Relations With Russia Deteriorate As Kurds Protest

Issue Number: 
The Russia Journal

The last week’s wave of Kurdish riots across Europe sparked by Turkey’scapture of Kurdish Workers’ Party (KWP) leader Abdullah Ocalan has onceagain proven that KWP is not just a party but a consolidated movement thatcan wreak major havoc.

For 14 years, the KWP has fought under slogans of creating an independentKurdish state, Kurdistan. Until recently, the struggle was limited to guerillawar and terrorist acts. The events of last week mark first time that sucha scale of mass protests and hostage situations have been seen all acrossEurope.

Kurds stage sporadic terrorist acts in many countries and wage avery real war against government troops in eastern Turkey and northernIraq. The 14 yearlong undeclared war has claimed the lives of more than25,000 people.

In response to Abdullah Ocalan’s arrest, Kurds seized Greek and Israeliembassies to attract world attention to their cause. The land Kurds claimas their homeland is the region encompassing the intersection of the bordersof Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. However, the Kurds have never had a sovereigncountry of their own. For a few years in the early 1920s, a Kurdish autonomousregion existed in Azerbaijan, but it was short lived.

Kurdish diaspora throughout the world numbers 30 million to 40 million,including approximately 1 million living in the CIS. The latter figureis only an estimate because the majority of Kurds who reside in the countriesof the former Soviet Union are not formally registered and are illegalimmigrants.


Russia has always maintained warm relations with Kurds. Apparentlyfor this reason, Ocalan sought political asylum in Russia last year. Moreover,in November 1998, the State Duma sent President Boris Yeltsin a recommendationto grant Ocalan political asylum in Russia, but to no avail. The situationchanged. Russia and Turkey have developed very friendly economic and politicalrelations and Russia did not want to endanger this new friendship for thesake of a man labeled as an international terrorist in many countries ofthe world. Nevertheless, rumor has it that Ocalan did visit Russia severaltimes recently. Also, there is information that Ocalan visited Armenia.At one time in history, the Turks slaughtered thousands of Armenians, sothe Armenians were happy to give shelter to Turkey’s mortal enemy.

While not advertising its warm attitudes toward the Kurds, Russiadoes turn a blind eye to their illegal residence in the country. Most ofthe Kurdish settlements are located in central Russia as well as in theOrel and Kursk regions. Kurds living in Russia are very self-sufficient.They work the land, raise cattle, build houses, schools and hospitals.,without depending upon support from the authorities.

This picture, idyllic at first glance, has its darker sides. Aboutthree years ago, a group of Kurds bought a deserted facility in the townof Gavrilov Yam in the Yaroslavl Region. The facility used to be a children'ssummer camp. Currently, it is home to not only Russian Kurds but also theirfriends who have escaped from Iraq or Turkey. The community publishes itsown newspaper, Ston Rodinii (Moans of the Motherland) and runs a well-equippedtelevision center. When asked about who is financing these efforts, StonRodinii editor Aziz Mamoyan is evasive. "Our compatriots do," he says.

Indeed, the Kurdish Workers’ Party receives some financial supportfrom the diaspora in Europe. But if Turkish propoganda is to be believed,the bulk of KWP revenues comes from drug dealing.

The party’s annual income is estimated between $35 and $40 million.Turkey alleges that the KWP is involved in trafficking narcotics to Europefrom Middle East sources.

Turkish secret services report about 2.5 tonnes of heroin and 21tonnes of hashish linked to KWP that have been confiscated during the last13 years. There have been rumors that banking accounts controlled by Ocalanamount to some $1 billion.

Residents of the Gavrilov Yam community usually withhold their realnames in interviews because many of them are wanted criminals in Turkeyand Iraq.

The community also gives shelter to those injured in combat. Admittingthat their "guerilla war" often claims innocent lives, Gavrilov Yam residentsdeny they are terrorists. But they are ready to take up arms and fighton a moment’s notice.

While in Russia, Kurds try to maintain a disciplined routine. Allable-bodied members of the community, including women, begin the day withphysical training. "Three months are enough to train a good fighter. Forthis purpose we have the Kurdish Military-Political Academy. The academyruns a number of training centers located in the highlands of Kurdistan,"says a community member who only introduced himself as Akkush.

"We are fighters for independence. We are guerillas, but we are notterrorists," Akhmed, 40, who illegally entered Russia via Georgia, says.When trying to draw parallels between the Kurds and Palestinians, the KWPmembers protest in unison, "The Palestinians are terrorists, we disapproveof them. We are different."

The Yarolsavl regional Department of the Federal Security Servicekeeps a close eye on the Gavrilov Yam community, but no direct action hasever been taken against the Kurds.

"They don’t break the law, at least within our sphere of interest.Regarding their living here without registration, it is not our business.This is up to the police," a Department spokesman says.

In addition to Russia, large Kurdish communities are also presentin Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Kazakhstan. The CIS Kurdish communitiesconvene regular congresses in Moscow, which are usually attended by thedeputies of the Kurdish Parliament in Exile. Also active in the CIS isthe Kurdistan Liberation Front headed by Makhir Valat.

Whether Russia remains sympathetic to the Kurds after last week’sevents remains to be seen. But the Presnya District Prosecutor’s Officehas initiated a criminal investigation into the Kurdish demonstration infront of the Greek Embassy in Moscow.

It is possible that Russia’s economic and geo political interestswill force an end to tolerance for Kurds in the coming years.