Ethnic Minorities

Historical Background


Georgia formed part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic from 1922 to 1936 until it was broken into administrative units in order to protect minorities as well as ease efforts to govern the diverse region. Although the Soviets suppressed threatening expressions of ethnicity and nationalism, it nonetheless granted progressive social and cultural rights to minorities. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Georgia was the most diverse of the Caucasus, where ethnic Georgians only constituted 69 percent of the total population, according to the report by Minority Rights Group International. Liberation from the Soviet Union was followed by a period of extreme nationalism where minorities were considered “guests on the Georgian territory,” causing much conflict between minorities and ethnic Georgians. (The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities)

Coinciding with the rise in nationalism, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia broke out.  Abhazia was incorporated into the Georgian Union Republic as an autonomous republic.  Many Georgians settled there making Abhaz a minority group. South Ossetia has a smaller population than Abhazia was established as an autonomous region, within Georgia.  Both regions became hostage to ethnic tensions. Georgia-Abhaz relations deteriorated in 1988 and in 1992 Georgian troops entered Abhazia.  In November 1999 Abhazia gained its independence from Georgia. Georgia since has sought to recover Abhazia, but the republic is afraid of mass return of Georgians and revenge from them. Ossetia feared being assimilated into Georgian nation, especially after the break up of Soviet Union when Georgians started to assert their language and culture.  In August 1990 South Ossetia issued a declaration of sovereignty. Fighting broke out and population exchange took place.  (The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities).Conflicts still remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia even though a ceasefire is in effect and peacekeepers are present. These conflicts alone produced about 330,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), roughly 270,000 from Abkhazia and another 60,000 from South Ossetia. Many of the IDPs from Abkhazia are ethnic Georgians who fled or were expelled from the region following the victory of Abkhazia separatists in 1993. Georgia has not retained “effective” control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Georgia).

National Minority Groups

The main minorities in Georgia include Armenians, Abhaz, Ossetians, Azeris and Russians. The largest minority group is Armenians, although a number of them have immigrated since 1989, still approximately 350,000 remain. Armenians used to live mostly in Tbilisi but now most are concentrated in Javakheti, in the South of Georgia where they make up nearly 95 percent of the population. The second largest minority group is the ethnic Azeris, who are predominantly rural and live along the border with Azerbaijan. Although in the past Azeris have sought autonomy within Georgia, the lack of support from Azerbaijan effectively quashed this goal. Minorities in Abkhazia and South Ossetia are reported to experience extreme harassment, discrimination and violence although little is known about specific human rights violence since there is lack of order in these regions. Unlike Abkhazians and those from South Ossetia, the region of Ajara has not experienced acute conflict with Georgia even though it enjoys “almost complete independence” (The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities). There is a small population of Chechens and Kists who live in the North and are mostly fleeing the conflict in Chechnya. Anti-Armenian sentiment and xenophobia is on the rise according to the report by the Minority Rights Group International.  Many of the conflicts between Azeris and ethnic Georgians are a result of border disputes where Georgian authorities are attempting to stem the flow of illegal smuggling. The predominance of ethnic Georgians in the police force and the perceived impotence of the Azeri minority have led to conflict. Many Azeri-speaking schools were closed down in 2001 and there have been efforts to change the names of some Azeri villages, presumptively to names that are based more on majority culture and history.  Although there are no specific policies of harassment by the Georgian government, there are reports that Azeris have been beaten and tortured in police custody, however reports are unclear whether this is a problem of widespread police abuse of all citizens or if minorities are targeted. Within the Kists communities in the North, there are also reports of large-scale unemployment, heroin and arms networks.  High rates of possession of firearms due in part to a residual effect of the war in Chechnya and lack of authority of the Georgian government in the region.  According to the report to the Minority Rights Group International members of the Kists community harass Ossetians, most of who had already fled the region because of the conflict in South Ossetia. There are also reports that villages into which the Kists have moved, transplanting (forcibly at times) the inhabitants, they have instituted Shari’a law. Ossetians report fear of letting their children attend school in areas in which the Kists have taken over. Avars, another small minority in the North, has been increasing disparaged by others in their communities, causing many to leave. Some Meshketians continue to return to Georgia from where many trace their roots, yet those who return face discrimination in citizenship and the selection of surnames.

There is a debate about registering ethnicity with many in the government opposing it. Some ethnic Georgians claim, however, that they fear losing their “distinct identity” and may be “outnumbered by other groups which have higher birth rates” (The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities).  Education in non-Georgian languages is permitted, however a draft law has been composed that would make knowledge of the Georgian language compulsory for persons working for the State. Although some Georgian language courses were proposed for areas with a high concentration of minorities, many of these were cancelled because of lack of funding. Compulsory language has the effect of denying minorities civil servant jobs, access to laws and legal information and access to the judicial system. The decrease in Russian language training effectively denies minorities and majorities a lingua franca; this is especially true for the younger generation.  Georgian laws are published in Georgian and sometimes translated into English, that makes it hard for minorities to access the laws.  The lack of proficiency in the Georgian language among minorities has implications for the civil administration.   Lack of knowledge of Georgian language makes it difficult for minority members of the Parliament to participate in work.  Of the 235 members of Parliament, there were 16 minority members including seven Azeris, six Armenians, two Abkhaz and one Greek.  According to the report by the Minority Rights Group International, however, all senior posts were held by ethnic Georgians resulting in the perception of discrimination.

