Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Georgian, Mingrelian, Svan, Armenian, Azeri, Russian
Main religions: Georgian Orthodox Christianity (83.4 per cent), Islam (10.7 per cent), Armenian Apostolic Christianity (2.9 per cent) and other faiths including Judaism, Yezidism and other Christian denominations
In 1989, when it was still part of the Soviet Union (USSR), ethnic minorities made up one-third of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia’s population. However, these numbers decreased after the country’s independence. In absolute terms all ethnic groups declined; in proportional terms, however, decline was especially dramatic among minority groups (particularly Slavic minorities, Jews, Greeks and Armenians).
According to the most recent 2014 census, the largest ethnic minorities are Azerbaijanis 233,000 (6.3 per cent) and Armenians 168,100 (4.5 per cent). Other ethnic groups include Russians 26,500 (0.7 per cent), Ossetians 14,400 (0.4 per cent), Yezidis 12,200 (0.3 per cent), Greeks 5,500 (0.1 per cent), Kists 5,700 (0.2 per cent), Assyrians 2,400 (0.1 per cent), Ukrainians 6,000 (0.2 per cent) as well as small Jewish and Polish communities. Several of these are minorities on both ethnic and religious grounds. As a special group one can mention the Meskhetians, a Muslim population originally from Georgia, deported by the Stalin regime to Central Asia in 1944, and now seeking repatriation to Georgia. Azerbaijanis and Armenians are concentrated in the regions of Kvemo Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti, where they constitute numerical majorities.
For information on the populations of the de facto (but largely unrecognized) states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, see the separate entries for each.
According to the 2014 census, Ossetians within Georgia but outside South Ossetia numbered 14,400 (0.4 per cent), down from 100,000 prior to the outbreak of conflict in 1989. The numbers of Ossetians and Abkhaz in undisputed Georgian territory certainly fell as a result of the August 2008 war, but the extent and duration of displacement remain difficult to determine.
In the Georgian language, based on the Kartli dialect spoken in eastern Georgia, Georgians refer to themselves as Kartveli. The Kartvelian language family, to which Georgian belongs, also includes three vernaculars: Mingrelian, spoken in western Georgia, Svan, spoken in the north-central mountainous region of Svaneti, and Laz, spoken mainly along the north Black Sea coast of Turkey but also in small pockets of south-west Georgia. Mingrelian and Svan speakers use Georgian as their literary language and lingua franca. Although the existence of these separate languages is indicative of different identity groups within the Georgian nation, they have not to date formed the basis for mobilization as distinct ethnic groups.
Though Georgia contains a variety of religious minority communities, including Muslims, various non-Orthodox Christian denominations and other faith groups such as Bahá’i, with freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution, the majority Orthodox Church has played an increasing role in recent years in the country’s political life. The years since independence, however, has seen the emergence of non-denominational religious communities as a result of the penetration of such Western evangelical groups as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostalists, Seventh Day Adventists and others. However, no statistics are available for them.
Georgia’s Jewish population is small, comprising only a few thousand people mainly living in Tbilisi. This follows large-scale Jewish emigration from across Soviet Union, including Georgia, to Israel beginning in the 1970’s. Despite its reduced size, the Jewish community remains vibrant, encompassing for instance a community welfare programme and an academy for Jewish studies, established in 1998. Tbilisi’s Great Synagogue, inaugurated in 1903, is an internationally recognised heritage site, attracting Jewish and other visitors from around the world. Community representatives report that relations with their neighbours are generally cordial, helped by a mutual support agreement signed with the Georgian Orthodox Church in 2001.
