Azerbaijanis in Georgia
Azerbaijani women of Tiflis, 1910
|284 761 (2002 census)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|Kvemo Kartli · Kakheti · Shida Kartli · Mtskheta-Mtianeti|
|Azerbaijani · Georgian|
Azerbaijanis in Georgia or Georgian Azerbaijanis (Azerbaijani: Gürcüstan azərbaycanlıları) are Azerbaijani people in Georgia, and are Georgian citizens and permanent residents of ethnic Azerbaijani background. According to the 2002 census, there are 284,761 ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia. Azerbaijanis comprise 6.5% of Georgia's population and are the country's largest ethnic minority, inhabiting mostly rural areas like Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, Shida Kartli and Mtskheta-Mtianeti, a region broadly referred to as Borchali. There is also a large historical Azerbaijani community in the capital city of Tbilisi (previously known as Tiflis) and smaller communities in other regions. There were some tensions in the late 1980s in the Azerbaijani-populated regions of Georgia; however, they never escalated to armed clashes.
- 1 History
- 2 Present-day
- 3 Culture
- 4 Language and education
- 5 Religion
- 6 Demographics
- 7 Notable Azerbaijanis of Georgia
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 External links
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Georgia's Azerbaijani population traces its roots to the events following the Seljuk invasion in the second half of the eleventh century, when Oghuz tribes settled in southern Georgia. To oppose being subjected to the Seljuk Empire, Georgians allied with the Cumans (a group of Kipchak tribes to the north of the Caucasus) thus allowing for more Turkic migration into the region. In the 1480s, groups of Azeris originally from Qazakh, Pambak and Shuragel further settled along the banks of the rivers Aghstafa and Debed. A constant influx of Turkic tribes continued until the late Middle Ages. Their further consolidation led to the formation of the Azerbaijani community. The area populated by ethnic Azerbaijanis today is historically known as Borchali (which in the form Burjoglu was originally the name of a Kipchak tribe that settled there in the seventeenth century). The area in turn gave its name to the Sultanate of Borchali that existed there until the eighteenth century, under the nominal suzerainty of the Kingdom of Kartli. Furthermore, up to 15,000 Azeri families were settled in Kakheti at the beginning of the seventeenth century by Abbas I of Persia during a series of attacks on Georgian lands. The area of Azeri settlement had spread northward into the Tsalka Plateau throughout the eighteenth century and westward into Bashkechid (modern Dmanisi Municipality and its vicinity) by the early nineteenth century.
Imperial Russian rule
After the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, the government reorganised the Kingdom of Georgia into a governorate, with subdivisions of its own, five of which were referred to as the Tatar ranges (the Czarist nomenclature used the word "Tatar" for Azeri), namely Borchali, Pambak, Shuragel, Kazakh, and Shamshadin. In 1868, the latter two became part of the Elisabethpol Governorate, while the former three were incorporated into the Tiflis Governorate as the Borchali uyezd. The plains of the uyezd were mainly Azeri-populated: out of 63 villages in the Borchali Plain covering 390 square versts (equal to 444 square kilometres) of land, 61 were populated with Azeris.
In Tiflis, Azeris have historically populated the neighbourhood of Ortachala (Azerbaijani: Ortaçala, meaning "central pit"), also known as Maidan (Azerbaijani: Meydan, meaning "square") or Sheitanbazar (Azerbaijani: Şeytanbazar, meaning "Devil's market"), and Seidabad (Azerbaijani: Seyidabad; "city of sayyids"), the old baths district.
In November 1905, Tiflis almost became an arena of Armenian–Azeri ethnic clashes, which had already affected and caused violent conflicts and massacres in the rest of the South Caucasus. The Armenian population of the city at the time was 50,000, putting the 1,000 Azeris in a dangerous situation. Militia units of the Armenian nationalist Dashnaktsutiun party seized control of key positions. The Azeris were assisted by 2,000 mounted volunteers from Borchali. By three o'clock in the afternoon on 27 November there were already 22 killed and wounded. In response, social democrat labourer activists organised a peaceful rally, calling on both parties not to engage in a conflict, and managed to acquire arms from the Viceroyalty of the Caucasus in order to patrol the streets. Following mediation, both sides came to a peaceful agreement on 1 December 1905, and the Borchalians left the city.
