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Abkhaz Worried by Language Law

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

“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 Sukhum.

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