Tongue Twisting Reforms

Irma Begiashvili teaches the Georgian alphabet to Azeri first-graders in Kosaly, an all-Azeri village in southern Georgia.

Irma Begiashvili teaches the Georgian alphabet to Azeri first-graders in Kosaly, an all-Azeri village in southern Georgia.

KVEMO KARTLI REGION, Georgia | When her second child began school in September, Jamila Omarova felt a mixture of happiness, pride, and anxiety. It was a struggle to convince her family that her daughter, Ayten, should be taught in Georgian rather than Azeri at the local school. Three months later, she is optimistic about Ayten’s future.

Omarova, 27, was born and raised in Georgia but knows only a few words of the language. That was not a life she wanted for her children.

“I insisted that my son attend classes in Georgian, but my family decided that he would be taught in Azeri, because we are Azeris,” she said. “I’m disappointed about it. I’ve spent all of my life in Georgia, I’m a Georgian citizen, but I can’t speak Georgian and don’t understand it. It was all right before, but not anymore. I have to take a Georgian speaker with me to local offices so they can help me communicate. I don’t want my kids to experience that.”

Only Azeris live in Kosaly, Omarova’s home village of about 6,000 residents. Parents now have the option of enrolling their children in the Georgian-only part of the village school, but her schooling was in Azeri. For communication with Georgians she relies on a few basic Russian words.   

The language barrier has long been one of the tallest hurdles facing the Azeri minority’s integration into Georgian society. In the mid-2000s, the government began an effort to lessen the isolation of minority communities by ensuring a better grasp of the majority language and by integrating their schools into the Georgian national system.

The reforms do not affect minorities’ constitutional right to education in their own languages, but officials in Tbilisi, rather than Baku or Yerevan, now set the curriculum. The changes significantly cut the use of Azeri in classrooms and led to Georgian textbooks almost completely replacing books published in Azerbaijan. Coupled with stricter Azerbaijani migration rules, more Azeris in Georgia are choosing to send their children to Georgian schools, and more ethnic Azeris now continue on to university in their country of citizenship rather than in Azerbaijan.

Most Azeris, however, still know little if any Georgian. Very few Azeris hold administrative or management positions in Georgia, or teach in the universities. Just two ethnic Azeri members of parliament represent the interests of a community that makes up 6.5 percent of the country’s population.

Difficulty in interacting with officials, problems finding a job, lack of knowledge of their civil rights, and mutual distrust between the Azeri and Georgian communities ­– these were some of the consequences of the language divide identified in a 2006 report by the German Organization for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the Caucasus Institute of Peace, Democracy, and Development (CIPDD). 

Azeris and Armenians, the two largest minorities, make up about 12 percent of the Georgian population and are concentrated in small towns and villages, often having little contact with Tbilisi. Most of the country’s nearly 300,000 ethnic Azeris live in the Kvemo Kartli region of southern Georgia, on the border with Azerbaijan.



Ulviyya Mammadova, 39, attended Azeri-language schools in Georgia, graduated from medical school in Azerbaijan, and now practices medicine in Kosaly.

“My family watches only Azerbaijani TV, which is why we know nothing about what’s happening in Georgia,” she said, laughing.

Mammadova is pressed into service when her non-Georgian-speaking patients need to see other specialists.

“If the doctor is Georgian, the patient can’t explain his or her problem. That discourages people and they don’t continue their treatments. So I have to accompany that patient and act as a translator. I’m responsible for their health.”

During Soviet times, little attention was given to Georgian-language studies in minority-language schools, and the Azeri community’s poor knowledge of Georgian was not perceived as a problem. Kosaly resident Shafiga Kerimova, 26, recalled that in the past Russian served as an optional language of communication between Georgians and Azeris. “We can still use Russian, but many officials, especially young ones, don’t speak Russian. It’s already losing its function,” she said.

In post-Soviet Georgia, emigration to Azerbaijan peaked in the 1990s, starting with the presidency of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, said Alovsat Aliev, director of the nongovernmental Azerbaijan Migration Center in Baku.

“Georgia for Georgians” and other nationalistic slogans marked Gamsakhurdia’s unstable tenure in 1990 and 1991, when the names of many Azeri villages were “reorganized.”