According to the 2014 census, the population of Georgia is just 3.7 million, compared to a little below 4.4 million in 2002. Though the official figures are widely disputed, they nevertheless indicate that Georgia’s population has been shrinking. Demographic decline is not a new phenomenon in Georgia, however: in its early years of independence, a large number of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Russians and other minorities left the country amid fears of rising ethno-nationalism, economic insecurity and the escalation of civil conflict in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and then Abkhazia, now a de facto separatist republic. While many have left the country in the years since, emigration levels have been disproportionately high among minorities, meaning their representation within Georgia has declined markedly. Despite significant progress in certain areas, including a number of recent measures to support the full participation of minorities in public life, the country’s history of division continues to be felt to this day, reflected in ongoing tensions over minority languages, religions and cultures. Religiously motivated violence and an inadequate response from law-enforcement agencies to address the problem have also persisted, despite efforts to promote integration.
As Georgia is a largely Orthodox Christian country, the Orthodox Church’s resurgence since the end of Soviet rule has heavily influenced the development of Georgian nationalism. In addition to widespread popular support, the Church’s position has also been strengthened through a 2020 agreement with the state that provides official recognition and a range of benefits that include tax relief, exemptions, and a significant role in the country’s education system. Minority religions, in contrast, are often seen as a threat to Georgian identity, particularly when a specific ethnicity is perceived to have ties with nearby countries – for example, the description of Georgian Muslims in some media outlets as ‘Turks’. In some state schools, particularly in the autonomous republic of Adjara bordering Turkey, Muslim students have reportedly been stigmatized and even at times faced pressure to convert – a situation that, as described by the Advisory Committee on the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (FCNM) in its 2015 opinion, undermines the legal principle of the school as a ‘neutral space where religious indoctrination, proselytism and forced assimilation are forbidden’.
While the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia and other government bodies have taken steps to protect important minority heritage sites such as mosques, as well as provide some support to contemporary cultural activities such as theatrical productions in minority languages, the contribution of Georgia’s minority traditions to the country’s heritage is often undervalued. Furthermore, while many religious and cultural monuments belonging to minorities are in need of immediate rehabilitation, recent research has suggested that less than 1 per cent of funding provided by cities and towns to religious organizations, including for the preservation of buildings, went to non-Orthodox groups. Furthermore, in parts of the country the construction of new places of worship by minority communities is still constrained by regulations and local resistance. Muslims in Batumi, for instance, the capital of Adjara region, have long been denied permission to build a second mosque in the city, obstructed by nationalist politicians who have attacked the proposal as a threat to Georgian identity. Other religious minorities, such as Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses, have also experienced barriers in securing permission to construct churches or Kingdom Halls. These and other restrictions highlight the continued need, as emphasized by the FCNM Advisory Committee, for authorities to promote the ‘integration of society while fully valuing and respecting its ethnic, cultural, religious, and language diversity’.
Despite its legislative framework on anti-discrimination and the creation of a new state agency on religious affairs in 2014, increased attacks on Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses have been recorded across Georgia, including numerous incidents in different villages where the rights of Muslims were infringed by the local population, often with the involvement of local authorities and police officers. Furthermore, some civil society groups and religious leaders have expressed concern about the mandate of the Agency of Religious Issues, fearing it might be used by the government to control religious organizations.
The Law of Georgia on Stateless Persons and Refugees, adopted on 1 September 2014, has decreased the length of visa-free stay for foreigners in Georgia from 360 days to 90 days in any 180-day period. The law also cancelled the visa-free regime with 24 countries. These new migration policies have created serious problems for foreigners who are permanent residents of Georgia and for former citizens of Georgia whose citizenship was suspended because they were granted citizenship of another country. Among those affected are ethnic Armenians living in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region, since many travel to Russia every year to work as manual labourers. Before the passing of the new legislation, Armenian citizens were able to live in Georgia without any additional documents, as long as they crossed a state border once every year.
Georgia’s urban landscape has changed rapidly since its independence in 1991. The transition towards a market economy was accompanied by economic decline and increasing regional disparities due to the difficulties of moving from a rural to an urban economy. Much of the country’s urban life is concentrated in the capital, Tbilisi, where almost half of the country’s urban population is based. While Tbilisi is responsible for over 50 per cent of national production, other regions are less developed. For example, the regions of Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli – the only two of Georgia’s nine regions in which minorities make up a majority of the population – have struggled to keep up with the rapid economic growth of the capital. Both remain predominantly agricultural regions.
