Losing Voice: Languages policies threaten wellbeing of Armenians in Georgia

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Sat Sep 29 14:37:18 UTC 2007

  Issue #39 (259), September 28, 2007
(September 28, 2007)   Losing Voice: Languages policies threaten wellbeing
of Armenians in Georgia  *By* *By Naira Bulghadaryan*
Special to ArmeniaNow  It is difficult to find a single Armenian in
Akhalkalak who would speak the state language, Georgian, and would use it in
everyday life. This Armenian-populated city is in the Samtskhe Javakheti
province of Georgia. It has a population of about 350,000, of whom 62
percent are ethnic Armenians. Armenians constitute an overwhelming majority,
95 percent, in the Akhalkalak region that includes 64 villages, of which
only six are Georgian-populated.

The environment in Akhalkalak is Armenian: the names of shops and main
streets are Armenian. Even Georgians here speak Armenian. Vladimir, 70, can
be considered as an ethnic minority representative in this
Armenian-populated town. He is an ethnic Georgian, who besides his mother
tongue also speaks Russian and Armenian. In perfect Armenian he tells of how
Armenians and Georgians have lived in peace and without any serious problems
and continue to live side by side without any problems today.

During Soviet times when Russian was also used in Georgia, Georgian was not
so much required for the Armenians of Javakhk. Armenians there received
their education in their native language and in Russian. They used Russian
to communicate with state institutions in Soviet Georgia. The teaching of
the Georgian language in Armenian schools in Georgian territory was not on a
due level and was among extra subjects. Head of the local authorities
(sakrebulo) of the Akhalkalak region, Khachatur Ayvazyan, remembers that
they preferred playing football to Georgian classes.

Russian was pushed to the background after the collapse of the Soviet order
and Georgian became the state language of the newly independent Georgian
state. The Russian language continued to be used only among national
minorities. By force of the old tradition, an Armenian who doesn't know the
state language, resorts to Russian to write an application to state
structures. The native language is used in applications and notes sent to
officials who are ethnic Armenians.

"I don't know how to quit this situation. A villager writes in Armenian.
What can I do? How can I possibly refuse to accept his application,"
Akhalkalak regional administration head (gangebeli) Artur Yeremyan says. The
Armenian official's knowledge of Georgian is on a domestic level. He
communicates with government members in Russian, and often, as he himself
says, he stays after meetings to once again discuss the decisions and
resolutions written in Georgian and improve his knowledge of the state
language. The officials of the region who are ethnic Armenians know only the
rudiments of Georgian and can only greet someone in this language or have
some conversation around the table.

The local authorities in Akhalkalak have 32 deputies. Only seven of them are
ethnic Georgians, and they speak Armenian as fluently as their Armenian
colleagues. The meetings of the local elected representatives of the
sakrebulo are held in breach of the Georgian legislation, in Armenian. "It
is unlawful," deputy, co-chairman of the unregistered "Virk" party David
Rstakyan says about their meetings. Official resolutions and protocols in
the administrative building of Akhalkalak's sakrebulo are in Georgian,
Armenian and Russian. The local ATV12 and Javakhk television companies in
Akhalkalak also broadcast in Armenian. The "Akunk" newspaper is also
published in Armenian.

Goga Khachidze, the representative of the presidential administration in
Samtskhe Javakheti, thinks that in the course of time ethnic minorities will
learn the Georgian language. One has to have patience and wait. He refers to
the efforts of the government through programs of teaching of Georgian to
ethnic minorities that are often assisted by international organizations.

One of the Georgian government programs is related to advanced studies of
the Georgian language at school. The study of the state language in Armenian
schools became strict only in recent years. Georgian is taught beginning
from elementary school, but local authorities are not content with the
quality of teaching yet.

