Kurds in Georgia

According to The Wikipedia, there are 40,000 to 60,000 Kurds in Georgia. I have met at least two of them.

Thus begins another foray into regional politics.

The other day I was speaking with a Kurdish woman. She asked if I knew about the Kurds, and I responded that I did, and rattled off a few facts which had been rattling around in my head and realized that in the context of speaking to an actual person the facts were kind of depressing.

My previous general knowledge of the Kurds springs from two sources: one, paying close attention to goings-on in Iraq; two, studying Turkish politics since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. If you are familiar with either of these subjects you will perhaps begin to see why the facts that I know are so depressing.

From the Iraqi side, Kurds make the news rather often – talk of Iraqi Kurdistan, aka Northern Iraq, pops up in the context of UN sanctions (Kurdistan was the only place where oil-for-food actually worked) and of regional politics in response to the war (for instance, the toppling of Saddam Hussein potentially destabilizing the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Syria, and perhaps Iran). See, it seems that four countries have bits that are ethnically Kurdish, and the Kurdish people, observing this fact, reasoned that if each of these neighboring regions were to split from their respective countries, then Kurdistan could be a reality. The specter of civil war in Iraq made Iraqi Kurdish secession seem more likely, which could in turn domino into the other three countries.

From the Turkish side, it’s all about the Kurdistan Workers Party. I mean, they get the coverage these days, despite being a small minority of Kurds in Turkey. Historically, what happened was that Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, decided that the only way he could have a country (and avoid being carved up by the British and French like Iraq and Syria and such places) was to make sure that everything in the country was Turkish. He went so far as to ban the Kurdish language from public use, including in radio broadcasts and printed materials. Kurds did not like this, but Ataturk won out, and only recently have oppressive rules targeting Kurds been relaxed at all – a sign of Turkey’s glacially slow progress away from radical Kemalism and towards democracy. Anyway, the PKK took umbrage at this treatment and resisted Turkish rule, advocating violent secessionism and getting itself labeled a “terrorist” organization.

So anyway, lots of Kurds were displaced by stuff like a century of Ottoman and Turkish repression, World Wars, European meddling, war between Iraq and Iran, and various other really unfortunate shit going on in their neighborhood. As you may know the modern shape of Middle Eastern countries owes a lot to the British and French basically partitioning it up after WWI, which has led to a number of problems because the national borders don’t match the ethnic or geographic or historical borders particularly well. Giving Kurds their own country may have helped matters, or it may not have, because if you give one group a country then everyone else wants one, and that tendency has also led to a number of problems (Israel, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Chechnya, the Balkans, etc etc etc); the point is, though, that some Kurds feel like they ought to have their own country, since there are like 35 million of them in the world.

One Kurdish woman who I met in Georgia is third generation Georgian. Her ancestors left Turkey right around WWI. She considers herself Georgian first and Kurdish second. The other said that she thinks that Georgia is okay, but she’d really rather have her own country.

Nationalism is interesting. I guess some people feel it and others don’t. I personally think the world would be better off without the “one tribe, one nation” mentality especially given how arbitrary ethnicity is when it comes to people joining together to form a state. But, I guess that given that I have at least four discernible ethnicities, I don’t really know what it’s like to feel attached to one. Like, what would a country look like that contained only Slovenian-German-Italian-Puerto-Ricans? It would probably just be me and my sister.

Actually, that would be kind of cool. Okay, I get it now.

Georgians don’t really make a big deal about ethnic minorities. I wonder if, to Georgians, Kurds stand out as being obviously a minority. Like, I can often spot a Mingrelian, but Kurds take me by surprise.

If Syria descends sufficiently into civil war, and Iraq remains a devastated nation, and Turkey’s Kurdish section remains troubled, it is entirely possible that a real, widespread, credible Kurdish secession movement could spring up. That would likely lead to even more war. I’m sure they’d find a Western sponsor to provide them with weapons to advance some catastrophically short-sighted goal, like countering the regional influence of Iran or some other such nonsense (remember that’s how Saddam Hussein got his start). I have to conclude that the likelihood of a Kurdish nation is small, and accompanied by huge amounts of bloodshed and destruction.

Yeah, Middle Eastern politics is pretty unfortunate overall.

