A shopping mall named Shengal — an exotic name to Russians — is located in the eastern part of Moscow. Shengal is the Kurdish name of the city of Sinjar, which is located in northern Iraq where Yazidis live. Most of the customers I met in the shopping center have no idea what “Shengal” means. They also are unaware that on the ground floor of the building there is a TV studio called Lalish TV, the only satellite Yazidi channel in the world.
Lalish TV was launched in April. “We are the only Yazidi channel in Russia that broadcasts in the Yazidi language [Kurmanji or Kurdish dialect] for Yazidis all over the world. We have no link with any political party or movement. We are not politicized. Our aim is to help Yazidis save their identity. We want to give them more information about Yazidi culture, language, religion and history,” a representative of Lalish TV told Al-Monitor.
Mirza Sloyan, a Yazidi Russian businessman, sponsors Lalish TV. Areas of broadcasting include Russia, Europe, Armenia, Georgia and Iraq. Some of the programs are produced in Moscow; the others are produced in studios based in Germany and France.
The estimated population of Yazidis in Russia is 40,586, according to the 2010 population census. The majority of them live in big cities such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl and Krasnodar. Some Yazidis identify themselves as Kurds or Yazidi-Kurds. For many years they have been members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or of Iraqi political parties such as the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In all of these establishments, Kurdish identity prevails over the Yazidi one.
History of the Yazidi minority in Russia dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, thousands of Yazidis had to leave their homes in order to avoid persecution by the Ottoman Empire. They moved to Armenia and Georgia, which were parts of the Russian Empire at that time. In the Soviet Union, when all Soviet citizens had to put their nationality in passports and other identity documents, Yazidis preferred to identify themselves only as “Yazidi.” Jangir Sindjoyan, a political observer of the news portal Ezidipress, the only news source about Yazidis in the Russian language, told Al-Monitor, “After the collapse of the USSR, many Yazidis left Georgia and Armenia and moved to Russia. My family also came to Russia from Georgia. In Russia, Yazidis work in the spheres of education, media [and] have [their] own business[es]. There are many prominent sportsmen of Yazidi origin.”
Despite a large number of Yazidis living in Russia, until this year there was no single platform upon which all Russian Yazidis could unite. Politically active Yazidis joined different Kurdish organizations in Russia linked to the PKK or other Iraqi Kurdish parties. Then mass killings of Yazidis in Iraq in the summer of 2014 pushed Russian Yazidis to activate, and on Sept. 28, the Yazidi Congress — the first and only Yazidi organization in Russia — was registered.
“The genocide against Yazidis in Iraq pushed us to establish the Yazidi Congress,” Samvel Kochoi, head of the Yazidi Congress in Russia, told Al-Monitor. There are more than 50 representatives of the congress all over Russia. It has several objectives. First, there are a number of unsolved problems regarding Yazidi religion, language, culture and history. The congress wants [to solve all of them] by attracting scientists and religious authorities. There is a huge identity problem; some Yazidis identify themselves as Kurds, some deny their Kurdish identity and identify themselves as Yazidis, said Kochoi. The Yazidi Congress organizes different conferences, roundtables and seminars where all these problems are discussed.
One of the main objectives of the organization is to communicate with Russian authorities and media. The Yazidi Congress wants Russia to recognize the assault on Yazidis in Iraq as genocide. They have already sent the request to the Russian parliament but have received no concrete response yet, Kochoi said. Head of the Russian Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee — the upper house of the Russian parliament — Konstantin Kosachev told Al-Monitor he “has no information about the request of the Yazidi Congress.” A representative in the International Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma — the lower house of parliament — had neither confirmed nor denied receiving the request from the Yazidi Congress. A source in State Duma told Al-Monitor that the Russian parliament is very cautious when it comes to questions such as whether or not to recognize any genocide.
According to Kochoi, “Russia shows little interest in Yazidis, although Russia — which is now leading a military campaign in Syria — should be interested in cooperation with Yazidis more than any other country. Yazidis are a major international factor in the Middle East. They are being killed only because of their identity, the Yazidi identity, not Kurdish. The radicals from ISIS [Islamic State (IS)] target and kill Yazidis [and] consider them ‘heretics.’”
When asked why he wants Russia and other countries to recognize genocide against Yazidis, Kochoi replied, “First, we want to receive moral support and solidarity. Second, we need guarantees that no one could threaten lives of Yazidis in Iraq, and if there is any threat to them, they will be protected. Third, Yazidis need compensation. They lost everything. There were 72 acts of genocide against Yazidis, but the last one, organized by [IS], was the most severe.”
The official recognition of Yazidi genocide could be the start of the establishment of a Yazidi autonomous region in northern Iraq. “We want to be an autonomous region in Iraq, like Iraqi Kurdistan. It will be ideal for us,” Kochoi said. He thinks that if Iraq collapses, then with the support of Russia and Western countries, a Yazidi state or Yazidi-Christian state could be established.
Shengal, or “Sinjar” in Arabic — the territory where Yazidis live in Iraq — is a disputed territory between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Kurdistan. After the Mosul campaign is over, the question of this disputed territory will be raised again. The leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, has already said, “Aside from the Kurdistan flag, we do not accept any other flag rising over Sinjar.” The representatives of the Yazidi Congress in Russia are skeptical about his statement. They are afraid that becoming part of Iraqi Kurdistan will mean assimilation with Kurds and total loss of Yazidi identity.
If the question of the future of Yazidi-populated Shengal is raised, will Moscow support Yazidi autonomy in northern Iraq? Russia could support this decision, especially considering that everything changes so fast in the region. The forecast should not be based on Russian unwillingness to recognize the genocide against Yazidis. There is a strong possibility that the request sent by the Yazidi Congress was lost somewhere in the bureaucratic structures of the Russian parliament. It is necessary to remember that Russia tries to avoid recognizing any genocide, as it could lead to complications with regional powers and disastrous consequences for itself. While there’s great sympathy and a tacit support for the Yazidi case among Russian policymakers, political action is highly unlikely.