Georgian Education Official's Dismissal Raises Charges Of Political Persecution

By Nino Tarkhnishvili, Niko Nergadze
May 29, 2012
For nearly a decade, Maia Miminoshvili has enjoyed the reputation of being a model, incorruptible public servant. Her groundbreaking educational reforms have won widespread praise from everyone, ranging from educators and NGOs to President Mikheil Saakashvili.
So it came as a shock when Education Minister Dmitri Shashkin unceremoniously fired Miminoshvili on May 28 from her post as head of the ministry's examination center, which oversees university admission and graduation exams.
A terse statement on the ministry's website said merely that Miminoshvili's views on the direction of reforms were "fundamentally different" from the ministry's.
Almost immediately, staff at the examinations center rushed to Miminoshvili's defense, penning an open letter to Saakashvili and claiming that she was really dismissed because her son, Lasha Kanchaveli, participated in a May 27 protest by the opposition Georgian Dream coalition led by billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili.
And at a press conference on May 29, 60 examination-center employees said they had tendered their resignations, and that about 90 more -- virtually the entire staff -- would do so in the near future.
Minister: Allegations Are 'Idiocy'
In an interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Miminoshvili, 51, reacted to reports that she was fired for her son's participation in this weekend's opposition rally.
"This is what everyone is reporting. I cannot be 100 percent sure that this was indeed the reason [for my dismissal], but if it is the reason, I cannot help but express my indignation," Miminoshvili said.
"I do confirm that my son attended the rally. My son is a grown-up person. He has his own family, lives separately, and makes decisions independently. This was the case even when we lived together -- and I always respected his decisions, whether I approved of them or not. And this will be the case in the future."
In addition, Miminoshvili's brother, a noted musician with the band The Shin, told Maestro TV on May 26 that he had called a Georgian Dream spokesperson in the run-up to the rally and expressed his support, saying that only his professional obligations in Germany prevented him from attending.
Miminoshvili herself met with Ivanishvili on May 29 to explain the details of her dismissal.
When journalists asked Education Minister Shashkin if the firing was politically motivated, he curtly told them to "stop this idiocy."
There have been other reported cases in which teachers and other Education Ministry workers were dismissed for actions such as reading Georgian Dream newspapers.
The ministry has one month to react to the mass resignations, and staff have pledged to continue administering and processing exams for graduating students and teachers in the interim.
In her interview with RFE/RL, Miminoshvili emphasized that the center's work would continue during this busy season. "It's too soon for me to tell what I will be doing next. The main concerns for me are the graduating students and those teachers who will have to pass exams in July," she said.
"My only goal, my main goal, is that we all -- my colleagues and me -- respect the cause that we have been building brick-by-brick over the last 10 years, as a result of which we managed to create quite a decent system."
A Pioneering Reformer
For nearly a decade, Miminoshvili has been at the forefront of one of Georgia's most successful reform efforts.
As the head of the examinations center of the Education Ministry, Miminoshvili has overseen the introduction of graduation, admissions', and teachers' examinations that have slashed corruption.
Stephanie Kim, a researcher with the Center for International Development Education, writes that Miminoshvili's exams reduce the opportunity for corruption in schools.
According to Kim, they create "a fair playing field" for students based on merit rather than "their ability to make illegitimate payments."
Three years ago, Saakashvili himself trotted Miminoshvili out on television to announce -- to Miminoshvili's obvious discomfort -- that she was so thoroughly uncorrupted herself that her own son had failed his master's degree examination.
Ia Kutaladze, one of the officials who resigned on May 29, says Miminoshvili's removal is a significant setback for a set of Georgia's most successful reforms.
"This was a team of very high-level professionals, and this team was headed by Maia Miminoshvili, who was the initiator of every important innovation, the generator of new ideas, and, at the same time, a supporter of the principle of teamwork," he says.
"This lady did an awful lot for the education system in general and for implementing modern evaluation models in Georgia, in particular. It is up to you to decide whether she has deserved such treatment."
Robert Coalson contributed to this story from Prague