How the government [doesn’t] fight unauthorized Russian schools in Georgia?

Journalist: Tamar Gelashvili ; Editor: Maya Metskhvarishvili
Divider dot 29 January 2024

Key facts and findings:

After the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, 1,459,541 Russian citizens entered Georgia in 2022, 1,168,030 more than the previous year, and 223,697 from Ukraine, i.e. 54,737 more;

112,733 of the Russian citizens who entered Georgia in 2022 did not leave Georgia; Of the citizens of Ukraine, only 25,779 of them remained in the country;

In 2022-23, 41% of residential apartments and 56% of land plots registered for foreigners in Georgia will be owned by Russians; In the case of Ukrainians, the share in apartments is 9%, in land – 2.6%;

In parallel with the active acquisition of real estate, Russian citizens open private educational institutions in Georgia, which operate without authorization; Ukrainians mostly attend public schools with a Russian-speaking and Ukrainian sector operating in Georgia, or apply for a distance learning course in their native schools;

According to security specialists, the compact settlement of Russians in Georgia and the establishment of unauthorized Russian-language schools create risks of strengthening Russian propaganda through “soft power”;

According to the 2022 report of the State Security Service of Georgia, the implementation of educational and cultural projects was considered an effective method by other states to implement the “soft power” policy;

“Studio Monitor” visited about 10 unauthorized Russian schools operating in Tbilisi, where the general education process is carried out outside the control of the Georgian state. The exact number of such schools is unknown.

Tamar Gelashvili

Studio Monitor, Georgia

According to the information of the Ministry of Education and Science, after the Russia-Ukraine war, by the end of 2022, 11 Russian-language schools and 45 sectors were functioning in Georgia, where, in total, 16,042 students were enrolled, that is, compared to the previous school year, 1820 students more. As of today, 50 Russian-language general education schools/sectors are functioning in Georgia.

After the war, the number of students in these schools increased by about 13%, and among them are students who migrated not only from Russia, but also from Ukraine. According to the information of the Ministry of Education, 2,265 students from Ukraine are enrolled in general education schools of Georgia, of which 1,371 are studying in the Ukrainian sector. However, most of the time, children of Ukrainian migrants prefer to study online in their native schools.

Anna Oksanichenko is from the city of Vasilkov, Ukraine. She left her hometown with her 2 young children on the day the war started.

“I kept telling the children their names and surnames, my phone number, my grandmother’s name and surname, because I was afraid that the children would be lost if a bomb fell on the road where we were driving. On February 25, we arrived at the Moldovan border and crossed the border. We stayed there for a few months and in August 2022 I came to Georgia with my children,” Anna recalled in a conversation with “Studio Monitor”.

Anna Oksanichenko’s children continue to study online at the school in Kyiv, because, as the mother tells us, she cannot take her children to school in Tbilisi due to her busy work schedule:

“I could not take the children to school because I am here alone. Therefore, it was necessary for me to work and earn money for existence. Renting an apartment in Tbilisi is very expensive, and taking children to the Ukrainian sector was associated with very large logistics. That’s why they study online at the school in Kyiv. There are still bureaucratic moments. For example, this year I wanted to enroll children in the Ukrainian sector, but due to some bureaucracy, we are accepted in the previous class, so we are still studying online.”

After the war, the children of Russian immigrants settled in Georgia receive their education mainly in unauthorized private Russian schools.

According to the legislation of Georgia, the school needs authorization to issue a certificate, a document confirming the education recognized by the state. In order to obtain authorization, it is necessary that the school meets the conditions of the standard established by law.

The accreditation standards refer to the philosophy – that is, the school’s vision and values; Curriculum – monitoring and evaluation of the school curriculum, administrative and infrastructural support of the educational process – that is, management of personnel and material resources of the school, support of students, that is, protection of their rights.

The compliance of the standard in schools is verified by the authorization council, whose members are appointed and dismissed by the Prime Minister on the recommendation of the Ministry of Education and Science.

According to the information of the Ministry of Education, all private schools operating in Georgia today are authorized. “Studio Monitor” visited several private Russian schools operating in Tbilisi and found out that they operate without authorization. This means that the Georgian state does not check the mission and training programs of these schools, does not control how well the rights of students and children are protected, etc.

We found out a scheme by which these institutions bypass the authorization process required by law and engage in general educational activities: 1. They issue certificates through partner schools operating in Russia and 2. They work in Georgia as family education centers.

Issuance of certificates through partner schools in Russia

Representatives of the Russian schools opened in Tbilisi after the Russia-Ukraine war, in a conversation with “Studio Monitor”, state that they do not have authorization and therefore do not issue certificates. However, as we found out, students of their school have the opportunity to obtain certificates from partner schools in Russia without any problems.

