In Georgia you don’t hear Ossetian often these days.
Belonging to the Iranian group of the Indo-European family of languages, Ossetian was classified by UNESCO as “vulnerable”, the first step of the organization’s scale of languages at risk of disappearance. The number of speakers is dwindling, scattered as they are between North Ossetia, which lies in the Russian Federation, and South Ossetia, one of two Georgia’s breakaway regions.
In Areshperani, a village of about 200 in Georgia’s eastern region of Kakheti, Ossetian is still holding on and the only public school is one of two in the country where Ossetian is still taught (the other being in the village of Tsitskanaantseri which is located in the same region). A third school, in Fona, discontinued the Ossetian language classes in 2016.
Ossetians and Georgians do not share an easy past - the ethnic conflict of the early 1990s renewed in August 2008 with military clashes over the unresolved conflict between Georgia, South Ossetia and Russia. The exact number of displaced persons from both sides of the two conflicts remains undetermined.
In the ‘90s, following the first conflict and the newly independent Georgian government’s nationalist rhetoric, thousands of Ossetians were forced to leave the country. Most moved to Vladikavkaz, the capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania in the Russian Federation. The word has it that many among the estimated number of 20,000 who stayed behind, had to change their last names from Ossetian to Georgian, in order to avoid tension and discrimination in Georgia proper. The migration took a toll on the the language - irreparably, it faded.
People in Areshperani are not fond of remembering the 1990s. Tamaz Kapanadze, the school principal, only pensively remarks about the 1995 blowing up of the statue of the Ossetian national poet, Kosta Khetagurov, right in the middle of the school yard - most probably a xenophobic act of vandalism. The statue was later reconstructed in the 2000s, under Georgia’s former president Mikheil Saakashvili. Today, every October 15th, Areshperani welcomes Ossetians from all of Georgia for the Kostaoba festival that celebrates Khetagurov and his work. According to the 2014 census, only 14,400 Ossetians remain in Georgia - less than half of the total number in 2002.
Tamaz Kapanadze claims that before the ‘90s, only Ossetians lived in the village but many fled to Vladikavkaz after the war. Later the government decided to resettle eco-migrants in Areshperani from the Autonomous Republic of Adjara, in western Georgia. Over time the community became mixed and Adjarians learned to master the Ossetian language.
The village school, named after Kosta Khetagurov, currently welcomes 115 pupils, some of whom come from nearby villages. Thirty-six of them are ethnic Ossetians and the rest range between mixed ethnicity and Adjarians. Until about ten years ago, the classes were conducted in Russian before switching to Georgian. The Ossetian language course is held twice a week and is offered as early as the first grade, although it is optional. Even if ethnic Georgians might not attend the classes, they will most likely learn the language from their daily interaction with their Ossetian peers.
For Aleksi Chigoshvili, a recent high school graduate, learning Ossetian is important as it is a key element of his Ossetian identity. Like almost everyone in Areshperani, Aleksi has many relatives living in Vladikavkaz, but he and his friends aspire to leave the village for Tbilisi. There are no possibilities for pursuing higher education in Areshperani - and almost no job prospects. In 2010, the government introduced a 1+4 program for ethnic minorities, according to which they only have to take one General Test in their native language, instead of four national exams, and then spend the first year at the university studying Georgian language, before they go on to choosing their major. Aleksi plans to participate in the program in 2018.
Areshperani remains an exception confirming a rule - Ossetians are declining and the heavy luggage of the past, as well as the lack of opportunities, mean that speakers are unlikely to increase. It is unclear how long the village will be able to retain its youth - and keep the Ossetian language alive.
Editors: Ana Lomtadze and Monica Ellena