Author Zurab Balanchivadze
Edited by Elizabeth Owen
It was a conflict that displaced roughly a quarter of a million people and killed an estimated 10,000-15,000 more, deeply scarring Georgia’s national psyche. Yet, more than 25 years on, Georgian history textbooks barely mention the brutal 1992-1993 war between ethnic Georgians and Abkhaz over control of the Black Sea region of Abkhazia, leaving many young Georgians largely uninformed about a conflict that transformed their country.
A disinclination to delve into a defeat could partly explain that neglect, yet pragmatism appears to play a more immediate role. Students are not asked questions about the Abkhaz conflict in Georgia’s national entrance exam for university, so many high-school teachers and parents see little reason to spend extensive time on the topic.
The amount of information provided in the roughly 12 different textbooks used for 12-17-year-olds varies from a couple of pages to several paragraphs, but mostly the war is only briefly described as part of the general chaos in Georgia during the early post-Soviet period.
“There’s not any specific information in the textbook that can’t be easily Googled,” comments Mariam Shonia, 15, a student at Tbilisi’s Public School #145. “Only basic facts, which aren’t followed by any results and conclusions.”
Eighteen-year-old Giorgi Shakarashvili, who chose history as a topic for his university entrance exam, has got those facts down, but nothing more, he concedes. A graduate of Tbilisi’s Public School #175, he has no recollection of the war being discussed in class, he adds. “The only thing I remember is that there was a war between the Georgian side and Abkhaz separatists and the Georgians lost the war.”
Interviewed teachers say teaching about the 13-month-plus conflict depends entirely on the instructor. Georgia’s national curriculum, which establishes which subjects should be taught and how, does not require teachers to focus in-depth on Abkhazia.
The national curriculum “gives only one lesson and several paragraphs to touch on this very sensitive issue and explain it to students,” elaborates Lia Ebralidze, 52, a history teacher at the private Creative Education School in Tbilisi. “So, it’s up to teachers and their standards whether they go deep into this issue or not. In other words, the government prefers to leave one of the most sensitive topics [in Georgian history] up to the ordinary schoolteacher’s discretion.”
Teachers, though, must contend with parents who will hold them responsible if their children fail the university entrance exam.
“If a teacher spends too much time on a deep analysis of a subject that has been given less time in the teaching plan, students will miss some topics that are given in the examination and then their parents will ask us to answer for this,” explains Tinatin Vasadze, 54, the academic director of the Creative Education School.
“And they will be right,” she adds. “That’s the paradox in this teaching system.”
Despite repeated attempts by Chai Khana, the Georgian Ministry of Education did not respond to requests for comment about its curriculum or history textbooks.
“I suppose the government tries to walk away from certain painful points in order not to cause tension between neighboring countries [Georgia and Russia] and that’s why the information is so meaningless in the textbooks,” comments Tamuna Turashvili, 35, a history teacher at Tbilisi’s Public School #202.“However, the main question, like ‘Why?’, is missing. Dry facts alone can’t give any valuable information to students.”
One textbook author acknowledges the books’ limitations.
“Only 20 percent of the real topic gets into” any history textbook, thanks to the need to cover everything in the national curriculum, says Bondo Kupatadze, 44, an associate professor of history at Tbilisi State University. Moreover, many textbook writers, he claims, tend to have a “slightly frightened” attitude toward the subject of Abkhazia and Georgia’s recent history.
“What we lack in schools’ modern history textbooks is analysis,” concedes Kupatadze. “Students can barely detect historical processes in general. They can’t distinguish causes from effects and, then, in universities we get students who learn by rote.”
Some teachers, however, do try to move beyond the textbooks’ summary information.
History teacher Nikoloz Agladze, 28, says he uses online videos about the early 1990s in Georgia -- particularly, documentary filmmaker Toma Chagelishvili’s TV series “Georgia’s Recent History” -- to help his 11th and 12th graders at the Newton School, a private academy in Tbilisi, get a fuller grasp of what happened during the Abkhazia war.
“I always try to make the students see the problem from both sides and help them to prove their arguments,” he claims.
In turn, Nana Karkarashvili, 65, who has taught history for more than 40 years in Tbilisi’s public schools, sometimes has her students prepare presentations on the war with photo slideshows, primary-source information and online videos.
Ultimately, though, Karkarashvili, a teacher at Tbilisi Public School #155, says her students’ “level of basic knowledge and interest” determines whether she spends more than one lesson on the Abkhaz war.
Though numerous young people, outraged by the death of a Georgian citizen in South Ossetia, did take part in an early 2018 protest against Russian troops in the territory, interviewed students did not mention sensing in class an energetic interest in exploring the details of the 26-year-old conflict in Abkhazia, where Russian troops are also stationed.
What information teachers present, though, can be unpredictable. Elene Abramidze, 18, a senior at Tbilisi’s Public School #175, remembers being told in class that the Abkhaz were “playing with our soldiers’ severed heads” – an unsubstantiated, though frequently repeated anecdote from the conflict.
