[lg policy] In Georgia, English replaces retreating Russian

r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK
Wed Sep 15 17:44:44 UTC 2010

With Alexander Pushkin's framed visage on the wall and creased  
editions of fellow Russian literary giants on dusty shelves, Natela  
Chokhonelidze's office recalls a very different era at Georgia's State  

"We once had a staff of 50, and now there are five, because there  
aren't many students," said the 70-year-old Professor Emeritus at the  
university's Institute of Russian Studies.

"Russian language is fading out," she quipped, "with me!"

Chokhonelidze is on the losing side of a deliberate shift in the  
former Soviet republic as its pro-Western leadership tries to supplant  
Russian with English as the default second language of 21st century  

On Wednesday, hundreds of native English speakers joined the first day  
of school as teaching assistants under an ambitious program to have  
every child aged five to 16 speak English. English is now compulsory,  
and Russian optional.

The aim appears pragmatic in a globalized world where English  
dominates and Georgia's investment-driven economy is seeking partners  
in Turkey and the European Union.

It dovetails too, however, with President Mikheil Saakashvili's policy  
of dragging the Caucasus country of 4.5 million people out from  
Russia's orbit, two years after war shattered already fragile ties  
between the neighbors.

"We're a free and independent country and our people are free and  
independent. It's their choice which language to learn," Education  
Minister Dmitry Shashkin, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters, in English.

The government plans to recruit 1,000 native English speakers by the  
end of the year on 500 lari ($272) per month, eventually building up  
to one per school.

English "opens many doors," said Shashkin. "Georgia doesn't have oil,  
Georgia doesn't have natural gas. The resource we have is our people,  
the intellectual potential of our country."


The scheme puts Georgia at the sharp end of the retreat of Russian  
language from the former Soviet Union. Language imparts influence, and  
here too Russia faces a challenge from the West, and China, over  
investment opportunities and oil and gas supplies in the Caspian Sea  
and Central Asia.

Critics question the wisdom of relegating Russian, still the most  
likely language of communication between ex-Soviet republics, to a  
third tier.

But much of it is generational. Students entering university now were  
born after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The influence of  
Western pop culture and the Internet is strong.

So too is the fallout from the deterioration in political relations  
with Russia since Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" swept aside the  
ex-Soviet old guard and brought Saakashvili and his team of  
English-speaking ministers to power.

He set Georgian sights on joining NATO, to the anger of Russia.  
Political ties collapsed with the 2008 war, when Russia crushed an  
assault by Georgia's U.S.-trained military on the rebel pro-Russian  
region of South Ossetia.

Trade links are minimal. Visa requirements and torturous travel routes  
have strained ties between family and friends.

"Taken in the wider context ... it seems there is a political element  
behind this," said Shorena Shaverdashvili, editor of Georgian weekly  

English should be taught, she said, but "Why replace one (language)  
with the other? This is our neighborhood and the common language with  
our neighbors is Russian."

At the university, Chokhonelidze laments the passing of an era, and  
the generations brought up on reading Pushkin, Tolstoy and  
Dostoyevsky. "I fear in a few years when those grandfathers and  
grandmothers aren't around, nobody will bother."

The answer, said 20-year-old mathematics student Nugzar Barbakadze, is  
simple: "I can read Russian books in Georgian."


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