By Giorgi Lomsadze
President Mikheil Saakashvili has described Georgia as the cultural crossroads of the Caucasus, a place where various ethnicities can easily mix. But a look at attempts at language integration for the country’s minority ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations suggests that sizable obstacles must be overcome if the government is to make Saakashvili’s depiction a reality.
Based on data from Georgia’s last census, ethnic Azeri and Armenian residents together made up just over 12 percent (284,148 ethnic Azeris and 249,175 ethnic Armenians) of the country’s 2002 population of 4.37 million. Georgian-language instruction is a must in all of the country’s 40 minority-language public schools, but limited exposure to spoken Georgian in some areas — especially the Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions, which have large ethnic Azeri and Armenian populations respectively — means that minority students do not always have a functional knowledge of the national language.
Russian, a language sometimes used to teach in ethnic Armenian schools in the predominantly ethnic Armenian region of Samtskhe-Javakheti, is no substitute. Most employment in Georgia’s private sector is dependent on the ability to speak Georgian (and, increasingly, English as well); all government jobs also require that ability.
To improve knowledge of Georgian among ethnic minority groups, the government has set up a program to “promote [the] popularization” of Georgian as a state language, and to provide fallbacks, ranging from translated textbooks to minority-language university entrance exams, to guarantee that minority students can continue with their education.
Ministry of Education officials did not respond to EurasiaNet.org’s requests to comment on the program, however. The program’s page on the National Center for Educational Quality Enhancement website contains no information in either Georgian or English.
Some teachers, though, have formed their own evaluations. One professor of education at Ilia Chavchavadze University in Tbilisi argues that instruction in any subject in minority languages in Georgia is deficient. Meanwhile, ongoing updates in teaching techniques and materials have largely bypassed non-Georgian-speaking schools, claimed Simon Janashia.
“Georgian(-speaking) teachers receive trainings in teaching methodology, receive new textbooks and teaching materials,” said Janashia. “But such resources have not been fully extended to non-Georgian-speaking teachers and, therefore, their teaching skills fall behind.”
Georgian-language textbooks in math, history and other subjects have been translated into minority languages, but the translations have not entirely rectified matters, some ethnic Armenians and Azeris complain.
“I don’t know who translated these books, but the language there often makes no sense,” commented Naira Avetisian, a math teacher in the predominantly ethnic Armenian town of Akhalkalaki. “I think they were translated from English to Georgian, and then from Georgian to Armenian, and bits of common sense were lost at every stage of translation.”
More than linguistics can make for confusion, though. The content of some history and geography textbooks, translated from Georgian into Armenian or Azeri, often contradicts the information in Armenian-language and Azeri-language history and geography textbooks that Yerevan and Baku, until recently, sent to Georgia’s Armenian-language and Azeri-language schools.
Those ethnic Azeris and Armenians who want to improve their children’s knowledge of Georgian can face further obstacles. Classroom segregation, allegedly based on language knowledge, is still common in public schools. Ethnic Georgian and non-Georgian students are often placed in different classes because of their differing levels of Georgian language skills – a practice that would appear to contradict the spirit of the Ministry of Education’s Georgian Language program, which emphasizes “civil integration.” Ministry officials did not respond to EurasiaNet.org’s requests for comment.
“I want my daughter to study in class with Georgian children to pick up Georgian, but the teachers says she will be falling behind the rest of the class,” said Alina Mamedova, who works in a store in Marneuli, a predominantly ethnic Azeri district not far from the border with Azerbaijan.
A December 2010 story by online news magazine Netgazeti.ge that examined this practice in one suburban Tbilisi school found that the parents of ethnic Georgian students often request the segregation. [Editor’s Note: Netgazeti.ge receives funding from the Open Society Assistance Foundation Georgia, part of the Soros Foundations network. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the new York-based Open Society Foundations].
While problems persist in K-12 public schools, the government prefers to tout its success in reducing the linguistic divide in Georgia’s universities. To make Georgia’s universities more accessible to students who are not native Georgian speakers, the government in 2006 set up general skills tests in Armenian and Azeri, and established entrance quotas for both minorities. In what seems to be a largely symbolic offer, ethnic Abkhaz and South Ossetians can also take the general university exam in their own languages. Russian, however, is no longer offered as an option.
Successful minority applicants spend the first year of university in a preparatory course that offers Georgian language instruction. They then proceed to the general four-year undergraduate study program. The program appears to have “simplified access to higher education for ethnic minorities,” commented European Center for Minority Issues Diversity Programs Coordinator Salome Mekhuzla.
Education ministry officials were not available to comment on the success of the so-called “1 + 4” program.
For members of Georgian ethnic minority groups, such as the Marneuli store clerk Mamedova, the opportunity for that language help is the main thing; the key to expanding choices for the future. “Our children must be taught Georgian, Russian and Azeri,” along with English, she commented. “Once they know it all, they can decide themselves whether they want to work in Tbilisi, Baku or Moscow.”
Giorgi Lomsadze is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.