Georgia (country, Asia)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Georgia (country, Asia)

Georgia (jôr´jə), Georgian Sakartvelo, Rus. Gruziya, officially Republic of Georgia, republic (2015 est. pop. 3,952,000), c.26,900 sq mi (69,700 sq km), in W Transcaucasia. Georgia borders on the Black Sea in the west, on Turkey and Armenia in the south, on Azerbaijan in the east, and on Russia in the north. Tbilisi is the capital and by far the largest city; Kutaisi, the second largest city, became the legislative capital in 2012.

Land and People

Situated on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus and in the Lesser Caucasus, Georgia is largely ruggedly mountainous. The Suram Mts. separate the Rion (Rioni) and Kura river valleys. The perpetually snowcapped Mt. Kazbek, the tallest peak within Georgia, rises to 16,541 ft (5,042 m). The climate is humid subtropical in the Black Sea lowland of Mingrelia, alpine in the Greater and Lesser Caucasus, and dry in the Kura steppes in the east. Included in Georgia are Abkhazia, the Adjarian Autonomous Republic (Adjaria), and South Ossetia (see Ossetia); all three have had separatist movements, and Abkhazia and South Ossetia have had de facto independence since the 1990s. In addition to Tbilisi, other important cities are Rustavi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Sukhumi (in Abkhazia), and Poti.

More than 80% of the population are Georgians—a people who speak a language related to the Ibero-Caucasian family of languages. Azeris, Armenians, and Russians are the other major ethnic groups, with Ossetians, Abkhazians, and Adjars in smaller numbers. The Georgian church, to which most of the ethnic Georgians belong, is an independent Orthodox Eastern congregation. About 10% of the people are Muslims. Georgian is the official language. There has been a standard Georgian literary language since about the 5th cent. (see Georgian literature). Russian is also widely spoken.


Agriculture is an important occupation in Georgia, whose warmer districts produce large quantities of citrus fruits and tea; wine grapes, hazelnuts, tobacco, rice, and mulberry trees (for silk) are also grown. Sheep, pigs, and poultry are raised. Georgia is rich in minerals, notably manganese (mined mostly at Chiatura and in Imeritia) and copper; iron ore, coal, tungsten, barites, molybdenum, oil, and peat are also found. There are sizable deposits of marble, dolomite, talc, and clays for use in construction.

As part of the Soviet Union, Georgia had a large and varied industrial sector. Many industries collapsed after independence, and economic redevelopment has been hindered by warfare, corruption, and the effects of Russia's economic troubles. Today, there is food and beverage processing and the manufacture of steel, aircraft, machine tools, electrical appliances, chemicals, and wood products. The Black Sea shore is dotted with resorts and spas that attract numerous tourists. The construction of oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea through Tbilisi to E Turkey have brought foreign investment and job opportunities. The Black Sea coast railway, the line from Batumi through Tbilisi to Bakı; the Georgian Military Road; and the Ossetian Military Road are the country's main transportation arteries. Georgia's sizable hydropower capacity is underdeveloped and it must import the bulk of its fuel. The chief exports are scrap metal, machinery, chemicals, fuel reexports, citrus fruits, tea, and wine. The main imports are fuels, machinery, transportation equipment, grain and other foods, and pharmaceuticals. The chief trade partners are Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan.


Georgia is governed under the constitution of 1995 as amended. The president, who is head of state and commander in chief (responsible for the defense, internal affairs, and justice ministries), is elected by popular vote for a five-year term and is eligible for a second term. The prime minister, who is head of government, is responsible for managing the nation's domestic and foreign affairs not assigned to the president. The unicameral legislature consists of the 150-seat Parliament (or Supreme Council); 75 members are elected on a proportional basis and 75 are directly elected by districts. All serve five-year terms. Administratively, the country is divided into nine regions, one city, and two autonomous republics.


Early History through Soviet Rule

Georgia developed as a kingdom about the 4th cent. BC Mtskheta was its earliest capital; coastal Georgia was the Colchis of the ancient Greeks. The Persian Sassanids, who ruled the country from the 3d cent. AD, were expelled c.400. In the 4th cent. Christianity was introduced in Georgia. In the 9th cent. the rule of the Bagrationi family began. Alp Arslan held the region in the 11th cent., but King David IV (or David II, known as David the Builder) expelled the Seljuk Turks, united the Georgians, and reestablished their independence.

