Georgian ‘Gülen-connected’ university banned from taking in new students

22 August 2018
Student protest in support of IBSU on 21 August (Dato Parulava /OC Media)

The Education Ministry of Georgia has banned the International Black Sea University from taking in new students for one year, raising questions about possible political motives amidst the Turkish ambassador’s recent allegations that the Gülen movement ‘still has its university in Georgia’. The university denies any connection to the movement.

On 20 August, the Tbilisi-based International Black Sea University (IBSU) issued a statement saying the ban is ‘totally illogical and incompatible’ given that the university has been granted authorisation to operate for six years. The Authorisation Board of the Education Ministry argued the ban was due to a tax penalty imposed on the university in 2013, currently amounting to around ₾700,000 ($270,000).

A legal dispute is ongoing in court over the sum, which the university says it will pay if it loses the trial. IBSU provided documents from the bank that prove they hold the disputed amount.

‘The university is ready to pay a tax penalty if it loses the court dispute. It should be emphasized that according to the decision on 4 June 2018 of the Revenue Service (#025-152), sequestration of the university’s property was abolished [The sequestration of the property remains under the court’s order]. The document was submitted to the Authorisation Board, however the Board did not take the mentioned factual circumstances into consideration’, said IBSU’s statement.

The university administration finds the board’s decision unfair for several reasons: They say the estate and other assets of the International Black Sea University greatly exceed ₾700,000. Secondly, they say the Authorisation Board’s decision would reduce the university’s revenue by up to ₾2 million ($775,000) this year and will make ‘around 800 new students’ willing to study in IBSU seek other universities for higher education. They also found the decision concerning, as the council has banned reception of new students but allowed older students to continue their studies.

‘The question is whether or not limiting the university’s income is an adequate measure, when the Board (unreasonably) considers material instability to be the university’s main problem? Besides, according to the authorisation experts’ report, the university’s material and financial resources are in full accordance with the requirements’, the statement said.

Students protest to defend IBSU

On 21 August, students of IBSU organised a demonstration at the Education Ministry.

‘We all know that the motive is political. The government is stripping us from free choice. It’s our right, and because of political motives, hardworking students shouldn’t be deprived of it’, Nika Letodiani, an IBSU student, told OC Media.

While dozens protested at the demonstration, a group of students met with Minister of Education Mikheil Batiashvili, but were left frustrated.

‘We didn’t hear concrete answers from the Minister. He told us he didn’t know much about the case, that he hasn’t spoken to the council or experts’, IBSU student Ani Khetsuriani told OC Media.

Meanwhile, the Ministry considers the Authorisation Board’s decision fair. Tamar Sanikidze, the head of the National Centre for Educational Quality Enhancement, said that ‘the board did its best to make a fair decision.’

‘The university has been granted an authorisation despite [its] concerning situation. Now they’re having a debate with the state over the money they owe to the state budget [...] The reason is that their property is fully sequestered’, said Sanikidze.

Minister of Education Mikheil Batiashvili announced that students wishing to study at IBSU will be distributed to other universities. He said the Board’s decision was caused by ‘the problems, including financial ones, the university has’ but did not elaborate on whether the ban was fair.

‘Turkish influence’

On 16 August, Turkish Ambassador to Georgia Fatma Ceren Yazgan told Turkish Anadolu Agency that ‘FETÖ still has its university in Georgia’. FETÖ is a hypothetical terrorist organisation that the Turkish government claims is affiliated with opposition figure Fethullah Gülen.

‘FETÖ still wants to carry out its operations against Turkey via Georgia’, she added. ‘Unfortunately, [Turkey’s] expectations regarding FETÖ have not yet been met by the Georgian government. We want them to take a serious step at this point’, said Yazgan.

The ambassador’s statement raised concerns that it may be connected with the recent developments at the IBSU, which is allegedly affiliated with the Gülen movement, even though the university denies a connection.

IBSU’s lawyer, Soso Baratashvili, told OC Media that political motives are apparent, given the developments from the past year.

‘Political motives are obvious, given the developments with similar educational institutions, such as Şahin School, Demirel College, and high-profile cases like Mustafa Emre Çabuk’s — also given recent statements by the Turkish ambassador to Georgia’, Baratashvili told OC Media.

The former Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, also spoke about the alleged political motives behind the developments around IBSU.

He said the government is not giving the reason for the IBSU ban as it is ‘the demand of the Turkish Government, which wants to punish its political rivals abroad’.

‘I believe that having good relationships with neighbours is very important for Georgia. But these relations should rely on mutual respect. I believe that the destruction of one of the best universities in Georgia is anti-Georgian and an act against the state’, said Saakashvili.

The legal pursuit and ‘private interests’

IBSU lawyer Soso Baratashvili said the university would appeal the Board’s decision in court. He said property rights and the right to education are being violated, and if not recognised as such by the Georgian court, the university may even take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Speaking with OC Media, he said the board’s decision could have been influenced by Georgian businessmen’s moves to acquire university shares at a low price.

‘IBSU wanted to sell its shares to a British company. The talks took place in spring, and the company is still willing to make a purchase. But all along, to my knowledge, authorities from the ministry were constantly telling IBSU to sell their shares to a Georgian company, or else they would have problems’, said Baratashvili.

He said that the university did not accept the offer from the Georgian company ‘willing to acquire the shares at a low price’. He says this may have triggered the ban, adding that at the moment, they do not wish to publicise the name of the company, but have already informed the Public Defender about it.

‘It seems that the Authorisation Board has different functions, such as negotiations over the shares. [...] We call on the board to change its unfair decision, otherwise the state would have to refund the damages to the university, which would be quite solid’, Baratashvili told OC Media.

Two Georgian NGOs, the Civil Development Institute and the Centre for Civil Integration and Interethnic Relations have expressed support to the university.

In their joint statement issued on 22 August, the organisations say ‘the repressions from the state bodies causes a significant harm to the education system, students, professors, and most importantly — the sovereignty of our country’.

It says that the decision of the Board can be deemed as ‘associated with the [Georgian] government’s foreign or internal political preferences’.

‘The National Centre for Educational Quality Enhancement has taken over the functions of the court and under the name of the Board it limits the citizens’ right to free choice in receiving education’, the statement says.

Georgia’s crackdown on ‘Gülen schools’

In August 2017, Georgia’s Ministry of Education revoked the teaching authorisation of the Private Demirel College, effectively shutting the school down. They accused the school of a number of irregularities surrounding examinations and enrollment.

Turkey has made efforts to shut down a number of schools associated with Fethullah Gülen, globally. Gülen is a former Islamic Cleric and a former ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and is accused by Turkey of plotting the July 2016 coup. The Fethullah Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), which is how Turkish authorities have named the movement, is considered a terrorist group only by Turkey. Demirel has denied any connection to Gülen or his organisation.

Şahin School in Batumi had its license revoked by Georgia’s Ministry of Education in early 2017 after the Turkish Consul in Batumi claimed the school ‘raised terrorists’.

Turkey’s demand to extradite Mustafa Emre Çabuk

Tbilisi City Court and the Court of Appeals have upheld the decision by the Ministry of Refugees to refuse asylum to Mustafa Emre Çabuk, a manager at Tbilisi’s Private Demirel College being sought by Turkey on terror charges. The school, closed down by Georgian authorities in August 2017, has been linked to Fethullah Gülen.

Çabuk’s lawyer has vowed to appeal to the Supreme Court if the court orders the extradition to go ahead, and to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, who could put the extradition on hold.

If the Supreme Court upholds his extradition, it is up to Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani to make a final decision on whether or not he will be extradited.

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