Kurdistan(Kurdish-inhabited areas in the Middle East)

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10 Responses to Kurds in Georgia

  1. Anonymous says:

    What do you mean by you “can often spot a Mingrelian” ? Are you saying that you can actually physically, more or less distinguish between Megrelebi and the rest of Georgians? This is the first time that I’m hearing such a thing in my life. I’m really curious as to how you can often spot Megrelebi. I’m from Tbilisi, and though I’ve only been to Samegrelo twice before, there are hundreds of thousands of Megrelebi in Tbilisi, many of whom I interact with on a daily basis; I myself am part Megreli. Could you please teach me how to spot them/us? I really wanna know. In fact, I think that most people would never be able to tell a physical difference even between Georgians and, say Armenians…Some Georgians insist that they can tell a difference between Chinese and Koreans with a high degree of probability; I have always been skeptical of their ability to do that. Or maybe you were not talking about spotting them/us physically? I’m confused.

    • panoptical says:

      My impression was that Mingrelians were more likely to have lighter hair and complexion and possibly less Persian influence in facial features than other Georgians. I guess I would say that that is the overall impression I get from talking to Georgians; it doesn’t come up in every conversation, but you’re the first person I’ve encountered who’s offered a dissenting opinion.

      I don’t mean to say that Mingrelians look radically different or that all Mingrelians look the same. I also don’t mean to say that I can always reliably sort Mingrelians from non-Mingrelian Georgians; rather that often (not always, but often), if I look at someone and think they might be Mingrelian, and then I ask them if they are Mingrelian, they have confirmed that my guess was correct. I guess this could be a series of lucky guesses on my part, or perhaps there’s a subset of Mingrelians with a specific look that I can recognize while other Mingrelians look more like other Georgians.

      • Anonymous says:

        I see what you mean, I mean I have heard of the urban legend/theory that Megrelians (and sometimes more generalized to all of us West Georgians) have intermixed less with the Persian/Mongol/other past invading nations (even if West Georgia was under Ottoman rule on and off for centuries at the same time as East Georgia was under the Persian rule, directly or indirectly, but I hadn’t heard of the lighter complexion part of the theory, thanks! At the same time, I now recall hearing that same lighter hair/complexion theory regarding the Svanebi. I certainly agree with this –> “perhaps there’s a subset of Mingrelians with a specific look that I can recognize while other Mingrelians look more like other Georgians.”

  2. Hilary says:

    Concise introduction to the Kurds and their role in regional politics. Would be interested to know which books you’d recommend for people considering teaching English in the Caucasus. The U.S. State Department website, for example, has warnings about “Ossetia” and another part of Georgia that I still have not located using any searchable map engine. It would also be interesting to read what you have to say about these warnings. Thanks.

  3. Talleyrand says:

    Saddam Hussein didn’t get his start from foreign supporters. That’s an easy cheap-shot which will garner you a wave of nodding heads from today’s generation; but in reality, the Ba’ath Party takeover of Iraq lacked any material support from Western governments. Hussein and Al-Bakr successfully deposed the former regime, and then Hussein craftily rose to the top of the Party with plenty of blood on his hands to become the primary strongman. It wasn’t a CIA coup. And the rift between Iran and Iraq began without interference from the United States or any other Western nation.

    The United States may have nominally supported Hussein at certain points to uphold the enemy-of-my-enemy principle, but the notion that Saddam Hussein was some kind of out-of-control Western agent is ludicrous. (A similar unsupported smear is also heard about bin Laden and the CIA.)

    Also, ethnicity is far from an “arbitrary” criterion, although the aspects of ethnicity are flexible and difficult to verbalize in many cases. It may seem arbitrary from an American perspective, holding onto the discredited melting pot model. But minorities typically band together in the face of oppression and intolerance from ruling classes—something far removed from the immediate perception of white middle-class Americans.

    • panoptical says:

      You seem to know a lot, but you also seem to be picking and choosing the most convenient facts and ignoring the ones that are clearly relevant to the point I was trying to make.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_support_for_Iraq_during_the_Iran%E2%80%93Iraq_war – “United States support for Iraq during the Iran–Iraq War, as a counterbalance to post-revolutionary Iran, included several billion dollars worth of economic aid, the sale of dual-use technology, non-U.S. origin weaponry, military intelligence, Special Operations training, and direct involvement in warfare against Iran.”

      And by the way, “dual-use technology” is double-speak for “chemical weapons,” which, going back to the topic of this post, were used against the Iraqi Kurds in Hussein’s genocidal campaign against them in addition to being used against Iran.

      Perhaps “got his start” was not the optimal phrase to use, but I think it’s pretty clear to the informed reader that a Western sponsor providing weapons to an armed group as a counterbalance to Iranian power in the region has fairly straightforward parallels to the US arming Iraq. It’s also reasonable to speculate that without such substantive support, Hussein may not have been able to maintain power, given that, as I said, he used weapons provided by the US to mount genocidal campaigns against opposition groups. So perhaps instead of “got his start” I should have said “got the weapons that he used to commit war crimes against millions of people” but “start” had a bit of brevity going for it.