In the 12th and 13th cent. Georgia under Queen Thamar (1184–1213) reached its greatest expansion (it then included the whole of Transcaucasia and part of what is now neighboring Turkey) and cultural flowering. From that period dates the national poem, The Man in the Panther's Skin, by Shota Rustaveli. Ravaged (13th cent.) by the Mongols, Georgia revived but was again sacked by Timur (c.1386–1403). In the 15th cent. King Alexander I divided Georgia into three kingdoms (Imertia, Kakhetia, and Karthlia) among his sons, and the period of decline set in.

In the 16th cent. Georgia became an object of struggle between Turkey and Persia. In 1555, W Georgia passed under Turkish suzerainty and E Georgia (Kakhetia and Karthlia) under Persian rule. In the 18th cent. kings of Kakhetia tried to unite Georgia, but, pressed by the Turks and the Persians, accepted (1783) vassalage to Russia in exchange for assistance. The last king, George XIII, threatened by Persia, abdicated (1801) in favor of the czar and ceded Kakhetia and Karthlia to Russia. Between 1803 and 1829 Russia also acquired from Turkey the western parts of Georgia (Abkhazia, Mingrelia, Imeritia, and Guria).

After the Russian Revolution (1917), the Georgian Menshevik party (see Bolshevism and Menshevism) proclaimed (May, 1918) Georgia's independence, and the country enjoyed a brief period as a democratic socialist republic. The Soviet government in Moscow recognized (May, 1920) the independence, but in 1921 the Red Army invaded Georgia, and in Feb., 1921, it was proclaimed a Soviet republic. It was joined the USSR in 1922 as a member of the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic; in 1936 it became a separate union republic. Parts of Georgia were held by the Germans during World War II. After the war, Stalin, who was himself a Georgian, ordered the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Georgians as suspected collaborators. In Apr., 1989, a protest against Soviet rule in Georgia led Soviet troops to fire on demonstrators, killing 20 and injuring hundreds.

A New Nation

Georgia declared its independence in Apr., 1991, but was not generally recognized as an independent state until the USSR disintegrated in Dec., 1991. Once it achieved independence, Georgia, which had prospered economically as part of the USSR, struggled with social and economic disintegration.

In Jan., 1992, a rebellion against the increasingly dictatorial regime of President Zviad Gamsakhurdia led to his ouster. He escaped to W Georgia and instigated a counterrebellion. Forces in the South Ossetian Autonomous Republic and Abkhazian Autonomous Republic also revolted, the former demanding union with Russia's North Ossetia and the latter demanding independence. A cease-fire with the Ossetians was signed in July, 1992; it left much of the area under rebel control.

In Oct., 1992, Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet foreign minister and leader of the Democratic Reform movement, was elected speaker of parliament, a position tantamount to president. He faced civil war and a deteriorating economy. In 1993, Georgia reluctantly joined the Russian-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States. Georgian military forces, with Russian help, ultimately prevailed against the rebels led by Gamsakhurdia, who died in 1993. Also in 1993, separatists won control of the Abkhazian capital, Sukhumi, and within Abkhazia they conducted a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," driving out ethnic Georgians; a cease-fire was negotiated in 1994, but peace talks stalled and fighting has erupted periodically.

In Dec., 1995, Shevardnadze easily won election as president under a new constitution; he was the target of assassination attempts in 1995 and 1998. Pope John Paul II made a visit to Georgia in Nov., 1999, but received a cool reception from its Orthodox hierarchy. President Shevardnadze was reelected as expected in Apr., 2000, but by a lopsided margin that led foreign observers to accuse the government of vote tampering. Corruption hindered economic recovery and strapped government finances, all of which led to unhappiness with Shevardnadze's rule.

Parliamentary elections early in Nov., 2003, were regarded as seriously flawed by most observers and sparked opposition demonstrations that forced the president's resignation before the end of the month. Nino Burjanadze, the parliament speaker, became interim president. Presidential elections in Jan., 2004, resulted in a landslide for the main opposition candidate, Mikheil Saakashvili, a former justice minister under Shevardnadze. Constitutional changes in February strengthened the president's powers, and in March, prior to new parliamentary elections, Saakashvili sparked a confrontation with the autonomous region of Adjaria that led in May to the reestablishment there of the central government's authority, which had weakened under Shevardnadze. In the elections, Saakashvili's coalition won two thirds of the vote and 90% of the seats.

