Rabil Ismail, a salam activist, is collecting petition signatures in Karajala, a village in the Georgian region of Kakheti. Image: Shota Kincha / OC Media.

This article was first published on OC Media. An edited version will be republished here as part of a content partnership agreement.

In Georgia, an activist group of ethnic Azerbaijanis are collecting signatures to support laws that would allow people to remove or change Russian-sounding endings from their surnames. Salam, a grassroots organization in Georgia, advocates equal rights and greater public engagement among ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia’s public life and has recently supported several campaigns and protests, including against early marriages and promoting better access to basic goods for rural people Azerbaijani communities in Georgia.

The aim of the group is for Parliament to amend Articles 64 and 65 of the Civil Status Act to allow Georgian citizens “whose surnames end with bogus / non-traditional suffixes”, remove the suffixes, or replace them with “traditional / authentic” ” to replace. Suffixes that “already exist”.

Salam members still have a month to collect at least 25,000 signatures for lawmakers to review their bill.

If successful, ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia whose family names usually end in -ov, -ova, -ev and -eva could have suffixes of Russian origin removed or replaced with typical Azerbaijani endings.

Activists hope that a signature list with typical Azerbaijani suffixes – including -oghli, -oghlu and -qizi – would serve as proof for the registry authorities that such so-called original surname forms already exist legally.

“Don’t waste your time”

Georgian Civil Status Act formally allows an individual to change their last name to one that was used by someone in their family line up to four generations ago. The law also allows the restoration of the “historical” surname, provided the person has “evidence” to prove the claim.

According to Merab Kartvelishvili, head of the human rights program at the Georgian Young Lawyers’ Association (GYLA), civil status archives are not a helpful tool for ethnic Azerbaijanis in this case, as surnames with Russian-style suffixes have existed for generations, some dating back to pre-Soviet times.

Salam members have also reported, and OC Media has independently confirmed, that civil status authorities informally advise applicants not to change their last name.

“I was told I had to have 300 Georgian lari. counting [around 100 US dollars in late 2019] when I first requested to change my last name and they also told me it would likely be rejected, ”Sema Sadiq, a 21-year-old Salam board member who wants to change her current legal surname from Sadikovi, told OC Media .

The petitioners, supported by GYLA, the Center for Social Justice and several other major human rights groups in Tbilisi, also cited the 2016 decision by the Lithuanian authorities to allow their citizens to change or remove their last name suffixes.

A separate invoice?

Mikheil Sarjveladze, chairman of the parliamentary committee on human rights and civil integration, told OC Media on August 17 that he had not seen Salam’s draft. However, they are also working on a separate bill to address this issue.

Sarjveladze said the discussion would be broad and involve various ethnic minorities in Georgia.

Sarjveladze said he would abstain from commenting on the bill in detail until September, but noted that changes related to surname suffixes should be “precise and clear” before they come into force.

This summer, some opposition leaders, including right-wing libertarian leaders Zurab Girchi Japaridze, Iago Khvichia and Vakhtang Megrelishvili, publicly supported Salam’s demands.

Salam said Tariel Nakaidze, a former European member of Georgia and the country’s first ethnic Georgian-Muslim MP, is among their supporters, and many more are expected.

Not just for ethnic Azerbaijanis

Salam members travel across the country almost daily to visit settlements in Georgia where ethnic Azerbaijanis live. Members hope to receive a list of signatures long enough for Parliament to notice and have a diverse and regionally representative set of signatures.

The campaign goes beyond the ethnic Azerbaijani of Georgia, according to Kamran Mammadli, an ethnic Azerbaijani community organizer who is trying to get Mamedovi to change his legal name.

In the case of Yazidis in Georgia it is often the suffix -ian or -ov ‘… A lady recently came into our office and said her mother was Greek with the ending -ovi and wanted to sign the petition.

Sulkhan, a 30-year-old ethnic Kist and activist from the Georgian Pankisi Valley, said he had also tried to change his family name from the Georgian version of Bordzikashvili to the original Kist version of Bordzgēr. However, he found it impossible to provide the requested archival documents to the authorities.

“I absolutely support [Salam’s campaign]“Sulkhan told OC Media. “It is hoped that with their help I can change my last name.”

“Job”

In a country where most Georgians denounce Russia occupying “20 percent” of Georgia, with reference to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Salam promoted the idea that the last names of many Georgian citizens alike were “occupied” and “freed from inheritance.” “Must be the Russian policy of domination and assimilation.

Activists point out that ethnic Azerbaijani were given surnames with Russian suffixes under the Russian Empire, and particularly during the Soviet Union, since the 1840s, and that other ethnic groups have had similar historical experiences.

“I think our last names are actually occupied by Russians,” the ethnically Azerbaijani journalist in Georgia Jeikhun Muhamedali told OC Media. “We are not required to have surnames with Russian endings.” Muhamedali, who grew up in the southern Georgian town of Marneuli, said his rightful name is Narzalovi, but he does not use it publicly and has not yet been able to change it.

Samira Bayramova, an ethnic Azerbaijani citizen activist in Georgia, “welcomes” Salam’s initiative, but also has concerns about the consequences.

“I don’t want all of this to lead to my being labeled as a“ guest ”and associated with the identity of another country, because I’ve fought against it all my life […] I do not want [to have my surname end in] -zade for example, ”Bayramova told OC Media on August 13th.

Bayramova was referring to a trend in Azerbaijan to “entrussify” Azerbaijani surnames, often by replacing a suffix with a Russian origin of the suffix -zade, which is common among ethnic Azerbaijanis in Iran. She also referred to a discriminatory discourse widespread in Georgia, which describes ethnic Azerbaijanis as “new guests” in the country.

Both Samira Bayramova and Salam condemned the Georgian parliament earlier this year for calling the community of ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia a “diaspora”. Salam member Rabil Ismail told OC Media that the last thing they were interested in was endorsing a surname suffix that would associate someone “with another empire” or with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Ismail, from Darbazi Village, Bolnisi Municipality, also noted that some ethnic Azerbaijanis are treating this as part of a real ethnic Azerbaijani identity and leaving matters to the individual, while the campaign is about people’s right to have their family names restored.

Meanwhile, Samira Bayramova emphasized that it was primarily the state’s task to invest in the search for identity of its own citizens and to help all ethnic groups on this path.