is a continuing dramatic drop in numbers caused by Yezidis emigrating. Indeed, the facts point in that direction and accordingly there is a risk that the religion, culture and language of the Yezidis of Georgia eventually will become extinct.


Suggested reading:

FIDH (2005) Ethnic Minorities in Georgia, International Fact-finding Mission

Komakhia, Mamuka (2005) ‘Yezidi Kurds in Georgia, Ethnic Self-awareness and Consolidation’, in Central Asia and the Caucasus 2/32, S. 133 –139.

Szakonyi, David (2007) Ethnic Mobilization in Post-Soviet Georgia: The Case of the Yezidi-Kurds, JEMIE

Writenet (2008) The Human Rights Situation of the Yezidi Minority in the Transcaucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan), commissioned by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Status Determination ad Protection Information Section


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