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Georgia’s education initiative for Abkhazia leaves Gali students out in the cold

28 January 2019
Russian-language textbooks used by Gali pupils issued in Moscow (Nino Gogua /OC Media)

With their new peace initiative, ‘A Step to a Better Future’, Georgia’s government hopes to tempt students from Abkhazia and South Ossetia to enrol in Georgian universities by letting them sit entrance exams in their ‘native language’. But for Abkhazia’s ethnic Georgians in Gali, banned from studying in Georgian there and whose Abkhaz language skills are far from native, the initiative does little to help.

Anna (not her real name), 15, is a year 9 pupil in the secondary school in  a village in Abkhazia’s easternmost and predominantly ethnic Georgian Gali District.

She will graduate from school in a couple of years and plans to apply for university in Moscow, along with her brother. Her family would prefer they enrol in university in Georgia, but this is proving impossible, as the local school does not provide any classes in Georgian.

‘I have good marks in every subject and I think I could pass the Georgian national exams in Russian, but what about the Georgian language exam? I’m sure I couldn’t pass it. I only know basic conversational Georgian, which was taught to me by my mother.’

Anna’s first language, like most of the population of Gali, is Mingrelian — a related but distinct language to Georgian. Most Mingrelian speakers identify as being ethnic Georgian and consider Georgian to be one of their native languages alongside Mingrelian.

‘The [Georgian Ministry of Education] allows us to sit the exam in the Abkhaz language instead of Georgian but because the standard of teaching Abkhaz is low, it’s hard for us to pass exams in Abkhaz, because we did not grow up in an Abkhaz environment and it’s not our mother tongue’, says Anna.

‘A Step to a Better Future?’

Back in April, the Georgian government launched a new peace initiative entitled ‘A Step to a Better Future’. One of its objectives is to improve access to education both in Georgia and abroad for young people living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Despite this, pupils from Gali still have difficulties enrolling in higher educational institutions in Georgia.

[Read on OC Media: Georgia unveils ‘unprecedented’ peace initiative for Abkhazia, South Ossetia]

From 2016, the Georgian government introduced a quota system whereby 1% of higher education places were reserved for students from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This was part of the ‘1+4 system’, in which students would receive one year of Georgian-language teaching followed by the normal four years of higher education.

The programme has been in operation since 2009 for ethnic minority Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Georgia. Furthermore, under this scheme, entrants in Abkhazia and South Ossetia were only required to take one aptitude test in their native language — Abkhaz or Ossetian — in order be admitted to the programme.

According to Georgia’s State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, this scheme can extend to ethnic Georgian people living in Gali, but few of them know Abkhaz well enough for it to apply.

All other entrants are required to pass four exams in order to be admitted to university. These are known at as the Unified National Exams and all Georgian secondary school pupils are required to pass them in order to qualify for university.

This includes pupils from Gali, where there are strict restrictions on teaching in the Georgian language. Instruction in the Georgian language is prohibited in all pre-school educational institutions in Gali District and faces restrictions in primary and secondary schools. The situation affects pupils from Gali’s access to modern, high-quality education.

As part of Georgia’s new peace initiative, entrants living in Abkhazia and South Ossetia who want to go directly into a four-year Bachelor’s programme by taking the the Unified National Exams (instead of the 1+4 programme) will soon be able to do so by sitting their exams in Russian, as well as one ‘native language’ exam in either Abkhaz or Ossetian.

But many pupils in Gali say this limits them because Abkhaz is not their native language, Mingrelian is, and their knowledge of Abkhaz is very basic due to the poor quality of teaching.

Since 2008, there has been a training centre close to Abkhazia, in Zugdidi, which in theory is supposed to prepare Gali students to sit the Unified National Exams in Georgian. but local residents say it does not function properly.

Nino (not her real name), 28, from a village in Gali, used to attend the training centre along with her classmates. She felt it was a waste of time and says that the majority of her classmates opted for private tuition.

‘When you’ve spent 11 years studying under a completely different curriculum, it’s difficult to gain enough knowledge in just 6–12 months to achieve success in the [Georgian] national exams. We just had the weekend to attend classes. Sometimes when we missed school on Fridays to attend trainings [at the centre] we had problems at school’, recalls Nino.

So far, the only promising prospect on offer for Gali’s students is the possibility to attend a one-year training course at a planned Preparation Centre in Georgia before going on to higher education.

Under this scheme, students would accumulate the necessary credits in selected subjects and would then sit a series of tests. Once they passed the minimum competence threshold, they would then become eligible to enrol in a Bachelor’s programme without having to pass the national exams.

Georgia’s Ministry of Education told OC Media in August 2018 that the centres would be open in October 2018, but have not yet started operating.

A spokesperson for Georgia’s Reconciliation Ministry told OC Media that the exact date the centres will be launched has still not been set, but that they will open in the nearest future in Zugdidi, Batumi, and Tbilisi. The centres will have the capacity to teach 100 students in total, they added.

Restrictions on Georgian-medium teaching in Gali

Despite the right to receive an education in one’s native language being enshrined in Article 6 of the Abkhazian constitution, in practice, the Abkhazian authorities restrict this right for ethnic Georgians.

The process of switching to Russian-medium teaching has been ongoing since the 1990s but has been stepped up in recent years. Georgian-medium schooling used to be widespread in Gali before a new government came to power in 2014 on the back of promises to curb the ‘Georgianisation’ of Gali.

The new measures introduced by authorities also led to most Gali residents losing their Abkhazian citizenship and the closing of several checkpoints on the River Inguri.

