Vol. 1, No. 8 (May 15, 2008)

Georgia’s Azerbaijanis: Problems and possibilities

Paul Goble
Director of Research and Publications
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Ethnic Azerbaijanis in the Republic of Georgia are playing an ever more active role in the social and political life of that country, a development that is creating both problems and opportunities for the bilateral relations between Tbilisi and Baku, according to Azerbaijan's ambassador to Georgia Namig Aliyev.

In an interview with Day.Az published in Baku on May 1, Ambassador Aliyev pointed to a number of problems the ethnic Azerbaijanis now face in Georgia as they become increasingly active and organized but said that he was confident that the Georgian authorities "recognize that Georgia's Azerbaijanis are a valuable resource" for Tbilisi's domestic development and its relations with Azerbaijan.

Among the developments affecting the Azerbaijani community in Georgia this year are the following.  First and most important, many ethnic Azerbaijanis have lost control of the land they have worked for years because they do not know Georgian and thus have lost out to Georgian entrepreneurs, something that has prompted the community to organize.

Second, they have been angered by Tbilisi's policy of appointing Georgians without knowledge of Azerbaijani to head schools in Azerbaijani-majority areas, a policy that Ambassador Aliyev says has now been reversed.  And many Azerbaijanis who do know Georgian remain unemployed, leading some to assume that Tbilisi wants to create a Georgia for the Georgians.

Third, Georgian officials in Azerbaijani regions have harassed Azerbaijani candidates running for office, arresting at least one and sparking worries, as mentioned, that Tbilisi wants to create a Georgia for the Georgians rather than a multi-national community in which all ethnic groups feel a common loyalty to the country.

Fourth, while Georgian President Mikhiel Saakashvili has provided some resources for ethnic Azerbaijanis seeking higher education, Baku's Heydar Aliyev Foundation has provided much aid, including textbooks to help Azerbaijanis learn Georgian and English and computers for Azerbaijani schools. 

And fifth, Tbilisi has dragged its feet in responding to Baku's repeated requests to open a consulate in Marneuli, the center of ethnic Azerbaijani life in the Republic of Georgia, perhaps fearful that such an institution would lead more ethnic Azerbaijanis to identify not with the republic in which they live but in the one with which they share a common titular nationality.

All these problems should be solved and solved quickly, Ambassador Aliyev said, because "any multi-national state should want to have a second nation like the Azerbaijanis which always has and always will support [its] statehood," not only by opposing Armenian pretensions to portions of southern Georgia but also Russian support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

But however that may be, the Azerbaijanis of Georgia are not waiting either for the Georgian government to come to their aid or for Baku to intervene to solve all their problems.  Since the start of this year, 12 ethnic Azerbaijani non-governmental organizations created the Congress of Azerbaijanis of Georgia (February).  Activists set up a new Azerbaijani newspaper (March).  They very publicly celebrated the Day of the Genocide Against Azerbaijanis (April).  And they created a public movement "Georgia is My Motherland" to promote the integration of that community into Georgian life (April).

These developments and the likelihood that this community will play a larger role in the life of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the future call out for closer attention to a community than it has received in the past.  Azerbaijanis have been living in the Kvemo, Kartveli, Kakhetia, and Shida Kartli regions of what is now the Republic of Georgia for centuries, but now because of the collapse of the Soviet Union, their own demographic growth, and the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline that passes through their territory, they have acquired new importance. [2]

The formation of nation states in the South Caucasus after 1991 has raised questions about the present and future status of ethnic minorities, especially in Georgia where some leaders have openly called for a Georgian-first approach.  That has generated suspicions among both the titular nationality and the minority and has led many members of minorities to look abroad to places where their nationality has its own statehood.  Azerbaijanis in Georgia have been less inclined to do so than the Ossetins, but they have not been immune to this process.

Second, Azerbaijanis have increased their share of the Georgian population despite the fact that their number has actually declined since 1989.  In the last Soviet census, there were 307,000 ethnic Azerbaijanis in Georgia, whereas in the first Georgian census in 2002, there were 284,761.  But their percentage in the population increased from 5.7 percent in the first year to 6.5 percent in the latter because even more ethnic Georgians left Georgia than did ethnic Azerbaijanis.

At least equally important in the socio-political situation of the Azerbaijanis of Georgia and particularly their relationship with the Georgian majority is the difference in birthrates among the two nationalities.  At the end of the Soviet period, Azerbaijanis there had 28.6 children per thousand population, compared to the Georgians who had only 16.  Not surprisingly, that difference sparked concerns among some Georgians that they would be "swamped" by the Azerbaijanis at some point in the future.

And third, the areas of Georgia in which Azerbaijanis predominate – the eastern and southeastern sections of the republic – are now vastly more important than they were not only to Tbilisi but to Azerbaijan.  That is because the pipelines carrying Caspian Basin oil and gas to the West pass through them and because the rail lines that Azerbaijan hopes will link it directly to Europe via Turkey pass through them.

Not surprisingly, that last factor is something both Tbilisi and Baku are very much aware of, with the former fearful that the traditionally supportive Azerbaijanis on its territory might eventually shift their loyalties and with the latter aware that such a shift could prompt the kind of reprisals that would threaten the strategic partnership President Ilham Aliyev has pursued with the Georgian government.

Consequently, the Azerbaijanis of Georgia are going to play an increasing role in the lives of both countries whether they or either of the states involved really want to see that happen.  And that in turn sets the stage for possibly dramatic and unexpected developments, making a community few have attended to in the past a candidate for greater attention in the future. 


[1] Комахия, Мамука (2008).  “Формирование этнической карты Грузии и современные миграционные процессы”, Центральная Азия и Кавказ, №1 (55), с. 179-186.  


[1] See www.day.az/news/politics/116533.html.

[2] For an introduction to this community, see Komakhiya (2008).