Georgia’s Journey Towards Inclusivity
In a country as diverse as Georgia, fostering inclusivity and unity among its myriad ethnic and religious groups has been a long-standing challenge. The nation’s strategic documents, international assessments, and recommendations all highlight the need to overcome various “barriers” to minority integration.
However, there is growing awareness of the need to reframe these challenges and look at them as the interplay of incentives and disincentives, as they are not insurmountable obstacles but rather present factors that can hopefully be addressed through policy change and by shifting mindsets.
This series of articles delves into the complex web of factors influencing minority integration in Georgia. By examining these issues through the lens of incentives and disincentives, new pathways and strategies for positive change in this sector may emerge.
April Gordon compiled this article based on the research by the implementation context analysis team at the Unity for Diversity Program, administered by the UN Association of Georgia.
This is the introductory article opening the series that explores the underlying incentives and disincentives driving minority integration in Georgia. Also in this series:
- Bridging Divides: Language and Integration in Georgia
- Riding the Airwaves: Minority Integration and Access to Information
The initial cycle of articles will focus on the securitization of minorities, language policies, access to information, and access to infrastructure. These are intended as a point of departure for the discussion, and we would hopefully be fleshed out with other features, opinions, and analytical pieces from the minority communities, academia, and other contributors.
Demographic Diversity: A Rich Tapestry
Georgia’s demographic landscape is a rich tapestry of ethnic and religious diversity. According to the 2014 census, ethnic minorities account for 13.1% of the population, with Azerbaijani and Armenian communities being the largest minority groups. Smaller ethnic groups, including Kists, Udis, Avars, Assyrians, Ossetians, Yezids, Kurds, Ukrainians, Russians, Greeks, Jews, and Roma, comprise the remaining 2.4%.
Religiously, Georgia is home to a variety of faiths, with the majority adhering to the Georgian Orthodox Church (83.4%), followed by Muslims (10.7%) and Armenian Apostolic Church members (2.9%). The remaining 3% includes Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and others.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and geographic location are closely intertwined. Most ethnic Georgians align with the Georgian Orthodox Church, while ethnic Azerbaijani communities predominantly practice Shia Islam, especially in Kvemo-Kartli. Similarly, ethnic Armenians mainly belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church and are concentrated in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region.
Some administrative provinces and territories are more diverse than others. Below are some basic facts about some of such areas.
SAMTSKHE-JAVAKHETI: FAST FACTS
KVEMO KARTLI: FAST FACTS
PANKISI GORGE: FAST FACTS
ADJARA: FAST FACTS
Historical Disincentives: Unpacking the Past
Understanding Georgia’s historical context is essential for unraveling the complexities of majority-minority relations. The root causes of majority-minority isolation range from practical challenges, such as geography and infrastructure, to the intellectual tradition from Georgia’s national independence movement that emphasizes language, religion, and homeland (i.e. historical claims to territory) as the essential components of civic identity and “Georgianness” (Kartveloba). These dominant narratives – reinforcing the popular notion of historical “barriers” to integration – have significantly shaped perceptions and perpetuated the current status quo of majority-minority relations.
Language has been a formidable challenge to minority integration. Under the Soviet Union, minorities were encouraged to use Russian as the primary language for inter-ethnic communication, leading to poor Georgian language proficiency among these communities. This language gap has perpetuated the isolation of minority groups from the broader Georgian society.
The issue of language carries symbolic as well as practical importance. Under Georgian nationalist tradition, language is perceived as an essential identity marker. This perception continues to resonate in present-day Georgian society – based on a 2020 poll, 92 percent of those surveyed thought that Georgian citizens should speak Georgian.
The Georgian Orthodox Church holds significant political and institutional power, with around 83% of the population affiliating. Most polled Georgians express support for the Church, which usually tops the polls of most trusted institutions. Most Georgians see Orthodox Christianity as fundamentally linked to Georgia’s national identity and the preservation of moral values in the country. In a 2020 survey, half of respondents expressed a belief that Georgian citizens should be Orthodox Christians.
Ethnic minority communities in rural areas, such as Samtskhe-Javakheti and Kvemo Kartli, have faced geographic isolation due to poor infrastructure and transportation networks, hindering their integration into mainstream Georgian life. In the case of Javakheti, this physical isolation was reinforced by the presence of a Soviet (and later Russian) military base until 2007, which restricted and controlled the movement of residents, effectively cutting it off from Georgia in terms of infrastructure and access to socio-political life.
Legacy of Separatism
The 1990s saw separatist movements and armed conflicts – widely seen as incited and supported by Russia – that heightened tensions and concerns about territorial integrity. Among ethnic Georgians, nationalist narratives dating back to the Soviet period highlight fears that minority groups could lay claims over Georgian territory. These fears were substantiated and entrenched by the traumatic experiences of the 1990s. A more fundamentalist narrative portrays minorities as guests or second-class citizens on Georgian territory, which should be subordinated to “true” Georgian national identity (Kartveloba). Against this backdrop, some minorities have perceived integration efforts as assimilation threats to their legitimate ethnic identities.
Tolerance in Georgian Society: A Glimpse of Progress?
Today, polling shows that substantial segments of the Georgian population continue to hold ethno-nationalist views, with 30% believing only ethnic Georgians should be Georgian citizens. Some cite concerns about preserving culture and traditions as reasons for resisting diversity.
However, while Georgia still grapples with intolerance, there are signs of gradual improvement. Recent public opinion polls conducted in 2018 and 2021 reveal positive trends:
- Attitudes toward diversity have improved, with 70% expressing positive views, up from 56%.
- Younger generations (18-34) tend to be more tolerant than older demographics.
- Ethnic and religious minorities are generally more supportive of diversity.
- Awareness of minority rights and their importance has increased.
Georgia’s journey toward greater unity and inclusivity is a complex one, shaped by historical legacies and evolving societal attitudes. However, these positive trends are further evidence that divisive historical narratives or so-called barriers need not dictate the future of majority-minority relations in Georgia.
Rather they are the byproduct of underlying incentives and disincentives of human actors that need to be studied and addressed systemically and systematically. Ultimately, Georgian citizens may jointly choose to become the authors of a new story of Georgian unity, which embraces the country’s rich diversity of ethnic backgrounds and faiths, projecting it as strength.
This article is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through its Unity for Diversity Program. The contents are the author’s responsibility and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID, the United States Government, or the Unity for Diversity Program.