Under Soviet rule, Azeris constituted the third largest ethnic minority in the country (after Armenians and Russians), but their numbers grew constantly due to a high birth rate, almost twice as high as for ethnic Georgians as of 1989, as well as a low rate of immigration. Due to this, the numbers of Azeris rose to make them Georgia's second largest ethnic group by 2002.
In March 1944, 3,240 ethnic Azeris and Kurds living in the capital city of Tbilisi were forcibly relocated to rural parts of Kvemo Kartli, as persons "deliberately avoiding working in the agricultural sector". Only 31 Azeri families were permitted to stay in Tbilisi, mostly military personnel, handicapped war veterans and university students.
In 1944, in the midst of the population transfer in the Soviet Union, a decree was issued by the Moscow-seated government, according to which tens of thousands of residents of the southern border regions of Georgia were to be forcibly relocated to Central Asia for national security reasons. The decree made provision for the relocation of Meskhetian Turks, Kurds, Hamsheni Armenians and "others", though the latter category underlyingly referred to Azeris living in Samtskhe-Javakheti and Ajara. Georgian NKVD officers made no distinction between the Azeris and the key deportation target groups, as together with Kurds and Hamsheni Armenians, they were seen as "Turkish-oriented". In 1949, it was revealed that out of almost 100,000 deportees, 24,304 were Azeris.
Azeris living in rural parts of the country were mainly engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry in kolkhozes and sovkhozes, as well as small-scale trade and industry. Farmer unions were assigned relatively small units of land, which, however, gave more output than most state-owned lands elsewhere in Georgia. Factors such as fertile land, proximity of the capital city and easy access to major Soviet markets allowed Azeri farmers to enjoy relatively prosperous lives, according to Soviet standards. Azeris also occupied many top posts in local governments across Kvemo-Kartli.
During Georgia's movement toward independence from the Soviet Union, the Azeri population expressed fear for its fate in independent Georgia. In the late 1980s, most ethnic Azeris occupying local government positions in the Azeri-populated areas were removed from their positions. In 1989, changes in the ethnic composition of the local authorities and the resettlement of thousands of eco-migrants from the mountainous region of Svaneti, which were culturally different from the local population, led to demonstrations, ethnic clashes between Svans and Azeris, and demands for an Azeri autonomy in Borchali and for the expulsion of Svan immigrants from Kvemo-Kartli. The antagonism reached its peak during the presidency of Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1991–1992), when hundreds of Azeri families were forcibly evicted from their homes in Dmanisi and Bolnisi and fled to Azerbaijan. Thousands of Azeris emigrated in fear of nationalist policies. In his speech in Kvareli, Gamsakhurdia accused the Azeri population of Kakheti of "holding up their heads and measuring swords with Kakheti". The Georgian nationalist press expressed concern with regard to the fast natural growth of the Azeri population.
Although ethnic oppression in the 1990s did not take place on a wide scale, minorities in Georgia, especially Azeris and Ossetians, encountered the problem of dealing with nationalist organisations established in some parts of the country. Previously not prone to migrating, Azeris became the second largest emigrating ethnic community in Georgia in the early 1990s, with three-quarters of the mainly rural emigrants leaving for Azerbaijan and the rest for Russia. Unlike other minority groups, many remaining Azeris cited attachment to their home communities and unwillingness to leave behind well-developed farms as their reason to stay. Furthermore, Georgian-born Azeris who immigrated to Azerbaijan at various times, including 50,000 Georgian-born spouses of Azerbaijani citizens, reported bureaucratic problems faced in Azerbaijan, with some unable to acquire Azerbaijani citizenship for nearly 20 years.
After the overthrow of Gamsakhurdia, the new president Eduard Shevardnadze refused to pursue nationalist policies, and his good relationship with his former fellow Politburo member Heydar Aliyev, then president of Azerbaijan, ensured safety for Georgia's Azeri community. However, Jonathan Wheatley characterises Shevardnadze's policy towards Kvemo-Kartli as "benign neglect", pursued through "patron-client linkages" and weak efforts to integrate ethnic minorities with the rest of the country.