Rural–urban disparities have reinforced existing inequalities experienced by certain minority populations. These gaps are especially evident in terms of service access: for example, only 29 per cent of the households in Samtskhe Javakheti and 44 per cent in Kvemo Kartli have bathroom facilities. Regional disparities, poverty and unemployment have been flagged as key priorities by the government in the new Social Economic Development Strategy for 2020, which if implemented could benefit a large proportion of Georgia’s minorities.
The Republic of Georgia, formerly the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia until independence in 1991, is situated in the west-central part of the South Caucasus at the southern foothills of the Greater Caucasian mountain range. It borders on the North Caucasian republics of the Russian Federation to the north (Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia), Azerbaijan to the south-east, Armenia to the south and Turkey to the south-west. It has a western coastline on the Black Sea.
Due its geographical location, Georgia has historically formed a meeting point between regional empires, with correspondingly few periods of independent statehood. After periods of Roman, Pontic, Iranian and Arab domination, Georgia attained political unity under the Bagratid dynasty in the early Middle Ages. The Bagratid kingdom eventually succumbed to successive waves of Mongol invasions from the east in the mid-fifteenth century. Until incorporation into the Russian state in the nineteenth century, the kingdom remained fragmented under loose Ottoman suzerainty. Political loyalties were largely local and dynastic, juxtaposed with a more global cultural orientation based on the autocephalous Georgian Orthodox Church and its close link to Georgian as its liturgical language.
Beginning in the late eighteenth century the Russian empire incorporated the various kingdoms and principalities formerly making up the heartland of the Bagratid kingdom. By the late eighteenth century the threat posed by growing Persian expansionism led King Erekle II of the eastern Georgian kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti to seek protection from co-religionist Russia. In 1783 the Treaty of Georgievsk, establishing Kartli-Kakheti as a Russian protectorate, was concluded. However, in 1801 Russia annexed Kartli-Kakheti directly and over the course of the nineteenth century incorporated piecemeal the remaining kingdoms and principalities once forming part of the Bagratid kingdom.
In 1918 a short-lived independent Georgian state emerged from the collapsing Russian Empire, only to be reincorporated into the Soviet state by invading Bolshevik forces in 1921. Georgia then formed part of the Soviet Union until 1991. The absence of a tradition of indigenous statehood accounts for the high degree of multi-ethnicity in post-Soviet Georgia and the low degree of identification with the Georgian state among its various minorities. The Georgians remained one of the least russified of the Soviet Union’s major nationalities and enjoyed de facto domination of the republic’s key political and economic posts. This was reflected in the progressive increase in the Georgian share of the republic’s population at the expense of minorities. However, Soviet nationalities policy also created a number of autonomous regions in Georgia – autonomous republics for the Abkhaz minority in Abkhazia and the Georgian Muslim population in Ajaria, and an autonomous region in South Ossetia for the Ossetian minority.
Georgia’s multi-ethnic composition became overtly politicized in the context of political reform in the Gorbachev era, when the Georgians’ claims to entitlement clashed with minorities’ fears of subordination in a Georgian-dominated state. The continued existence of autonomous republics remained a source of tension between majority and minorities. The existence of these autonomous units was a source of tension between majority and minorities already in the Soviet period, particularly in Abkhazia. The politicization of ethnicity, general lawlessness accompanied by the rise of rival militias, and the absence of strong political institutions all contributed to the transformation of political conflict into civil strife and secessionist conflict. Armed conflict between Ossetian separatists and the Georgian National Guard followed the abolition of South Ossetia’s autonomous status by the Georgian legislature in December 1990.