The tenure of his successor, Eduard Shevardnadze, was plagued by war with two of Georgia’s breakaway regions and economic collapse.

Thanks to emigration and falling birth rates, the total population (including the breakaway regions) plummeted 20 percent to 4.4 million from 1989 to 2002.

A similar decline hit the two districts of the Kvemo Kartli region where Azeris are concentrated, Gardabani and Marneuli: the population dropped by 18 percent, to just under 500,000, between 1989 and 2002, the last time a nationwide census was taken. The fall in the number of school-age children was even greater: 27 percent in Gardabani district and 30 percent in Marneuli, according to a second 2006 GTZ-CIPDD report.

In recent years ethnic Azeris in Georgia have grown more willing to integrate into Georgian society, as both the economy and people’s faith in government slowly recuperated. Georgia is now a country where the rule of law is respected, said Gardabani district resident Gulnaz Ismailova. “Trust in government encourages Azeris to be part of Georgian society, and this is possible only through education,” she said.

The flow of Azeris out of Georgia slowed after President Mikheil Saakashvili came to power, Aliev said, because they now felt safe in Georgia.

“They simply compared the border checkpoints on the Azerbaijani and Georgian sides. Seeing much better democratic processes made them feel proud of the country they are citizens of. Now they trust Georgia.”

In 2007, Azerbaijan introduced tougher migration policies, treating ethnic Azeris from abroad the same as non-Azeri migrants, and this, too, acted to slow the stream of Georgian emigrants, Aliev said.

Mammadova’s two children are learning Georgian at their Azeri school in Kosaly, and she is keen for them to improve their fluency through additional lessons.

However, for a growing number of parents, merely studying Georgian as a foreign language, especially in local schools, may not ensure their children’s future success.

The Georgian language is not taught effectively in Azeri-language schools, said Hasan Ganbarov, a resident of Sabir village in the Marneuli district. So he decided to send his grandson to a Georgian school in a neighboring village. “It’s expensive, since we have to hire a taxi driver. But it’s important,” he said.

Ganbarov’s criticisms are echoed in the GTZ-CIPDD report, which identified stumbling blocks for would-be learners of Georgian, including outdated teaching methods, poor quality textbooks, and a scarcity of bilingual teachers.

An article published by the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute in 2009 noted, “Teaching of Georgian has hitherto been inefficient, due to insufficient financing, a lack of qualified teachers (in spite of government programs aimed at attracting teachers to minority regions), and inadequate teaching methodologies. Furthermore, schoolchildren in minority regions have little contact with the Georgian language outside the classroom.”

Local educators say Azeri parents increasingly prefer to send their children to Georgian-only schools, with significant impacts on both Azeri- and Georgian-language schools.

“They believe Georgian schools are much more effective in preparing their children for higher education and later job opportunities in Georgia,” said the principal of an Azeri school in Marneuli, Ruslan Hajiev.

Lela Kashiladze, the principal of Georgian School No. 5 in Marneuli, said the number of Azeris there has risen rapidly in the last five years, until they now make up almost 70 percent of the student body of some 1,000 pupils in grades one through 12.

“Our three classes of first-graders consist of 30 kids each. Two are mostly Azeris and the other is entirely Azeri,” she said.

Azeri speakers are clumped in the first to fourth grades, Kashiladze said.

“It seems that Azeri parents are getting more serious about preparing their children to be educated in Georgian, so they don’t experience linguistic barriers.”

So many Azeri families are applying to enroll children that the school cannot accept them all, she said.

Azeri children wait for the school bus in front of School No. 3 in Gardabani.

Azeri children wait for the school bus in front of School No. 3 in Gardabani.

“We have a significant number of fourth-grade students who transferred here from Azeri schools,” she said. Last year an Azeri ninth-grader even offered to enroll in the seventh grade if only the school would take him.

Eshgin Aliev is one student who transferred to School No. 5 from an Azeri school for the sake of greater linguistic and educational opportunity.

Although the 11th-grader attended several Georgian-language classes to prepare for the university entrance exams, he felt the teaching was not effective.

“But at this school most teachers are Georgan and even the Azeri pupils speak Georgian with one another. It’s much more effective. That’s what I wanted. I want to attend university in Georgia.”



