Language policy in Abkhazia: promoting Abkhazian or forgetting Georgian?

Administrative border at Gali (left); Mingrelians crossing the Inguri river (right).
Administrative border at Gali (left); Mingrelians crossing the Inguri river (right). Author: Sandra Veloy Mateu
ANALYSIS. The academic year 2015-2016 was the first in which the Georgian language lost its place as a language of instruction in primary schools in the Georgian-speaking district of Gali, in Abkhazia, a republic that declared itself independent from Georgia and that has achieved limited international recognition. This situation has increased the tension in the (almost non-existent) relations between the Georgian government and Abkhazia.

The Gali district is inhabited mostly by Mingrelians, a subdivision within the Georgian ethnic group. Their language, Mingrelian, is very close to Georgian, although it has no written standard. As a result, Mingrelians use Georgian when writing (also since they were educated in Georgian in the Soviet period). After the Georgian-Abkhaz war in the early 1990s, under the pretext that the Gali district was inhabited by Mingrelians (and not Georgians), Mingrelians were allowed to stay, as opposed to all other Georgians from Abkhazia, who were forced to flee. Later on, those Mingrelians who had left were allowed to return and they were allowed to continue their education as it had been: in the Georgian language. This was not the preference of the de facto Abkhazian government, but rather a choice made in order not to further complicate the situation and not to inflame relations with the local population.

The Gali district has maintained close relations with Georgia proper; for example, until very recently public schools in the district were still funded by the Georgian government. Due to these good relations, Gali has been somewhat left alone, thus becoming more isolated from the rest of Abkhazia, and subsequently in a worse condition. For that reason, many of its inhabitants often cross the administrative border line (ABL) with Georgia proper to either visit relatives, get doctor’s appointments or to buy things they cannot get in the breakaway territory.

In 2007, the de facto Abkhaz government adopted the Law on State Language of Abkhazia (hereinafter, "Law on Language"), in order to promote the Abkhaz language. Article 2 of the law states that Abkhaz is the only state language in Abkhazia, and Russian (alongside with Abkhaz) will be used in governmental institutions and official matters. It also states that “all citizens of the Republic of Abkhazia must command the state language” (i.e. Abkhaz). Following a language policy plan in line with the new legislation, the head of the administration in the Gali disctrict, Temur Nadaraya, announced in March 2015 that all twenty schools in the lower Gali district would switch to a Russian-taught system, thus relegating Georgian to a single subject: "Georgian language and literature".

In June 2016, I had the chance to discuss this issue in person with Mr Nadaraya. When I first raised the topic of language policy in Gali he said: ‘What have we done now that is so bad that it has even arrived to Spain?’ Then he proceeded to provide a justification of the new language policy, even though I had not criticised it or made any comment other than mentioning the topic. The main argument given was the need to integrate the Mingrelian population in the society and how by learning in the Georgian language this could never happen, as it would further isolate the population by not providing them with a language of communication with the rest of the people in Abkhazia. He also emphasised the need to develop new textbooks, as in the Gali districts they were still using textbooks from Georgia, where it was written that Abkhazia is part of Georgia, which, according to Mr Nadaraya, is unacceptable for the state-building process Abkhazia is involved in. He believes that since children in the Gali district speak Mingrelian and not Georgian per se, learning in Georgian hampers their learning process, creating added barriers for them.

The Law on Language emphasizes the need for all inhabitants of Abkhazia to speak Abkhaz. It seems that breaking the (only) links left with Georgia is the first step to take in that direction. The intention was to switch the language of instruction to Abkhaz. However, there are no qualified teachers in the region and those from other regions do not want to teach in Gali. The result of this is that at present, not a single school in the Lower Gali district offers education in Abkhaz, nor of Abkhaz. Instead, teaching is occurring in Russian, and Georgian has been relegated to a module only. It seems that the only winner in this language battle is the Russian language. 

In a meeting with the Deputy Minister of Education, Dimitri Gvaramia, he emphasised how Russian has always been the language of communication in multi-ethnic Abkhazia. This, according to his personal opinion and that of his cabinet, legitimises the switch into Russian: if lessons cannot be taught in Abkhazian straight away due to the lack of resources and qualified teachers, Russian will provide a medium-term solution to the lack of integration of the Mingrelian population. The long-term plan is to create a system where, from the first to the fifth grades everything is taught in Abkhaz, except for Russian language and literature (and Georgian language and literature in Gali), and then from the sixth grade onwards to have the education fully in Russian (except for Abkhaz and Georgian language).

This switch from Georgian into Russian as a language of instruction in the Gali district has no impact whatsoever on the promotion or protection of the Abkhaz language, which was the main goal of the Law on Language. This new language policy seems to be more of a political statement to emphasise the political detachment of the breakaway region from Georgia. This in turn will harshly affect the Mingrelian-speaking population in Gali, as they will lose the chance to learn Georgian, the language of their de iure country, leaving the generations to come unable to communicate with their relatives and friends on the other side of the ABL.