Language, Religion, and the Changing Ethnic Geography of the Republic of Georgia

The Republic of Georgia is a clear example of an ethno-national state. According to its 2014 census, 86.8% of its people are ethnic Georgians. Ethnic Georgians are generally reckoned as those people who speak either Georgian or one of its sister Kartvelian languages (Mingrelian and Svan) as their mother tongue. Most ethnic Georgians identify with the Georgian Orthodox Church, although the Georgian-speaking Sunni Muslims of Adjara in the southwest are also included in the ethnic group. As the map posted below indicates, western Georgia (excluding the break-away state of Abkhazia) is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Georgians, whereas eastern and especially central Georgia are more diverse.

Of Georgia’s de facto lands, the south-central area has the largest non-ethnic-Georgian population. Most language maps of the country show four linguistically marked non-Georgian ethnic groups in this region: Azerbaijanis (or Azeris), Russians, Greeks, and Armenians. The latter three groups are of Christian heritage and the first is of Shia Muslim heritage. As was explored in a previous post, Georgia’s Azerbaijani population is essentially stable. It is a different story, however, for the country’s ethnic Russian, Greek, and Armenian communities. As a result of their decline, Georgia has become more ethnically Georgian than it was under Soviet rule, a process also propelled by the separation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Ethnolinguistic mapping, however, has generally not kept pace with these changes.

As can be seen in the table posted below, Armenians and Russians together accounted for more than 20% of Georgia’s population in 1959. By 1989, however, their joint total had declined to a little over 14%. After independence, the Russian (and Ukrainian) population declined precipitously, dropping to less than 1% in 2014. The population of the Armenian community was roughly cut in half in the same period. The Greek population increased slightly between 1959 and 1989, but it too collapsed after independence in 1991. Most Greek communities in both Abkhazia and south-central Georgia migrated at this time to Greece.

Georgia’s Armenian population is concentrated in the south-central part of the country, although Tbilisi still has a substantial community. As can be seen on the map below, two municipalities in the south-center have large Armenian majorities, Ninotsminda and Akhalkalaki, which are partly located on the sparsely populated Javakheti Plateau. The reduction of Georgia’s Armenian population is related both to local ethnic tensions and to strains between Georgia and Armenia, which are of relatively long-standing. In 1918, the two countries fought an inconclusive border war when they enjoyed a brief period of independence after the fall of Russian Empire. At that time, the large Armenian community in Tbilisi was subjected to various forms of persecution. (In the nineteenth century, Tbilisi had an Armenian plurality.) Since independence in 1991, relations between the two countries have been reasonably good. They are complicated, however, by both Armenia’s military alliance with Russia, which supports Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and by Georgia’s close ties with Turkey and Azerbaijan, Armenia’s main adversaries.

A Wikipedia article outline some of the more specific sources of ethnic tensions in south-central Georgia:

Tensions in Samtskhe–Javakheti have run high at times. One reason is based in the official Georgian language policy that does, officially, not allow the Armenian Language to be used in public or administrative offices, even if citizen and officer speak better Armenian than Georgian.

Some Armenian political groupings of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, among them most notably the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), claim that Javakhk (the Armenian name for Javakheti) should belong to Armenia,United Armenia shall include all territories designated as Armenia by the Treaty of Sevres as well as the regions of Artsakh (Nagorno Karabkh), Javakhk (Armenian name for Javakheti), and Nakhchivan. However, Javakhk (Javakheti) is not officially claimed by the government of Armenia.

Ethnic Russians in Georgia have historically been concentrated in urban areas, and therefore have a minor presence on language maps of the country. The Russian-speaking area that does appear on maps is found in the now overwhelmingly Armenian-speaking municipality of Ninotsminda. Most of the Russians in this area were Doukhobours, members of a pacifist and long-persecuted religious sect that rejects the Russian Orthodox priesthood and its rituals. The Doukhobours initially settled in the region in the 1840s. Many subsequently moved to Canada, but others remained. In Ninotsminda, they enjoyed relatively “favorable conditions” according to the Wikipedia article on the municipality. After the independence of Georgia, however, most of them abandoned their homes and moved to Russia.

Over the past decade, the population flow between Georgia and Russia has reversed as ethnic Russian now move to Georgia to escape the authoritarian and militaristic policies of Vladimir Putin. According to the official BusinessSetupGeorgia website, “in 2015, the highest number of immigrants in Georgia came from Russia, with a total of 92,937.” This movement accelerated after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Over the next year, more than 100,000 Russians relocated to Ukraine, mostly young men seeking to avoid military service. It remains to be seen whether most of them will remain in Georgia. It is also unclear what effects they are having on the country. According to a VOA article, their presence, along with the money that they carried in, have resulted in an unexpected economic boom, while also driving up rents into Tbilisi. Many Georgians welcome these refugees, sympathizing with their plight and appreciating their technical and economic talents. An article in France 24, however, claims that Russian emigres have found a “bleak new home,” arguing that they have not always been welcomed by local residents.

Many of the former ethnic Greeks of Georgia lived in cities and towns in the Black Sea region, particularly in Abkhazia. Another sizable population, visible on the maps posted above, resided in Tsalka municipality in the south-central region. In 1991, ethnic Greeks constituted roughly three-quarters of the population of the town of Tsalka and its environs. Most of their ancestors had fled the Ottoman Empire and were given refuge by the Russian Empire in semi-depopulated areas. Although identifying as Greek due to their heritage and faith, many if most of these people, known as Urums, actually spoke Turkish (see this 2012 GeoCurrents post on the Urum people). After independence, most members of this Greek community relocated to northern Greece. Some, however, attempted to returned to Tsalka, but found their houses reoccupied, generating another round of ethnic tension.

Religion often trumps language in the generation and maintenance of ethnic identity, as the case of the Turkish-speaking Greek Urums  demonstrates. But in Georgia, ethnic tensions seem to have been more intense among communities divided by language and national origin but united by faith.* Why this should be so deserves further investigation.

*The people in question do not, however, all belong to the same religious branch. The Georgian, Russian, and Greek Orthodox churches are in in communion with each other. That is not the case, however, with the Armenian Apostolic Church, which belongs to the so-called Oriental Orthodox branch of Christianity. Many Armenians in Georgia, moreover, belong to the Armenian Catholic Church, which is under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

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