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Historical background

Since the nineteenth century Georgia has almost continuously been part of a Russian or Soviet empire. In the nineteenth century most of the regions that constitute modern Georgia accepted (from a position of weakness) annexation into Russia in order to gain protection from Persia. During that time, the ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups of the country entered into a coalition of a type that had not been experienced before. Georgia's relationship with Russia was one of subordination and in the late half of the nineteenth century the process of Russification intensified, as did Georgian rebellion against it. During World War I the Caucasus became a major battleground as the Russians pushed into eastern Turkey. The region was left in economic misery, social discontent against Russia was widespread, and the area hosted hundreds of thousands of war refugees. In 1918 Georgia declared its independence under the protection of Germany. This move aimed to deter any possible invasion by the Turks. Georgia's independence was recognized by the major European powers, but was short-lived. In 1920 Georgia became part of the Soviet Union, and for the next seven decades, and in political and economic terms, was thoroughly integrated into the Soviet system. In cultural terms, Georgia maintained some independence, and the question of Georgian nationalism remained an important, though at times muted, issue.

Stalin, himself a Georgian, oppressed the people of Georgia, as did citizens of other Soviet republics. In 1924 Stalin ordered the execution of 5,000 nobles in response to a Menshevik revolt, and he purged Georgian intellectuals and artists in 1936-7. During the last two decades of Stalin's rule Georgia experienced rapid urbanization and industrialization, and there was a drastic reduction in illiteracy. Georgian nationalism lessened during World War II and became diffused. One contributory factor was the 1943 restoration of the autonomy of the Georgian Orthodox Church. Another important factor was that in the late Stalinist period, Georgians enjoyed preferential treatment at the expense of other ethnic minorities in the republic. For instance, the Georgian language was constitutionally recognized as the official state language. After Stalin's death in 1953 Georgian nationalism re-emerged. Between 1952 and 1972 the policy of decentralization was used, among other things, by the Georgian communists to reduce even further the influence of other ethnic groups in Georgia. In 1972 the corruption and economic inefficiency that characterized Soviet Georgia was finally acknowledged by Moscow, and Eduard Shevardnadze became the Communist Party First Secretary. He launched a campaign against corruption and chauvinism, which had made Georgian's ruling elites infamous throughout the Soviet Union. By 1980 his economic reforms had significantly increased agricultural and industrial production, and as part of his political reforms he dismissed around 300 members of the party's hierarchy. But when Shevardnadze left office in 1985, significant corruption at government level remained.

During the 1970s and early 1980s Georgians' aspirations for national autonomy increased, and ethnic disputes began to emerge. Georgian nationalists and dissidents gathered around academician and anti-Soviet Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who later became the first president of the Republic of Georgia. Ethnic disputes began in the form of accusations made to central government regarding unfair cultural, linguistic, political, and economic restrictions imposed by Tbilisi. The most serious of these ethnic tensions arose when leaders of the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic threatened to break away from Georgia. Shevardnadze responded by implementing an affirmative action programme that gave Abkhazians political power disproportionate to their minority status as a group in Abkhazia. By 1989 the Abkhaz population made up only 17.8 per cent of the population in the autonomous region. The majority of the population in Abkhazia were ethnic Georgians (44 per cent), and 16 per cent were Russians.

The year 1989 was characterized by a rise in Georgian nationalism and calls for independence from Moscow. Gamsakhurdia organized a referendum on Georgian independence that was approved by 98.9 per cent of Georgian voters. The Georgian parliament passed a declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. The response of Zviad Gamsakhurdia towards ethnic separatist movements was a military one, and, following independence, Georgia became engaged in a year-long battle against South Ossetians. Gamsakhurdia also isolated Georgia economically from Moscow. Gamsakhurdia was violently evicted from office and went into exile, where he organized his forces. He committed suicide in 1994. Another man who has greatly influenced political life in newly independent Georgia is Eduard Shevardnadze. He became head of government in 1992 and again won the April 2000 presidential elections. He has maintained a strong hold on central power to prevent regional separatism. Today the most pressing ethnic conflicts are with the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia and the Autonomous Republic of South Ossetia. The Georgian government has no effective control over these two regions.

CIA World Factbook 2001:
Library of Congress Country Studies:


n April 1991 the Republic of Georgia became independent from the Soviet Union, and since then Georgian political life has undergone considerable changes. National elections were held in 1989, 1990, 1992, and 2000. Inter-ethnic conflicts have prevented elections in a few administrative districts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 1995 Georgia adopted its first democratic, multi-party constitution. According to the constitution, presidential elections are held every five years. Georgia is made up of sixty-three districts, as well as two autonomous republics (Abkhazia and Ajaria), both located on the Black Sea coast, and one autonomous region (South Ossetia).

