Armenian News Network / Groong September 15, 2004 By Onnik Krikorian Hranush Kharatyan is the Head of the Department of National Minorities and Religious Affairs in the Armenian Government. This interview was held in Yerevan on 6 September 2004 and is part of a follow-up series of interviews to work on the division within the Yezidi minority in Armenia conducted during June 1998. YEREVAN, ARMENIA ONNIK KRIKORIAN: Perhaps I could start by asking what role this department has in relation to national minorities living in the Republic of Armenia? HRANUSH KHARATYAN: Even though Armenia had signed a Convention on the protection of national minority rights there was still the need for a state-body to define who are national minorities and what are their problems. There was the need to formulate concepts and definitions as well as to inform national minorities of their rights and issues related to those rights. In January, this government agency was formed and we immediately attempted to identify what were the most urgent problems facing national minorities living in the Republic of Armenia. However, to understand what these problems are, we first needed to determine what steps should be taken by the state. In March, the first report on the Convention was published which included the opinion of experts from the Council of Europe as well as individuals from Armenia. This is all in one publication. On 26 March we held a meeting with national minorities and other organizations involved in this area to speak about the issues and problems in general. We distributed this publication and formed working groups. One group worked on the law on national minorities in the Republic of Armenia while a second worked on compiling another report on the Convention. A third working group concerned itself with the creation of an official state web site that will deal with national minorities and their problems. We will also receive a space of 800 square meters from the government to establish a cultural center for national minorities and a fourth working group is preoccupied with this so that we can study and protect the culture of national minorities. In all these directions, work is now coming to an end. The report is written and is under discussion, as is the law on national minorities, and the work on the center will soon be complete -- the problem now is in deciding how best to use it. Apart from issues related to the teaching of national minority languages in schools and the printing of text books, we are mainly concerned with social issues which, while actually not part of our responsibility, we try to help out with however we can. OK: I noticed you have a pen marked "Kurdish Institute of Brussels" on your table. Do you have any connection with them? HK: Recently, they came to speak to us about this Kurd-Yezidi issue. I can say that currently, this is the most actual problem that exists among national minorities in the Republic of Armenia. OK: Which is why I came to speak to you today. HK: I had already supposed that... OK: Everyone has the right to determine their own identity. However, this creates a problem if you have a minority such as the Yezidi in Armenia who are divided as to whether they are ethnically Kurdish or not. For example, one of the main issues that individuals such as Amarik Sardarian and the Kurdistan Committee have raised with me in recent weeks is that the language spoken by the Yezidi minority in Armenia hasn't been identified as Kurmanji in the recent census -- it was called "Yezideren." HK: Mr. Krikorian, these are Kurds saying that. Have you met Yezidi? OK: Yes. After working for five years on Kurdish issues in Europe and Turkey, I came to Armenia in 1998 to undertake research on the Yezidi minority in Armenia which included interviewing people such as Aziz Tamoyan as well as the Kurdish side of the community. However, while you may call them Kurds, we know, for example, that Amarik Sardarian is a Yezidi and so is Charkaze Rash-Mstoyan, the head of the Kurdistan Committee. They call themselves Kurds but they are Yezidi by religion and from speaking to academics outside of Armenia as well as journalists who have experience of the Yezidi in Iraq and Germany, few dispute the fact that the Yezidi are ethnic Kurds. HK: I want to repeat my question. Have you ever met people who call themselves Yezidi and not Kurds? OK: Yes, I have already mentioned Aziz Tamoyan [President of the National Union of Yezidi] who took me to some villages in Hoktemberian [Armavir] where they said they were not Kurds and also, I have met Yezidi in Kharberd and Oshagan who have said the same. HK: I want to go over some history and what I say should be published in its entirety. It is important that any conclusion should be left to your readers because there is so much false information coming out of Armenia from people such as Amarik Sardarian and Charkaze Rash-Mstoyan. First, I will speak about the events of the past year and then look into the history. When I started work in January, I called people from both sides -- those that called themselves Yezidi and those that called themselves Kurds -- because the Ministry of Education had received an application from the Kurdish community to have their