The East/West Divide in the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia exhibits a marked east/west division. This divide is especially notable in physical geography. As can be seen on the first map posted below, western Georgia is dominated but a sizable coastal lowland, with its rivers draining into the Black Sea, whereas eastern Georgia is more elevated and drains into the Caspian Sea. As is also evident on this map, the breakaway Russian client statelet of South Ossetia extends across much of north-central Georgia, partially separating the country’s two macro-regions. As the satellite-based map of Georgia reveals, a band of forested land also marks the divide between the two halves of the country. And as can be seen in the third map posted below shows, the area in which most people speak Georgian and related Kartvelian languages as their mother-tongue is almost bifurcated into eastern and western segments by a band of rough topography that is mostly occupied by non-Georgian-speaking peoples.


Eastern and western Georgia are also climatically differentiated. The west experiences heavy year-round precipitation, with its coastal areas approaching a humid subtropical climate. Eastern Georgia, in contrast, is subhumid, with parts of its eastern extremity verging on semi-arid status. In the east, rainfall is concentrated in the late spring and early summer, as can be seen in the precipitation table posted below.

The division between western and eastern Georgia is also found in the historical and cultural spheres. Through much of the ancient period, western Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Colchis, whereas eastern Georgia was dominated by the Kingdom of Iberia. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Georgia was united into a single kingdom that became a powerful empire in the 12th and early 13th centuries. In the post-medieval period, however, Georgia was split into several competing kingdoms, and in the sixteenth century the western half of the country came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire while the eastern half came under the rule of the Safavid (Persian) Empire. In the early 19th century, both halves of the country were annexed by the Russian Empire. Independence as a single state did not come until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Western and eastern Georgia are also differentiated on cultural grounds.  Most notably, western Georgia is characterized by a deeper level of cultural diversity. As the map below shows, the northwest has its own distinctive languages, Mingrelian and Svan. Although these tongues are related to Georgian, they broke from the common ancestral language many centuries ago. Today, however, Mingrelian and Svan are declining and are considered endangered, as local people increasingly switch to Georgian. The breakaway statelet of Abkhazia in the far northwest is characterized by pronounced ethnolinguistic diversity, although its diversity was significantly reduced when most of the local Georgian population was expelled after the break-up of the Soviet Union. In the southwest, the Adjara region is noted for its distinctive dialect of Georgian and for the prevalence of Sunni Islam rather than Orthodox Christianity in most rural areas. Owning to such cultural distinctiveness, Adjara is officially classified as an autonomous region. (As will be explored in a later post, Shia Islam is dominant across much of south-central Georgia.)

Despite such differences between western and eastern Georgia, the country is characterized by a strong sense of national cohesion, with muted regional divisions. Georgia’s deeply rooted national identity will be explored in more detail in later posts. For the time being, I would only note that it may be of minor significance that the demographic core of western Georgia is offset to the east (in the Imereti region), while that of eastern Georgia is offset to the west (in the Tbilisi region). This pattern is clearly visible in the population cartogram posted below.

It might seem surprising that the core area of western Georgia is not located in the Black Sea coastal lowlands. The historical disease environment helps explain this pattern. Until recently, the humid and flat lands of far western Georgia had a high incidence of malaria, reducing its population and marginalized its political and economic position. Malaria was finally eliminated in the 1970s, but it returned after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was not fully extirpated until around 2010.