Where Abkhaz Students (Can’t) Study?

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I have been part of Georgian-Abkhaz dialogue for fifteen years now. One of the topics the Abkhaz constantly raise is about Tbilisi isolating Abkhazia from the West, and pushing them to look for alternatives. In this region, one follows either a path to Europe or highway to Russia. The Abkhaz complain that their youths want to pursue education in Europe, which the Georgian state does not allow.

Sincerely interested in this issue, I gave a try to study the topic as objectively as possible. In this piece, I will discuss what alternatives do the Abkhaz youngsters have for continuing their higher education, be it in Abkhazia, or overseas in Russia, Turkey, and Europe. Towards the end, I will touch upon Georgia’s policy and possible areas of policy change.

Education in Abkhazia

Options for the Abkhaz college seekers is not too diverse: Abkhaz degree seekers can generally continue their studies in Abkhazia, as well as Russia and Turkey, and in limited cases in Europe. In recent years, the door to the West has opened more, albeit slightly.

In Abkhazia itself, there are currently two higher education institutions – the Abkhaz State University and the Sokhumi Open Institute. The latter, established in 1997, has six faculties and 500 students currently. It is considered less prestigious in Abkhazia, and the quality of education received there is disputed, which almost led to its closure.

The largest and most famous higher education institution is the Abkhaz State University, which opened in Sokhumi in 1932 as the Gorki State Pedagogical Institute. In 1979, it was transformed into a university against the backdrop of Abkhaz political demands. Interestingly, the first Georgian-Abkhaz physical confrontation at the onset of conflict in 1980s took place right here over the ASU status. In July 1989, clashes between students claimed the lives of several dozen people. The process ended with the separation of the Georgian and Abkhaz branches.

Currently, there are about 3,000 students in ASU, spanning eight faculties, and 42 academic departments. In recent years, attempts have been made to introduce international learning standards at the university. For instance, as per Bologna process, the study process was divided into four-year bachelor’s and two-year master’s programs. The university has largely moved to a new model except for some disciplines and departments. The study language is mainly Russian.

The ASU enjoys limited contacts overseas, with its international network mainly covering Russian universities. Lomonosov Moscow State University was the first higher education institution to sign a cooperation agreement with the ASU. Gradually, connections were established with other Russian universities, primarily higher education institutions in the North Caucasus.

Despite some efforts, Abkhaz universities have little connections to the West or anywhere else other than Russia (except for Turkey, which is discussed in the following chapters). Cooperation, exchange programs, and study visits to Europe are rare, mainly depended on personal contacts.

In a broader view, close ties with Russian education establishments and limited ties with the West are common for all universities located in the post-Soviet conflict regions. Due to the status-related issues, universities in TransdniestriaNagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region do not participate in standard European education programs (for example, they are not included in the Erasmus + program).

In general, measuring the quality of higher education in Abkhazia is a challenging task to do measure, as neither Georgia nor any other competent international agencies assesses the ongoing changes in the education system there. It is safe to assume, however, that isolation from the general European education system and limited financial resources should not positively affect the quality of education in Abkhazia.

Education in Russia

Apart from Abkhazia, the Abkhaz youths mainly receive higher education in Russia. This was the case both before 2008, when Moscow recognized Abkhazia’s independence, and afterwards. What has changed is that Russia’s education policy towards Abkhazia has become rather more overt. Moscow and Sokhumi signed an agreement on mutual recognition of diplomas in 2018, Russia financed the repair of the Abkhaz State University premises, etc.

Interestingly, the 2018 data suggest that out of 278 thousand international students in Russia, 200 thousand come from the neighboring countries, i.e., the CIS, the Baltics, and Georgia (including Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region). Out of this number, the largest share – 33.5% — are Kazakhs (students from Central Asia make up 74.4% overall), and the lowest – 0.8%, are Baltic students. Georgian, Abkhaz, and Ossetian students make up 1.5%, students from Armenia stand at 1.4%, and Azerbaijanis – 4.9%.

Russia annually allocates about 50 places for undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral studies to Abkhaz through the Rossotrudnichestvo program. Selected Abkhaz students enjoy tuition waiver at relevant universities but they mainly cover all other expenses themselves. This aspect is worth to take into consideration as not everyone in Abkhazia can afford that, and many prefer to get higher education in Abkhazia.

But in recent years, Russia has been mulling changes to the grant scheme. If approved, scholarships will be allocated to specific categories of international students, through which, in addition to direct tuition funding, other expenses (accommodation, meals, travel, etc.) will be covered too. The new system will likely cover the Abkhaz and South Ossetians, that will provide additional incentives for them to continue their studies in Russia.

Now, it has been 28 years since 1993 when Tbilisi lost its de facto control over Abkhazia. One can assume that 1,400 Abkhaz students in total studied in Russia through official programs during all these years. Russia allocates similar number of scholarships to youths from South Ossetia/Tskhinvali region. Thus, it’s safe to say that overseas most Abkhaz receive higher education in Russia.