The constitution provides for a strong executive presidency and a 235-member unicameral parliament. The government was defined as an advisory body to the president, to whom it was directly subordinated.1 The principles of the constitution provide the state with a democratically based structure including the separation of powers, and anticipate the establishment of new institutions to protect basic freedoms and human rights. But democratic institutions have evolved slowly. The main political parties are: the Citizen's Union of Georgia or CUG (headed by Eduard Shevardnadze); the Georgian United Communist Party or UCPG; Industry will Save Georgia or IWSG; the National Democratic Party or NDP; Socialist Party or SPG; the Union for 'Revival' Party or AGUR; and the United Republican Party (URP).

Georgian refugees from Abkhazia (the Abkhaz faction in the Georgian parliament), separatist elements in the breakaway region of Abkhazia, and supporters of the late deposed president Zviad Gamsakhurdia are all opposition/pressure sources inside Georgia.

CIA World Factbook 2001:
The Constitution of Georgia, English version:
Library of Congress


Georgia's twenty-five centuries of history and geographic position have resulted in a rich religion, as well as cultural influences from Persia, Turkey, Russia, and the West. Until the post-Soviet era, Georgia had a reputation for tolerance of minority religious and ethnic groups. However, after 1991, sharp conflicts developed among ethnic groups long considered to be part of the national fabric.

Ethnic groups

The last reported census was conducted during the Soviet period in 1989. According to the Soviet census of 1989, the resident population of Georgia was 5,443,359. At the time of the census the population consisted of 437,211 Armenians (8.1 per cent); 341,720 Russians (6.3 per cent); 307,556 Azeri (5.7 per cent); 164,055 Ossetian (3 per cent); 100,342 Greeks (1.9 per cent); 33,333 Kurds (0.6 per cent); and 24,795 Jews (0.5 per cent). Ethnic Georgians comprise about 70 per cent (3.8 million) of the population. Georgian ethnic and national groups contain a number of sub-groups, such as the Svans, Ajars, Khevsur, and Mingrelians. They all speak Georgian and, with the exception of the Muslim Ajars, are predominantly Christian.

ReligionsGeorgian Orthodox 65 per cent; Muslim 11 per cent; Russian Orthodox 10 per cent; Armenian Apostolic 8 per cent; unknown 6 per cent.

LanguagesGeorgian (official) spoken by 71 per cent of population; Russian spoken by 9 per cent; Armenian by 7 per cent; Azeri by 6 per cent; other 7 per cent.

It is thought that there was a decline in the population of Georgia from 5,447,300 in 1992 to 5,368,000 in 1996. Emigration is thought to have markedly increased since 1989, contributing to a decline in population growth. Sources estimate that the total population of Georgia currently stands at 4,989,285 (e.g., CIA World Factbook 2001). In January 2002 the government of Georgia conducted a census, but results have not yet been published.

CIA World Factbook 2001
Republic of Georgia Census
'Georgia', The Europa World Year Book 1999, London, Europa Publications
The World Directory of Minorities 1997. Minority Rights Group International, London
US Department of State

Minority ethnic groups, location, and religion

Armenians are geographically highly concentrated. They live mainly in Javakheti province in the southern part of Georgia on the borders with Armenia and Turkey. Armenians make up 90 per cent of the population in the province and have strong links to Armenia. The urban populations speak Georgian to a limited extent, and schooling is in Armenian. The region is underdeveloped. There is also hostility between Armenians and Azeris due to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, expressed in terrorist actions on gas pipelines and roads leading to Armenia or Azerbaijan.

The Azeris are concentrated in the south-eastern districts of Marneuli, Bolsini, Dmanisi, and Gardabani, and in the town of Rustavi and elsewhere in eastern Georgia. Most of the Azeri population is rural and most of them are Shia Muslims. The Azeris play a significant role in agricultural production. The districts populated by the Azeris are underdeveloped and in great need of social and economic development. There is a high birth rate among the Azeris.

Russians are not geographically concentrated in Georgia and this restricts their political/ethnic representation. Most Russians emigrated to Georgia during Soviet rule, and they settled in significant numbers in urbanized areas, especially in Rustavi and Tbilisi, as well as in Abkhazia. Russians are migrating to Russia in large numbers, but also to Canada and elsewhere. This is leading to a loss of qualified labour from Georgian industry. Most Russians are Greek Orthodox, and this ethnic group is characterized by a low birth rate.

The Ossetians are the last descendants of a nomadic people of Iranian origin and speak a language, derived from that of a northern Iranian people, whose use in the region can be traced back to the fourth century.1 Ossetia has experienced many border changes. Stalin divided North Ossetia into the Russian Federation and the South Ossetian Autonomous Region into the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia. South Ossetia is located in northern Georgia and shares its northern border with the Republic of North Ossetia (of the Russian Federation).

Ossetians include both Orthodox Christians and some Muslims. There are mixed Ossetian/Georgian families. The young generation has been less inclined to learn the Georgian language, preferring Russian instead.