Georgia declared independence on 9 April 1991 following a referendum. By an overwhelming majority, former dissident and leader of the nationalist Round Table Coalition Zviad Gamsakhurdia was elected president in May 1991. President Gamsakhurdia’s period in power saw a sharp deterioration in majority–minority relations, as policies in the fields of language, electoral laws and citizenship threatened to exclude minorities from political life. At the same time, Gamsakhurdia’s authoritarianism alienated many of his former supporters, leading to low-level civil strife and eventually outright civil war in December 1991. Gamsakhurdia was ousted in a January 1992 coup, and the putchists invited former head of the Georgian Communist Party and later Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze, to lead the government. A cease-fire in South Ossetia was agreed following Shevardnadze’s return, but in 1993 large-scale conflict broke out in Abkhazia in parallel to fighting between government forces and militias loyal to former president Gamsakhurdia. Shevardnadze allied with Russian forces to defeat his rival. But Georgian defeat in South Ossetia and Abkhazia resulted in the unrecognized secession of these territories. It also marked the onset of protracted and heavily internationalized peace processes. Shevardnadze agreed to Russian-led peacekeeping missions in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but the presence of Russian soldiers would become increasingly contentious.
As post-Soviet Georgia underwent considerable political upheaval against a wider context of economic collapse and a breakdown of social order, increasing emigration from Georgia was disproportionately high among minority groups. Public surveys found that minorities cited ethnic discrimination as a background factor. They also cited unemployment, economic insecurity and the inability to pursue meaningful careers as pressing concerns. New opportunities for some minorities to obtain citizenship of ethnic homelands were also significant.
The November 2003 the ‘Rose Revolution’ (the first of the ‘colour revolutions’ in the former Soviet Union) saw a coalition of opposition leaders harness public revulsion at that month’s flawed parliamentary elections and longstanding, rampant corruption. The opposition succeeded in ousting powerful and entrenched interests from government, including President Shevardnadze.
Although ethnic issues were peripheral to the Rose Revolution, political change injected them with a new dynamism. President Mikheil Saakashvili, elected in January 2004, placed a pledge to restore the country’s territorial integrity at the core of his public statements. After taking power, his administration initially wavered between confrontational policies (such as the ‘humanitarian storming’ of South Ossetia in summer 2004, leading to a renewed if fleeting outbreak of violence) and more measured approaches promoting ‘road maps’ for resolution.
Dramatic political change in 2004 did not alleviate underlying structural tensions between majority and minorities in Georgia. Georgia’s most significant minorities, the Azeris and Armenians, remained concentrated in outlying regions of the republic (Kvemo Kartli and Javakheti respectively), characterized by economic decline and isolation. These regions were poorly connected to the rest of Georgia and suffered from extreme poverty. In Javakheti, the continued presence of a Russian military base, which has provided the local Armenian population with its principal source of employment, has been a particular point of controversy in the region’s relations with Tbilisi.
The Georgian government faced pressure to allow the repatriation of the Meskhetian Turks, a group of mixed Turkic-Georgian ancestry deported by the Stalin regime to Central Asia in November 1944. Unlike other deported peoples rehabilitated in the 1950s and 1960s, the Meskhetian Turks had never been rehabilitated nor compensated for their loss of property. They also had not been allowed to return to their land of origin. After independence, the Georgian authorities were reluctant to facilitate their repatriation, for both material and ideological reasons. The Meskhetian Turks’ original lands in Samtskhe-Javakheti were now largely populated by Armenians hostile to their return, and the Georgian state lacked the capacity to provide resources for the re-integration of this community. Nevertheless, in 1999, the Georgian government made a commitment to the Council of Europe that the Meskhetian Turks would be resettled by 2011. In 2005 the Georgian government undertook surveys on the social, economic and legal needs of potential returnees.
