Georgia

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Income distribution

Most Georgians face low wages, high prices, underemployment or unemployment. Remittances from relatives working abroad make up a large part of the informal economy. There is abject poverty in rural areas , and a ruling class of oligarchs.

Literacy

Illiteracy was virtually eradicated in Georgia during the Soviet era, with a present rate of 99.56% But there are difficulties in access to school education in rural regions.

Life expectancy

Life expectancy is low compared to most of Europe, at 71.69, but it has improved since the chaos of the 1990s. It is considerably higher for women (76.68) than for men (66.80).

Position of women

Georgia elected its first female president in 2018, but life remains difficult for most women in this patriarchal and traditionalist society. Many women support their families by working abroad, with most domestic work left to their female relatives. Femicide rates are high.

Freedom

Georgia’s media is controlled by a political elite divided into pro-EU and pro-government factions. Ordinary Georgians are subject to the ravages of unregulated business approved of by both factions. Civil society and the huge NGO sector is propped up by unchecked foreign money.

LGBTQI+

Same-sex relationships have been legal in Georgia since 2000 and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation is prohibited. However, Georgian society as a whole is largely hostile: Tbilisi Pride was broken up by counter-protesters in 2021 and 2023.

Politics

Georgia’s politics is dominated by centrist and syncretic parties of both pro-Western and pro-Russian slants. Protests last year led to the withdrawal of proposed laws which would have labeled NGOs funded from abroad as ‘foreign agents’. The country is ranked the 41st most corrupt out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s 2022 index.

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At a glance

Leader:

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili

Economy:

GNI per capita $5,620 in 2022 (Russia $12,830, UK $48,890). Georgia’s economy experienced huge inflation following the collapse of the USSR. The economy steadied but suffered again due to sanctions on Russia in 2022. An influx of Russians fleeing military conscription has given a small boost to the economy. A small middle class is reliant on foreign funding for NGOs and civil sector jobs.

Monetary unit:

Georgian lari (1 lari = $0.37)

Main exports:

Copper, iron alloys, cars, wine, refined petroleum, nitrogen, fertilizers, liquors.

Population:

4.9 million. Annual population growth: 0.01%. People per km2: 65 (Russia 9; UK 280).

Health:

Under-5 mortality rate: 9.5 deaths per 1,000 live births (Russia 4.8; UK 4.2). Maternal mortality rate per 1,000 live births: 28 (2020) (Russia 14; UK 12). Since 2012, following the failure of a US-style healthcare system, Georgia has provided universal healthcare through funding privatized facilities.

Environment:

Georgia has subtropical, continental, alpine and semi-arid regions. Earthquakes and landslides are persistent in the highlands. The Black Sea is heavily polluted.

Culture:

The Georgians’ identity is tied up in its long history of invasions and occupations. Polyphonic singing, wine-making and its distinctive cuisine are synonymous with Georgia’s culture. Abkhazians and Ossetians have distinct histories and cultural identities.

Religion:

Eastern Orthodox 83.4%, Muslim 10.7%, Armenian Apostolic Christian 2.9%, other 1.2%, none 0.5%, unspecified 1.2% (2014 est.)

Language:

Georgian 87.6%, Azeri 6.2%, Armenian 3.9%, Russian 1.2%, other 1%. Abkhaz is the official language in Abkhazia. Many older Georgians speak Russian.

Human development index:

0.802 (Russia 0.822; UK 0.929). Joint 63rd (with Serbia) out of 191 countries.

A rally for European integration in Tbilisi, 2022

The Tbilgorprojekt building, once home to the main design institute of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), at first glance looked like a typical brutalist Soviet-era building. On closer inspection, however, the sun arches over each window gave the building a uniquely Georgian finish and provided much needed coolness during the capital Tbilisi’s hot summers. The impressive architecture embodied the mission of those who designed it – young Georgian architects trained in the USSR, whose vision of a future Tbilisi fused the modern and the vernacular. Of course, that vision is gone, and as of this year, so is the Tbilgorprojekt building. It has been bulldozed to make way for a luxury hotel of a kind found in any other capital – and capitalist – city.

Like the flashy office blocks and apartment buildings that have sprung up around the country’s major cities, the hotel is not built to serve ordinary citizens, but rather foreign capital. In the 30 years since the fall of the USSR, Georgia has been struggling to fulfil post-independence aspirations.

Nestled in the South Caucasus with a border on the Black Sea, this mountainous nation has seen a succession of foreign invaders and occupiers stretching back to the classical era. By the early 19th century, it had been integrated into the Russian Empire. Following a brief period as an independent republic ruled by Mensheviks, it was annexed by the USSR in 1922.

a church near Gergeti , which lies at a 2170m elevation beneath Mount Kazbegi;
A church near Gergeti , which lies at a 2170m elevation beneath Mount Kazbegi. Photo: George Trumpeter

The Georgian SSR provided the Soviet Union with its most infamous leader as well as the best Soviet wine. Georgia-born Joseph Stalin declared the Abkhazian territory part of the Georgian SSR, where it joined South Ossetia as an autonomous republic.

After the USSR’s dissolution, a dramatic fall in living standards inflamed a civil war from 1991 to 1993, which saw the partial seccession of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – now ‘frozen conflict’ zones. As the economy and welfare state collapsed, organized crime flourished.

Since then, successive presidents have attracted much-needed foreign aid and investment by acting as enthusiastic handmaidens to neoliberal reform: by slashing spending, by deregulation and most importantly by protecting the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which carries oil to Europe bypassing Russia and Iran. In ‘open to business’ Georgia, foreign NGOs dominate civil society, and employment rights are sacrificed in the interests of multinational companies. Georgia’s tourism industry is big and growing due to its natural beauty, but it is a seasonal industry with a questionable economic impact.

The country’s ruling class and its western backers are unwilling to tackle the real roots of Georgia’s poverty, and so instead promote another narrative: that Georgia’s mythical prosperity is just around the corner, once it has fulfilled its destiny as a Christian, European and wealthy nation by turning its back on Russia and joining the EU and NATO. As Ukraine has learned, this is a risky business, and the recent war has made the possibility of membership even more unlikely.

A rally for European integration in Tbilisi, 2022. Photo: Saiko3p.all via Shutterstock
A rally for European integration in Tbilisi, 2022. Photo: Saiko3p.all via Shutterstock

The failure to fulfil the promise of prosperity despite 30 years of independence means the political class needs a constant supply of scapegoats. A convenient target is the USSR. As memories of the reality of life in Soviet Georgia are fading, the USSR is increasingly blamed as the source of all economic problems, including Georgia’s chronic economic difficulties from the 1990s onwards. Hence why buildings like the Tbilgorprojekt, a structure that epitomizes a co-operative relationship between Georgia and Moscow, cannot remain standing. Whether the new skyscrapers will improve Georgians’ lives in the long run remains to be seen.