TBILISI, March 20, 2009 (RFE/RL) -- Schoolteachers in the southern Gali district of Abkhazia have long been accustomed to operating on a shoestring.
For them, the free delivery of brand-new textbooks should be cause for elation. Unless, that is, the textbooks are in Russian.
Teachers in Gali, the one district in breakaway Abkhazia where at least 40,000 ethnic Georgians are believed to be living, say they are coming under pressure from local officials to drop all Georgian-language instruction and give up their standard textbooks.
Recent reports by Georgia's Rustavi-2 and Imedi television networks showed new Russian-language schoolbooks being delivered to schools in Gali. The Russian-language texts teach sensitive subjects like geography and history from an Abkhaz point of view.
In Georgia proper, such reports are feeding fears that Abkhaz officials are subjecting Gali's 40,000-plus ethnic Georgians to a forced assimilation campaign.
Inga, a teacher in the Gali village of Pichori, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in a telephone interview that she and her colleagues have been warned by Abkhaz authorities that teaching in Georgian will soon be banned in their school.
"While we're teaching in Georgian, there are Abkhaz standing on the other side of the classroom door, spying on us. We can't convey over the phone what we're actually feeling. We've managed to survive so far, though," Inga said.
Neither Inga nor a second Gali teacher, Karina Ekhvaia, was able to confirm that new textbooks had been brought to their schools. Steady Pressure
But both attested to mounting pressure being placed on teachers and school administrators to give up the Georgian language in favor of Russian-language instruction -- and a curriculum dominated by a decidedly Abkhaz view of local history and geography.
Ekhvaia, an instructor at Gali's public school No. 13, expressed concern about the fate of her pupils, for whom school is a critical link to their Georgian identity.
"I can confirm that Georgian schoolteachers are indeed being put under pressure. I can't say whether new textbooks are being provided," Ekhvaia said.
"But Georgian teachers are frequently visited by Abkhaz authorities for inspections. Of course it's a very hard time for us. We want to bring up our children in the Georgian language."
While we're teaching in Georgian, there are Abkhaz standing on the other side of the classroom door, spying on us
Pressure on Georgian schools is nothing new in Abkhazia. But last year's war between Georgia and Russia over a second breakaway region, South Ossetia, has emboldened separatist authorities in both territories.
With backing from Moscow, de facto officials in Tskhinvali and Sukhumi have applied steady pressure on the few remaining Georgians on their territory, laying claim to their land, imposing a Russian passport regime, and -- in the case of Gali -- saying no to Georgian-language instruction.
The Abkhaz constitution offers nominal protection to ethnic minorities to receive education in their native languages. But Sukhumi has also passed laws placing formal limits on school hours spent in non-Russian instruction.Outrage In Tbilisi
That law has been exercised unevenly. The approximately 40 Armenian-language schools that have been established in the republic to serve the needs of ethnic Armenians have largely been allowed to function without interference from local officials. Georgian schools have been less fortunate.
The school crackdown has been a rallying cry for Tbilisi, which was deeply wounded by the perceived loss of South Ossetia and Abkhazia when Moscow moved to recognize their independence bids last autumn.
Georgian media frequently reports on the plight of ethnic Georgians inside Gali -- sometimes to an extent the residents themselves find uncomfortable as they attempt to maintain a formal peace with their Abkhaz neighbors.
In one recent incident, Georgian media reported that children crossing from the Gali village of Saberio were robbed and came under fire when Abkhaz border authorities attacked the bus transporting them to their school in the Georgian village of Tskoushi.
The headmaster of the Tskoushi school, however, downplayed the incident, saying the bus showed no sign of damage and that the pupils were studying normally.
Speaking to RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Ruslan Kishmaria, the Abkhaz head of the Gali local administration, accused Georgia of fabricating the story in order to stir resentment against Abkhazia:
"Don't believe [the reports]. The Georgian Education Ministry is lying," Kishmaria said. "[The students] have studied, are studying, and will continue to study, just as before. There are no problems. Nothing [the Georgian side is saying] is true. They're studying the same way they always have."
Most teachers in the Gali district receive two salaries -- one from Georgia, and the other from Abkhazia. The Georgian salary, the equivalent of approximately $330, is currently almost three times larger than the Abkhaz contribution.
But some Gali teachers, including Inga from Pichori, have reported hearing rumors that their Abkhaz salaries would be increased in return for pledges to drop Georgian-language instruction.
"There was talk about increasing the salaries. But no one has explained the reasoning behind it," Inga said. International Concerns
Rising fears of an assimilation campaign have drawn the attention of the international community.
Norway's former Foreign Minister Knut Vollebaek, who currently serves as the OSCE's high commissioner on national minorities, traveled to Abkhazia in January and said he found the situation "difficult" for Georgian parents eager for their children to be educated in their mother tongue.
Vollebaek says one rationale frequently cited by Abkhaz authorities for the all-Russian education campaign is that they see there is a shortage of Georgian textbooks but lack the funding to buy new supplies.
The OSCE is attempting to address the situation by funding translations of existing texts from Russian into Georgian. There's just one catch -- the books to be translated are geography and history texts, written from a distinctly Abkhaz perspective.
Even in Georgian, such books are unlikely to be welcome among ethnic Georgians. Vollebaek says with regret the OSCE is "not in the situation where we can choose the ideal situation in Gali district."
Nor is the government in Tbilisi. The Georgian Foreign Ministry has amplified its complaints in recent weeks of attempts by Sukhumi and its Russian supporters to ratchet up the pressure on Abkhazia's Georgian population.
In a briefing this week, Foreign Ministry official Sergi Kapanadze said Georgians in Gali had been given until March 20 to renounce their Georgian citizenship and receive new passports. Those who refuse have reportedly been threatened with fines, arrest, or possible deportation.
A Georgian news report earlier this month claimed Abkhaz authorities had rejected 3,000 Russian passports set to be distributed in Gali because they stated the residents' place of birth as Georgia.
Vollebaek says the pressure could lead to a fresh humanitarian crisis if Georgians begin to flee Abkhazia.
"It's important for us to address the situation for the Georgians, both with respect to education but also with respect to the other fundamental rights, like property rights and freedom of movement," Vollebaek said.
"There is also the question of passportization, which we see as a problem if it is forced on people. All these pressures together may create a situation that makes it unbearable for Georgians to live in Gali."Daisy Sindelar contributed to this report