textbooks published in Kurdish. The Yezidi community, however, had requested that textbooks be published in the Yezidi language. OK: But it's the same language... HK: Please let me continue... OK: Okay. HK: Both Yezidi and Kurdish children are going to the same school in the same village so I suggested that all the children should be able to attend school to study in their mother tongue. Both sides were arguing over the words "Kurdish" and "Yezidi" to refer to their language and so I suggested that we call it Kurmanji. The Kurds went away to think over this suggestion before returning and agreeing but the Yezidi came back with complaints from their village heads saying that they were being deprived of their mother tongue and also, their identity. I have complaints from seventeen villages saying that they want the Yezidi language to be taught in their villages and when I was on television and referred to people wanting to speak Kurmanji, I received complaints from the Yezidi accusing me, as the head of the Office of National Minorities, of trying to destroy the Yezidi community using the same methods as the Communist regime. I invited people such as Amarik Sardarian, Aziz Tamoyan and others to talk face to face with them so that I could understand the issue but all there was were different kinds of threats such as "we'll take you to court" from both sides. Then I suggested that a group of five people from both sides of the community come together to sit and decide the issue in my presence but without any interference on my part. There was four hours of intense conversation and because the issue was so sensitive I suggested that we record it so that afterwards we didn't accuse each other. We recorded four ninety-minute cassettes and I have transcribed all that was said. There was lots of emotion, passion and even blackmail and threats recorded in this conversation and accusations made by both sides against each other as well as against the Government. The Kurdish side, for example, said they will contact the international Kurdish community and that "they will show us." After that, I had separate conversations with both Kurdish and Yezidi intellectuals but I would like to say that for ten years I worked in the Institute of Oriental Studies. For ten years I heard from these people how the soviet system was depriving them of their Yezidi identity. Now, these same people come to me saying that the Republic of Armenia is taking away their Kurdish identity. As an ethnologist, I understand this process and that in both groups -- Kurds and Yezidi -- there are people who very passionately and genuinely believe in their national identity. However, in both groups there are also those who have political ambitions and who are only interested in money and are acting "under orders." Yet, despite the fact that I am an ethnologist and a scientist, and despite the fact that I am a state official, I will call people with the same name that they are calling themselves. As a scientist I understand that during the establishment of a national identity that this transformation brings with it some very difficult and serious problems. I don't know what will happen to both sides of the community -- both Yezidi and Kurds -- but I do know that there are some people who are trying to establish themselves. In the world, this is not the only example. Right now, Croatians and Serbs are enemies even though genetically, they are the same nation. However, there are no genetic nations. Nations are social and from time to time, things change. I feel sorry for people from both sides of the community with their ideology and who call themselves Kurd or Yezidi. Because of this, I have announced and still insist that the Government of the Republic of Armenia -- and this state body -- will not interfere in this issue by saying that someone is a Kurd or a Yezidi. As long as I am in this position that will be the situation. OK: Could I just say that when I came to Armenia in 1998 to look at the Yezidi community in Armenia and saw this division, I also felt that it was not my right to stand in front of someone who says that they're not Kurdish to tell them that they are. It's up to each individual to define their own identity. However, the issue of language appears to be a very serious problem. I agree with your attempt at compromise by calling it Kurmanji which does exist as a language whereas "Yezideren" does not. This strikes me as the only compromise that can be made. HK: But Mr. Krikorian, there is Gorani, Sorani, Kurmanji... OK: Which are all considered dialects of Kurdish... HK: That's right. However, if there was one literary Kurdish language then this problem would not be so complicated but each speaks with their own dialect... OK: But I haven't suggested that you should to call it [the language of the Yezidi in Armenia] Kurdish. I've suggested that it would appear that the compromise would be to simply call it what it is -- Kurmanji. I'm not even saying call it Kurmanji Kurdish, I'm asking why doesn't the Government just call it Kurmanji? HK: We haven't ratified the name of the language of either side in the curriculum or for textbooks. OK: An American who speaks a variation of English doesn't say lets call this