Researching Multilingually in Georgia and Languages as Instruments of Power

This post is authored by Julien Danero Iglesias, Research Associate on RM Borders, from his trip to Georgia in August 2015. With thanks to Robert Gibb and Elena Mikaberidze for their comments on earlier drafts of this post. 

Last month, I had the opportunity to take part in the preparation of a fiction movie about the impact of borders on everyday life. I was invited by Elena Mikaberidze, who started working on this project immediately after finishing her masters degree in Central and Eastern European Studies in Belgium. She draws on the example of Georgia, the country where she was born, to look at the lives of ordinary villagers coping with the constant changing of borders in the place where they live. In the movie, local greedy political leaders are playing cards each week, and the borders in the country move as a result of the gains and losses of the players.

Her idea actually echoes Georgia’s recent and less recent history. For example, not later than last May, a border was moved overnight, and some ‘went to bed in Georgia and woke up in South Ossetia’. After independence in 1991, Georgia was torn apart by civil war and saw turmoil in regions like Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s and the 2000s, until the Russo-Georgian war broke out around South Ossetia in 2008. Wars and interethnic violence resulted in a huge number of displaced persons and refugees, who still live in various ‘temporary’ places around the country.

The first step in the writing of the movie is research with displaced persons and refugees from the conflict with Abkhazia in the beginning of the 1990s and South Ossetia in 2008. Elena is in Georgia for three months, carrying out observation and interviews, and I was able to join her for one week at the beginning of last month. We spent time in discussion with displaced people, refugees and those working with them. Beyond the interest of Elena’s project and beyond the issues and problems those persons are experiencing on an everyday basis, taking part in such a research was also interesting for me as it involved a researching multilingually aspect.

Georgia’s official language is Georgian, but Russian is still widely used in the country and it seems that tourists from neighbouring Russia can deal exclusively in Russian with Georgians. Georgia was part of the Soviet Union and Russian is also the mother tongue of many people there. Conversations in a mix of Georgian and Russian seem to be common while foreigners are not expected to know any Georgian. For example, members of Elena’s family come from different regions of Georgia and are either native speakers of Georgian or Russian. It was simply fascinating to see them interacting in those two languages. While I hope to be able to pass for a native speaker of Romanian, my knowledge of Russian is much too limited in comparison. It is based on an intensive course in Moscow and on evening classes years ago that were only refreshed when I started taking evening classes again in Glasgow last October. I find it very difficult to express myself in Russian but my understanding of rather formal speech, based on various research stays in Moldova and in Ukraine, is good. Obviously, I do not have any knowledge of Georgian and the only words I could pick were the ones Elena taught me, like Gamarjoba (Hello) or Bodishi (Sorry). Interviews and discussions were carried out in Russian, as this is the language Elena feels the most comfortable with and this allowed me to follow them. Some conversation also took place in English when our interviewees felt comfortable enough in this language. Outside the interviews, Elena and I would speak to each other in French, as this is the first language of us both.

Looking at this, one can say that we conducted research in four languages. The asymmetry of the situation was interesting: In Georgian, I would be de facto excluded and put in the position of the foreigner. But it is more than that, as even though Elena speaks Georgian, her accent makes her interlocutors wonder where she is from and she was often asked about her origins. People would complement her and smile at her ‘cute’ way of speaking. Nevertheless, the fact that she speaks Georgian, even with such accent, includes her in the category of ‘Georgians’ if I can infer this from the attitude of her interlocutors.

Overall, it seems that Russian is in an ambivalent position in Georgia. I had the impression that it was the language of the ‘enemy’, even though it is the native language of many people there. Speaking Georgian instead of Russian seems to be a political act and a ‘good Georgian citizen’ should speak Georgian. This might explain why one of our interviewees spoke to us in English rather than in Russian. At the same time, even though Georgia is looking towards NATO and the EU, and signs in Tbilisi or on roads are all in Georgian and in English, it seemed that speaking Russian is needed, if only for dealing with the numerous tourists from Russia. Talking of which, Russian tourists (or at least Russian-speaking tourists) seem everywhere, for example in Tbilisi, an interesting fact knowing that Georgian citizens are not allowed to travel to Russia.

Translation office in Tbilisi, August 2014

Translation office in Tbilisi, August 2014.

This last example shows again that languages are all about power. If we look at Georgia today, Georgian is the only national official language and English is taught in school as a second language, a situation that shows the current geopolitical choices of the authorities. But English is also a language of the young and educated while most Georgians over 40 learnt Russian in school and feel much more comfortable in that language.

Russian influence, following history and current economic needs, is still strong, and it seems that everyday language practices cannot be changed overnight, unlike borders.

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