Dimitri Shashkin, the Georgian education minister, has been receiving words of praise from President Saakashvili in recent days describing him as “an important statesman”, who can climb high up career ladder, even hinting at presidency.
The 35-year-old Education Minister was attending a meeting on August 27 of the President with a group of newly enrolled students from ethnic minority groups, who successfully passed entry exams, when Saakashvili said that Shashkin, whose “both first and second names are of Russian origin,” was an example that Georgia was giving equal opportunities to every of its citizen despite of their ethnic background.
“Dimitri leads, personally for me, the most important ministry – the Education Ministry. I hope, time will pass and historians will evaluate his work as the activity of an important, Georgian national statesman; then certainly he will hold other posts; he can achieve everything. Today there is the situation in Georgia, when any person, either Shashkin or… a representative of any other ethnic group can become the President, because we have created the situation, wherein the Georgian people perceive themselves as one whole,” he said.
Shashkin, who became the education minister in December, 2009, first joined the government in February, 2009, when he was appointed as the minister in charge of prison system. Before that he had worked for the U.S. International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Georgia representation on various positions, including as a resident country director in 2007-2009.
Although little known for the public at the time of joining the government, he was a familiar face in the political circles, as he was also engaged in consultancy of the political parties and election campaigns.
Recently Shashkin came under fire from certain groups, including those with close links to the authorities, slamming him of, as critics claim, continuing policy of reversing from the course of education reform, which was started shortly after the Rose Revolution and which was actively pursued by Alexander Lomaia, now Georgia’s UN ambassador and education minister in 2004-2007.
Lomaia in his July interview with Georgian daily, 24 Saati, said it seemed to him, that “a broad picture, which shows place and importance of education in the country’s development perspective has become blur and this [broad picture] is not always clearly visible behind new initiatives” in the education system.
Tea Tutberidze of an influential Tbilisi-based think-tank, Liberty Institute, has been leading recent spate of attacks against Shashkin, also suspected him of misusing state funds. She has requested financial documentations from the Education Ministry for the period under the Shashkin’s ministerial tenure, but said she had so far failed to obtain them accusing the ministry of hiding public information.
On August 25 the Education Ministry announced, that its internal audit had found GEL 600,000 misappropriation case, which, according to the ministry’s internal audit, was committed in 2008 under the ministerial tenure of Ghia Nodia, a professor of political science at Tbilisi-based Ilia State University. The Education Ministry said in early August, that it was also studying some of the suspicious financial circumstances involving the period between 2007 and 2009. Shashkin’s critics perceived the announcement as his response to series of his criticism.
On August 26, when Saakashvili was meeting with a group of school teachers in presence of Dimitri Shashkin and speaking about the education system reform priorities, the President praised him as “very high-class minister.”
In recent weeks, President Saakashvili spoke much in number of his public speeches about priority of the education system.
On August 26 he told group of teachers to ”forget" international law studies, jurisprudence and economics, describing these fields as "totally secondary in respect of today's requirements".
Focus instead should be made on mathematics, physics, engineering, IT technologies and architecture and the state funding will be directed towards these fields, he said.
Saakashvili also said that introduction of new classes in public schools was planned, involving Georgian folk dance and sports classes, as well as civil defense classes; this latter, he said, was required for "total defense" system.
"Our country faces serious challenges; our country was bombed; a serious aggressor is deployed within our borders and we should create total defense system in Georgia's each and every village. We have more than enough arms in police stations' depots to hand them over to people, but all these should be prepared on the level of civil defense system," Saakashvili said.
He also reiterated that focus should be made on English-language learning, saying that Russia “is an authoritarian, feudal, backward state in impasse.” “So our source of information today is English language; I also be very happy if we also learn Chinese,” Saakashvili added.