In 1995, Shevardnadze appointed Levan Mamaladze governor of the province of Kvemo-Kartli, even though the governor's duties were never clearly outlined in the legislature at the time. Mamaladze reportedly used his power to secure ethnic Azeri votes for Shevardnadze and his political party and tolerated corruption in the region. According to Jonathan Wheatley, it was on Mamalalze's recommendation that six Azeris became Members of Parliament in the 1999 election and later joined the Alliance for a New Georgia that he had helped form. At the same time, members of the local government were dominated by ethnic Georgians appointed by him, including heads of all majority-Azeri municipalities. In a 2003 interview, then Prime Minister and future President Mikheil Saakashvili criticised Mamaladze for carrying out a smearing campaign against opposition parties and soliciting Azeri votes by spreading rumours that the new government would organise mass deportations of Georgia's Azeri population. Mamaladze left the country soon after Shevardnadze's resignation in November 2003.
Since Georgia regained its independence in 1991, in addition to nation-wide problems such as unemployment, many Azerbaijanis along with other minorities have faced social disintegration and underrepresentation in the country's legislative, executive and judicial powers, mainly due to the language barrier. Emigration and the feeling of alienation decreased in comparison with the early 1990s: according to the 2008 UN Association of Georgia report, 98% of Azeris surveyed in Kvemo Kartli considered Georgia their homeland, 96% acknowledged that the problems they face are common to citizens countrywide and around 90% linked their futures with Georgia. Percentage of mixed marriages remains one of the lowest in the country. According to 2011 state statistics, there were only 2,229 families in Georgia, where one spouse was Georgian and the other one Azeri (compared with 19,325 Georgian–Russian, 15,013 Georgian–Armenian, and 11,501 Georgian–Ossetian marriages).
Azerbaijanis are currently represented in the 235-seat Parliament of Georgia by three members. The language barrier remains a major issue among Georgia's Azerbaijani population. The government has launched various programs and projects in order to help Azerbaijanis integrate into the political life of the country.
1992 land reform
After the fall of the Communist regime, large areas of state-owned lands could not be maintained by the Georgian government any longer, and a need for their privatisation arose. Champions of the privatisation law believed that private farming would keep the agriculture developing further. However nationalists argued that privatisation of lands populated by ethnic minorities who lived in border regions may lead to irredentist sentiment. In 1992, privatisation law was passed on certain conditions with regard to the border regions, such as the ban on owning land within 21 kilometres from the state border. Large areas of arable land in Gardabani and Marneuli were thus transferred to the control of the Ministry of Defence, and many families ended up owning only 1 to 1.5 hectares of land or less. Although after Mikheil Saakashvili's rise to power in 2004 the ban was lifted, local Azeris complained of unawareness of the changing laws as the main reason for dissatisfaction and expressed scepticism with regard to the situation improving. As a result, landowners from other parts of the country came to own and rent much of the land (70% according to Azeri non-governmental organisations) that had been formerly in the possession of the Azeri-populated villages and farmer unions. Other problems include corruption of agrarian establishments, land division and distribution, and priority unduly given to large companies, potential voters and ethnic Georgians. In March 2006, there was an Azeri demonstration held in Marneuli against unfair land privatisation, and several participants were detained.
Renaming of placenames
The Georgianisation of Georgia's toponymy has been a steady process since the 1930s. It affected placenames of Azeri origin, such as the renaming of Barmaksiz (Azerbaijani: Barmaqsız) to Tsalka in 1932, Aghbulagh (Azerbaijani: Ağbulaq) to Tetritsq'aro in 1940 (by direct translation), Bashkicheti (Azerbaijani: Başkeçid) to Dmanisi, Karaiazi (Azerbaijani: Qarayazı) to Gardabani, and Sarvan (Azerbaijani: Sarvan) to Marneuli all in 1947. According to the locals, in the 1960s residents of three villages near Gardabani petitioned to Moscow against the plan of renaming their villages, and the names were kept.
During Gamsakhurdia's presidency in the early 1990s, the Azeri-sounding names of 32 villages were changed overnight to Georgian ones by a special decree. Their Azeri population has expressed dissatisfaction with this decision and addressed their concerns in writing to president Mikheil Saakashvili, but the problem has not been resolved. In 2009, the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities qualified the renaming of Azeri-populated villages as violation of principles of Article 11 of the Framework Convention, to which Georgia is a signatory, and urged the government of Georgia to co-operate with the local ethnic minority to reintroduce the traditional names.
According to the Human Rights Monitoring Group of Ethnic Minorities, on the updated list of placenames of the Ministry of Justice Public Registry, Azeri-sounding names of 30 more villages (18 in Marneuli and 12 in Tsalka) were changed to Georgian-sounding ones in 2010–2011.
