Georgia: Whose Facts?

Georgia's Samtskhe-Javakheti region lies along the southern border with Armenia.

Georgia’s Samtskhe-Javakheti region lies along the southern border with Armenia.

NINOTSMINDA, Georgia | For the second year in a row, teachers in an Armenian school in Ninotsminda, a town just inside the Georgian border, have faced the school year with a shortage of Armenian history textbooks.

“There are only two or three books for the whole class of about 20 to 25 children. How can they all properly learn what we try to teach?” said Principal Tigran Pogosyan, who is also a history teacher. He accused the Georgian Education Ministry of trying to ban the books.

Supply didn’t use to be a problem. For 10 years the Armenian, not Georgian, government provided textbooks as a gift to schools in Javakheti, a border region of some 96,000 people that includes Ninotsminda and is populated mainly by ethnic Armenians.

But officials in Tbilisi, concerned over what history students here were being taught, reached a verbal agreement in 2004 with the Armenian Education Ministry that Armenia would continue to supply all the books for Javakheti schools except those on Armenian history and geography.

Teachers in Javakheti did not know of the deal, the effects of which have been felt only relatively recently, as Georgian customs operations have tightened up. In the first years of the agreement, trucks with any type of books could breeze through border posts unhindered, according to the Georgian Education Ministry.

But it came to light in summer 2007 when a truck full of Armenian history books was turned back at the border. More people began paying attention when the same thing happened the following year. In that instance, all the textbooks in the truck were allowed in except those on the history of Armenia.

David Rstkyan, co-chairman of Virk, an ethnic Armenian political party, said that the second time the books were blocked, he demanded unsuccessfully of customs agents, “Will anybody explain to us if these are the prohibited books?”

The restrictions came as the two countries have not been able to settle their differences over how to teach the history of the region.

In the late 1980s, when a strong Armenian nationalist movement started in Javakheti, the teaching of Armenian history in local schools was one of the main demands of regional leaders.

Many residents of Javakheti don’t speak Georgian and have limited contact with the rest of the country. According to a poll commissioned by the Georgian Education Ministry in 2006, nearly all of the local population uses Armenian as the only language for communication.

Most local youth study and work in Armenia instead of getting an education in Georgian universities.

 According to the Education Ministry’s regional offices, only about 60 graduates of Armenian schools here entered Georgian universities in the last four years. By comparison, in 2008 alone there were more than 1,200 graduates in Javakheti. Hundreds started studying in Armenian institutes, the office directors say.

This failure to assimilate into Georgian culture is an especially sensitive issue in a country that is riven by various separatist movements.

Citing the use of history “to support or debunk the claims of an ethnic group” during the Soviet era, a report released in the fall by the European Center for Minority Issues, a German research organization, stated, “This trend has somewhat continued to permeate Georgian historiography and is evidenced in the discourse of leaders on ethnic disputes in the country today.

“These two tendencies, ethnocentrism and the politicization of history, are also characteristic of current practices in Georgian history teaching,” the report said.

Several years ago Georgian education officials said schools in Javakheti could offer optional classes in Armenian history but provided no funding or support.

By that time Armenian and Georgian historians had already been in a long struggle about several facts that differ in the history textbooks of the two countries.

For example, eighth-graders in Javakheti read in the Armenian history textbook that in 1918 their region was part of Armenia and became Georgian territory only after it was invaded by the Georgian army.

The next school year these pupils would learn from the Georgian history textbook that it was the Armenian side that invaded the region and “presented claims” for their homeland, which had been a part of Georgia.

One of the touchiest questions is when Armenians came to this region. Armenian historians insist that Javakheti was originally populated by Armenians, while Georgian researchers say the Armenians were resettled there by the Russian czar two centuries ago and that the only original ethnic group was Georgians.

Differences like these bring both educational and political problems to the ethnically sensitive region. Researchers and experts on the history of the area say they know of no research that has attempted to sort out and discuss the facts presented by Armenian and Georgian historians. Children in Javakheti get either the Georgian or Armenian slant on history.

Anaid Kasoyan, 16, will graduate next year from a school in Ninotsminda. Kasoyan said she is working particularly hard to master Georgian history for her graduation exams. As for Armenian history, she said, “We never spent much time studying Armenian history. We don’t have many lessons on it and not all of us have a textbook.”

Simon Janashia, a former director of the national curriculum and assessment center, said the Georgian side has made two official proposals to the Armenian Education Ministry to start joint work and solve the differences, but neither was accepted.

Janashia said the ministry first proposed a commission of 10 Georgian and Armenian historians who would work out the differences.

“We were also ready to work on a combined history textbook that would reflect different points of view on controversial issues,” Janashia said. He acknowledged, however, that “It has never been a priority for us.”

Nune Vardanyan, a spokeswoman for the Armenian Education Ministry, said it did not receive any proposals from the Georgian side. She said the Armenian side was ready to start working jointly with its Georgian counterpart.

Teachers in Javakheti are trying to solve the problem themselves. They have asked their former pupils to find their old books and bring them to school.

“We need to learn Armenian history because we are all Armenians,” Pogosyan said, “This is what we all need to understand first of all.”

Kasoyan, the graduating student, said the Georgian history textbooks are written in a clearer and more interesting way. “That’s why when I answer questions from my teacher, I always refer to what’s written in the Georgian history textbook. But sometimes it gets too confusing and I don’t know what answer is true, which book I should refer to.”


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