language "American" in case people think we're English, they call it "American English." HK: That's very true but for example, there isn't such a language as Croatian but now the world now acknowledges that this language exists. It is not my fault that such processes occur in the world. Sometimes they are beyond any sense of logic. There also isn't such a language as Moldavian but the world acknowledges that there is one. OK: But for example, we know that there are how many hundreds of thousands of Yezidi in Germany and Iraq who say that they speak Kurmanji and if some Yezidi in Armenia say they speak "Yezideren," doesn't this create a few problems? HK: Yezidi are holding demonstrations here and sending photographs to Germany and the German Immigration Office to show how Armenians are depriving them of their identity and rights. One of the people doing this is Aziz Tamoyan. OK: I hadn't heard about these demonstrations from that [non-Kurdish] side of the Yezidi community. HK: It's a continuing process. They always hold them. OK: This was a very sensitive issue even in 1998 and it seems as though it's become even more so. However, one other aspect of this division that makes it more sensitive is that the "Voice of Yezidi" newspaper is published in Armenian and not even in "Yezideren," which is actually Kurmanji or whatever. It's published in the Armenian script and in the Armenian language. Then, you have the Kurdistan Committee publishing a pro-Kurdish National Liberation Movement newspaper in Kurdish. However, then you have someone like Amarik Sardarian, the editor of the longest-running Kurdish language newspaper in the world -- something that I would have thought that Armenia would be very proud of -- who's having problems printing his newspaper because he's stuck in the middle to some extent. You have politics on both sides but from the perspective of national minority languages, this is a huge problem, HK: Both Kurds and Yezidi receive equal finance from the Government. I know it's very little but it is the same. OK: Amarik Sardarian said that he doesn't receive anything from the Government. HK: He is receiving a grant from the Government. Maybe it's too little to cover all the costs for publishing his newspaper but he is receiving something. OK: Going back to the political aspect of this division, the allegation is that during the Levon Ter Petrosian years there was an official policy to deny the Yezidi their Kurdish identity. You have said that the Armenian Government will never say that someone is Yezidi or Kurdish but during the Levon Ter Petrosian years these sorts of statements were made. The Government would officially deny that there were any Kurds at all in the Republic of Armenia. HK: So, we have the figures from the census and Armenia has signed the European Charter which determines the official languages of the Republic of Armenia such as Kurdish or Yezidi... OK: You mean the Yezidi language which doesn't exist as a separate language. This is still a problem, isn't it? The Yezidi language... HK: We are trying to find the one common language for their textbooks. OK: In your opinion, can the Armenian Government do anything? For example, the Kurds are suggesting holding an international conference. Can the Government involve itself in this or is it up to the community to determine its own identity? HK: Armenia has signed many international conventions in which it states that a person is free to determine their own nationality and their own ethnicity. There are some Armenians that are genetically Armenian but call themselves, for example, Russian. Shall we arrange an international conference to determine if they are Armenians or not? OK: If it creates a problem for their community, then yes. HK: So, now we have a draft law on national minorities and this law outlines the rights of a citizen of the Republic of Armenia but not everyone can be called an ethnic minority. There are some gray areas and some criteria that these groups should meet before being recognized as such. If there are certain groups that consider that they have been overlooked then they can use the law. Conferences can be organized with the participation of many non-governmental organizations but I think that the Government of the Republic of Armenia has no right to decide on this issue. You can discuss this with non-governmental organizations working in this area. The Government of the Republic of Armenia is not preventing people from expressing their national identity and conferences and scientific discussion can only help if they are based on a scientific and not a political basis. -- Other interviews conducted with representatives of the Yezidi community in Armenia as well as political and academic figures were also published through the Armenian News Network / Groong in June 1998 and can be found online at: http://www.oneworld.am/journalism/yezidi/ or http://www.groong.org/orig/yezidi-index.html
Redistribution of Groong articles, such as this one, to any other
media, including but not limited to other mailing lists and Usenet
bulletin boards, is strictly prohibited without prior written
consent from Groong's Administrator.
© Copyright 2004 Armenian News Network/Groong. All Rights Reserved.