Akhaltskha resident Manushak Kiloyan is in the tenth grade of the local
secondary school. She says that she knows Georgian, but her knowledge of
Georgian does not satisfy her in order to continue studies in Georgia.
Therefore, she has decided to continue her studies in Armenia. The
insufficient qualify of specialists of Georgian, as well as the Armenian
environment does not allow Armenian pupils to have a good command of
Georgian so that they can apply to higher schools in Georgia instead of
going to Armenia. "Ninety percent of high school graduates go to Armenia to
continue their education," Artur Yeremyan says. "This phenomenon means that
Armenians abandon the area," head of the "A-Info" public organization
Khachatur Stepanyan says.

The Georgian government has not met the requests of Javakhk Armenians for a
joint Armenian-Georgian university to be opened in Akhalkalak. Instead, as
Khachidze notes, next year the president has pledged to give an opportunity
to 100 applicants to enter Georgia's higher schools without the knowledge of

David Rstakyan and his supporters are dissatisfied with the Georgian
government's policy.

"We don't feel government care towards national minorities," he says.

The mistrust of Javakhk Armenians towards their own state even more deepened
as a result of the latest reforms in the education system, when headmasters
of Armenian schools were dismissed from their jobs with explanations that
they do not know the state language. Only seven headmasters of local schools
passed the Georgian language tests, of whom only one was Armenian and he was
from a Georgian-populated village.

The results of the language tests of Armenian schools' headmasters convinced
the Armenians of Javakhk that the government instead of integrating them had
decided to achieve their assimilation. They see the only solution in giving
the Armenian language the status of a regional language.

The Armenians of Javakhk invoke the European framework convention on the
protection of national minorities which was partially ratified by Georgia
which proceeded from the existence of conflicts in its territory. Article 10
of the convention enables regions where representatives of national
minorities traditionally live or live in sizable numbers to use their mother
tongue if they wish both within their communities and at state institutions.

Referring to the convention, the Armenians that constitute a majority in the
Samtskhe Javakheti region demand that Armenian be given the status of a
regional language. Local authorities in the Akhalkalak region have already
made a decision to apply to the country's president and parliament to make
changes in the country's basic law and make a provision there for Armenian
as a language with a regional status. Their demand concerns not only
Samtskhe Javakheti, but also to the Azeri populated Kvemo Kartli region.

The local Armenians think finding a solution to this issue requires urgency
and is even overdue.

"If no regional status is given to the Armenian language, Javakhk will be
gradually losing Armenians," Stepanyan says. "After our language is given
that status, 80 percent of local Armenians will spare no effort to learn
Georgian," representative of Akhalkalak's "United Javakhk" Democratic Union
Artur Poghosyan says. If the regional status is given to the Armenian
language, the Armenians of Samtskhe Javakheti can use their mother tongue
along with the state language in the places of their residence, receive
education in Armenian and they will not be dismissed from their jobs because
they do not know Georgian.

Mels Torosyan, who is an economist by training, does not speak Georgian.
During the Soviet times he worked as an economist in Akhalkalak, now he
edits the "Akunk" newspaper and represents the Union of Public Organizations
of Samtskhe Javakheti. Recently, there was a vacancy for an economist in
Akhalkalak, which was not entrusted to the experienced economist because he
does not know Georgian. "They brought a Georgian," he complains and tries to
show by his example the discriminative attitude of the government towards
ethnic minorities.

"The road is the best means to learn a language," says representative of the
presidential administration in Samtskhe Javakheti Goga Khachidze. Last year,
the 200-kilometer-long road from the Georgian capital Tbilisi to Akhalkalak
was almost impassable and could be overcome only within 5-6 hours. The
Georgian government has completed the Tbilisi-Akhalkalak section due to the
Millennium Challenge Corporation's funding and promises to complete the
construction of a 50-kilometer road linking Akhalkalak to Armenia. Georgian
authorities, through Khachidze, consider it a childish thing to demand that
Armenian be given the status of a regional language. They are patiently
waiting for Armenians to learn Georgian, while Armenians say it will take
them years to do that. In the meantime, Javakhk, locals say, will be losing
its Armenian population.

*The story was prepared with the assistance of the Institute for War and
Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net)*

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