“Happy School” is the name of the educational institution that was opened in Tbilisi and Batumi for Russian citizens who migrated after the war. The school is based in Georgia as a limited liability company – Happy Edu LLC was founded by Russian citizen Ekaterina Sherchenkova in August, 2023. He is the director of “Happy School” and he has rented space for the school on Sairme Street in Tbilisi.

The school’s website states that they provide services to both preschool children and students from 1st to 11th grade inclusive. The cost of teaching is from 12,000 to 14,500 GEL per year. Russian textbooks are used in the school: for example, students of I-IV grades are taught with a textbook created according to Russian state educational standards – “School of Russia” [Школа России].

This manual is based on the principle of education of a Russian citizen, “a citizen for whom the fate of himself and his homeland is inseparable, who is aware of his responsibility for the present and future of his country.”

“About 100 children study with us. Everyone’s family supports the territorial integrity of Georgia, opposes the war with Ukraine and the regime in Russia. We are parents who could not find a place in a public school and decided to open a place where children can learn. Children from Ukraine study with us for free. We love Georgia, we respect it and we thank you for letting us in,” school director Ekaterina Sherchenkova told us.

Doctor of Education Sciences Shalva Tabatadze in a conversation with “Studio Monitor” says that the problem related to textbooks will be solved only if the state generally regulates the issue of informal schools of this type:

“It is an informal education center and what it will use is beyond control. He will tell you what books I use, it’s my question, won’t I issue some type of diploma?! There are security risks when there are similar non-formal education centers that represent formal education centers in other countries. Their number may increase from year to year, and an informal parallel education system may emerge outside of formal education, which may emerge not only from Russia, but also from other countries, and therefore the state must regulate it unambiguously,” says Shalva Tabatadze.

The school’s website states that they do not issue a certificate, but students can get a certificate online through a partner school operating in Russia – “Foxford”.

Branches of Belarusian schools also offer private school services to Russian-speaking students in Georgia. For example, “Stemlab”  has been operating in Belarus since 2015, where it is represented by 3 branches throughout the country. The Tbilisi and Batumi branches of “Stemlab” offer a variety of services to the Russian-speaking audience, namely kindergarten, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] and IT [Internet Technologies] courses for students of grades 8-11, summer camps for children aged 6-11 and school 1st to 8th grade inclusive.

According to the information published on the Facebook page of the school, it is possible to receive approximately 8 children in each class, that is, 64-64 students in total, in Tbilisi and Batumi branches. However, the Tbilisi branch told “Studio Monitor” that they currently have 36 children in the school.

“Stemlab” LLC was founded in May 2022 by a citizen of Georgia, and in a few days he signed 100% of the company’s share free of charge to Maxim Belov, a citizen of Belarus, who is a representative of “Stemlab” schools operating in Belarus.

“Stemlab” does not have authorization in Georgia, which means that, on the one hand, the standards of this school are not verified by the Georgian state, and on the other hand, the school does not have the right to issue a certificate. However, it seems that “Stemlab” is able to issue certificates to students of schools operating in Tbilisi and Batumi without any problems. Here’s what their official Facebook page says:

“Opportunity to get up-to-date knowledge and certification for children who have recently moved to Georgia (we organize the passing of exams and transfer from class to class. This means that the child can easily transfer to any other school)”.

Ketevan Turazashvili, a member of the Education and Science Committee of the Parliament of Georgia, a member of the opposition party “Citizens”, said in a conversation with “Studio Monitor” that this is a  gap of law, which Russian educational institutions may have used for propaganda:

“The opening of branches in Georgia by educational institutions based in a foreign country, conducting the educational process in these institutions easily and at the same time ignoring the educational program established by the state of Georgia, in itself represents a gap of legislation, which educational institutions of Russian origin use very advantageously. I believe that the state needs to pay more attention to this issue in order to fill the legislative space and prevent Russian educational institutions from easily conducting their own propaganda in educational institutions based in Georgia.”

Schools as family centers

In Russian private schools opened in Tbilisi after the Russia-Ukraine war “Studio Monitor” was told that they do not require authorization because

function as family centers and not as schools.

“We do not have authorization because we are not education providers. We do not issue diplomas. We are a community of families and individuals who have decided to create a fruitful environment for all kinds of learning with joint efforts”, said Ada Torchinova, representative of “Tbilisi Democratic School”.