Abkhazians are considered to be autochthonous to the Caucasus and speak a north-western Caucasian language related to Circassian.2 The region of Abkhazia is located in the north-west of Georgia along the Black Sea coastline; it is an autonomous region within Georgia. There are both Christians and Muslims among the Abkhaz. Greeks live mostly in south-eastern Georgia, in large cities, around the Black Sea coast in western Georgia, mainly in Abkhazia and Ajaria.

The Greeks emigrated to Georgia in the nineteenth century from Anatolia and other parts of Turkey. Greeks are mainly Orthodox Christians, and many are currently emigrating to Greece.

Most of the Jews in Georgia are either Ashkenazim or Georgian Jews (Georgian-speaking and considered to be of Sephardic origin). Jews are believed to have lived in Georgia for more than twenty centuries. The great majority of Jews from Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Oni, etc. have recently moved to Israel or to the West.

Most Kurds arrived in Georgia at the time of the Ottoman Empire, having fled religious repression there. They now live mainly in Tbilisi or Rustavi. Kurds are mostly urbanized and socially integrated, but preserve their ethnic identity, language, and cultural traditions. Kurds in Georgia are sympathetic to the aspirations of the Kurd nationalist movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran.

The Meskhetian Turks originate from the north-western part of Javakheti province, but in 1944 Stalin ordered their deportation from their homeland in the south of Georgia to Central Asia. According to the World Directory of Minorities (1997), over 115,000 Meskhetian Turks were uprooted.3 The majority of Meskhetian Turks were deported to Uzbekistan (106,000), but some live in Kazakstan (50,000) and Kyrgistan (21,000).

Georgian Parliament Homepage
Library of Congress Country Studies
'Georgia', London, Europa Publications

Geography, society and economy

The size of Georgia is approximately 69,875 square kilometres. It is located in south-western Asia between Turkey and Russia, and borders the Black Sea. In the east Georgia has borders with Azerbaijan, and in the south with Armenia. At present Georgia has a GDP of US$1.5 billion, about $324 per capita. Thirty per cent of its GDP comes from agriculture. The Department of Statistics estimates 52.6 per cent of the population live below poverty level. The unemployment rate is 14.9 per cent. In the early years of the post-Soviet era, Georgia's economy experienced negative growth due to destruction of its infrastructure, lack of investment, and the failure to reorganize economically. In 2001 three main problems affected Georgia's economy and made short-term economic predictions difficult. These were a growing trade deficit, continuing problems with tax evasion and corruption, and political uncertainty. Traditionally, Georgia's economy has revolved around Black Sea tourism, the cultivation of citrus fruits, tea, and grapes, the mining of manganese and copper, and small-scale industries producing wine, metals, machinery, chemicals, and textiles. It has few domestic energy bases and 95 per cent of its energy is imported (mostly in the form of oil and natural gas). It has high potential for hydroelectric power, but this is mainly untapped. Power output does not meet domestic needs.

Georgia's main natural resources include forests, hydropower, manganese deposits, iron ore, copper, and small coal and oil deposits. The coastal climate and soils allow for important tea and citrus cultivation.

Currently, the most pressing environmental issues are air pollution, particularly in Rustavi, heavy pollution of the Black Sea and the Mtkvari River, inadequate supplies of potable water, and soil pollution from toxic chemicals.

Georgia's terrain is diverse, with mountainous regions comprising two-thirds of the territory. The Greater Caucasus Mountains dominate the north, and the Lesser Caucasus Mountains dominate the south. Georgia has many rivers that flow through mountain gorges into the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Kolkhida Lowland area opens to the Black Sea in the west. The east consists mainly of plains.

The climate of Georgia is also varied. Along the coast there is a subtropical, humid climate. The mountains protect Georgia from northern climatic influences, and temperature zones reflect elevation. The plains in the east have a continental climate. In the highest mountains there is snow throughout the year.

During the Soviet period Georgia's system of universal free health care was considered among the best. However, the social security system has collapsed and has not been replaced because of the financial problems of the state. The health care system came under severe stress after 1991. Today, any medical services have to be paid for by the patient. A medical insurance system does not exist. Civil war and political instability blocked the reform programme of the early 1990s. Health facilities have been further stretched by refugee influxes and emergency care requirements.

Infant mortality rates are high, 52.37 per 1,000 live births, while the fertility rate is low: the average number of children born per woman is 1.45. Most of the population, 67.91 per cent, is between 15 and 64 years of age. Average life expectancy is 64.57 years, 61 years for men and 63 years for women. The net migration rate stands at -2.48 migrant(s) per 1,000. All these figures are estimates for 2001.

Education is free and compulsory through secondary school. The Soviet system attempted to strengthen Georgian language and history. Some teaching continues in minority languages. There are nineteen institutions of higher learning. Literacy was estimated at 100 per cent in the 1980s.

CIA World Factbook 2001
Library of Congress Country Studies
US Department of State
Last updated Aug 17, 2011