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One History for All

Georgian students speaking different languages will soon all have the same, more inclusive textbooks.
русская версия
by Vicken Cheterian 10 December 2008 Back in 2005 the Georgian Ministry of Education decided to introduce new history textbooks for two minority communities, the Armenians of Samtskhe-Javakheti and the Azeris of Kvemo-Kartli. These two regions are loosely integrated into mainstream Georgian culture. In both, the majority of the regional population still has difficulty communicating in the Georgian language. During the Soviet era the lingua franca and the language used at the level of local administration was Russian, a situation that changed fundamentally when Georgia became independent in 1991.

After the collapse of the USSR, the two regions used history texts imported from Armenia and Azerbaijan. In a sense, these ethnic minorities were taught the history of neighboring states, but not of Georgia. Following the Rose Revolution and the reaffirmation of Georgian statehood Tbilisi was keen to see this situation in the schools change.

A natural step was the introduction of new history texts. Accordingly, the Georgian authorities decided to translate new texts being developed for use in Georgian-language schools into Armenian and Azeri in order to introduce the books as quickly as possible into linguistic minority schools. The latest generation textbooks are supposed to be distributed in Georgian-speaking schools in the coming months. In minority regions, they should be introduced by 2010 or 2011 and will replace the Armenian and Azeri texts.

When we at CIMERA – a Geneva-based non-profit organization which has carried out bilingual education studies in Georgia – heard of the Georgian authorities’ plans, we wondered how the images of minorities were reflected in the pages of Georgian history textbooks, and whether it was appropriate to introduce these books in minority schools. We asked two experts to study these questions: Levan Gigineishvili, a scholar from Georgia, and Latvian historian Ieva Gundare.

Their report, based on analysis of textbooks used at the time in Georgia and interviews with the books’ authors, history teachers, civil servants and parents in Tbilisi and the two regions of southern Georgia, found something startling: Armenians and Azeris in Georgia were by and large absent from Georgian history books. When they were noted, it was in a negative sense.

For example, a ninth-grade history textbook in use in 2006 had this to say about the substantial ethnic Armenian population of Tbilisi of the 19th century: “There was a real threat that the international bourgeoisie (mainly consisting of the Armenian bourgeoisie) would gain supremacy over Georgian lands.” At a time when Georgia was going through mass privatization, at the height of globalization, Georgian history textbooks continued to be suspicious of the “international bourgeoisie,” which turned out to be ethnic Armenian!

“Georgians have always been a peaceful and
friendly nation, loved and respected by other nations.
Always. This is also our shortcoming – the reason
why everyone abuses us.”

– Georgian speaker interviewed for the
CIMERA report

CIMERA organized a workshop in Tbilisi in December 2006 at which specialists from the Georgian Education Ministry, textbook authors, teachers and others were invited to discuss Gigineishvili and Gundare’s findings. It is not easy to criticize the way history is narrated in any society, and I was expecting harsh appraisals from various sides. Instead, criticism was taken well, and we explored ways to remedy the situation, circulating ideas on how to make minorities more “present” in the pages of history textbooks to reflect the reality of Georgia’s multiethnic, multilingual, and multiconfessional past. Guests also talked of the need for historical research that embraced minority groups’ contributions to Georgia’s past. One problem we confront today in Georgia is the lack of material on the history of minorities; for the past several decades historical research has been exclusivist, looking at Georgian history from a narrow ethnic perspective.

DUELING HISTORIES

By the late 1980s history and historical discourse in Georgia, as elsewhere in the Caucasus, had developed into an ideology of nationalist mobilization and inter-ethnic confrontation – the result of Soviet policies of ideological control over historical research and discourse. Moreover, the Soviet system had a dual identity: “Nationalist in form and socialist in content.” Indeed, despite its internationalist aspirations, the Soviet Union placed the national question at the heart of its territorial setup.

The Soviets also encouraged research in and production of “national histories” to justify their territorial policies. As a result, historical research and teaching increasingly became a competition between national narratives to legitimize certain territorial claims and attack rival claims. For example, the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the right to Nagorno-Karabakh led a competition between historians (as well as archaeologists, ethnographers and linguists) each claiming the existence of “their” nation-states going back thousands of years and presenting such narratives as evidence for “their” right to this land.

A similar duel took place over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, territories Georgian scholars claimed for historic Georgia. Some historians went so far as to dispute the existence of an Abkhaz ethnicity, and considered the historic term “Abkhazia” to be a synonym for “Georgia.” In the words of Georgian historian Pavle Ingoroqva, the ancestors of the Abkhaz were a “Georgian tribe with a Georgian dialect.”

This was not an innocent, detached scientific observation based on a coherent methodology and the study of material evidence. It was part of an ideological battle in which history was transformed into a weapon. In the early 1990s, historian Mariam Lordkipanidze wrote that the 1921 act creating the Abkhaz Soviet Socialist Republic (downgraded 10 years later to an autonomous republic within the Georgian SSR) was “illegal, for it had no historical or juridical basis.”

Russian anthropologist Victor Shnirelman has studied the debates over history among social scientists in the Caucasus. In his The Value of the Past: Myths, Identity and Politics in Transcaucasia, he concluded, “Differences in approaches to early history were by no means insignificant to the creation of the ideology of confrontation, which played a major role in the Karabakh, Abkhazian and South Ossetian tragedies.”

Historians, it seems, bear a heavy responsibility for preparing the ground for ethnic mobilization and the wars of Soviet succession.

SLOW PACE OF CHANGE

A workshop held in November for 30-odd history teachers, textbook authors, and ministry and international experts concluded that the Georgian Education Ministry is moving forward in its efforts to change the way history is taught. At the event, organized by the European history educators’ association EuroClio, Georgian educators presented their ongoing project to develop new textbooks with the aim of giving more space to minorities in the official version of history presented to youngsters from majority and minority linguistic communities.

These new texts should begin appearing soon in Armenian and Azeri schools, and be in use in all history classes in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo-Kartli by 2011. Some of Tbilisi’s planned classroom changes have raised concerns among linguistic minorities, but so far representatives of these groups have not commented on the new texts.

“If a history textbook is written, this means that
there is some consensus among nations.
How can a book be wrong? … Armenians do not
misinterpret the history of Georgia! How would it be
possible to do so?”
– Armenian speaker interviewed for the
CIMERA report

As we wait to see how the books will be received by pupils and teachers, we should not underestimate the difficulties ahead. At this stage, Georgian history teachers and authors are moving from a position of negation of ethnic minorities to one of recognition. But important obstacles remain in the path toward an integrated narrative of history in which minorities move from being the “other” coexisting with “us” into being part of society.

For this, history teachers need space to meet and debate the changes, and the numerous practical problems they pose. Moreover, Georgian historians need to develop new research projects – looking at the biographies of prominent personalities, and micro-histories of places and institutions – and structure their findings through an integrated approach that develops a new narrative.

One thing is clear: In spite of all the difficulties fulfilling the promises of the Rose Revolution, in a turbulent political climate following the catastrophic August war, Georgian education authorities and many educators continue to press for change.
Vicken Cheterian is director of programs at CIMERA. He is a former member of TOL's advisory board. His book War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier has just been published.
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