Education in the West and Turkey

The Abkhaz often complain that Georgia does not give them access to education in the West, that Tbilisi blocks all the existing ways for them to do it, and that such actions run counter to universally accepted human rights. Some Abkhaz also say Georgians make Russia the only alternative for them by closing paths to the West. The issue is quite complex and multifaceted, in which both Abkhaz and Georgians have their own truth.

In recent years, Georgia’s government has sought to facilitate the involvement of Abkhaz and Ossetians in the international educational process within the “Step for a Better Future” initiative. The Office of the State Minister for Reconciliation and Civic Equality, tasked with overseeing Abkhazia and South Ossetia/Tskhinvali Region, has posted a rather impressive list of various scholarships through which Abkhaz can study abroad.

However, Abkhaz mostly do not or cannot use these scholarships. The reasons are multiple, and all of them are political.

The Abkhaz do not want to refer to Georgia as their country of origin when filling out the scholarship applications. They also deem the involvement of Georgian institutions in the recognition of education (e.g., recognition of HEI diplomas problematic). Finally, Abkhaz are not ready to obtain Georgian or Georgia issued so called neutral passports for the sake of receiving higher education.

This seemingly “capricious” approach owes to the socio-political developments in Abkhazia. In particular, getting education abroad through fulfilling those “Georgian” conditions  may prompt social death for the Abkhaz.

Naming Georgia as a country of origin and revealing the fact of obtaining a Georgian passport will be perceived very negatively, even as betrayal in the Abkhaz public. Thus, Abkhaz are mainly falling short of accepting scholarships for Georgian citizens.

Recently, despite this challenging situation, some international actors have been trying to develop compromise approaches that will allow Abkhaz to get education in the West without crossing the Georgian and Abkhaz red lines. For example, since 2015, the highly prestigious British Chevening Scholarship Program has added the South Caucasus geographical region to its list of countries, making it available for students living in the region, including those unwilling to indicate Georgia, Armenia, or Azerbaijan as their places of origin.

As a result of this small change, it’s been already 5-6 years that Abkhaz are enrolling in master’s programs of British universities and receive high-quality education (here we are talking about two students every year). Unfortunately, Ossetians cannot use this opportunity, mainly due to poor command of English.

Last year, the Institute for Eastern European Studies at the University of Zürich had also launched a competition for young South Caucasus researchers. A total of 5 scholarships are awarded, with the winning applicants visiting Swiss universities for a semester. Similarly, the university administration shows some flexibility, and Abkhaz are allowed to participate in the program.

The Abkhaz have another opportunity with Rondine Scholarship to get an education in Europe. The Italian organization, which seeks to reduce the damage caused by conflict worldwide, provides formal and non-formal education to young people from conflict zones. In recent years, thanks to the efforts of the German organization Corridors, young people from the Caucasus have also been allowed to attend one month of study at the Friedrich Schiller University in Jena.

This is largely an exhaustive list of the Western programs in which Abkhaz participate and get Western education. Individual Abkhaz may be able to study at Western universities through their financial resources and connections, but such cases are rare.

  • Turkey

The situation is different in Turkey; it is the second country after Russia where Abkhaz receive high education. As of 2016, about 80 Abkhaz students were enrolled in Turkish universities.

Students are spread across Anatolia, Bosphorus, and other prestigious universities. There are also Abkhaz language courses available at Bosphorus University. Memorandums of cooperation are signed between the Abkhaz State University and Turkish universities.

Such openness of Turkey towards Abkhaz students is explained by the presence of large Abkhaz diaspora in the country. Businesspeople, politicians, and diaspora organizations of Abkhaz origin are actively working to ensure that Abkhaz students pass exams, receive scholarships, and study at Turkish universities.

In general, it is worth noting that due to the political peculiarities of the post-Soviet conflict zones, the Abkhaz (and Ossetians) have the least access to Western higher education. In comparison, all Karabakh residents hold Armenian passports and are covered by all Western educational programs that apply to Armenian citizens. Obtaining Moldovan documents is not an ethical problem for Transdniestrians; they also study at Moldovan universities and are involved in the Erasmus Plus program. So far, the situation is identical in the conflict-affected regions in Ukraine.

A different, remarkable experience can be found in Cyprus. There, to normalize relations and transform the conflict, the EU has developed a special program for Turkish Cypriots from the Turkish-occupied north and wanting to study at European universities. Since 2007, up to 1,050 scholarships have been awarded under this initiative. Each year, the EU spends around € 2 million under the program.

Education in Georgia

To date, despite some attempts, Tbilisi has failed to convince Abkhaz to cross the Enguri River. The only exception is the healthcare referral program, under which thousands of Abkhaz and Ossetians have been treated free of charge in Georgian medical centers since 2010. The Abkhaz do not study in Georgian universities, except for a few cases.

