In the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Azeris in Georgia clamored to return to their titular homeland. But now, thanks in part to strong bilateral relations, the trend is changing: ethnic Azeris still in Georgia are staying put, and thousand who made their way to Azerbaijan are even opting to return.
Economic collapse, war and nationalist government policies prompted thousands of Georgia’s ethnic Azeris to head to neighboring Azerbaijan during the early 1990s. About 80 percent of the remaining estimated 350,000 ethnic Azeris in Georgia live in the southeastern region of Kvemo Kartli, a predominantly agricultural area.
The Azerbaijani government has no specific data on how many ethnic Azeri migrants are currently in Azerbaijan, but migration expert Azer Allahveranov, president of Baku’s Eurasian Platform for Civic Initiatives, a non-governmental organization, estimates that more than 95 percent of the 100,000 Georgian citizens believed to live in the country are ethnic Azeris.
Faced with problems legalizing their status and settling “successfully” in Azerbaijan, some of these migrants now are returning to Georgia, said Aliovsat Aliyev, director of the Baku-based Migration Center, a non-profit think-tank. Improved economic and living conditions in Georgia, relative to the early 1990s, are contributing to the trend, he added.
“There are no exact statistics, but, based on my calculations, if the trend continues, about 20,000 Azeris will return to Georgia during the next three to four years,” Aliyev predicted. Allahveranov also cited Tbilisi’s crackdown on government corruption and “democratic reforms” as among the factors spurring the migrants’ return.
The Azerbaijani government, meanwhile, appears eager to encourage ethnic Azeris in Georgia to stay – a position widely seen as helping to boost Azerbaijan’s leverage with Georgian officials, with whom Baku has a growing economic partnership.
At an August 29 conference in the Georgian port city of Batumi to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Azerbaijan’s independence, Ali Hasanov, head of the Azerbaijani presidential administration’s Political Department, praised President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration for being sensitive to minorities, the Trend news agency reported. The Georgian government, among other measures, has introduced Georgian-language instruction for ethnic Azeris (and other minorities) and has established quotas in state-run universities for the enrollment of ethnic Azeris.
Hasanov called on ethnic Azeris in Georgia, the country’s largest ethnic minority, to know the Georgian language “better . . . than the Georgians themselves” and to secure ‘adequate’ representation in Georgian government offices and elected bodies.” Baku and non-governmental organizations are getting involved to help local Azeris address “social, economic and cultural problems,” Hasanov continued. A group of Azerbaijani entrepreneurs, for example, is planning to open hospitals in Georgia, added Shovgi Mekhtizade, an attaché at the Azerbaijani embassy in Tbilisi, the Turan news agency reported.
In addition, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic (SOCAR) is providing economic incentives for Azeris to remain in Georgia. The company’s Georgian subsidiary, SOCAR Energy Georgia, one of Georgia’s largest investors, has created about 3,000 new jobs in Georgia; half of those jobs are held by ethnic Azeris, SOCAR Energy Georgia Chief Executive Officer Mahir Mammadov told Vesti.az in a June 12 interview.
“I know many such people who did return to Georgia,” said Mammadov in reference to ethnic Azeri migrants. “If earlier there was talk that Azerbaijanis and Georgians are leaving Georgia, I think now there will be talk about their return.”
Some ethnic Azeris migrants complained that Baku hampered their ability to resettle by erecting bureaucratic barriers. Azerbaijani legislation does not permit dual citizenship, and many Azeri migrants “face red-tape and corruption” to receive the papers needed to stay and work in Azerbaijan, according to one migrant.
Allahveranov, however, said such complaints were exaggerated. “Migration authorities are tough everywhere and it is difficult to register and get a job permit in many countries. … Azerbaijan is not an exception,” he said.
During the post-Soviet era, significant population movements have been associated with economic stress for host governments. But experts don’t believe the return of ethnic Azeris to Georgia will have a major socio-economic impact on either country.
“The economic situation in Azerbaijan is still better than in Georgia, thus there is no reason to be afraid of a large wave of migration [from Azerbaijan],” said Aliyev, the Migration Center chief.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.