Religious Minority Groups

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Georgian Constitution, nontraditional religions are often targeted for harassment or are not protected by the authorities. The Church and State are also separate entities according to the Constitution, yet the Georgian Orthodox Church has special privileges such as tax exemption among other benefits. Unlike other Caucus states, there are no laws requiring Churches register with the State, however, a draft bill seeking mandatory registration was introduced in 2002. Such a law would deny those churches not registered the ability to conduct services, rent property, and import literature.  According the report by the U.S. Department of State, “police often fail to respond to attacks against members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other nontraditional religious minorities” (2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Georgia). Moreover, religious literature is often confiscated. Other religious minorities report similar discrimination including Baptists, Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Hare Krishnas. The Roman Catholic Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church were unable to acquire churches closed by the Soviets. Jewish synagogues also have not been returned. Other Armenian churches remained closed denying followers a place of worship. The construction of new Armenian, Catholic and Protestant churches was impeded.  The U.S. Department of State report states that Protestants (among other nontraditional religions) faced the most discrimination, violence and harassment. Attacks were generally carried out by Basilists against Baptists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses and included “burn[ing] religious literature, [breaking] up religious gatherings, and beat[ing] parishioners, in some cases with nail-studded sticks and clubs” (2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Georgia). Police often failed to intervene although some were present during these attacks. Information on religious freedom and discrimination was unreliable and sporadic in the separatist Abkhazia, although a Presidential decree in Abkhaz bans Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Minority Women

According to the report by the U.S. Department of State, sixteen women served in the 235-seat Parliament; ministerial posts were held by two women.  There are reports that women’s human rights are being violated in Kists communities in the North. Since women are considered to be inferior and their honor closely watched by male members of the family and clan, “forced marriages, bride kidnappings, and killings of women and girls by family members for ‘dishonoring the family’ are on the increase. Blood vengeance is a living custom” (The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities). The welfare of minority women is difficult to gauge in the areas with the largest concentration of minorities, such as Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Ajara As such, it is not clear what particular burdens, discrimination, harassment and violence women in these areas face. The influx of extremist Muslims and the introduction of Shari’a law in areas in the North is particularly disconcerting. Women in communities of IDPs assume particular responsibilities involving the welfare of their families during periods of deprivation and in locations that are strange and unknown. Pressures for women to live up to societal expectations of their roles increase exponentially during periods of migration, social unrest and conflict. Difficulties in fulfilling these expectations makes them vulnerable to harassment, discrimination and violence. 

Legislation on Minorities

Georgia acceded to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and signed but has not ratified the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. No action has been taken on the European Charter for Minority Languages. For more information on treaty ratification for Georgia, please see the treaty section of this website. The primary international bodies that are mandated to ensure Georgia’s  compliance to international law with regard to minority protection are the Organization for Security and Cooperation and the Council of Europe.

The Georgian Constitution guarantees equality before the law irrespective of “race, skin colour, language, sex, religion, political and other beliefs, national, ethnic and social origin, property and title status or place of residence” in Article 14. Article 38 addresses minorities specifically. Section one of this Article states that all citizens are “equal in social, economic, cultural and political life regardless of national, ethnic, religious or language origin” and that in conformity with norms of international, all citizens possess “the right to develop their culture freely without any discrimination and interference.” Moreover they are guaranteed to employ “their language in private and public life.” Section 2 adds a disclaimer to the exercise of the minority rights in that they “should not oppose the sovereignty, integrity and political independence of Georgia.”  Article 8 declares the state language to be Georgian but adds that Abkhazian is also the state language in Abkazia. Article 19 guarantees freedom of “speech, thought, conscience, religion and belief” and prohibits persecution based on “thought, beliefs or religion” as well as the “compulsion to express opinions about them.” Finally, Article 19 limits these rights to the degree that they do no infringe “upon the rights of other individuals.”

Compiled from:

Human Rights in the OSCE Region: Europe, Central Asia and North America, Report 2004 (Events of 2003), International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, (23 June 2004). (PDF, 14 pages).

The World's Women 2000: Trends and Statistics (updated 27 January 2004) UN Statistics Division.

2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Georgia, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. Department of State, (25 February 2004). (HTML).

The South Caucasus: Nationalism, Conflict and Minorities. Anna Matveeva, Minority Rights Group International (May 2002). (PDF, 36 pages).