By contrast, Ani Samkharadze, 18, a recent graduate of Public School #161, does not remember being taught anything in class. “I just know the general issues from TV or from my parents,” says Samkharadze, whose uncle died in the war.
Those teenagers who, like Mariam Shonia, are the children of displaced former residents of Abkhazia, hear many conversations about the war at home. But Shonia is looking for something more.
“Sentences like ‘Abkhazia is our pain,’ painted on a [street] wall, don’t give any answer to my [general] questions,” she says. For those answers, she would like more discussions among young Georgians and also with young Abkhaz.
But teacher Ebralidze believes that, ultimately, the prime responsibility for imparting knowledge about the conflict lies elsewhere.
“Teaching history has to be an issue of state importance,” she says. “The country has to make its people aware of what happened and how it happened.”
A Georgian Textbook’s Take on History
From 12th-graders’ textbook, “History 12” by Gvantsa Abdaladze, Nata Akhmeteli, Bondo Kupatadze, Nikoloz Murgulia; Chapter 63: The Soviet Union’s Collapse and Georgia’s Independence, pgs. 324-325 (Diogene Publishing House, Tbilisi, Georgia: 2012)
On January 6, 1992, [then Georgian President -- ed] Zviad Gamsakhurdia, together with his supporters, left Tbilisi and sought refuge first in Armenia, but then in Chechnya(1). Use of military force caused the legitimate government to fall. A military council (Jaba Ioseliani, Tengiz Kitovani, Tengiz Sigua) took power.
[Illustration 5: A fight in Tbilisi’s streets]
The military coup started off a civil war in the country. Supporters of the refugee Zviad Gamsakhurdia continued to fight. The crisis only intensified, which provided favorable conditions for Abkhaz and Ossetian separatists. The Georgian intelligentsia considered that bringing back [former Georgian Communist Party First Secretary and KGB boss – ed] Eduard Shevardnadze from Moscow as the way to extract the country from the crisis. In March 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze returned to Georgia. The military council transferred power to the State Council of which Eduard Shevardnadze became the chairperson. In October 1992, parliamentary elections took place. Parliamentary Chairperson Eduard Shevardnadze was bestowed with the functions of head of state.
[Illustration 6: Abkhazia’s government headquarters in Sokhumi]
During the civil war period, Zviad Gamsakhuria’s forces controlled a part of western Georgia, separatists controlled Abkhazia(2) and Shida Kartli(3) [location of South Ossetia -- ed]. By the State Council’s decision, in August 1992 Georgian police and troops entered Abkhazia in order to defend the transportation corridor. This step proved to be a big political mistake. The troops ended up involved in military operations. The war began. Mercenaries fought on the side of the Abkhaz separatists – North Caucasians and parts of the Russian army which were located on Abkhaz territory. The separatists took Gagra, Sokhumi, Ochamchire, Gali and, on September 27, 1993, Sokhumi fell. Approximately 300,000 Georgians and other nationalities’ citizens were displaced from Abkhazia. The separatists crossed the border at the Inguri River.
The country’s civil conflict resumed. The “Zviadists” blamed Shevardnadze’s government for the loss of Abkhazia. The ex-president’s supporters were defeated. In December 1993, amid conditions that remain unclear to this day, Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia(4), died. Anarchy and disorder continued in the country . . .
Questions[Selected for relevance – ed]:
2. In your opinion, what was the role of outside forces in Georgia’s civil war?
5. In your opinion, to what extent did the civil war contribute to Georgia’s loss of territory?
6. To what extent were the military council and Eduard Shevardnadze’s post as chairperson legitimate?
7. What is a government crisis? In your opinion, by what means is it possible to overcome or regulate it?
1. Find various materials about the civil war, including the Tbilisi war, and write an essay on the topic “Civil War and State Interests.”
2. Prepare an essay on the topic “The 2003 Rose Revolution and the Transformation of Georgia’s Course.”
Translated and reprinted with permission from Diogene Publishing House, Tbilisi, Georgia
(1) Chai Khana: President Zviad Gamsakhurdia actually first entered Azerbaijan, which allowed him only safe transit, before heading to Armenia.
(2) Chai Khana: Abkhazia was not primarily under the control of forces opposing Georgian rule until September 1993.
(3) Chai Khana: Shida Kartli, the region which contains South Ossetia, was not entirely under the control of separatists during 1993. After a 1991-1992 armed conflict with Tbilisi over autonomy, parts of South Ossetia remained under Tbilisi’s control until 2008. The rest of Shida Kartli had no separatist movement.
(4) Chai Khana: This refers to the post-Soviet era. Noe Jordania served as president of the first, independent Georgian republic from 1918 to 1921 and leader of the Georgian government-in-exile until 1953.
Read more from Abkhazia
About the Reporter: Zura Balanchivadze is a Tbilisi-based freelance journalist who is the son of Internally Displaced Persons from Abkhazia. He has previously participated in peace-building exercises with Abkhaz youth.