Tensions between Georgia and Russia, which was overtly sympathetic to Ossetian and Abkhaz separatists, sharply increased in 2006. Georgia’s detention of Russian military officers on spying charges prompted Moscow to embargo trading with Georgia and suspend transportation links. Meanwhile, Moscow assiduously provided Ossetians and Abkhaz in the two territories with Russian passports. ‘Protecting Russian citizens’ became a leading justification for Russian actions in Georgia.
Geopolitical factors provided added incentives for conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow. In December 2006, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that if Kosovo were to gain independence from Serbia, then Abkhazia and South Ossetia should be free to become independent of Georgia. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence and many countries, including the United States and most EU member states, recognized it over Moscow’s strenuous objections. Russia was angered by American military support to Georgia and support for Saakashvili’s ambitions for Georgian membership in NATO. Moscow also disliked the US-backed oil pipeline opened in July 2006 that traversed Georgia from Azerbaijan to Turkey, and which reduced Russian leverage over EU member states by making them less reliant on Russian energy supplies. As tensions between Georgia and Russia mounted in 2007 and 2008, conditions worsened for ethnic minorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Exclusion of minorities in these regions threatened to push the region into conflict.
Conflict escalated dramatically in August 2008 following skirmishes between Georgian forces and Ossetian militias. Hours after declaring a cease-fire, Saakashvili ordered a full military assault on the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali ‘to restore constitutional order’. Claiming that South Ossetian militias had first shelled Georgian villages, Georgian forces bombed and shelled Ossetian targets for two days and entered the city, with disputed results. Large numbers of Russian forces (following sizeable reinforcements to ‘peacekeeping’ units in South Ossetia and Abkhazia over the preceding months) poured across the border within hours to stop what Moscow termed ‘genocide’. Russian claims of 1,500-2,000 civilian deaths from the Georgian offensive on Tskhinvali were subsequently called into question. Although there were reports of Georgian abuses and likely war crimes, Human Rights Watch could only document about 100 civilian deaths, and Russian prosecutors only 133. Among Russians, Georgians and Ossetians, military fatalities were thought to number in the hundreds.
Russian forces joined Ossetian irregulars in quickly driving the Georgian army from South Ossetia but did not stop there. Russia also moved troops into Abkhazia and swathes of Georgia proper, where they forced Georgian forces to retreat and destroyed military and civilian infrastructure alike.
South Ossetian paramilitaries joined Russian forces in crossing into Georgia proper, particularly around the town of Gori. Widespread reports of war crimes and human rights abuses emerged from the conflict zones and ethnic Georgians fled and were driven from areas of Russian and Ossetian/Abkhaz control. Russia agreed to a French ceasefire proposal in mid-August but was slow to withdraw its forces from Georgia proper. Before the month was out, Moscow recognized South Ossetian and Abkhaz independence and in September entered ‘friendship treaties’ with the two territories that included pledges of military assistance and cooperation. Although western countries in particular continued to reject their independence, the longstanding de facto independence of the two territories appeared cemented, with displaced Georgian minorities in each facing long odds of ever returning home.
The de facto secession of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia prior to and shortly after independence, coupled with Russian involvement in these conflicts and support for secessionist minorities, established the context for subsequent policies towards national minorities. The new Constitution adopted in 1995 envisaged a federal structure for Georgia but left the precise terms vague pending the resolution of the conflicts.
Under the Georgian Constitution, the president, elected to a five-year term, serves as head-of-cabinet and appoints the prime minister. A unicameral parliament, which under a constitutional amendment in 2003 shrank from 235 to 150 seats in January 2008, is elected by proportional representation. Supreme and constitutional courts sit atop a weak judiciary.