Of the three ethnic Azeris elected in the Georgian National Assembly in the 2012 parliamentary election, two represent the ruling Georgian Dream (Mahir Darziyev, Ali Mammadov) and one the previously-ruling United National Movement (Azer Suleymanov). An ethnic Azeri, Ali Babayev, is an elected member of the 21-seat political council of the ruling party, and another one, Huseyn Yusifov, is deputee governor of Kvemo Kartli. After the 2012 election, Savalan Mirzayev, a lawyer of Azeri origin, was appointed Prime Minister's advisor on ethnic minority issues. There are currently three officially registered large Azeri social organisations, focusing on language instruction, civic education and intercultural communication. However, according to a report by the UN Association of Georgia, Azeri politicians who make it to the national scene often come from Tbilisi and thus maintain weak links with the rural portion of the minority they are supposed to represent.
Georgia–Armenia border incidents
The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities received reports that ethnic Azeris living close to the Armenian border often become victims of acts of violence, land and other property seizures and thefts of cattle. Local law enforcement agencies fail to respond adequately to these cases. In 2013, members of Azeri NGOs representing seven villages along the Georgia–Armenia border blamed these incidents on Armenian border guards who, according to them, have advanced 100–150 metres into the Georgian territory and are now in control of a local water reservoir that has been used by farmers for irrigation since 1948. They reportedly harass Azeris who try to use the reservoir or herd sheep in the nearby area.
The city of Tiflis is known as one of the important centres for Azerbaijanis' cultural development. Molla Vali Vidadi, an Azerbaijani poet from the eighteenth century, was at one point known as King Erekle II's court poet. Mirza Fatali Akhundov, the Azerbaijani enlightened reformist, novelist and dramatist, the pioneer of the theatrical performance in the East, lived and contributed to literature in Tiflis in the mid-nineteenth century, along with his Ganja-native teacher Mirza Shafi Vazeh.
The first published periodical which included articles in Azeri, Tatarskie vedomosti, was published in Tiflis in 1832. The famous Azerbaijani satirical magazine Molla Nasraddin edited by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh was published in Tiflis in 1906–1917. Azerbaijani newspapers from earlier periods (such as Ziya, Keshkul and Sharg-i rus in the nineteenth and early twentieth century) were also printed in the publishing houses of Tiflis. The Transcaucasian Teachers Seminary which trained professional teachers for secular primary Azerbaijani schools was located in Gori. Folk singer Bulbuljan, among others, spent 30 years of his life living and performing in Tiflis. Tiflis was also the hometown and academic locale for some of the most prominent Azerbaijani singers, such as Rashid Behbudov and Shovkat Mammadova (the first Azerbaijani female opera singer, 1897–1981), as well as to the first professional Azerbaijani female painter Geysar Kashiyeva (1893–1972), and the first Azerbaijani female pianist Khadija Gayibova (1883–1938).
Plays by Azeri writers were staged in Tbilisi already in 1872. Today Azeri-language plays are staged at the Tbilisi State Azeri Drama Theatre, established in 1922. In addition, one Azeri Cultural Centre functions in Tbilisi and another one in Marneuli. The cultural centre in Marneuli works closely with the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and the State Committee on Work with Diaspora of Azerbaijan, issues the magazines Garapapagh and Meydan and manages its own folk dance ensemble Sarvan. There are 15 public libraries with materials available mainly in the Azeri language across the country. Three Georgian state newspapers, one in Tbilisi and two in Marneuli, are printed in Azeri. Five-minute newscasts in Azeri are aired on Georgia's Public Radio on weekdays.
Language and education
Most Azeris in Georgia speak Azeri as a first language. Azeris of Tbilisi are mainly bilingual or trilingual, speaking Georgian and Russian in addition to their native language. On the other hand, Azeris living in almost monoethnic villages in Kvemo Kartli, who constitute the core of Georgia's Azeri population, largely speak little to no Georgian. To Azeris in Georgia, secondary education is available in their native language, which is a remnant Soviet policy. As of 2010, Azeri serves as the language of instruction in 124 schools across the country, a number which went down from 183 as of 1989. Young Azeris in Georgia who choose to continue their education often apply to universities in Azerbaijan and thus limit their career prospects in their home country. According to the 2002 census, only 43,024 out of 284,761 Azeris in Georgia were able to speak Georgian. Russian was the most popular second language for Azeris, with 75,207 speakers. At the same time, 934 Azeris indicated Georgian and 385 indicated Russian as their first language.