“Tbilisi Democratic School” was opened in September 2022 for Russian-speaking migrants who moved to Georgia after the war. Yulia Astapovich’s son has been a student of this school for 1 year, that is, after the family left Russia and moved to Tbilisi. Yulia chose “Tbilisi Democratic School” for her child with special needs:

“I just want my son to play with other children. In Russia, my son went to a special school where there were only children with special needs, and it was not a school focused entirely on education or socialization. What I like here is that it is a non-standard approach, we don’t have to do some specific math problems and sit at a desk. This is a small community, where we talk with children as peers”, says Yulia.

To our question that this school will not be able to give a certificate, which is necessary to transfer to another school or to enroll in a professional or higher education institution after graduation, Yulia answered that her son “does not need a diploma”, although, according to her, the school offers children online education in partner schools. service and the possibility of obtaining a certificate in this way.

The school administration told us that they have nothing to do with the Democratic School of Moscow, however, on their website it is indicated that the school operating at 73/32 Tsinamdashvili Street in Tbilisi is their branch. According to the information published on the website, “the school works as a family class, and certification with the Russian program is carried out online at a partner school that has Russian state accreditation and license.”

“These centers and schools here function as part of non-formal education and therefore, as they do not issue a formally recognized diploma, they are not subject to any type of regulation under our legislation. However, in such cases, when they are engaged in educational activities, they should be subject to certain regulations and, most likely, the legal framework should be changed, especially if they are engaged in distance learning, family school or school-related activities, on the basis of which a certificate of another country is issued. In general, even in a specific register, it is possible to record and produce relevant data of non-formal education institutions,” says education policy specialist Shalva Tabatadze in a conversation with “Studio Monitor”.

We repeatedly addressed the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia with questions regarding the unauthorized Russian private schools operating in Georgia, we asked them to provide information on what steps were taken to eliminate this problem, but the Ministry did not answer our questions.

The response of the Georgian state

On the illegal activities of Russian schools

The fact that the Russian “School Club Georgia” has been engaged in educational activities in Georgia for 4 years without authorization and without any problems indicates the inaction of the Georgian state bodies.

On September 2, 2022, the article about the unauthorized Russian school of “School Club Georgia” in Batumi was published by “Batumi newspaper”. Then the school opened 1 additional branch in Tbilisi, on Politkovskaya Street. On September 3, the Ministry of Education and Science published a statement indicating that this school did not have the right to conduct general educational activities in Georgia, as it was not authorized by the National Center for Education Quality Development of the Ministry of Education. On the same day, the Investigative Service of the Ministry of Finance published information that they started an investigation into the fact that this educational institution carried out illegal educational activities without the appropriate authorization of the Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia.

According to the Criminal Law Code of Georgia, Article 1921, Part I, a criminal offense is “illegal educational activity, in particular, the implementation of educational activities subject to authorization without the appropriate authorization and/or the dissemination of misleading information regarding the implementation of such activities, as well as general education, vocational education, higher education Using the name of the institution without proper authorization”.

The Investigative Service of the Ministry of Finance told “Studio Monitor” that “an investigation is underway regarding the above”. We asked the Tbilisi branch of “Skul Club”, where they did not want to talk to us. The government’s inaction is indicated by the fact that “School Club Georgia” expanded even further in Georgia. The school is currently represented by 4 branches in Georgia: 2 – in Tbilisi, 1 – in Batumi and 1 – in Kobuleti.

According to the assessment of security specialists, the risks of “Russian soft” power are related to the establishment of Russian-language schools in Batumi and Tbilisi, which is why it is necessary for the state to take active steps to prevent the illegal activities of these schools.

“Yes, schools directly belong to soft power. With such schools, a parallel society is being created, with different values, views and goals from us, and yes, all unauthorized schools have been closed by the Ministry of Education, the intervention of the State Security Service is not necessary at all,” says security issues specialist Lasha Dzebisashvili in a conversation with “Studio Monitor”.

“The fact that Russians do not come here for tourism purposes after the war and their goal is to settle here is already well reflected in various fields,” says Giorgi Tushurashvili, a representative of the non-governmental organization “Information Freedom Development Institute” [IDFI], which actively studies post-war Russians. Risks related to the influx of migrants to Georgia.

Threats related to the influx of Russian migrants are also discussed in the latest 2022 report of the Security Council, in which it is also mentioned that the implementation of educational and cultural projects is considered an effective method by other states to implement the “soft power” policy. However, the report does not say anything about the illegal Russian schools opened in Georgia since 2022, where the educational process is carried out by the state program of the occupying country, which the Georgian state does not control and therefore does not fight against.

The material was prepared within the framework of the project – “Women Investigative Journalists Network” (WIJN) – funded by “International Media Support” (IMS).