Trans Eurasia travel

Your virtual guide to Eurasia! Let's travel together!

Minority Communities

The Armenians form the largest ethnic minority in Georgia and are found all over the country; however, the vast majority live either in Tbilisi (200,000) and in the Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda regions, known to them as Javakhk, where they form a majority of the population. Their ancestors settled here as refugees from western Anatolia during the 19th-century Russo- Turkish wars, and also just before and after World War I. It's a bleak area with poor infrastructure, and there is some discontent with the bad conditions here. Tbilisi, on the other hand, has always been a major centre of Armenian culture and continues to produce many leading figures in Armenian life. Their lingua franca has always been Russian, and few in the rural areas speak Georgian. The Armenian government is not particularly interested in changing its borders, but it takes an interest in the well-being of the Armenian population in Georgia.

Russians are scattered thinly across Georgia, apart from small groups of religious dissidents such as Molokans and Doukhobors, mainly in the centre and south. The families of some arrived in the 19th century, but the bulk arrived in the Soviet period, settling mainly in urban and industrial areas such as Tbilisi and Rustavi as well as in Abkhazia. These later arrivals tend not to speak Georgian and many have emigrated in recent years, mainly to Russia but also to Canada and elsewhere. This has drained away many of Georgia's skilled workers and technicians. However, Georgians see Russian men as drunks and the women as sexually easy ('sleep with Russians, marry a Georgian is the Georgian male's credo).

The Azeri population occupied the southeastern corner of the country, around Marneuli, Bolnisi and Gardabani, in the early 17th century when it was depopulated by the Persian wars. This is an underdeveloped area and life is harder than these hard-working farmers deserve, although they are relatively well off. They are mostly Shia Muslims, although not too fervently so. Between 1926 and 1989, when the national population doubled, their population quadrupled. Not all are ethnically Azeri in the purest sense, but it's generally accepted that all the Turkophone Muslims in Georgia can be included in this category, and the government of Azerbaijan does take a certain degree of responsibility for them.

Until recently the majority of the 165,000 Ossetians in Georgia lived outside the then autonomous region - mainly in Tbilisi and Rustavi, and also in some rural areas. An Indo-European people, speaking an Iranian language, they are unrelated to the other peoples of the Caucasus. They are held to be the descendants of the Alans, one of the many nomadic peoples who came out of Asia and settled in the north Caucasus. During the last two centuries they have increasingly moved into the highlands on the south of the Caucasus, living peacefully for the most part (and intermarrying) with the Georgians. Now many have moved to South Ossetia, and there's a tendency towards learning Russian rather than Georgian, especially now that cultural ties have been strengthened with the north Caucasus. Most are Orthodox Christians, although some of the later arrivals are Sunni Muslim; in fact, paganism still plays a strong part in their religious lives.

The Abkhaz are considered to be one of the aboriginal peoples of the Caucasus, entitling them to an autonomous republic under Stalin's scheme for ethnic relations (while the South Ossetians, having arrived relatively recently, were entitled only to an autonomous region). Even before secession, they almost all lived in Abkhazia, but they formed just 18% of the republic's population; since secession they have formed a much higher proportion of its population, due to Georgians and other groups like Armenians and Russians leaving. Closely related to the Adigh peoples of the northern Caucasus, they have preserved their traditional culture and their highly prized oral literary heritage. The population is made up of both Christians and Sunni Muslims, although many Muslims emigrated to Turkey after the Russian conquest in the 19th century.

Greeks live in the Tsalka and Tetri-Tskaro areas of Lower Kartli (the so-called Anatolian Greeks, or Rums), and on the Black Sea coast (the Pontian Greeks); although it's tempting to assume that the latter have been there ever since the classical Greeks established trading ports there, in fact they arrived from 1829, fleeing persecution in Turkey. Although most are Orthodox Christians, some in fact converted to Islam. There's a steady flow back to Greece, although some speak Pontian Ancient Greek rather than the modern language, and most of those in Lower Kartli (a poor isolated community) speak Turkish; many have also moved to Tbilisi.

Most of the Kurds in Georgia are Yezidi (Mithraist pagans), descended from refugees from Ottoman persecution. They live mainly in Tbilisi and Rustavi, but although fairly well integrated socially, they preserve their distinct ethnic identity, language and cultural traditions. There was also a small rural (Muslim and Turkish-speaking) population living in southern Georgia, which was deported to central Asia in 1944.

It's a proud boast in Georgia, and largely true, that Jews have lived there for 2,600 years without suffering persecution (ironically, yet another way for Georgians to show their superiority to the Russians). It may have helped that they have the same appetite for wine as the Georgians. The population numbered about 80,000 in the 1970s but is now reduced to around 13,000, divided between Ashkenazim (European or Russian Jews) and Georgian Jews (Georgian-speaking, and considered as Sephardim due to their religious ritual); over half live in Tbilisi, with many of the rest in the west of the country. As a rule they feel very attached to Georgia, and although the majority of them have now emigrated to Israel and, to a lesser extent, the USA, they maintain close links with Georgia and preserve Georgian cultural traditions.

Finally, a group that currently is scarcely represented in Georgia are the so- called Meskhetian Turks. Under the Ottomans, Javakheti was heavily Islamicised from 1624, producing a population of mixed Georgian and Turkish ethnicity; in November 1944 all 70,000-120,000 of these people were deported to central Asia, for supposedly pro-Turkish (and thus possibly pro-Axis) sentiments - even though most of their menfolk were serving in the Red Army. Unlike most other deported groups they were not allowed to return after the Stalinist era, and struggled to establish themselves in their new homes. After the break-up of the Soviet Union, and mob violence against them in Uzbekistan in 1989 (officially ascribed to a dispute over the price of strawberries), they began demanding to return home, moving to the northern Caucasus and Azerbaijan. Now they number around 300,000, of whom 100,000 live in camps in northern Azerbaijan. Georgia is reluctant to take them back, due to its lack of resources, but in 1996 agreed to a plan for 5,000 to return, subject to their learning the Georgian language and other conditions. Nothing happened, and in September 1998 a demonstration in their support in Tbilisi met with a heavy-handed response; due to international pressure an initial 5,000 should soon return. The government is still procrastinating, as it is already struggling to cope with the Abkhazian displaced people.