There was a subsequent increase in tension with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, In the former, fighting erupted for several weeks during the summer and also strained relations with Russia; in the latter disputes late in 2004 over election results further aggravated Russian relations. Since 2004 there has also been an increase in tensions between ethnic Armenians in Georgia and the central government over perceived discrimination against Armenian speakers.

An national energy crisis occurred in Jan., 2006, when a gas pipeline explosion in North Ossetia, Russia, curtailed natural gas supplies in Georgia, with some Georgians believing that it had been engineered by Russia. In Feb., 2006, Georgia's parliament called for Russian peacekeepers to be removed from South Ossetia and replaced by an international force; the call was repeated later in the year and extended to Abkhazia. A Russian ban (Apr., 2006) on the importation of Georgian (and Moldovan) wines and brandies, ostensibly for sanitary reasons, was similarly regarded with suspicion.

Relations with Russia have been strained since independence. Russia has been supportive of South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists, and a 1999 agreement called for closing two of four Russian bases in 2001. A new agreement in 2005 called for Russia to withdraw from its two other remaining bases by 2008. Russia withdrew from its base in Batumi in 2007, saying it had quit its last Georgian base, but Georgia asserted Russia continued to maintain a base at Gudauta, Abkhazia. Russia insisted the force there consisted of peacekeepers. Georgia was accused by Russia of sheltering Chechen insurgents (particularly in the Pankisi Gorge near Chechnya) and providing them with support, and Russia threatened unilateral military strikes in areas bordering Chechnya. In Oct., 2002, however, Georgia and Russia agreed to establish joint patrols to prevent border crossings by Chechens.

Tensions with Abkhazia rose again in July, 2006, when Georgia forcibly disarmed the militia that had controlled the Kodori Gorge, part of Abkhazia still aligned with Georgia. In Sept., 2006, a number of opposition politicians were arrested and charged with plotting a coup, and later in the month several Russian officials and Georgians were arrested on charges of spying. Those arrests turned the sour Russian-Georgian relations into a bitter confrontation as Russia halted all transport and postal links with Georgia and subsequently expelled several hundred Georgians as illegal immigrants. The sharp escalation in rhetoric was particularly pronounced on Russia's side; the arrested Russians were subsequently expelled.

In the Oct., 2006, local elections the president's National Movement party won a solid victory. In December, tensions with Russia continued as the Russian Duma expressed support for Abkhazian and Ossetian separatists, and the Russian energy giant Gazprom increased the price Georgia paid for gas, leading Georgia to seek alternative suppliers. The same month, Georgia's parliament passed constitutional amendments that would, in 2008, lengthen legislators' terms and shorten the president's term so that all would be elected at the same time. The tense relations with Russia moderated somewhat in early 2007, but the apparent incursion of one plane (and perhaps two) from Russian airspace in Aug., 2007, further heightened tensions; the first plane apparently fired a missile. Russia accused Georgia of fabricating the incident, but two international panels lent credence to Georgia's charge that Russia had violated its airspace.

In September, Irakly Okruashvili, the former defense minister accused Saakashvili of corruption and ordering the killing of his opponent; the defense minister was then arrested on abuse of power and corruption charges. Saakashvili denied the charges; in custody his accuser recanted and pleaded guilty to the charges against him, raising suspicions among the president's opponents. Okruashvili subsequently was released and left Georgia; in Mar. 2008 he was convicted in absentia of bribery. He returned to Georgia in Nov., 2012, and was arrested; some of the charges against subsequently were dropped.

In Nov., 2007, following large antigovernment demonstrations, Saakashvili declared a state of emergency, which lasted nine days, and suppressed the largely peaceful demonstrations; he also called an early presidential election. He was reelected in Jan., 2008, with more than 51% of the vote, but the campaign, while generally approved of by international observers, was marred by intimidation and pressure, and opposition groups accused the government of ballot fraud.

Following Kosovo's declaration of independence, the Russian State Duma called on Russia to consider recognizing Abkazia and South Ossetia as sovereign nations, especially if Georgia joined NATO. The nonbinding move was an additional irritant in Georgian-Russian relations, and Russia subsequently announced that it would increase ties with the two regions, where many inhabitants have acquired Russian citizenship.

In April, NATO declined to offer Georgia a long-term plan for joining the alliance, as Georgia wished, although NATO did say it would eventually admit Georgia as a member. That same month a Georgian drone was shot down over Abkhazia; a UN report in May called a Russian jet the most likely attacker, and noted that, while the drone's flight was a violation of the peace agreement, the attack called into question Russia's role as a peacekeeper. Russian actions with respect to Georgia in subsequent months continued to be provocative.