As Georgia declared its independence, autonomous entities within the new state such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia also declared themselves as separate states, which resulted in conflict. After the 1992 civil war the government undertook a number of steps aimed at including minorities and promoting diversity, such as the establishment of relevant state agencies and the appointment of minority representatives in different positions. The government also officially condemned an ethno-centric approach. However, inconsistent policy development posed a major impediment to the realization of minority rights. With the Rose Revolution of 2003, the Georgian government gradually implemented a number of reforms in various areas, including the promotion of minority rights. Article 38 of the Georgian Constitution states that citizens of Georgia shall be equal in social, economic, cultural and political life, irrespective of their national, ethnic, religious or linguistic belonging. The State Minister’s Office for Reconciliation and Civic Equality is responsible for the implementation of minority related policies, based on Georgia’s first ever strategy, enshrined in the National Concept and Action Plan for Tolerance and Civil Integration (2009–2014). This implemented activities in the following areas: the rule of law, education and the state language, availability of media and information, political integration and civil involvement, social and regional integration, and culture and identity. Subsequently, the government adopted its National Strategy for the Protection of Human Rights in Georgia (2014-2020) and its Action Plan, which prioritises minority rights and religious freedoms. Key steps include strengthened state language knowledge for members of ethnic minorities in order to encourage greater participation in Georgia’s social, economic and cultural life. A further crucial step was the adoption of anti-discrimination legislation, namely the law ‘On the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination’ in 2014.
In 2005 the Council of National Minorities was established, bringing together most minority organizations operating in the country. The Council is regarded as the main platform for consultation and cooperation between minority organizations and governmental structures, including the monitoring of the National Concept and Action Plan. The level of integration of minorities is interlinked with the degree of their knowledge of the Georgian language. By law, knowledge of the official language is a necessary condition for any citizen for employment in the public service, both at the central and regional levels. However, even when minorities are fluent in Georgian, problems with regard to civil and political participation remain. Georgian legislation does not provide for any quotas for the representation of national minorities in government bodies and agencies.
At the regional level ethnic minorities are adequately represented only in areas where they are heavily concentrated, especially Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli. As a result, the influence of minorities on decision-making processes is very low and in central institutions, levels of minority political representation remain limited. Following the 2016 parliamentary elections, ethnic minorities won 11 seats (7.3 per cent) – roughly half of their share of the national population. Minority representation in local government was also poor until reforms passed in 2006. Local governments now largely reflect the demographics of the regions they represent.
Roma communities face extreme marginalization and discrimination, leading to poverty, unemployment, lack of access to education and health care. Due to a general lack of proper documentation, they are excluded from social security programmes. In July 2007, the parliament passed legislation on the repatriation of deported populations such as Meskhetian Turks, establishing a mechanism for receiving repatriation applications beginning in January 2008. Currently there are three small communities of Meskhetians in Georgia, two in Western Georgia and one in Samtskhe-Javakheti, who mainly repatriated themselves in the 80-ties.
While the government of Georgia focuses mainly on national minorities in the Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli regions with regard to their integration through Georgian language learning, the needs of smaller minority groups including the Udins, Avars, Ossetians, Assyrians and Abkhaz are for the most part overlooked. As a result, their languages and cultural heritage are endangered due to a gradual assimilation with the mainstream majority.
In June 2014, Georgia signed an association agreement with the European Union (EU), initialled at the Eastern Partnership Vilnius Summit of November 2013. The agreement, which was subsequently ratified by the Georgian parliament in July 2014, was a decisive step in the country’s reform process and includes provisions on the protection and inclusion of minorities. As part of its developing relationship with the EU, Georgia has also committed to a four-year communication and information strategy that explicitly underlines that specific efforts should be undertaken to ensure that minorities in Georgia receive information in a language that they understand. In May the government also adopted an anti-discrimination law that prohibits discrimination on religious, ethnic or other grounds, though the legislation was modified from its original version following strong resistance from the Orthodox Church, particularly over its provisions on sexual orientation.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Civic Integration Foundation
European Centre for Minority Issues
Website: www.ecmi.de, http://www.ecmicaucasus.org/
Public Movement Multinational Georgia
[Unites the representatives of different ethnic groups living in Georgia]
International Crisis Group
Centre for Humanitarian Programmes
Armenian Cooperation Centre of Georgia