On April 30, Georgia’s National Service of Statistics (NNS) finally released the preliminary results of the 2014 census, the first census held in the country since 2002. Although, few expected demographic growth in the last 12 years, the results were still shocking. Since 2002, Georgia’s population decreased by 642,000 people, from 4.371 million to 3.729 million, or overall by about 15 percent (Geostat.ge, April 30). Even if one adds to these results the populations of Russian-occupied Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where the latest nationwide census was not able to take place, the country’s population will not exceed four million people by any account.
The results of the 2014 census represent the continuation of a highly troubling trend that started in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As a result of economic collapse and political turmoil, Georgia experienced a mass exodus of its population in 1989–2002. Hundreds of thousands of people, Georgians as well as other nationalities, left the country in search of jobs and a better future abroad. In 1989–2002, Georgia’s population decreased by over one million, from 5.4 million to about 4.371 million (excluding about 230,000 people living in the two breakaway regions), amounting to a roughly 20-percent decrease (Rowland, 2006).
To sum up, in 1989–2014, within mere quarter of a century, the country’s population decreased by about 1.4 million people, or by 31 percent. Needless to say, hardly any major war or calamity could have inflicted such heavy losses on Georgia.
Using the most basic mathematical calculations, it is clear that if Georgia keeps up this pace of population loss, within the next 50 years the country will have just a little over one million inhabitants left. It will not be an overstatement to say that Georgia is facing a very real demographic catastrophe in the not-so-distant future.
Georgia’s demographic troubles seem even starker when compared to its neighbors in the same time period. For instance, in 1990–2013, Turkey’s population increased by 21 million, from 54 million to 75 million. Azerbaijan experienced population growth of 2.3 million, from 7.1 million to 9.4 million. Although Russia’s population decreased by 4.8 million people, from 148.3 million to 143.5 million, its population still remains 38 times larger than that of Georgia. Armenia’s population also decreased—by 0.5 million, from 3.5 to 3 million. However, Georgia far supersedes Armenia in this respect (World Bank, 1990–2013).
No less disturbing is the fact that Georgian political and intellectual elites, including Georgian media, do not seem concerned by the dismal results of the 2014 census. In fact, hardly anyone made any mention of it. For the past several weeks, the Georgian political establishment remained focused on political bickering in the parliament (Channel 1 TV; Rustavi 2, April 30–May 10).
Some attempts were made in the past to address Georgia’s demographic crisis. For instance, in 2007, the highly popular head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, promised that he would personally baptize every child born to parents of more than two children (The Messenger, December 26, 2007). According to the BBC, this incentive increased births from 48,000 in 2007 to 57,000 in 2008 (BBC, March 26, 2009). Even if this data is accurate, the results are still low for a country with a rapidly shrinking population. Moreover, it is not clear what the precise impact of the Church’s incentive was in the following years.
Also, in 2004, the Georgian government began giving financial handouts for the duration of two years to those families who had their third child. The government implemented this policy in the country’s six regions where death rates far exceed birth rates (For.ge, March 13, 2014). The financial assistance has been meager, however, and it only covers a part of the country.
To properly tackle its demographic problem, Georgia will need something more effective and more far reaching. The first step may be to address the causes of mass migration: persistent socioeconomic malaise and the constant political instability. These were the main reasons as to why about 30 percent of Georgia’s population left the country. None of these are easy problems to solve, but without addressing them Georgia will lose even more of its citizens, not to mention prevent the repatriation of those who already left.
The second step will probably have to address birth rates. However, the meager government-implemented financial handouts are unlikely to yield the desired effects. Current policies are missing an element of job creation, which could provide a more viable incentive for Georgians to have, as well as an ability to support, larger families.
As the world in general is concerned with the problem of overpopulation, Georgia is facing the opposite problem of a rapidly shrinking population. In fact, the country is experiencing the most serious demographic crisis since the late 1700s, when the Georgian nation was on the brink of being completely annihilated by a series of foreign invasions. Now, the country’s demographic problems are caused not necessarily by wars, but by mass migration. Consequently, the problem requires a methodical approach, without which this trend could become irreversible.