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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 40 New Delhi September 22, 2018

Russia Promotes unified Kurdish Platform

Tuesday 25 September 2018, by M K Bhadrakumar

A new organisation was founded in Moscow on August 4 known as the International Federation of Kurdish Communities. It is a significant development against the backdrop of the surge of the Kurdish problem. Kurds inhabit several countries in a wide arc from Turkey across the northern tier of the Middle East to the Caucasus and Central Asia.

The new organisation is headed by Mirzoyev Knyaz Ibragimovich, a distinguished Kazakh intellectual of Armenian Kurdish origin—author, philologist-orientalist and academician. The Russian authorities apparently promoted this idea of disparate and dispersed Kurdish identity being brought together on a unified platform. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa, Mikhail Bogdanov, received Mirzoyev and his delegation on August 7.

A Russian Foreign Ministry press release said that they discussed “pressing issues in the Middle East with an emphasis on the Kurdish issues in the context of developments in Iraq and Syria, including the need to consolidate international efforts in countering ISIS and other terrorist groups”. Quite obviously, the immediate context is the stabilisation of the situation in Iraq and Syria.

Of course, this is a poignant moment because Russia and the Kurds go back a long way. Not many would know that although Russian policy historically had opposed Kurdish independence, St. Petersburg used to be the foremost centre of Kurdish studies as far back as the middle of the 19th century. In fact, Czarist Russia witnessed a florescence of Kurdish studies and promotion of Kurdish culture. Under the auspices of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Kurdish-French-Russian dictionaries were compiled; a selection of Kurdish texts was published in 1857 based on material collected from Kurdish prisoners of war during the Crimean War (having segregated them in a camp at Smolensk in western Russia).

Perhaps, the most notable Kurdish work published in St. Petersburg was a history of Kurds originally complied in 1596 in Persian covering five centuries “so that the history of the great ruling dynasties of Kurdistan will not remain unknown”. The Russians had carried the original manuscript dated 1599 when they transferred the entire Royal Safavid Library at Ardabil to St. Petersburg as spoils following Czarist Russia’s victory in the war with Persia in 1828. A French edition of the historical work was published in St. Petersburg in four volumes during 1869-75.

What an incredible chapter in the ancient saga of the intercourse of the Slavs and the Muslims! Some historians attribute motives to it—as reflecting Russia’s imperial ambitions built on notions of dismemberment of the Persian and Ottoman empires, access to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf and liberation of Christian minorities in those regions. Be that as it may, the point to be noted is that Kurdish independence had no part in those imperial ambitions.

This Russian approach vis-à-vis Kurdish independence has been consistent through the Soviet era and continues even today. Let me fish out from the archives a fascinating interview given by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to an Iraqi Kurdish channel a year ago, which is of interest today for its candid elucidation of the Russian stance on the Kurdish question. Lavrov says at one point:

We definitely have a very positive attitude towards the Kurds. We have long-established links; and we know each other very well. We take an interest in the Kurds—just like any other ethnic group on the planet—to achieve their legitimate aspirations and intentions... We proceed from the assumption that the legitimate aspirations of the Kurds—just as those of other people—have to be pursued in accordance with international law... The Kurdish issue plays a big role and is in the forefront of the processes of crisis settlement now unfolding in the region... History shows that all too often the holding of a poll does not mean that all the issues will be resolved overnight. These are processes, which, I repeat, should be handled in a responsible manner considering the great significance of the Kurdish issue for the whole region.

Indeed, how Moscow proposes to deploy the Kurdish international platform will be keenly watched. To be sure, Moscow is taking the initiative to consolidate the Kurdish cultural and political identity under an erudite and enlightened leadership at a juncture when the Kurdish militant groups in Syria, which were backed by the Americans, appear to be willing to negotiate with Damascus.

The Syrian Kurds realise that in the absence of any political commitments from Americans for the future, the prudent course is to reconcile with Assad. A point of interest here is that the Syrian Kurds all through the seven-year-old conflict avoided fighting the government forces and they never took a position that Assad must be removed from power in any peace deal. The Kurdish fighters have reportedly shown willingness to be integrated with the Syrian Army.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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