      Also, I don’t think you know what “arbitrary” means. There is no practical reason to believe that any given person would benefit from living in a state founded on the basis of ethnicity, and the fact that people sometimes hold this belief anyway does not make it any less arbitrary.

      As it happens, I grew up in a part of New York City called “Queens,” which is the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world. NYC is fabulously successful in terms of generation of wealth and culture and, like many other highly ethnically diverse areas, tends to produce levels of understanding of difference that are unknown in ethnically monotonous areas. I would argue that ethnic diversity is the way to go. I’m not sure who or what you think “discredited” the melting pot model, but given that the melting pot model is one of the fundamental ideologies of the single most powerful nation on the planet, you might want to take another look at the amount of credit you give it.

      Also, as it happens, I am not middle-class. I wonder what other false assumptions you have.

  4. Talleyrand says:

    I’m glad you at least retracted your statement that Saddam Hussein attained power with US support. But you’re attacking my position where I built no walls. I never said the US didn’t materially support Iraq. The US clearly used Iraq to balance its regional enemy, and wedge itself into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. But the Iran-Iraq War centered on a rivalry between Mesopotamia and Persia dating back to Cyrus the Great’s invasion of Neo-Babylonia. From a more recent perspective, Hussein’s theocratic neighbor threatened his secular power-base, especially considering Iran represented a competing sect comprosing a large percentage of his own population (i.e. Shia). He naturally feared Iran funding a Shia uprising in eastern Iraq.

    The source you linked mentioned nothing about chemical weapons from the United States. I only see references to anthrax derivatives, which appear to have been unused and later recovered by UN inspectors. Yes, in hindsight this was a bad play. The US was particularly afraid of its own anthrax being launched against US troops during the Persian Gulf War. But it never happened.

    If you want to focus on Iraq’s campaign against the Kurds, you’ll find that Hussein imported the bulk of his chemical weapons from Singapore, India, and Egypt. The Reagan administration may have erased Iraq from the State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1982, but the actual chemicals used in the infamous Kurdish massacres came mostly from non-Western nations. As far as I can tell none of the mustard gas or nerve gas came from the US government or any direct proxy thereof. I invite you to prove me wrong, but I couldn’t find anything with a cursory search.

    It’s unreasonable to speculate that Hussein would have lost without US support. Most significant US support came in the form of intelligence for airstrikes. At one point during the war the Pentagon had dozens of intelligence officers stationed in Hussein’s bunkers pinpointing locations for Iraqi airstrikes. But the Iran-Iraq War featured brutal trench warfare and mass infantry charges—aerial bombings made little difference. Both Iran and Iraq had plenty of oil revenue to fund themselves, plenty of human lives to waste, and plenty of insanity to fight for almost a decade with or without support from foreign governments (interestingly, there are plenty of parallels to Nazi Germany’s Operation Barbarossa). This is why both nations began attacking each other’s oil tankers in 1984—not being able to win militarily, they tried to win economically. But the US and Soviet Union put an end to this naval combat as it was destabilizing oil supplies around the world. And don’t forget about the funding Hussein received from the Saudis and Kuwaitis, which likely eclipsed the paltry few billion from the Pentagon. The royal families around the Gulf were playing the enemy-of-my-enemy game too, but they had more to lose than the Pentagon with growing Shia influence. If the US stepped away, the royal families would have increased their funding.

    On a side note, dual-use technology is hardware or knowledge that can be used for both warfare and peaceful purposes. Nuclear expertise is the classic example, but biological research can also be labeled dual-use. I’ve never heard anyone claim nerve gas is dual-use technology. You’re wrong to say dual-use technology is double-speak for chemical weapons. That doesn’t make any sense.

    Now, for ethnicity. You’re confusing “arbitrary” and “practical” as antonyms. It may be impractical to use ethnicity as a basis for statehood, but it’s certainly not arbitrary. Human societies have used ethnicity as their chief criterion for organizing tribes, city-states, and nations since we migrated out of Africa. It’s ingrained in our biology, for better or worse. I’m not saying it’s logical or right. But it’s largely inescapable. A friend of mine always cornered me when he asked, “If you went to a new school or workplace, and walked into a cafeteria, and it was filled with people of a different skin color except for a single table with people of your own ethnic group, where would you sit?” It’s tough to admit, but something inside of every person’s compels us to stick to our kind, and skin color is the easiest to see. I wish it weren’t true, but that doesn’t make it less true.

