Since Georgia lost control of Abkhazia in 1993, it has been increasingly difficult for the ethnic Georgians who remain there to maintain their language.
The Georgian government has protested against the policy, but that has had little impact. Today, grades 1-8 are taught exclusively in Russian, a language that is completely different from the children’s native Georgian. Eventually there will be no Georgian-language curriculum in the schools.
While the Abkhaz constitution nominally protects minorities’ rights to study in their native language — ethnic Armenians have been able to open Armenian-language schools — that has not been the case for ethnic Georgians living in Gali.
A 2015 report, Language and Education Laws in Multi-Ethnic De Facto States: The Cases of Abkhazia and Transnistria, found that “the right to have education in one’s own mother tongue is generally respected for non-Georgians. On the contrary, artificial obstacles to Georgian language education in Abkhazia are confirmed by various reports.”
The number of Georgian-language schools in Abkhazia dropped steadily between the years of 1994 until 2015, from over 50 before the 1992-1993 war to 11 in 2015, when the Abkhaz authorities announced that the schools would have to transition to an all-Russian language curriculum.
The shift initially affected the first four grades in 2015, with plans to add a grade every year. There will be no Georgian instruction by the 2022-2023 academic school year.
The entire system at the schools, starting from kindergarten, is based on books prepared in Russia, the country Georgia accuses of occupying Abkhazia.
Apart from the fact that Russian is not the native language for the children, their parents or their teachers, the education policy means young ethnic Georgians are learning a version of history and geography that aligns with the Abkhaz narrative. Specifically, that affects subjects like history and geography, according to media reports.
While the Abkhaz authorities have defended the practice as a way to integrate ethnic Georgians into Abkhaz society, international and Georgian conflict specialists argue the policy is another form of pressure against ethnic Georgians in Gali.
Chairperson of the Center for Civil Integration and Inter-Ethnic Relations Shalva Tabatadze says the practice is “unacceptable.” He has called on the Georgian government to adopt online courses and distance learning options for ethnic Georgians in Abkhazia.
The policy is tantamount to “ethnic discrimination,” Georgian Minister of Reconciliation and Civil Equality Ketevan Tsikhelashvili has said. The ministry says 98 percent of the children and 90 percent of the teachers are ethnically Georgian in Gali district. There are an estimated 30-40,000 ethnic Georgians living in Gali.
She argues that the Georgian population in Gali is being subjected to “Russification” and a “well-determined attack on Georgian identity” is underway.
In practice, the policy undermines families’ ability to maintain the Georgian language. It also makes it more difficult for their children to get an education. Today ethnic Georgian children are expected to study and speak in a language they do not understand.
The transition has been especially difficult for the teachers, many of whom also do not speak Russian fluently.
“I am seeing how much trouble my pupils are having and how difficult it is to learn in Russian,” Nino*, 59, a teacher in a school in Gali district, says.
She adds that in addition to the challenges the children are facing as they struggle to learn subjects in a foreign language, some teachers lack the ability to speak or teach in Russian well so “children graduate without a good command of Russian or Georgian.”
Manana*, 61, has four children and recalls how difficult it was for the children to learn their lessons— and for the parents to help them, because they lacked a sufficient command of Russian.
“Most of the teachers in Gali district graduated from Georgian schools during the Soviet Union, so it is difficult for them to teach—for example, chemistry, physics or biology—in Russian,” she says.
“I tried to help my children with math, Georgian and Russian but I could not explain physics [in Russian], of course.”
For many years, some parents tried to circumvent the Abkhaz policy by crossing to Georgian-controlled territory and enrolling their children in a school there.
But a stricter policy by the Abkhaz — as well as frequent closers of the “border” — has made it harder for children to cross over to Georgian-controlled territory to attend school there.
The number of pupils coming from Gali to schools in Georgia’s western Samegrelo Province has decreased from 120 in 2011 to 18.
Center for Civil Integration and Inter-Ethnic Relations Shalva Tabatadze says the government needs to involve international organizations to pressure the Abkhaz into creating better conditions for the ethnic Georgian population.
So far, there has been little Tbilisi or its international allies have been able to do for school-aged pupils. An offer to provide Georgian-language books was rejected, because the Georgian curriculum — especially the subjects of history and geography— is very different from the Abkhaz version.
The Georgian Government has been able to impact access to higher education. While some ethnic Georgian children go on to study in Russian-language departments at the Abkhaz state university in Sukhumi or go to Russia to study, a number are also crossing to Georgian-controlled territory to attend university.
In 2019, 482 undergraduate students and 64 master students from Gali enrolled in Georgian universities.
The Georgian Government introduced a quota system in 2016 that allocates one percent of places in universities to students from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, another breakaway.
The government also opened a Georgian-language learning center in Samegrelo, close to the closing points from Abkhazia. It offers a year-long intensive language course for high school graduates to prepare for the Georgian national exams.
Centers have also opened in three main cities of Georgia: Zugdidi, Batumi and Tbilisi.
Regardless, the move to a Russian curriculum has been particularly difficult for children who want to study at Georgian universities.
“All my children managed to pass the Georgian national exams [to study at Georgian universities] but it was hard for them, compared to those who graduated from Georgian schools,” Manana says.
Georgian is still taught at some Gali schools as a foreign language. Pupils report having an hour or two of Georgian a week.
“When we had our Georgian lesson, the teacher was trying to give us as much information as possible, but it was not successful as the time provided for teaching Georgian was limited,” recalls Elene, 18, who graduated Saberio’s secondary school this year and passed Georgia’s national exams.
*Respondents names were changed to protect their identities.
*"Chai Khana" is not publishing the author's name out of security concerns.
*Textbook, "History of Abkhazia by E. K. Kuakuaskir; Chapter 10, pgs. 218-223 ("Fler-1" Publishing House, Krasnodar, Russia 2010)