According to Georgia’s State Ministry for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, prior to the 1992–1993 conflict, 58 schools operated in Gali District, of which 52 were Georgian-medium schools. Following the conflict, and the subsequent exodus of many Georgians from the region, the number of schools was reduced to 31, falling to 30 after another school closed last year.

Over the period from 1994–2015, Georgian language gradually began to be replaced by Russian in all schools due to Abkhazian government policies to restrict teaching in Georgian.

In 2015, in the area closest to the boundary line (known as the ‘lower zone’) where education in Georgian was still maintained, the language of instruction in the first four grades was changed from Georgian to Russian in eleven schools. In 2016 and 2017, the 5th and 6th grades moved to Russian language instruction. According to the Abkhazian authorities, each year another grade will switch to Russian until there are no more grades receiving their education through Georgian.

Additional barriers

Ia (not her real name), 19, studied at one of Gali town schools and is now a student at a university in Sukhumi. She says that despite her good grades, it was very hard to pass the Georgian national exams, because she had no Georgian-language instruction at school. That is why she decided to go to university in Sukhumi.

Nino gets on well with her coursemates, who are mostly Georgians from Gali. She says her Abkhaz coursemates are helping her to learn Abkhaz.

‘I knew from the beginning that I would choose [this] university, as without private preparation, it’s impossible to pass the [Georgian] national exams […] The cost of rent [in Georgia] and private lessons would be too much for my family, that is why we decided [for Sukhumi]’, she says.

As pupils from Gali District find it hard access higher education in Georgia, it is easier for them to enrol in a Russian university or to study in Sukhumi. However, where it is possible, secondary school graduates from Gali often prefer to take higher education in Georgian-controlled territory.

Dato (not his real name) from Gali is a student at Moscow State University. He is currently in the final year of a Bachelor’s degree in biology. It wasn’t hard for him to pass the entrance exams as he attended a local school where all subjects were taught in Russian. He also received a grant from the Russian government towards the cost of his studies and student accommodation.

‘I don’t have coursemates from Gali, but I know many [from Gali] who study in Russia. For example, my cousin, his classmates, and also my [former] classmate. I chose Moscow, because it is much simpler for me to study in Russian, as I graduated from a Russian-medium secondary school’, says Dato.

Many parents in Gali say they would prefer their children be taught on the other side of River Enguri, which divides the Gali district from Georgian-controlled territory. They say they feel much safer about sending their children to study in Georgia rather than to the Sukhumi or further afield to Russia.

Some parents who have had the opportunity, send their children to schools in Zugdidi so that they will study under the Georgian curriculum. Many Gali parents feel that the Georgian government’s approach to education does not address the situation with regard to Gali’s schools.

While there are some schools in Gali which provide high-quality teaching in Russian and which give pupils enough of an ability in the language to allow them to continue their studies in Sukhumi or Russia, parents often complain that for the majority of schools, this is not the case, as the teachers are not well qualified and the quality of teaching is very poor.

They also cite the fact that the majority of teachers in Gali District graduated from Georgian universities during the Soviet era, and therefore they struggle to teach pupils through Russian.

‘Of course, we are grateful that the [Georgian] Ministry of Education funds the study of our children, but what sense does it have if pupils cannot pass the national exams?’, Tamar (not her real name), a parent from Gali tells OC Media.

The ministry funds the education of students from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

‘In schools where Russian is taught well, children can continue their study in Russia, but that is not often the case and what about those school pupils who after graduation find that they know neither Russian, Georgian, nor Abkhaz sufficiently?’, says Tamar.

Many parents also complain of other barriers to education faced by Gali pupils.

‘My daughter wanted to sit the history of Georgia exam, as this was a requirement for the faculty [of the Georgian university] where she intended to enrol. However, Georgian history is not taught at all at our school [...] and I needed a minimum of one year to prepare her’, Diana (not her real name), another Gali parent tells OC Media.

‘Last year we didn’t have the opportunity to pay money to a private teacher and so we decided to enrol her at Sukhumi University. Now she wants to transfer to a Georgian university, but she heard that she will have missed one year because of having studied different subjects and she doesn’t know yet what to decide.’

Simplified enrolment?

Gali residents feel that more could be done by the Georgian government to facilitate students from Gali to study at Georgian universities.

While the Abkhazian authorities make it easy for Gali students to study at university in Sukhumi, where the language of tuition is Russian, they do not allow Georgian pupils to study their native language at school.

‘For our children, it’s becoming more and more difficult to pass the Georgian national exams’, says Ketevan, from one of Gali villages.

‘For example, Sukhumi University mostly accepts our children based on an interview whether or not they meet all the entry requirements. We understand that the Georgian government cannot change anything in our region, but they could at least simplify the enrolment process in Georgian universities for our pupils as Sukhumi does […] But they don’t do it because of their bureaucracy’.

This article was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) Regional Office in the South Caucasus. All opinions expressed, and terminology used are the words of the author alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or the OC Media editorial board.

Following publication of the article, Georgia’s Ministry of Reconciliation and Civic Equality reached out to OC Media to say they had high hopes for the education centres due to open in Zugdidi, Batumi, and Tbilisi, though the exact time frame for their launch was still not certain.

A spokesperson for the ministry said that ‘because Abkhazia has an 11-year education system and there are 12 years in Georgia-controlled territory, education standards and the level of knowledge is different, which is why the after-school education programme was created as a part of the government’s “A Step to a Better Future” peace initiative’.

‘They will be offered dormitories for free of course and in addition, a monthly stipend ₾150 ($56) to cover everyday expenses. They will also receive all the textbooks and educational resources for free.’

‘Interest in this programme is pretty high, and already more than 100 entrants have expressed a desire to register for the programme.’

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