    The melting pot is invalid. Look at a map of your cherished NYC and tell me people don’t divide along ethnic lines (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1315078/Race-maps-America.html). NYC is just as divided as Baltimore, Detroit, and LA. There’s nothing special about NYC that transforms everyone into color-blind visionaries. People are people no matter where you go, and they prefer to organize based on skin color. Darker skinned people in every US city live in the poorest neighborhoods.

    And don’t give me your patriotic speech about American ethnic values. The US was built on the blood and bones of “lesser” ethnic groups. I hate to sound like an Ethnic Studies 101 professor, but your American exceptionalism is jabbing me in the eye.

    • panoptical says:


      US companies sold precursors to the chemical weapons used against Kurds in this particular massacre. The article I linked earlier also describes diplomatic, financial, and logistics support that enabled Iraq to buy weapons from other countries as well.

      You seem determined to disagree with me by evading the main point, which, again, is that Western powers like the United States provide aid to groups that these powers believe will act in their interests, and that the actual effects of this aid is war, genocide, war crimes, and regional instability.

      Arguing “well the US provided millions of dollars in financial assistance, as well as military and diplomatic support, intelligence, and the precursors for chemical and biological weapons, but none of that made any difference or had any consequences” is completely irrational.

      And so you can go on and quibble with my word choice in parenthetical statements or argue that anthrax is a biological and not a chemical agent and therefore nothing that I said about dual use technology makes any sense at all, but it just smells more and more like you’re arguing for the sake of arguing rather than trying to communicate, understand, or come to an agreement.

      Ethnicity: What do you think arbitrary means? Clearly we are talking past each other.

      I think that arbitrary means “Determined by chance, whim, or impulse, and not by necessity, reason, or principle.” Ethnicity is a classic example of an accident of birth, and dividing people up by ethnicity for the purposes of nation-building is not driven by reason or principle, but by impulse.

      You describe that impulse perfectly when you use the “cafeteria” example. Something within us compels us to stick with “our own kind” even though skin color is a useless way of determining who “our own kind” is. That is the definition of an “impulse.”

      I would fit in much better with a table of muti-ethnic computer geeks than a table of randomly selected white people. If I used a sensible method of determining where to sit I might have a much better lunch than if I use the arbitrary method of sitting with people who bear a superficial resemblance to me.

      Also, the history of civilization is the history of uniting above the tribal level. I don’t think the Roman Empire consisted only of Italians. Religion has played a major role in the organization of states – certainly more than ethnicity. At least religion has some rational basis, i.e., a common set of laws and values and a common reference point.

      Melting pot: In my “cherished NYC” I was born. My father is of Slovene and German descent; my mother Italian and Puerto Rican. Sure, there is some level of self-sorting going on in NYC. For instance, when my great-grandfather came from Austria-Hungary, he moved into a German neighborhood so that he could ease into learning English and be around people whose culture he somewhat understood. The same is true for many immigrants – they move to neighborhoods based on linguistic and cultural similarities and slowly (over a generation or so) they blend into the local culture and language. Now, strangers on the internet just call me “white” rather than observing any ethnic distinction, and assume that I am a member of the oppressor class who took advantage of immigrants rather than of the immigrant class myself.

      • Talleyrand says:

        If you list every nation which provided some kind of material, diplomatic, logistic, or vague moral support to Hussein’s regime at any point in time, you’d have a list of dozens of countries around the world. My point is not to absolve the US of guilt. But Hussein would have launched the war against Iran with or without US support. The same stalemate would have resulted. Hussein would have killed thousands of Kurds without chemical “precursors” from outside sources. And if not with chemical weapons, then conventional explosives and assault rifles—after all, chemical shells fired from miles away is a lazy man’s genocide. Hussein was an unfortunate episode in a long string of unfortunate episodes in the Middle East. But nominal US support didn’t make him any worse from a historical perspective. If anything, US intervention in Kuwait sharply diminished his ability to ravage the region. Not to mention Israel’s bold airstrike against Hussein’s nuclear ambitions.

        Where exactly did US support of Iraq have any macro-historical consequences? Hussein rose to power independent of outside support. He consolidated his position with oil revenues and repression. He launched a war against Iran to satisfy his own ambitious agenda. That war was fought with Iraq’s massive army. The US supplied a few helicopters and advisors, and maybe some chemical “precursors.” But these had no significant outcome in the war. And after an eight year stalemate, Hussein decided to punish the Kurds for an imagined betrayal by killing many thousands of them. How does any of that change? Outside technical support isn’t a requisite for genocide. In Rwanda it was accomplished with crates of machetes. And remember, the deadliest weapon of mass destruction is the AK-47.