Up until the early twentieth century, Azeri was the language of interethnic communication across most of the South Caucasus and the surrounding regions, including much of Georgia, with the exception of the Black Sea coastal regions. Later it significantly lost positions to Georgian and Russian. In 2002, 218 non-Azeris in Georgia indicated Azeri as their first language and 6,704 more claimed speaking it as a second language. The Soviet census recorded Turkish-speaking Urum Greeks of central Georgia as speaking Azeri as a first language, in part due to the fact that their original dialect underwent influence from Azeri over the centuries and shifted towards the latter.
There was not much incentive for Azeris to learn Georgian in the Soviet times. Those who chose to pursue post-secondary education in Georgia did so in universities with Russian as the language of instruction, where Georgian was not even offered as a second-language course. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, lack of knowledge of the official language makes it harder for Azeris and other ethnic minorities to be active in many social areas. Such isolation is furthered by the fact that many rural Azerbaijanis prefer to read newspapers published in Azerbaijani and set up satellite dishes in order to be able to watch channels of neighbouring Azerbaijan, or establish their own community television channels (such as Ellada TV, which functioned in Gardabani in 1995–1999). Television programs in the Azeri language are broadcast by some regional channels.
Teachers and principals of schools where Azeri is the language of instruction report problems with the quality of the printed materials, their deficit and the physical condition of rural Azeri-language schools.
Azeris in Georgia are mainly Muslim, with 80% being Shiite and 20% Sunni, a distinction that is not felt much due to religion not occupying an important part of their everyday lives. Georgia's constitution provides for religious freedom, and Azeris have the opportunity to attend mosques in the country. The largest Shiite mosque in Tbilisi was built in 1524 by Ismail I of Persia. In 1951, during the construction of the Metekhi bridge the communist government ordered the mosque to be demolished. The Sunni mosque was built between 1723 and 1735 by the Ottomans, but it was destroyed in 1740 by reinvanding Persians. In 1864, it was restored and headed by the Teregulovs, a family of Volga Tatar origin who had settled in Tbilisi two decades prior to that. Since the demolition of the Shiite mosque in 1951, the Shiite Azeris of Tbilisi have attended the Sunni mosque (the only Muslim temple in modern Tbilisi), where the Sunni and Shiite sections were separated by a black curtain. In 1996, the new imam ordered to remove the curtain and both denominations have prayed together ever since.
Although able to preserve their linguistic and religious identity, the Azeris in Georgia have undergone some influences from Georgian culture, such as mourning over the body of the deceased for three days, while Azeris elsewhere, as most Muslims, generally bury their dead on the day of death before sunset.
Currently Azeris constitute a majority or a significant (over 10%) minority in 56 towns and villages in Marneuli, 38 in Dmanisi, 37 in Bolnisi, 16 in Gardabani, 9 in Sagarejo, 7 in Tsalka, 6 in Mtskheta, 6 in Kaspi, 4 in Tetritsq'aro, 4 in Lagodekhi, 2 in Gori, 2 in Dedoplistsq'aro, 1 in Telavi, and 1 in Akhmeta. Ethnic Azeri villages are also among the largest in the country in terms of population.
Only regions with 1,000 or more Azerbaijanis are listed below. The information is based on official figures from the 2002 population census.
|Region||Region's Azerbaijani Population||% of Region's Entire Population|
|• Rustavi City||4,993||4.3|
Change in population
The number of Azerbaijanis rose faster than that of most other ethnicities in Georgia during the twentieth century. The information below is based on official figures from the population censūs of 1926, 1939, 1959, 1970, 1979, 1989 and 2002.
1 The number includes Meskhetian Turks. Excluding the population of the Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki uyezds recorded as 'Azeri', the Azeri population would number 81,811 persons, or 3.05% of the country's overall population.
2 The number includes Meskhetian Turks. Excluding the population of the regions of Aspindza, Adigeni, Akhaltsikhe and Akhalkalaki recorded as 'Azeri', the Azeri population would number 101,080 persons, or 2.85% of the country's overall population.
Notable Azerbaijanis of Georgia