Recently, especially in the frames of the “Step for a Better Future” program launched in 2018, the the Georgian government has been increasingly simplifying the procedures for applicants living in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region/South Ossetia to enter the Georgian universities. As a result, Abkhaz can pass the Unified National Examinations in Russian to continue their studies at Georgian universities or pass the Abkhaz language test and enter the so-called 1 + 4 program. Recently, a new opportunity has also been created — entrants from Abkhazia (also from Tskhinvali region) are given the oppostunity to study in the special training center for a year, and provided that they earn appropriate scores, they can be admitted to a university of their choice without passing national entrance exams.

In the background of the coronavirus pandemic and the closure of crossing points, due to which entrants could no longer move to Georgian-controlled territory to take exams, Tbilisi decided to admit applicants to higher education institutions without exams. These attempts undertaken by the Georgian government had not affected the behavior and decision of ethnic Abkhaz degree seekers, and there were no rows of Abkhaz youths at Georgian universities. The question is, why?

The Abkhaz “stubbornness” and their the low vulnerability towards Georgian soft power can be explained by several reasons.

The first and foremost is the stigma that exists in Abkhaz society regarding any relationship with Georgia. The only exception is the medical service, while in other cases, crossing the Enguri bridge remains an undesirable action. If this happens, it is highly secretive, and if it is leaked, the violators face naming and shaming.

In addition to Abkhaz public opinion, there are other more practical issues to consider, the timely resolution of which may at least partially affect the choice of Abkhaz applicants.

Although Tbilisi has simplified the procedures for admission to Georgian universities for people living in Abkhazia and the Tskhinvali region and is financing their studies, Russia is doing the same. In addition, in some cases, Russia reimburses the cost of housing, and it now intends to fully cover the costs of education. Against this background, even without all those grievances and stigmas, studying at a Russian university is much more convenient than at Georgian one.

Added to this is the language problem. The fact is that higher education in Georgia is available mainly in Georgian and also in English. While Abkhaz and Ossetians mostly receive their education in Russian, they don’t speak Georgian and rarely speak English, often at unsatisfactory level.

Therefore, for Georgian higher education to become attractive to the Abkhaz, merely simplifying admission procedures and offering tuition waivers is an insufficient precondition. It is necessary to develop a scholarship package that includes all expenses related to education (meals, accommodation, transportation, etc.); simultaneously, the issue of adding Russian-language programs in state universities must be considered. In the future, such programs may be attractive not only to the residents of the conflict regions but also to people from other parts of the Caucasus. By the way, we already have such experience.

It should also be noted that unless there is a general healing of Georgian-Abkhaz relations, gradual liberation from the stereotype and stigma of the enemy, no attractive scholarships will lead to a qualitative change in the situation. Some Abkhaz may dare to cross the Enguri bridge to study in Georgian universities, bigger picture will remain unchanged.

In Short: What Could Tbilisi do?

In a nutshell, Abkhaz receive higher education mainly in Abkhazia, Russia, and Turkey. There are virtually none or limited connections with Georgia and the Western educational institutions. Here a question arises: are we eager to see changes that will better meet our interests?

Suppose we do not change anything: we keep doing what we used to do. In particular, the Georgian government wants Abkhaz to have access to education in the West at the level of official rhetoric; however, a prerequisite for international programs will be the selection of Georgia as a country of origin, the involvement of Georgia’s agencies in recognition of diplomas, and the possession of Georgian or neutral passports by the Abkhaz.

If that’s the case, it will not be complicated to predict that the status quo will remain unchanged. The Abkhaz will probably be able to enroll in a couple of European scholarship schemes in addition to the British Chevening, but the main flow of students will still go Russia and, in part, to Turkey. That means, along with military, economic, and information dominance, Russia will continue having significant influence on the Abkhaz worldview.

There is another way too. For political and humanitarian reasons, Georgia itself could initiate the opening of Abkhazia (and Tskhinvali region / South Ossetia) to the Western education system. I’m talking about 20-30 scholarships, which at this stage could fully meet the needs of Abkhaz students (for comparison, only Hungary allocates 80 scholarships to Georgia every year).

Of course, it does not mean reviewing policies instantly and in all directions. Tbilisi can start talking to the most trusted partners and through them to their national education programs and universities. Also, at Georgia’s request, the EU could have a particular program for Abkhazians and Ossetians, as in the case of Northern Cyprus. Certain steps can be undertaken if there is a will, without crossing our red lines.

It would be naive to assume that the Abkhaz educated in Europe will become ignited by the love of Georgia and the desire to return to its entrails. Such expectations are doomed to disappointment from the outset. Nothing like this will happen. However, the point is that if we are building a Western state, then we need more Europe everywhere, including Abkhazia. Our society has to understand that Georgian-Abkhaz relations are a marathon and not a sprint, and in the search for ways to reach each other, being in a same “melting pot” (in this case, European) may be crucial in the long run.

Finally, all that has been said here will be very difficult to implement in light of the systematic oppression of the ethnic Georgian community in Gali district. Politicians in Tbilisi will have to go through hurdle to explain the country’s population why an Abkhaz should study in Sorbonne while the same Abkhaz gives a hard time to ethnic Georgian schoolkids in Gali for speaking in their mother tongue.Now this is the question that the Abkhaz should contemplate on.

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