        “…but it just smells more and more like you’re arguing for the sake of arguing rather than trying to communicate, understand, or come to an agreement.”

        And by agreement you mean agreement with you? Listen, you’re intelligent and well-spoken, and probably accustomed to easily holding the cards in any discussion about politics or international affairs. But every once in a while you’ll come across someone who’ll catch you when you throw around fancy terminology incorrectly, like dual-use technology. If you consider that arguing for the sake of arguing, then so be it.

        Ethnicity isn’t only a genetic trait. It’s a collection of cultural and economic characteristics, too. That’s the standard definition. You seem to be confusing the term with race. For example, an African-American growing up in Nantucket will have little in common with an African-American from a poor neighborhood in Baltimore or Camden. They share the same skin color, but that’s almost irrelevant compared to their overall identity. So it’s not a superficial quality. It’s something people share with their immediate nieghbors for generations. They endure similar strife, from poverty, police brutality, crime, and desperation, and this bonds people together. It also creates distrust toward other ethnicities, especially those perceived to be the ruling class.

        Successful people often lose their ethnic affiliation. European immigrants in the United States fit this category. Although Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans had strong ethnic identity for many decades, once they reached the middle-class, those bonds dissolved. European-Americans are not Italian, or British, or French. They’re simply meshed together as “white” because they form the bulk of the middle- and upper-classes.

        The Roman Empire, eh? Classical antiquity is a poor choice for supporting your case. Many ethnic groups existed in the boundaries of the Empire—that’s the only true part of your statement. But for hundreds of years Roman citizenship—which signified power, wealth, legal protection, and distinction—was only offered to a select group of central Italians. Other Italians only received a second-rate version of citizenship called the Latin Right. A complex hierachy of classes, drawn on ethnic lines, formed the basis for slavery, oppression, and warfare during classical antiquity. Even within Roman citizenship itself existed several “ethnic” groups: the wealthy patricians and the mobbish plebians.

        Do you think Gauls, Iberians, and other “barbarian” races were offered citizenship? No. They were offered two choices: death or slavery. They usually died working in mines as slaves. Fortunate groups, such as the Greeks, were merely house servants. The Romans justified their domination along ethnic lines. They believed they descended from the downcast Trojans, and that it was their right to subjugate other tribes. A similar storyline can be found in almost every chapter of human history.

        You can save me your genealogy. For all intents and purposes you’re white, which in America makes you middle-class unless you’re a single mother with five kids living in a trailer park. Your skin color affords you a whole list of benefits and privileges. Again, you’re making me sound like an Ethnic Studies 101 professor. But your rosy outlook regarding race in America is ignorant. Not every immigrant group blends so easily into the landscape as did your European ancestors. An anecdote doesn’t make a rule. Those with darker skin are usually pushed into enclaves or ghettos through clever urban planning. Mayors and city councils use urban planning as a weapon to keep undesirables away from prime commercial and residential real-estate. Why do you think highways commonly divide the black side of town from the white side? It’s no accident. Check out Detroit.

        You can reject my cafeteria analogy, but looking at that map of NYC, I see a big cafeteria and neatly divided tables. Nobody consciously rejects other ethnic groups. It’s a gradual segregation process. Dozens of ethnic groups have failed miserably in “melting” into your pot. Compare an ethnic map to a property value map. It’s safe to say without checking that the whitest neighborhoods are the most valuable, whereas the blackest are the poorest. This isn’t very fair “blending” if you ask me.

        • panoptical says:

          “Listen, you’re intelligent and well-spoken”

          I accept your apology.

          (A bit of humor there, borrowed from Stephen Colbert. In all seriousness, you are probably right and I’ve gotten a little bit lazy about throwing around terminology. Dual-use technology is certainly more likely to be biological or nuclear than chemical – I picked by far the least accurate of the three categories. I do appreciate you taking the time to point out the error, I just don’t want that correction to obscure the idea that “dual-use” is a very very unassuming way of describing something that is capable of being used for genocide.)

          I think I see what you are saying about ethnicity, but I still don’t see you making an argument that people benefit from organizing a country around their own ethnicity. It seems to me that the most successful states, in terms of military and economic power, are made from many people of many different ethnicities coming together despite their differences, as opposed to people who splinter off into increasingly small groups based on increasingly insignificant traits.

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