In the parliamentary elections of May, 2008, Saakashvili's United National Movement won nearly 60% of the vote. The main opposition grouping denounced the vote as rigged, but observers, while criticizing aspects of the campaign and balloting, said that they marked an improvement over the presidential election. Tensions with South Ossetia led to fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces in early July; Russia accused Georgia of planning to invade and said it had overflown the region (a violation of Georgian sovereignty) in an effort to stop the invasion.

In Aug., 2008, amid rising tensions and escalating attacks involving Georgian and South Ossetian forces, Georgia, reportedly believing that Russian forces were about to seize South Ossetia, sent its own forces into South Ossetia. Russia intervened in the conflict on the side of the South Ossetians, and soon routed the Georgians from South Ossetia, including areas previously under Georgian control. Russia also mounted air attacks against Georgia, invaded Georgia from Abkhazia (where Abkhazian separatists seized the Kodori Gorge, which had been controlled by Georgia since 2006), and occupied areas of Georgia bordering South Ossetia. Tens of thousands of South Ossetians and Georgians fled the fighting, which resulted in significant damage to Tskhinvali and Gori and the destruction of Georgian military bases and installations by Russia.

A cease-fire was negotiated after several days of fighting, and later in the month Russia began withdrawing its forces from areas of Georgia outside South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but areas previously under Georgian control in the two regions were not returned to Georgia despite the cease-fre terms. Russia subsequently recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent, and in 2009 signed defense pacts with them and agreed to establish bases in the two regions. Russia also refused to extend any international observer mission inside the two regions that could be seen as recognizing Georgia's sovereignty over them, leading to the removal of UN and OSCE observers. Georgia broke off diplomatic relations with Russia and withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States (finalized Aug., 2009). A European Union report (Sept., 2009) on the conflict rejected Georgia's justifications for sending troops into South Ossetia, but found both sides bore responsibility for the war. Subsequently, the EU was increasingly critical of what it regarded as undemocratic actions on the part of the Georgian government.

Constitutional amendments adopted in Oct., 2010, and effective in 2013 increased the prime minister and parliament's powers but also left some important powers with the president. The changes were regarded by many as being designed to allow Saakashvili to continue play a significant governmental role after his second (and final) term as president. In the Oct., 2012, parliamentary elections, however, the Georgian Dream opposition coalition, led by Bidzina Ivanishvili, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist who was relatively new to politics, won a majority, and Ivanishvili became prime minister.

The subsequent months were marked by tensions between the president and prime minister, with the new government arresting on various charges former officials allied with Saakashvili and seeking to accelerate the constitutional changes transferring power from the president to prime minister. The new government also sought improved relations with Russia; in June, 2013, shipments of Georgian wine to Russia resumed. Giorgi Margvelashvili, a former deputy prime minister and the Georgian Dream candidate, handily won election as president in Oct., 2013. The following month Ivanishvili stepped down as prime minister, and Interior Minister Irakli Garibashvili succeeded him; Ivanishvili, however, continued to be regarded as the real power behind the government.

Georgia signed a partnership agreement with the European Union in June, 2014; the move was strongly opposed by Russia. In Nov., 2014, tensions within the government, ostensibly over progress toward Western integration, led to the withdrawal of one of the parties in the coalition, leaving Georgian Dream with a minority government. In 2014 and 2015 Abkhazia and South Ossetia, respectively, signed treaties with Russia that called for integrating the regions' militaries and economies with Russia's. Garibashvili's government was re-formed in May, 2015, after several ministers resigned. In December the prime minister resigned and was replaced by Giorgi Kvirikashvili, the foreign minister. Parliamentary elections in Oct., 2016, resulted in a sizable majority for Georgian Dream. The party subsequently (2017) amended the constitution to end direct election of the president and switch entirely to proportional representation in parliament.


See D. M. Lang, The Last Years of the Georgian Monarchy, 1658–1832 (1957) and A Modern History of Soviet Georgia (1962); W. E. Allen, A History of the Georgian People (repr. 1978); R. G. Suny, Sakartvelo (1987); D. Rayfield, Edge of Empires (2012); E. Lee, The Experiment: Georgia's Forgotten Revolution 1918–1921 (2017).

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