For students intending to go on to university, Azeri-language education puts them in a tight spot. The uneven Georgian-language teaching in Azeri schools limits their chances of passing the entrance exams for Georgian universities, but studying a Georgian curriculum makes it harder to be admitted to university in Azerbaijan.

Gaining fluency in Georgian before starting university was not easy, said Tbilisi State University freshman Serjan Eminova, 20, from Kosaly.

Eminova supplemented her Azeri-language high school studies with intensive Georgian on the side, but the language classes did not prepare her for the standard university entrance exams, she said. She took advantage of an exception that allows minority students to take exams in their native language.

After passing the Azeri-language exam, she had to take an additional year of intensive Georgian before beginning her studies in business administration, and she still experiences some difficulties in comprehension, especially in math courses.

“I guess I’ll have some language trouble during my first year, but I think it will be all right after that,” she said.

The educational and other reforms brought in by the Saakashvili administration “marked a genuine effort on the part of the government to engage members of national minorities in public life,” Jonathan Wheatley of the European Center for Minority Issues wrote in a 2009 paper. But he noted that Tbilisi expected too much progress too quickly from the reforms, given the low level of Georgian competence among Azeris and Armenians. “The rapid introduction of examinations in the Georgian language with a minimum of preparation may have had a contrary effect to that which was intended, as university applicants from regions such as Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti in which minorities are concentrated are in effect unable to go to Georgian universities and continue to follow the time-honored practice of going to Yerevan and Baku to study,” he wrote.



A controversial aspect of the Georgian education reforms in the mid-2000s was a rule requiring minority-language schools to start teaching Georgian history and geography, and Georgian language and literature in the Georgian language. That reversed a years-long practice of the Azerbaijani government supplying almost all textbooks used by Azeri schools in Georgia, which in turn had essentially steered university-bound students toward Azerbaijan rather than Georgia, since they had not been taught based on the Georgian national curriculum.

One such student, Kosaly native Vagif Mustafaev, 34, emigrated to Azerbaijan as a teenager and attended Baku State University.

“I had no chance of studying in Georgia because I didn’t know the language. Azerbaijan was the only option, but not an easy one. I had to spend the last year of high school in Azerbaijan and hire tutors to learn Azeri geography and history,” he said.

As the reforms kicked in, Azerbaijan supplied fewer textbooks to Georgia, so that today Azeri schools receive only language and literature textbooks from Baku. That change has flipped the dilemma that once faced Mustafaev. 

Sayali Mahmudova graduated from Azeri School 1 in Marneuli. Although she had once planned to study in Azerbaijan, she had to give up the idea because she has received an essentially Georgian education.

“My education was in Azeri, but textbooks were translated from Georgian. The only textbook we had from Azerbaijan’s high school system was in language and literature. I had to focus on education in Georgia.”

A law student at the Georgian branch of the Ukrainian Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, Mahmudova said people like her – neither fluent in Georgian nor conversant with the curriculum of Azerbaijan – are hemmed in on both sides.

Increasingly, the solution for ambitious students may be to give up on Azeri-language schools.

Elnur Aliev, a 10th-grader in Kosaly, said his parents regret not sending him to a Georgian school. “We study in Azeri and our Georgian-language classes aren’t enough for us to acquire academic language, so that we can compete with those in entrance exams who studied in Georgian.”

Cultural and religious differences also play a part when parents decide which school their child should attend.

One Gardabani woman, Leyla Hajieva, 27, said she wouldn’t want her first-grade daughter to go to a Georgian school because smoking is common for Georgian women, but frowned on among Azeris.

“What if she smokes? It’s against our social norms,” she said.

For many Azeri parents, however, there are clear advantages for children who use only Georgian in school.

Nureli Galandarov, from the Marneuli district village of Kizilhajili, said, “I wanted my kids to be educated in Georgian so they never have a problem with integrating into Georgian society. Just learning the language doesn’t give them that opportunity.”

His two children attend seventh and ninth grade at a Georgian school.

“We live in Marneuli, where we can survive with Azeri and a little Georgian. But our home country also expands beyond Marneuli.”

Story and photos by Shahla Sultanova, a freelance journalist in Baku. This article was produced for the Reporting Education project, which is funded by the Open Society Institute’s Education Support Program.

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