Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Georgia: The Shrinking Nation

The results of post-Soviet Georgia's first census suggest the country has shrunk by one million people since independence. The real picture may be even worse.
By Dina Bit-Suleiman

Georgia has lost one sixth of its population over the last decade, according to the preliminary results of an official census.


A dramatic outflow of people has reduced the overall population from 5.45 million people in 1989, the last time a census was taken in what was then Soviet Georgia, to 4.4 million people now. Yet experts say that even these catastrophic figures may be an underestimate.


Georgia's State Statistics Department, which conducted the nationwide census in January, calculates that Georgia has lost only 220,000 people to emigration. The remaining reduction in population is attributed to two other factors. First, the statisticians count as "lost" the current inhabitants of the two breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were formerly home to more than 600,000 people; second, Georgia has registered a sharp drop in its birth rate since Soviet times.


However, other demographic experts believe that at least one million people have left Georgia over the last 12 years. They point out that most Georgian migrants are unregistered and hard to count.


Leo Chikava, director of the Demography and Polling Institute at Georgia's Academy of Sciences, said that the census numbers had been boosted by the inclusion of thousands of Georgian citizens living in other CIS countries, especially in large cities such as Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kiev. The exact breakdown of numbers will only be revealed, when the full census figures are published in the summer of 2003.


According to Irina Badurashvili, director of the National Population and Resource Centre, a Tbilisi-based NGO, the pattern of emigration from Georgia has changed over the last decade. The first wave of émigrés consisted mainly of minority groups, such as Russians and Greeks, leaving Georgia in the strongly nationalist times of the early 1990s. Now, as minority groups continue to leave, tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians are also going abroad to find work.


Badurashvili's centre estimates that some 300,000 people have left the country officially and acquired citizenship in other states, while approximately the same number is resident in other countries but has never registered their absence from Georgia.


Inga, a 31-year-old Georgian woman now resident in Saarbrueken, Germany, says she has no plans to come back to Georgia, although she is still officially registered as living there. "There are many Georgians like me here," she said. "Some study here, others are working at the local hospital, and many of them have managed to get residency permits in Germany."


Other Georgians resident in western countries may be forced to return to Georgia, because they are working illegally in their adopted states. Beso, aged 27, said that he was forced to come back to Georgia a year ago from Belgium, after arriving there on a tourist visa. "Unfortunately, I was deported and had to come back to Georgia," he said. "But there are plenty of Georgians who managed to find work and even to bring their families to Belgium."


The largest group of émigrés is in Russia - people like 30-year-old Nino K, who has adopted her mother's Russian surname and taken Russian citizenship. "I did take a great risk," she said. "I speak Russian fluently, and my university education was good enough for me to find a job in Moscow. Now I am working as a manager in a big US company in Moscow, I have bought a flat and my child will soon be going to a Russian school in Moscow. I help my parents in Tbilisi but I am not going to go back."


The paradox is that Georgia's demographic collapse may also be its economic lifeline. The remittances that migrant workers send back to Georgia helps save much of the population from destitution. "Migration has, in fact, saved Georgia's people," said Irina Badurashvili, "Many of them had no chance to find a job, or to help their families. They will come back if the situation in the country changes."


Economic hardship has forced down the birth rate. Demographic expert Leo Chikava said that families were taking the decision to have only one child, although polls suggest that ideally they would prefer to have three. The effect has been especially dramatic on the more than 200,000 Georgian refugees, who have fled Abkhazia. Around 40 per cent of men in this group are unmarried. "How can I think about family if I don't even have my own house, leaving aside normal income?" said Zurab from Sukhumi, who receives an allowance of just six US dollars a month.


At the same time Georgians appear to be learning about family planning. In 2000, official figures showed that there were 15,000 abortions in Georgia, down from 69,000 in 1989. Although the real abortion figures are almost certainly higher, the trend is still downwards.


A net result of the falling birth rate and emigration has been to leave Georgia with a greying population. 13 per cent of the population is now over 65, making Georgia comparable to western countries - but for the wrong reasons.


"Unfortunately, the aging process in Georgia is caused by a drop in the birth rate and emigration, whereas in Europe and the United States, the process is related to higher life expectancy," said Irina Badurashvili.


To tackle Georgia's catastrophic demographic problems, the Institute for Demography and Polling is working on a policy programme, which will propose tax breaks and financial assistance for parents who have a third child. However, the biggest break for Georgia's thinning population numbers would undoubtedly be an economic recovery.


"If the situation in the country improves, many will return," said Mark Hulst, a consultant with the International Organization for Migration. "The main reason they left is the crisis in the country."


Dina Bit-Suleiman is a journalism student at Tbilisi State University.