The Dynamics of Ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia Over the Past Century

Карта этнических групп, проживающих в Грузии

Карта этнических групп, проживающих в Грузии

According to research performed at the Georgian Centre for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism, in terms of demographic indicators, the Azerbaijani diaspora exceeds all other national minorities living in Georgia. But, 100 years ago the situation was different. What have been the dynamics of ethnic Azerbaijanis in the country over the past century? In a Meydan TV exclusive, journalist Gocha Khundadze discussed this topic with Giorgi Sordia, director of the above mentioned Center. 

Giorgi Sordia - orientalist, founder and leader of the Georgian Center for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism, author of several books on Turkey and the Middle East

Giorgi Sordia - orientalist, founder and leader of the Georgian Center for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism, author of several books on Turkey and the Middle East

- To begin, let’s specify: is there a difference between the terms “national minority” and “ethnic minority” and in what cases is one or the other people recognized as a minority?

- International law recognizes both terms. “Ethnic minority” implies an ethnicity without its own state. Whereas “national minority” refers to a people with a historical homeland. Although, in Georgia these are often used as interchangeable terms, and I don’t see a fundamental difference. To speak in general terms, a national minority is an ethnic group that lives on the territory of a state, does not belong to that state’s native ethnic group, and recognizes itself as a national community. 

- According to 1926 census data, the population of Georgia was about 2,667,000 people. How many of them were Azerbaijanis?

- At that time in Georgia Azerbaijanis were not recorded separately. Officially, such a nationality didn’t exist. They belonged to the Turkic group, which also included so-called Meskhetian Turks, Anatolian Turks, and the Muslims of Adjara, in total around 138,000 people. But then in the 1939 census records Azerbaijanis are allocated a separate entry and we can already estimate their numbers: 188,000. This was the third-biggest diaspora, after Armenians and Russians, and it remained that way until 2002.

- How did this look in terms of percentage of the total population of Georgia?

- For example, according to the 1959 census records, things looked like so: Georgians – 64%, Armenians – 11%, Russians – 10%, Azerbaijanis – 3.8%, and the population of the republic already exceeded four million people. It should be noted that after the Second World War, excluding Germans and Iranians, the numbers of all national minorities grew. In 1970, there were almost 218,000 Azerbaijanis, and in 1989 – 307,500.

- And what is this growth connected with?

- First of all, this was natural growth. Second, there came about political and economic stability. Third, a high birth-rate is recorded in the countryside, especially in regions where Azerbaijanis live close together – Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, Shida Kartli, Mtskheta-Mtianeti. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the situation changed drastically. Tough times began in Georgia. The population of the entire country was reduced. The number of Azerbaijanis was reduced, but not so much as with other national groups. Russians and Armenians experienced a sharp reduction. This was facilitated by President Gamsakhurdia’s nationalist policies and the complete destruction of government order in 1992-1993. Moreover, a process of migration began all throughout the former Soviet Union, and people moved to Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine for work. In 1989-2002, the Azerbaijani population of the country was reduced by 65 thousand. However, for the first time in Georgia’s recent history, Azerbaijanis became the second-most numerous ethnic group in the country, in terms of percentage. As it turns out, the number is shrinking, but percentage – growing. It should be noted that during this time the number of Georgians shrunk by 130 thousand.

- The tendency of the population to shrink is continuing. Can this be tied with the opening of borders and free movement?

-Absolutely. According to 2014 census records, four million people live in Georgia. In comparison with 1989, this appears to be a reduction of 1,700,000. In total, there are 233,000 Azerbaijanis today, which comprises 6.27% of the total population of the country. I would especially like to direct your attention to the fact that, among young Azerbaijanis there was a tendency to leave for studies in Baku, where they saw more prospective for development. They couldn’t enter Georgian universities because of not knowing the state language, not to mention English-language departments at several educational institutions. But the situation in recent years has changed. The Ministry of Education set benefits for graduates of Azerbaijani high schools, who, entering a university on the basis of their native tongue, are assigned only one subject – general skills; and then, over the course of a year they learn Georgian and continue their education further on a common basis. Today, ethnic Azerbaijanis are studying in many of Georgia’s educational institutions, and we are especially glad that among them there are students from the Kvemo-Kartli region. 

- What do you think, why does the majority of the Azerbaijani population not know the state language – Georgian? 

- This is connected not so much with the modern period as with the negative legacy of the Soviet past. Georgia being a republic of the Soviet Union, there was no need to speak Georgian. Russian was considered the language of international conversation. For people whose main activities were agriculture and product distribution, this was enough. Following from this, the government believed it unnecessary to spend resources to ensure that all residents of the republic knew Georgian. True, it was taught in middle schools, but the instruction was too surface-level.

- 25 years have passed since Georgian obtained independence. But the situation in the realm of languages has not changed, right?

- Today 90% of Azerbaijanis don’t even know Georgian on an elementary, conversational level, which makes it impossible for them to integrate into the political and cultural life of the country. This is especially the case in the Marneuli, Bolnisis, Dmanisis and Gardabani regions. But, to say that they have no need to know the state language would be incorrect. Now the responsibility lies with the Georgian government, which must create an accelerated language-learning system. The first steps in this direction are being made: benefits for high school graduates, sending teachers to the Kvemo Kartli region, providing additional education for the local residents. In parallel with this, all the right conditions must be created so that the Azerbaijani diaspora will preserve and develop its distinctiveness, its culture and its native language. By the way, our center prepared maps on the topics of the ethnicity, languages and religions of the various peoples residing in Georgia, which also display the corresponding statistical data. In the course of working on them, we discovered a number of peculiarities that characterize the national minorities. For example, among the Azerbaijanis there are Shiites and Sunnis, and a number of ethnic nuances have also been recorded, which speaks to the heterogeneous nature of the Azerbaijani diaspora in Georgia

Map of ethnic groups in Georgia

Map of ethnic groups in Georgia

- Where can we take a closer look at these maps?

- The electronic versions of all the maps are accessible on our center’s website.


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