Young Georgians Abandon Rural Life for the Capital
As Tbilisi swells, towns and villages lose the very force that could keep them alive.
It was his interest in studying arts and drama that spurred Paata Babluani to leave his native town of Khoni for Tbilisi; it was the lack of opportunities in his rural home region of Imereti that kept him in the Georgian capital.
“I wasn’t planning to stay, I moved to Tbilisi only for my studies,” said the 28-year-old, who went on to take up acting for a while before finding work in a Georgian-Spanish meat-production company. “I got a job in Tbilisi and now all my income, stability and future are here, where would I go? There are no young people left in my region, there are no opportunities for education and work, no stability.”
Since Georgia gained independence in 1991, internal migration has steadily increased, with citizens relocating from villages to cities. Tbilisi in particular has been absorbing people from Georgia’s regions: between January 2018 and January 2022, the capital grew by 43,100 inhabitants, according to the National Statistic Office, GeoStat.
Experts warn that as the capital swells, the regions grow increasingly empty, particularly of young people.
“Poor communications and infrastructure problems are the main challenges in remote areas;
some places lack basic infrastructural needs like transportation, gas, water or internet,” Nino Jibuti, research fellow for Eastern Partnership Civil Society Fellowship, told IWPR.
Jibuti and her colleague Gvantsa Ichkiti studied the phenomenon of internal youth migration in Georgia, focusing on five of the country’s nine regions.
Pursuing higher education is the main reason the young leave their villages and towns. They rarely return, for various reasons.
Young people leave the western region of Ajara due to the low-quality education available there, while dedicated space for youth and educational activities are the main emigration reasons in Samegrelo. The lack of access to jobs and resources is the challenge in Imereti, while in eastern and southern areas like Shida Kartli and Kvemo Kartli bad roads and transportation are the biggest concerns.
“There are no opportunities for young people in villages, towns or even cities except for the capital,” said Nugzar Kokhreidze, chairman at the Research Intellectual Club-Dialogue of Generations NGO. “There are few employment options and practically no conditions for a social and cultural life.”
Basic services are also often scarce in the regions.
“If I feel sick, there is not a hospital, not even in Sighnaghi,” 27-year-old Natia Sharmiashvili told IWPR, referring to the nearby town, which is a tourist hotspot but provides few opportunities for young people.
Like Paata, Natia left her native village of Nukriani, in the eastern Kakheti region, to study.
“It is the new norm,” she said.
Natia can also not imagine going back to live in Nukriani: now a filmmaker, a village with less than 2,000 people cannot offer her the opportunities she desires.
Young people between 15 and 29 years of age are the most affected by unemployment, which GeoStat’s figures set at 17,26 per cent in December 2022. For sociologists, those who should be generating wealth and gaining work experience at a local level are forced to leave their communities and move to urban areas due to the lack of job opportunities.
Various governments have attempted to address the issue, but analysts note a lack of long-term vision.
“Projects are short-term, unsustainable and mostly not reflecting the needs and interests of young people. State, non-governmental and private organisations are not working simultaneously and in synergy, and often are in competition with each other,” Jibuti explained, adding that this has also an impact on young people’s attitude towards their social and political roles.
“Youngsters in Georgia’s provinces tend to be nihilistic towards civil activism as they don't feel that their voice will be heard, that their participation in any activity will lead to something, result in any change. Political activism is even lower, very unpopular.”
Life has been drained from Georgian villages. Since 1926, 223 villages have vanished, with depopulation speeding up since the 2000s. Between 2002 and 2014, 61 villages disappeared. Mountainous areas are particularly affected: abandoned houses, locked doors and a handful of elderly residents are all that remains on many stunning Caucasus peaks.
Between 2018 and 2022 the central region of Imereti lost about 40,400 residents, from 507,000 to 466,600, while the population of western region of Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti numbered 301,200 in 2022 , down from 320,800 in 2018.
“Depopulation means that nobody, not even one person is living in a specific place anymore,” Avtandil Sulaberidze, who leads the Demography and Sociology Institute at Ilia State University, told IWPR, adding that Georgia’s life was highly centralised on Tbilisi.
“Factories, constructions, businesses, you name it, everything is in Tbilisi,” he explained. “And in the regions, the agriculture system is not working [due to a system of land divided in small plots]. it’s impossible to support families on one hectare; farming lands need to be united, for the families to have interest and income from the agriculture work. The system has to change.”
Kokhreidze agreed, adding, “The only solution is a substantial change in the political system, with a deep decentralisation system that would distribute resources more evenly, offering regions with more means and create more alternatives.”
Some people, howeve,r have swam against the tide. Magda Kharchilava left her native Tsalenjikha, in Samegrelo-Zemo Svaneti region, but she soon realised that the big city was not for her.
“I moved to Tbilisi to study international relations, I understood I did not want to stay from day one,” the 24 year-old told IWPR. “I couldn’t breathe, I was searching for the blue of the horizons and the green everywhere.”
Passionate about art, photography, and literature, Magda returned to her village of 3,000 people, well aware that her family’s financial situation allowed her to pursue her love of writing and painting.
“Without a financially stable family, a person of my age cannot survive here. I know for sure that I want to live only here.”
In early 2022, together with close friend Anna Chania, Magda applied for a municipal grant and with 4,000 laris (about 1,555 US dollars) they organised Days of Apollo, a month-long art festival, which brought artists from all over Georgia to the village.
For Anna, it was the first step to transform Tsalenjikha.
“We decided to fight technologies and consumerism with culture,” she said. “This was our first, trial year. Every next one is going to be better.”
Tbilisi was not suitable for Natia Sharmiashvili’s brother Aleko, either. Just as his sister thrived in the capital’s dynamic way of life, Aleko felt constrained by it. The 25-year-old decided to return to the family’s vineyards in Nukriani.
“Why do I have to seek a new life in Tbilisi, when I have the land of my ancestors waiting for me to harvest?” Aleko said.
But Magda and Aleko remain exceptions and analysts see youth migration as irreversible.
“Unfortunately, for many Tbilisi is not the last destination,” Kokhreidze commented. “It is only the starting point for them to pursue options elsewhere and to emigrate to developed countries.”
This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.