Complaining about a lack of Georgian-language instruction, ethnic Georgian students from the breakaway region of Abkhazia are regularly sneaking past armed Russian border guards to attend classes in Georgian-controlled territory. But the covert crossings, a potential security debacle in the making, are so far raising few alarms.
De facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Maxim Gunjia states that ethnic Georgian children from Abkhazia’s southern region of Gali, a predominantly ethnic Georgian area, are free to go to school in the neighboring Georgian-controlled region of Samegrelo, or other such regions so long as they exit Abkhazia at official checkpoints along the Inguri River. The river, one of the Caucasus’ potential flashpoints, serves as the de facto border between separatist Abkhazia and Georgian-controlled territory.
But this is no ordinary walk to school. When the checkpoints are closed, Gali schoolchildren simply slip across on their own, opting for trails via crop fields that abut Georgian-controlled territory. The routes bring them into potential contact with Russian border guards stationed along the Abkhaz side of the Inguri River.
These children, though, take the risks of such contact as routine.
Older, teenaged students tend to try to cross into Georgian-controlled territory as a group. “If we go as a group, then they [Russian border guards] are more likely to believe that we are going to school,” one such boy told EurasiaNet.org. Younger children usually cross with their parents or other relatives.
Parents say that men caught by the Russians trying to sneak a child into Georgian-controlled territory are taken back to the town of Gali for questioning at police headquarters and fined between 300 and 600 Georgian laris ($170 to $339). [Georgian laris are generally not an accepted currency in Abkhazia – ed.] Those carrying a Russian passport reportedly pay lower fines, about 600 rubles ($19.13), they add. Women are turned back home; most schoolchildren are usually allowed to proceed into Samegrelo. The number of children making these covert crossings is unknown. Only six children from Gali so far have registered for official crossings at Abkhaz checkpoints, Gunjia said.
In a July interview with EurasiaNet.org, Gunjia claimed that many of those students trying to sneak into Samegrelo are not going to school, but to visit relatives. They simply ignore the rules and cross the border where it is more convenient for them, he commented.
Parents who take their children into Georgian-controlled territory for school, though, say that they do so because they feel safer there than in Gali and believe the quality of education is better. Teachers are in short supply in Gali, Abkhazia’s poorest region. Few young teachers are willing to work in Gali villages for monthly salaries that top out at only 6,000 rubles, or about $200.
A shortage of youngsters further complicates matters. Abkhazia’s de facto Ministry of Education cannot afford to operate a school with fewer than five pupils, said Gali District Education Department Chairperson Daur Kilanava. School buses have only recently started to run to some villages.
Language, however, presents the most controversial challenge. Although the Abkhaz Constitution provides for primary and secondary education in minority languages, international human rights monitors report frequent violations of that right in Gali.
Kilanava, however, disagrees. Eleven out of Gali’s 20 public schools teach all subjects in Georgian, including 18 hours of instruction per week in Georgian grammar, he said. The one exception is Abkhaz history, which is taught in Russian.
Several ethnic Georgian parents, however, complained to EurasiaNet.org that their children only receive one class a week of Georgian lessons. Other parents, though, said they received one lesson per day. Yet with Samegrelo just across the river, the choice to these parents seems a simple one.
Kilanava acknowledges the logistical difficulties for Gali schools, but contends that a Russian-language education in Abkhazia provides students with more options for the future than do schools in Georgia. Russian-speaking students can potentially go on to study at universities in Russia, while instruction in Georgian limits students to Georgia, he noted.
Back in Sukhumi, de facto Foreign Minister Gunjia insisted that Abkhazia does not oppose instruction in the Georgian language. The problem, he stated, is with books. Funds do not exist to publish textbooks in Georgian for all subjects, Gunjia explained. Repeated offers from Tbilisi to provide the books have been turned down, he added, since Georgian interpretations of Abkhazia’s geography and history are not acceptable in the Abkhaz curriculum.
“But they could invest in publishing books according to our curriculum,” suggested Gunjia. Yerevan, for instance, provides textbooks to Armenian-language schools in Abkhazia that are based on the standard Abkhaz school curriculum, he added.
Moscow provides standardized Russian Federation textbooks to Abkhazia as a “humanitarian gift.” Russian is the breakaway territory’s lingua franca and, officially, its second state language after Abkhaz.
The Georgian Ministry of Education is supplying Georgian-language books to Abkhazia, but not through a channel acknowledged by the de facto government. The territory’s exiled, pro-Tbilisi Ministry of Education and Culture sends into Gali Georgian-language textbooks that are drawn up according to Georgia’s public school curriculum.
Gali District Education Department Chairperson Kilanava, though, claims no knowledge of the transfers. “Personally, I have never seen such books,” he commented.
Ultimately, said Gunjia, the decision about where Gali schoolchildren should study is a personal one. “Of course, we want kids in Gali to stay in Abkhazia, but it’s up to them and their parents to decide,” he said.
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Temo Bardzimashvili is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi. Caucasus News Editor Elizabeth Owen added reporting to this story.