MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 424: Abkhaz Worried by Language Law

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Sat Dec 22 10:17:46 2007

Original sender: Institute for War & Peace Reporting <editor@iwpr.net>



television station coincides with start of election campaign. 
By Ofelia Kocharian and Taguhi Tovmasian in Yerevan

businessman and opposition leader accused of fomenting a coup. By Lela
Iremashvili in Tbilisi

ABKHAZ WORRIED BY LANGUAGE LAW Concerns that a new law to promote the
Abkhaz language may be counterproductive. By Anahid Gogorian in Sukhum




Concerns that a new law to promote the Abkhaz language may be

By Anahid Gogorian in Sukhum

A new law designed to enhance the status of the Abkhaz language is
taking effect amid worries that it will drive people away from the
republic and hurt the independent press. 

On November 27, de facto president Sergei Bagapsh signed the law "on the
state language of the Republic of Abkhazia" which enshrines Abkhaz as
the language of official communication. 

The bill was discussed in parliament for seven years, outlasting two
elections, before finally being adopted on November 14. it assigns
Abkhaz the status of a state language alongside Russian, with a tight
time-frame set for it to be made the language of all public business. 

>From 2010, all meetings held by the president, parliament or government
must be conducted in Abkhaz and from 2015 all state officials will be
obliged to use Abkhaz as their language of every-day business. 

Abkhaz is a Caucasian language that non-native speakers find difficult
to learn. The alphabet uses an astonishing 64 letters to represent its
complicated sounds. 

In the Soviet era, Abkhaz-language schools were closed and Georgian - a
quite different language - was introduced instead, with the result that
up to a third of the ethnic Abkhaz population reportedly do not know
their own language, and even more are unable to read or write it.

This is a major reason why Abkhazia, which has large Armenian and
Russian populations alongside the ethnic Abkhaz, has become effectively
a Russian-speaking area. In primary school, tuition is in Abkhaz but in
later classes the teaching switches to Russian. Now the plan is to have
most arts subjects taught in Abkhaz. 

However, the law was passed after the government budget for 2008 had
been approved by parliament, meaning that there are no funds set aside
to finance the ambitious programme of language teaching needed to make
the proposals work. 

There is a shortage of teachers of Abkhaz. Since the Georgian-Abkhaz war
ended in 1993, leaving the territory de facto independent, 458 people
have graduated from the Abkhaz language and literature faculty of the
republic's university. Currently 247 students are studying there. 

It is estimated that 147 schools need teachers in Abkhaz and that around
50 more are needed to meet current needs. Teachers are reluctant to go
and work in village schools where salaries are low. Calls for their
salaries to be raised have not been heeded. 

Gunda Kvitsinia, head of the Foundation for the Development of the
Abkhaz Language, warmly welcomed the new law but agreed a lot of work
needed to be done to implement it properly. 

"When a person steps out of his house he ought to be speaking Abkhaz,
but everywhere here Russian is spoken," said Kvitsinia. "Abkhaz is in a
terrible state and the law has been passed to preserve it. Maybe some of
the points in it are tough but there's no other way; people will
understand. Now we need time, money and people to move this forward."

Kvitsinia said her foundation had been allocated a sum of 3.5 million
roubles, about 140,000 US dollars, to make the new law work, but this
was not enough.  

Nina Storozhenko, a teacher and member of Sukhum's town assembly, is
much more critical of the new law. She noted that in the last 14 years,
no single teaching manual for the Abkhaz language had been written. "And
that is where we have to start," she added. 

"Show me a single pupil in a general school who isn't ethnic Abkhaz but
who has learned the Abkhaz language in seven years and who can hold a
normal conversation in it, and then I will believe that in seven years
the population can learn the state language. 

"The overwhelming majority of people in Abkhazia are not against
learning Abkhaz, the problem is who's going to teach them."  

The issue is toughest for non-Abkhaz.

Dmitry Petrov, a Russian who works for the government, said he has been
having Abkhaz language tuition for two months. He says that the
pronunciation is difficult but he hopes to be able to speak it within
seven years. Petrov said anyone who loves their national language should
be able to speak it, with or without a law.

Marietta Topchyan, a former co-chair of the Armenian Community of
Abkhazia, said she approved of the programme in principle but doubted it
was feasible. "It needs an economic component, methodological
literature, and adequate amounts of textbooks to create the same
conditions for everyone in the republic," she said.  

Beslan Baratelia, a university lecturer in economics, says that the new
law may force people to seek work outside Abkhazia, as they will choose
not to take low-paid jobs requiring a good knowledge of the Abkhaz

"Colossal financial and human resources will be expended on
translation," he said. "Abkhazia's budget probably won't be big enough
to achieve language reform."

Of particular concern is a provision in the new law which required all
national media to allocate half of their airtime or pages to material in
Abkhaz within six months.

The editors of independent newspapers say the extra costs of hiring new
staff to publish Abkhaz-language pages might force them to close. 

Alexander Adleiba, the president's representative in parliament, who is
behind this provision in the law, declined to answer IWPR's questions.
But in an interview to the Abaza-TV channel he said this part of the law
might be amended. 

"It's important for people to speak Abkhaz; it's a dream, I myself don't
speak the language," said Izida Chania, editor of the Nuzhnaya Gazeta
paper. "But this is a law not in defence of the Abkhaz language but
against it; it has not been [properly] prepared from a financial point
of view.

"The law was passed in a hurry and lobbied by people who don't know the
Abkhaz language themselves."

Anahid Gogorian is a journalist with Chegemskaya Pravda newspaper in

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