Georgia’s Minorities Face University Barrier

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
Georgia’s Minorities Face University Barrier

Most ethnic Armenians going on to higher education end up studying in
other countries.
By Maia Ivelashvili in Akhalkalaki and Gayane Mkrtchian in Yerevan
(CRS No. 405 09-Aug-07)

Hasmik Krmajian, 21, comes from Akhalkalaki, an impoverished region of
southern Georgia where most of the population is Armenian. Yet she
goes to university not in Georgia but in neighbouring Armenia.

Hasmik, who has spent the last four years studying at Yerevan’s
teacher training university, said she would have liked to study back
in Georgia but was unable to do so because she did not know the
Georgian language.

"I was unable to pass the entrance exam in Georgian, which was
compulsory,’ she said. `Besides, I felt there was obvious
discrimination against Armenian candidates.’

Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has pledged to try to stem the
outflow of young people from minority backgrounds to colleges and
universities abroad, and to make it easier for them to study in their
own country. That is likely to prove difficult, given that a new
national entrance exam requires a knowledge of Georgian, in which
ethnic minorities are not generally fluent.

There are around 250,000 ethnic Armenians in Georgia, accounting for
about five per cent of the population. Most live in the mountainous
region of Javakheti – or Javakhk, as the Armenians call it.

The country has a slightly larger number of Azerbaijanis – estimated
at around 280,000 – and they encounter similar problems with access to
higher education.

A December 2006 report by the United Nations Association of Georgia as
part of its National Integration and Tolerance in Georgia Programme
found that ethnic minorities felt increasingly estranged from the rest
of society because they lacked facility in the national language. In
the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, three quarters of those polled said
that they did not know Georgian.

In Soviet times, this was not an issue because Russian was commonly
accepted as the lingua franca, and fluency in Georgian was not
compulsory for university entrants.

Following independence in 1991, the Georgian authorities stressed the
importance of the language but put few resources into teaching it to
the minorities.

As a result of recent education reforms, all applicants for higher
education courses have to take three entrance exams covering general
knowledge and ability, Georgian plus a foreign language.

The result is that every summer, thousands of young Armenians apply to
universities in Armenia, or less frequently Russia.

In Javakheti itself, educational opportunities are getting more
limited. This year, the Akhalkalaki branch of Tbilisi State University
was abolished, and the number of people admitted to the university’s
branch in the region’s other main town, Akhaltsikhe, was greatly

Grigory Minasian, chairman of the Armenian Youth Centre, said that
because of these changes, the number of Armenians attending university
in Georgia had gone down `significantly’, and he feared many young
people from the community would now miss out on higher education

The government has launched programmes worth two million laris, around
1.2 million US dollars, to provide Georgian-language tuition for
would-be students from ethnic minorities.

President Saakashvili said poor knowledge of Georgian should not be an
"insurmountable" obstacle for anyone wishing to enter high education
in his country.

`It is very important that our citizens don’t go and study in other
countries,’ he said. `I would like to stress that it is not they
[minorities] who should be held responsible for not knowing
Georgia. They are begging us to teach them the language. This is
happening because we [the authorities] are badly organised.’

Saakashvili has ordered a `preparation centre’ to start operating in
Tbilisi from September, to teach citizens of Armenian and Azerbaijani
ethnicity Georgian and coach them for the new national exams.

Levan Chikvinidze, who works for Georgia’s National Examination
Centre, confirmed that the number of non-Georgian students in higher
education had declined over the past few years, but said that this
reflected a general fall in numbers.

"Competition is high, and both Armenians and Georgians need to be able
to show their potential equally,’ Chikvinidze told IWPR. `There is one
solution – those who are unable to enter university because of the
language problem should come to Tbilisi in advance. About 100 places
have been reserved for them at preliminary courses there. Grants will
be allocated to those who are admitted. The main thing for them is to
get admitted, and the government will fund their education".

Mikhail Khachatrian, a young Armenian from Akhalkalaki who unusually
speaks fluent Georgian, wants to study law at the Akhaltsikhe branch
of Tbilisi university.

He said the new entrance exams were not difficult and were well within
the capabilities of many of his fellow-Armenians. But he was critical
of state teaching of Georgian, saying he learned the language through
social contacts, not formal courses.

"We are taught very badly at school,’ said Khachatrian. `You can’t
learn Georgian there.’

In the mean time, some 1,500 ethnic Armenian students from Georgia, 95
per cent of them from Javakheti, are currently attending universities
in Armenia. The most popular destination is the teacher training
university in Yerevan. The students often live with relatives or share
rented apartments.

Worryingly for Georgia, few of the students return to Javakheti after
they graduate.

Vahram Sarksian, who is from Javakheti, graduated in geography from
Yerevan State University and is now studying at the Public
Administration Academy there. He said the opportunities at home were
very limited for people like him.

"Not many of those who receive education here go back to Javakhk,’ he
said. `Others find jobs here and remain in Armenia. Some just go to a
third country – Russia.’

Norair Andreyan, an expert at Armenia’s education ministry, said the
Georgian authorities were driving their young people away.

"The Georgian policy is to spread everything that is Georgian,’ he
said. `But Javakhk has its own aims – to preserve its deep-rooted
Armenian culture. If things continue in this way, the very existence
of Armenians there will be difficult."

In both countries, there is widespread agreement that Georgia should
make it a priority to promote higher education in the poor and
isolated Javakheti region. But how this should happen is disputed.

Georgian deputy education minister Bella Tsipuria conceded that the
Georgian language teaching system was not working and said that
Georgia had studied the experience of Latvia and Moldova to employ new
teaching methods.

"Experts in Georgian and in how to teach a second language at school
have been selected,’ Tsipuria told IWPR. `Trainers go to Akhalkalaki
and teach new methods to local teachers, both Georgian and
Armenian. We believe that teachers can improve their teaching if they
are motivated and have good textbooks.’

Yerevan-based ethnographer Hranush Kharatian argued that universities
in Armenia should be allowed to open branches in Javakheti.

"If young people can get an education in Javakhk itself, we will be
able to solve several problems at once – providing high quality
Armenian education for students and keeping them here,’ she said. `It
is an issue of strategic importance."

Mikhail Khachatrian, one of the few university applicants currently
hoping to study in Javakheti, says he is confident that he will get
the marks he needs to pass the Georgian national exam.

But he said his optimism was mixed with sadness, as many of his
friends are leaving home and heading off to study in Armenia.

Maia Ivelashvili is a correspondent with Southern Gates newspaper in
Akhaltsikhe, Georgia. Gayane Mkrtchian is a correspondent with in Yerevan, Armenia. Both are members of IWPR’s
EU-funded Cross Caucasus Journalism Network project.