Republic of Georgia

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.

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Wage Differences Across the Republic of Georgia

The GeoStat data page on the Republic of Georgia includes information on the Average Monthly Remuneration in Business Sector by municipality. As Georgia is divided into many municipalities, mapping these data helps reveal the level of economic differentiation across the country (assuming that the data are accurate). As the resulting map shows, income levels in the business sector vary widely across Georgia, with a low of 301 Georgian Lari a month in Shuakhevi in the southwest to a high of 1,814 Lari a month in Bolnisi in the south-center-east. (The current exchange rate is 2.56 Lari to a US dollar).

 

Overall, the geographical patterns found on this map are vague, with high-, middle-, and low-income municipalities scattered across most reaches of the country. But some patterns can be discerned. The area in and around Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital and by far its largest city, is a relatively high-income area, as would be expected. The Black Sea cities of Batumi and Poti also have relatively high levels of (business) income, the former noted for its tourism-based econony and the latter for its port facilities. But Georgia’s other main urban-focused municipalities (Kutaisi, Rustavi, Gori, and Zugdidi) do not rank high. To some extent, this low showing reflects the industrial decline of the post-Soviet period. As the Wikipedia articles on Kutaisi and Rustavi explain:

Kutaisi was a major industrial center before Georgia’s independence on 9 April 1991. Independence was followed by the economic collapse of the country, and, as a result, many inhabitants of Kutaisi have had to work abroad. Small-scale trade prevails among the rest of the population.

The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 proved disastrous for Rustavi, as it also caused the collapse of the integrated Soviet economy of which the city was a key part. Most of its industrial plants were shut down and 65% of the city’s population became unemployed, with the attendant social problems of high crime and acute poverty that such a situation brings.

In contrast, several primarily rural municipalities have relatively high rankings. Sitting at the top is Bolnisi, an ethnically distinctive area. Its population is primarily Azerbaijani speaking (63%). Its capital, also called Bolnisi, has an unusual ethnic history. Home around 10,000 people, Bolnisi city was established by German (Swabian) immigrants in 1818, who called their new town Yekaterinenfeld. These migrants developed the agrarian and agro-industrial infrastructure of the region, which may contribute to its current prosperity – along with gold mining. As explained in the Wikipedia article:

The main occupations of the colonist Germans were viticulture, horticulture, fruit growing and cattle breeding. At the same time, irrigation, underground drainage and irrigation canals were constructed in Yekaterinenfeld, as well as wine, cognac and cheese factories, and leather and furniture factories. The town’s contemporary economy is mostly agrarian with the notable exceptions of a winery, brewery, and a gold mine in the nearby village of Kazreti.

Several other primarily rural municipalities with relatively levels of business income have strong tourism sectors. These include Mestia in the mountainous northwest, famed for both its natural beauty and its unique architecture. As the Wikipedia article on the town of Mestia notes:

Despite its small size, the townlet was an important centre of Georgian culture for centuries and contains a number of medieval monuments, such as churches and forts, included in a list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The townlet is dominated by stone defensive towers of a type seen in Ushguli and Mestia proper (“Svan towers”). A typical Svan fortified dwelling consisted of a tower, an adjacent house (machubi) and some other household structures encircled by a defensive wall.

Kvareli, a high-income municipality in Georgia’s mountainous northeast, also has a number of tourism attractions, and is noted for its wine production. In west-central Georgia, high-income Kharagauli is the gateway to Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park. Nearby Zestafoni, another relatively high-income municipality, is another important wine-producing area, and is also the site of a large ferro-alloy plant that processes manganese ore. The ore is mined in adjacent Chiatura municipality, which also posts relatively high business-income figures.

These are obviously just preliminary observations, based on casual reading. Much more research would have to be conducted to make any conclusive statements. I was also unable to find any possible reasons for the low levels of business income in such municipalities as Vani and Shuakhevi.

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Economic Geography of the Republic of Georgia, Part 1

(Note to Readers: As I have been invited to give a talk at an academic conference on the Black Sea region to be held in Batumi, Georgia in early June, I will be blogging extensively on this part of the world over the next two months. I begin today by posting several simple economic maps of the Republic of Georgia.)

The Republic of Georgia is a middle-middle-income country; according to the IMF, in 2022 its per capita Gross Domestic Product (in Purchasing Power Parity) was just below the global average (19,789 current international dollars for Georgia as compared to 20,886 for the world.) As country-level economic figures obscure regional variation, I looked for a map of “per capita GDP in Georgia by region” but did not find one. After some searching, I did locate an English-language version of a site called “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” that provides the data that can be used to make such a map. (Unfortunately, there are some minor informational discrepancies on this site; I used the “comparison of regions” feature rather than the map-based information portal, but I do not know which one has more accurate or up-to-date information.)

My main reason for making this map was to see if there is a significant economic distinction between eastern and western Georgia. As will be explored in later posts, these two halves of the country have very distinctive histories and geographies. I expected to find the highest levels of economic development in and around Tbilisi, located in the central part of eastern Georgia, which is by far the largest city in the country. I also expected to find a relatively high per capita GDP figure for the Adjara region in the southwest, where the tourist-oriented city of Batumi is located. Otherwise, I had no expectations.

The GDP map that I made, posted below, does show Tbilisi as having a significantly higher level of economic development than the rest of the country. Adjara also has a higher level of per capita GDP than the national average, although not by much. Overall, the map reveals Georgia as having relatively minor economic differentiation by region. Overall, the western part of the country has slightly higher per capita GDP figures than the eastern half, with the exceptions of Tbilisi and the region just to its north (Mtskheta-Mtianeti).

Regional per capita GDP figures can be misleading, however, as they do not necessarily reflect average income levels. Fortunately, the “Statistical Information by Regions and Municipalities of Georgia” website also has data on the “Average Monthly Remuneration of Employed Persons.” Mapping this information also shows relatively low levels of differentiation across the country, but in this case eastern Georgia comes out slightly ahead of western Georgia.

In both maps, the western region of Guria is shown as having Georgia’s lowest economic figures. Guria’s relatively low level of economic production might seem to defy the stereotype of the region in Georgian popular culture, which emphasizes the ability of its inhabitants to accomplish tasks very quickly. As noted by Bedisa Dumbadze in an article in Georgian Journal:

The explanation of the region’s name “the land of restless” is absolutely suitable for Gurians. Their smart and comical character is well-known throughout Georgia. The inhabitants of the area are thought to be relatively fast in contrast to the inhabitants of other regions. They have special habit of doing everything in a very fast manner. Sometimes it is really difficult to understand what Gurian person is talking about because they speak really fast. There are many jokes about Gurians always being in a hurry. As a result, they manage to do everything in a very short period of time.

Finally, I use the same data source to make a map of unemployment rates by region. As can be seen, Georgia as a whole has a high level of unemployment, with figures varying widely from region to region. I was surprised to see that Tbilisi has a higher-than-average unemployment rate. Even more unexpected was the relatively low unemployment rate it the eastern region of Kakheti, which is shown as having relatively low economic indicators on the other two maps.

I hope to reach a better understanding of these patterns as I continue to learn about the Republic of Georgia. I also want to see if clearer economic patterns might emerge through more fine-scale mapping. The data source that I used today also has information at the municipal level. As Georgia is entirely divided into 76 separate municipalities, such a map can be constructed for the entire country. Making this map will take some time, but I hope to be able to post it within the next week or two.

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