Members of Salam, an activist group of ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia, are collecting signatures to have the Russian endings removed from their surnames.

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

the initiative envisages an amendment to Articles 64 and 65 of the Georgian Civil Status Act to allow Georgian citizens to completely remove “their last names ending with bogus / non-traditional suffixes” or to replace them with “traditional / authentic” suffixes that “already exist”.

The campaign was started by ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia whose family names, which usually end in -ov, -ova, -ev and -eva, are allowed to remove or replace the suffixes that are of Russian origin with typical Azerbaijani endings.

If the bill is supported, Beniamin Kasimov, one of the ethnic Azerbaijani activists, could change his legal surname to Kasim Oghlu, as could Aitaj Khalilli, a 24-year-old originally from the Gardabani community and now called Khallilova.

Activists hope that collecting signatures with typical Azerbaijani suffixes – including -oghli / -oghlu and -qizi – would also serve as proof for the registry authorities that such “original” surname forms already exist legally.

18-year-old Beslan signs the petition in support of the campaign. Image: Shota Kincha / OC Media.

Salam, a grassroots organization, advocates equality and greater public engagement among ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia’s public life and has recently supported several campaigns and protests, including resisting early marriages and promoting better access to basic goods for rural Azerbaijani Communities in Georgia.

[Read more on lived experiences of ethnic Azerbaijani Georgians on OC Media: Voice | ‘They say Georgia is a tolerant and diverse country; these are just words’]

“Don’t waste your time”

Georgia’s Civil Status Act allows an individual to change their last name to a name that was used by someone in their family line for up to four generations. The law also allows the restoration of the “historical” surname if “evidence” supports 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 very useful tool for ethnic Azerbaijanis in this case, as surnames with Russian-style suffixes have existed for generations. some date from pre-Soviet times.

Salam members have also contacted us, and OK media has independently verified a practice by civil status authorities to informally discourage applicants from changing their last name.

“I was told that I have to pay 300 [around $100 in late 2019] when I requested to change my last name for the first time and they also told me it would likely be rejected, ”said Sema Sadiq, 21-year-old Salam board member who wishes to change her current legal last name from Sadikovi OK media.

Petitioners, supported by GYLA, the Center for Social Justice, and several other large Tbilisi-based human rights groups, also cited foreign cases that occurred in 2016, among others decision by the Lithuanian authorities to allow their citizens to change or remove suffixes of their surnames.

Separate bill?

Mikheil Sarjveladze, chairman of the parliamentary committee on human rights and civil integration, said OK media on August 17 that he had not seen Salam’s draft but that they are still working on a separate bill to address the matter.

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

Micheil Sarjveladze. Photo via the Georgian Parliament website.

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 every day so as not to miss a large settlement with ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia. Your signature lists should be long enough for parliament to put the draft law up for discussion, but should also be diverse and regionally representative.

The campaign goes beyond the ethnic Azerbaijanis 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 “.

Image. Kamran Mammadli signs a supporter in Karajala, Eastern Georgia. Image: Shota Kincha / OC Media.

Sulkhan, a 30-year-old ethnic kist and activist from the Georgian Pankisi Valley, said he had also tried to have his family name changed from the Georgainized Bordzikashvili to an original Kist version, Bordzgēr, but it was impossible to tell authorities the requested archive material.

‘I absolutely support [Salam’s campaign]’said Sulkhan OK media. “There is hope that with their help I can change my last name.”

‘Job’

In a country where most Georgians denounce that Russia “occupies 20% of Georgia”, referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Salam promoted the idea that the surnames of many Georgian citizens were equally “occupied” and inherited from ” must be liberated ”from Russia’s 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.

“While some are afraid of Europe, we actually have to show that Europe respects our identity, our authenticity,” 24-year-old Rabil Ismail, legal Ismailov, one of the five authors who drafted the name change law in Parliament, tells OK media on 08/16

“I think our last names are actually occupied by Russians,” said the ethnically Azerbaijani journalist in Georgia Jeikhun Muhamedali OK media. “We are not obliged to use surnames with Russian endings”.

A screenshot from Salam’s campaign video.

33-year-old Muhamedali, who grew up in the southern Georgian town of Marneuli, said his real 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 some concerns about its impact.

“I don’t want all of this to result in my being labeled as a ‘guest’ and associated with the identity of another country, as I’ve fought against it all my life […] I do not want [to have my surname end in] -zade for example, ‘said Bayramova OK media on 08/13

What Bayramova was referring to was a trend in Azerbaijan to “de-Russify” Azerbaijani surnames, often by replacing a suffix with a Russian origin of the -zade suffix 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 Regards earlier this year condemned the Georgian parliament for calling the community of ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia a “diaspora”.

Greetings told by member Rabil Ismail OK media that the last thing they were interested in was supporting a surname suffix that someone associated “with another empire” or with neighboring Azerbaijan.

Ismail, who is from Darbazi village in Bolnisi municipality, also noted that some ethnic Azerbaijanis are treating it as part of a real ethnic Azerbaijani identity and leaving matters to the individual, while the campaign is about each individual’s right to the family name in a. restore as one deems appropriate.

Meanwhile, Samira Bayramova emphasized that it is 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.