Regional ethnic distribution is a major cause of the problems Georgia faces along its borders and within its territory. Russians, who make up the third largest ethnic group in the country (6.7 percent of the total population in 1989), do not constitute a majority in any district. The highest concentration of Russians is in Abkhazia, but the overall dispersion of the Russian population restricts political representation of the Russians' interests.
Azerbaijanis are a majority of the population in the districts of Marneuli and Bolnisi, south of Tbilisi on the Azerbaijan border, while Armenians are a majority in the Akhalkalaki, Ninotsminda, and Dmanisi districts immediately to the west of the Azerbaijani-dominated regions and just north of the Armenian border. Despite the proximity and intermingling of Armenian and Azerbaijani populations in Georgia, in the early 1990s few conflicts in Georgia reflected the hostility of the Armenian and Azerbaijani nations over the territory of NagornoKarabakh. Organizations in Georgia representing the interests of the Armenian and Azerbaijani populations had relatively few conflicts with authorities in Tbilisi in the first postcommunist years.
Under Soviet rule, a large part of Georgian territory was divided into autonomous regions that included concentrations of non-Georgian peoples. The largest such region was the Abkhazian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Abkhazian ASSR; after Georgian independence, the Abkhazian Autonomous Republic). The distribution of territory and the past policies of tsarist and Soviet rule meant that in 1989 the Abkhaz made up only 17.8 percent of the population of the autonomous republic named for them (compared with 44 percent Georgians and 16 percent Russians). The Abkhaz constituted less than 2 percent of the total population of Georgia. Although Georgian was the prevailing language of the region as early as the eighth century A.D., Abkhazia was a separate Soviet republic from 1921 until 1930, when it was incorporated into Georgia as an autonomous republic.
In the thirteenth century, Ossetians arrived on the south side of the Caucasus Mountains, in Georgian territory, when the Mongols drove them from what is now the North Ossetian Autonomous Republic of Russia. In 1922 the South Ossetian Autonomous Region was formed within the new Transcaucasian republic of the Soviet Union. The autonomous region was abolished officially by the Georgian government in 1990, then reinstated in 1992. South Ossetia includes many all-Georgian villages, and the Ossetian population is concentrated in the cities of Tskhinvali and Java. Overall, in the 1980s the population in South Ossetia was 66 percent Ossetian and 29 percent Georgian. In 1989 more than 60 percent of the Ossetian population of Georgia lived outside South Ossetia.
The Ajarian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (Ajarian ASSR) in southwest Georgia was redesignated the Ajarian Autonomous Republic in 1992. The existence of that republic reflects the religious and cultural differences that developed when the Ottoman Empire occupied part of Georgia in the sixteenth century and converted the local population to Islam. The Ajarian region was not included in Georgia until the Treaty of Berlin separated it from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. An autonomous republic within Georgia was declared in 1921. Because the Ajarian population is indistinguishable from Georgians in language and belongs to the same ethnic group, it generally considers itself Georgian. Eventually "Ajarian" was dropped from the ethnic categories in the Soviet national census. Thus, in the 1979 census the ethnic breakdown of the region showed about 80 percent Georgians (including Ajars) and 10 percent Russians. Nevertheless, the autonomous republic remains an administrative subdivision of the Republic of Georgia, local elites having fought hard to preserve the special status that this distinction affords them.
The so-called Meskhetian Turks are another potential source of ethnic discord. Forcibly exiled from southern Georgia to Uzbekistan by Stalin during World War II, many of the estimated 200,000 Meskhetian Turks outside Georgia sought to return to their homes in Georgia after 1990. Many Georgians argued that the Meskhetian Turks had lost their links to Georgia and hence had no rights that would justify the large-scale upheaval resettlement would cause. However, Shevardnadze argued that Georgians had a moral obligation to allow this group to return.
Among the leading ethnic groups, the fastest growth between 1979 and 1989 occurred in the Azerbaijani population and the Kurds, whose numbers increased by 20 percent and 30 percent, respectively. This trend worried Georgians, even though both groups combined made up less than 7 percent of the republic's population. Over the same period, the dominant Georgians' share of the population increased from 68.8 percent to 70.1 percent. Ethnic shifts after 1989--particularly the emigration of Russians, Ukrainians, and Ossetians--were largely responsible for the Georgians' increased share of the population.
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