By Zaal Anjaparidze
In 1987-88, it became apparent that the USSR was in a profound economic and political crisis. Ethnic and ethno-territorial conflicts resulted in mass migration, which in turn, magnified the socio-economic crisis, first in the USSR, and then, after its dissolution in 1991, in Georgia and the other former Soviet republics.
Independence came suddenly to Georgia. Many in the country were enthusiastic about the opportunity that had emerged. But others, especially among the non-Georgian population, would have been happy to accept a status short of full independence, had it provided autonomy within a more loosely-defined USSR. They did not view independence in the same way as the “indigenous” population. In spite of their attitude toward the reform of the Soviet empire, its quick collapse left them facing a stark choice. They could either stay where they were and adapt to the new economic, political and cultural realities, or they could leave. But returning “home” often meant going to places which they, or even their ancestors, had left long ago.
As for ethnic Georgians, statistics during the Soviet period indicate that they tended to “stay home,” while representatives of many other ethnic groups came and left Georgia. According to the 1979 All-Union Population Census, 96.5 percent of ethnic Georgians in the USSR lived in Georgia. Ethnic Georgians’ high rate of attachment to their native land was a reflection of the population’s historic social structure and the economic situation rather than any specific “territorial patriotism.” For a long time, Georgians had no reason to emigrate and remained concentrated in their homeland. This undoubtedly had many positive results with respect to demographic growth and national consolidation.
But the migration process changed dramatically in the early 1990s — the first years of independent Georgian statehood, which were accompanied by socio-economic and political turmoil. Out-migration increased significantly. People began to emigrate to outside of the former Soviet Union.
Various sources indicate that emigration reached its peak in 1990-1991. This was due to the dramatic political changes: on the eve of the dissolution of the USSR, Georgia was led by political newcomers, an inexperienced elite who tried to establish themselves at the helm the easy way — through patriotic slogans. Extreme statements made by members of this elite caused people to perceive patriotism as unrestrained nationalism. Political figures made statements concerning ethnic minorities which led them to fear that ethnic intolerance was on the increase. Uncertain and anxious, they decided to emigrate.
When polled, none of them said they felt overt “oppression” in Georgia, even in the first years of the struggle for national independence. But the anxiety persisted. The urban Slavs (ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusans) who had settled in Georgia in the Soviet period were the first to emigrate. Many representatives of this ethnic group were either in the military or were civilians working for the military. According to calculations made by various institutions in charge of migration and demographic problems, Slavs accounted for more than 60 percent of all emigrants in 1992. Most of them (88.5 percent) were city dwellers and moved to cities in the Russian Federation.
The second largest group of emigrants were the Azeris, who lived primarily in rural areas. More than a quarter of the Azeris who left Georgia in 1992 emigrated to Russia, while the rest moved to their historical homeland, Azerbaijan. The third largest group — the Armenians — lived predominantly in cities. According to official figures, 56.2 percent of the Armenians emigrated to Russia, just under a quarter moved to Armenia, and the rest moved to other former Soviet republics. Many Armenians emigrated to outside the former Soviet Union — mostly to the United States.
2. CONTROVERSIAL EMIGRATION STATISTICS
It is very hard to measure emigration from Georgia, because the statistical information is insufficient, and sometimes, even contradictory. But these inconsistencies are not due to any deliberate falsification; they are simply the result of a shortage of professional social statisticians, due to the economic difficulties of the time. After the new census is held in 1999, it will be possible to gain more accurate information about emigration from Georgia over the last decade.
The balance of external migration is of utmost interest. Some in the media speculate that “more than a million people have emigrated from Georgia.” They cite information collected by non-governmental bodies which shows that from 1990 to 1996, 378,000 people immigrated to Georgia, while 1,384,000 emigrated from the country. These emigrants included: 550,000 ethnic Georgians, 230,000 Armenians, 200,000 Russians, 170,000 Azeris, 75,000 Ossetians, 75,000 Greeks, and 85,000 members of other ethnic groups. Researchers from these non-governmental bodies say that government emigration numbers are deliberately understated.
But Revaz Gachechiladze, a well-known Georgian expert on migration and demographic issues, has conducted a study of emigration from Georgia in the 1990s which argues that the figure of “more than a million emigrants” is an exaggeration.
From 1990 to 1996, the official number of registered emigrants was 295,000. Approximately the same number of people (250,000-280,000) is assumed to have left central Georgia without registering, to seek better employment opportunities abroad. The estimated number of unregistered emigrants from breakaway Abkhazia is approximately 120,000. Another 10,000 are thought to have emigrated from the secessionist Tskhinvali region. This adds up to approximately 670,000-700,000.
Gachechiladze stresses that these figures are based on crude assumptions, due to the inadequacy and unavailability of official statistics. The most suspect figure is the 250,000-280,000 unregistered migrants from central Georgia. But this estimate seems to be neither an underestimate nor an overestimate.
Updated information provided by Georgia’s Department of Statistics show that 4,980 people emigrated outside the former USSR in 1990, 3,876 in 1991, and 2,920 in 1992. According to the Department of Visa and Population Registration of Georgia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, 5,059 people emigrated in 1993, 4,676 in 1994, 3,885 in 1995, and 2527 in 1996, or a total of 27,913 registered emigrants. The most popular destinations were Israel, Greece, Germany, and the USA. These same countries seem to be the destination of choice for emigrants from the Russian Federation.
3. REASONS FOR EMIGRATION
In order to evaluate the attitudes of different population groups — especially ethnic groups — toward emigration during the critical period, the Institute of Demography and Sociological Studies of the Georgian Academy of Sciences conducted a public opinion poll in April 1993. A nationwide representative sample of 1,000 persons was interviewed. This sample included a substantial number of ethnic Russians. Evaluation of their attitudes is important, because they are Georgia’s most migrationally active ethnic group.
Several questions and answers in the poll deserve closer attention. The question “Are the civil rights of the Russian population violated in Georgia or not?” received a positive answer from 18 percent of the Russian respondents and six percent of the Georgian respondents. 68 percent of Russian respondents and 84 percent of the Georgian respondents answered “no.” The rest said that it was “hard to say.” In other words, although a majority of the Russian respondents did not believe that their rights were violated, almost one-fifth of them did. Most of the Georgian respondents were obviously unaware that any problem existed.
Answers from both ethnic groups concerning the future of the Russian community in Georgia were less optimistic: quite a few respondents — 30 percent of the Georgians and 28 percent of the Russians — believed that “most of the Russians will leave Georgia.” But even more — 52 percent of the Georgians and 59 percent of the Russians, said that “most of the Russians will stay in Georgia and participate in the building of a free and democratic country here.”
The following factors were given as the main reasons why Russians might emigrate from Georgia:
— the economic crisis in Georgia;