Georgian Sakartvelo, also called Republic of Georgia, Georgian
Country, Transcaucasia, western Asia.
Located within the Caucasus Mountains, on the southeastern shores of
the Black Sea, it includes the autonomous republics of Abkhazia and
Ajaria (Adjara). Area: 27,086 sq mi (70,152 sq km). Population (2005
est.): 4,490,000. Capital: Tbilisi. Two-thirds of the people are
Georgian (Kartveli); minorities include Armenians, Russians, and
Azerbaijanians. Language: Georgian (official). Religions: Christianity
(Eastern Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic); also Islam. Currency: lari. Most
of Georgia is mountainous, and many peaks rise above 15,000 ft (4,600
m). The Caucasus protect it against cold air from the north, and the
climate is mainly subtropical. Fertile lowlands lie near the shores of
the Black Sea. Georgia has a well-developed industrial base noted for
its hydroelectric power, coal mining and steel making, machinery
production, and textiles. Agricultural land is in short supply, and
farming is difficult; crops include tea, citrus fruits, grapes (for
wine), sugar beets, and tobacco. Georgia is a republic with one
legislative body; the head of state and government is the president,
assisted by the prime minister. Ancient Georgia was the site of the
kingdoms of Iberia and Colchis, whose fabled wealth was known to the
ancient Greeks. The area was part of the Roman Republic by 65 bc and
became Christian in ad 337. For the next three centuries, it was
involved in the conflicts between the Byzantine and Persian empires;
after 654 it was controlled by Arab caliphs, who established an emirate
in Tbilisi. It was ruled by the Bagratids from the 8th to the 12th
century, and the zenith of Georgia’s power was reached in the reign of
Queen Tamara, whose realm stretched from Azerbaijan to Circassia,
forming a pan-Caucasian empire. Invasions by Mongols and Turks in the
13th–14th century disintegrated the kingdom, and the fall of
Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in 1453 isolated it from Western
Christendom. There were repeated invasions over the next three centuries
by the Armenians, Ottomans, and Persians. Georgia sought Russian
protection in 1783 and in 1801 was annexed by the Russian Empire. After
the Russian Revolution of 1917, the area was briefly independent; in
1921 a Soviet regime was installed, and in 1936 Georgia became the
Georgian S.S.R., a full member of the Soviet Union. In 1990 a
noncommunist coalition came to power in the first free elections ever
held in Soviet Georgia, and in 1991 Georgia declared independence. In
the 1990s, while President Eduard Shevardnadze tried to steer a middle
course, internal dissension sparked conflicts in Abkhazia.
Official name Sak’art’velo (Georgia)
Form of government unitary multiparty republic with a single legislative
body (Parliament )
Head of state and government President assisted by Prime Minister
Official language Georgian
Official religion none2
Monetary unit Georgian lari (GEL)
Population estimate (2008) 4,360,0003
Total area (sq mi) 27,0864
Total area (sq km) 70,1524
2Special recognition is given to the Georgian Orthodox Church.
3Excludes Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
4Areas of Georgia excluding Abkhazia and South Ossetia are 22,244 sq
mi, 57,612 sq km, respectively.
Georgian Sakartvelo, also called Republic of Georgia, Georgian
country of Transcaucasia located at the eastern end of the Black Sea
on the southern flanks of the main crest of the Greater Caucasus
Mountains. It is bounded on the north and northeast by Russia, on the
east and southeast by Azerbaijan, on the south by Armenia and Turkey,
and on the west by the Black Sea. Georgia includes three ethnic
enclaves: Abkhazia, in the northwest (principal city Sokhumi); Ajaria,
in the southwest (principal city Batʿumi); and South Ossetia, in the
north (principal city Tsʿkhinvali). The capital of Georgia is Tʿbilisi
The roots of the Georgian people extend deep in history; their
cultural heritage is equally ancient and rich. During the medieval
period a powerful Georgian kingdom existed, reaching its height between
the 10th and 13th centuries. After a long period of Turkish and Persian
domination, Georgia was annexed by the Russian Empire in the 19th
century. An independent Georgian state existed from 1918 to 1921, when
it was incorporated into the Soviet Union. In 1936 Georgia became a
constituent (union) republic and continued as such until the collapse of
the Soviet Union. During the Soviet period the Georgian economy was
modernized and diversified. One of the most independence-minded
republics, Georgia declared sovereignty on Nov. 19, 1989, and
independence on April 9, 1991.
The 1990s were a period of instability and civil unrest in Georgia,
as the first postindependence government was overthrown and separatist
movements emerged in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Relief, drainage, and soils
With the notable exception of the fertile plain of the Kolkhida
Lowland—ancient Colchis, where the legendary Argonauts sought the Golden
Fleece—the Georgian terrain is largely mountainous, and more than a
third is covered by forest or brushwood. There is a remarkable variety
of landscape, ranging from the subtropical Black Sea shores to the ice
and snow of the crest line of the Caucasus. Such contrasts are made more
noteworthy by the country’s relatively small area.
The rugged Georgia terrain may be divided into three bands, all
running from east to west.
To the north lies the wall of the Greater Caucasus range, consisting
of a series of parallel and transverse mountain belts rising eastward
and often separated by deep, wild gorges. Spectacular crest-line peaks
include those of Mount Shkhara, which at 16,627 feet (5,068 metres) is
the highest point in Georgia, and Mounts Rustaveli, Tetnuld, and Ushba,
all of which are above 15,000 feet. The cone of the extinct Mkinvari
(Kazbek) volcano dominates the northernmost Bokovoy range from a height
of 16,512 feet. A number of important spurs extend in a southward
direction from the central range, including those of the Lomis and
Kartli (Kartalinian) ranges at right angles to the general Caucasian
trend. From the ice-clad flanks of these desolately beautiful high
regions flow many streams and rivers.
The southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus merge into a second band,
consisting of central lowlands formed on a great structural depression.
The Kolkhida Lowland, near the shores of the Black Sea, is covered by a
thick layer of river-borne deposits accumulated over thousands of years.
Rushing down from the Greater Caucasus, the major rivers of western
Georgia, the Inguri, Rioni, and Kodori, flow over a broad area to the
sea. The Kolkhida Lowland was formerly an almost continually stagnant
swamp. In a great development program, drainage canals and embankments
along the rivers were constructed and afforestation plans introduced;
the region has become of prime importance through the cultivation of
subtropical and other commercial crops.
To the east the structural trough is crossed by the Meskhet and Likh
ranges, linking the Greater and Lesser Caucasus and marking the
watershed between the basins of the Black and Caspian seas. In central
Georgia, between the cities of Khashuri and Mtsʿkhetʿa (the ancient
capital), lies the inner high plateau known as the Kartli (Kartalinian)
Plain. Surrounded by mountains to the north, south, east, and west and
covered for the most part by deposits of the loess type, this plateau
extends along the Kura (Mtkvari) River and its tributaries.
The southern band of Georgian territory is marked by the ranges and
plateaus of the Lesser Caucasus, which rise beyond a narrow, swampy
coastal plain to reach 10,830 feet in the peak of Didi-Abuli.
A variety of soils are found in Georgia, ranging from gray-brown and
saline semidesert types to richer red earths and podzols. Artificial
improvements add to the diversity.
The Caucasian barrier protects Georgia from cold air intrusions from
the north, while the country is open to the constant influence of warm,
moist air from the Black Sea. Western Georgia has a humid subtropical,
maritime climate, while eastern Georgia has a range of climate varying
from moderately humid to a dry subtropical type.
There also are marked elevation zones. The Kolkhida Lowland, for
example, has a subtropical character up to about 1,600 to 2,000 feet,
with a zone of moist, moderately warm climate lying just above; still
higher is a belt of cold, wet winters and cool summers. Above about
6,600 to 7,200 feet there is an alpine climatic zone, lacking any true
summer; above 11,200 to 11,500 feet snow and ice are present year-round.
In eastern Georgia, farther inland, temperatures are lower than in the
western portions at the same altitude.
Western Georgia has heavy rainfall throughout the year, totaling 40
to 100 inches (1,000 to 2,500 millimetres) and reaching a maximum in
autumn and winter. Southern Kolkhida receives the most rain, and
humidity decreases to the north and east. Winter in this region is mild
and warm; in regions below about 2,000 to 2,300 feet, the mean January
temperature never falls below 32° F (0° C), and relatively warm, sunny
winter weather persists in the coastal regions, where temperatures
average about 41° F (5° C). Summer temperatures average about 71° F (22°
In eastern Georgia, precipitation decreases with distance from the
sea, reaching 16 to 28 inches in the plains and foothills but increasing
to double this amount in the mountains. The southeastern regions are the
driest areas, and winter is the driest season; the rainfall maximum
occurs at the end of spring. The highest lowland temperatures occur in
July (about 77° F [25° C]), while average January temperatures over most
of the region range from 32° to 37° F (0° to 3° C).
Plant and animal life
Georgia’s location and its diverse terrain have given rise to a
remarkable variety of landscapes. The luxuriant vegetation of the moist,
subtropical Black Sea shores is relatively close to the eternal snows of
the mountain peaks. Deep gorges and swift rivers give way to dry
steppes, and the green of alpine meadows alternates with the darker hues
of forested valleys.
More than a third of the country is covered by forests and brush. In
the west a relatively constant climate over a long time span has
preserved many relict and rare items, including the Pitsunda pines
(Pinus pithyusa). The forests include oak, chestnut, beech, and alder,
as well as Caucasian fir, ash, linden, and apple and pear trees. The
western underbrush is dominated by evergreens (including rhododendrons
and holly) and such deciduous shrubs as Caucasian bilberry and nut
trees. Liana strands entwine some of the western forests. Citrus groves
are found throughout the republic, and long rows of eucalyptus trees
line the country roads.
Eastern Georgia has fewer forests, and the steppes are dotted with
thickets of prickly underbrush, as well as a blanket of feather and
beard grass. Herbaceous subalpine and alpine vegetation occurs
extensively in the highest regions. Animal life is very diverse. Goats
and Caucasian antelope inhabit the high mountains; rodents live in the
high meadows; and a rich birdlife includes the mountain turkey, the
Caucasian black grouse, and the mountain and bearded eagles. The clear
rivers and mountain lakes are full of trout.
Forest regions are characterized by wild boars, roe and Caucasian
deer, brown bears, lynx, wolves, foxes, jackals, hares, and squirrels.
Birds range from the thrush to the black vulture and hawk. Some of these
animals and birds also frequent the lowland regions, which are the home
of the introduced raccoon, mink, and nutria. The lowland rivers and the
Black Sea itself are rich in fish.
Population densities are relatively high but are less than those for
Armenia and Azerbaijan. The vast majority of the population lives below
2,600 feet; population density decreases with increasing altitude.
During the Soviet period the Georgian population increased, with a
marked trend toward urbanization. More than half the population now
lives in cities. Further, a considerable portion of the population that
is defined as rural is, in fact, engaged in the urban economy of nearby
cities. Enterprises for primary processing of agricultural products have
been constructed in the villages, while ore-processing plants and light
industry also are increasing in number. As a result, many of the
slow-paced traditional villages have developed into distinctly modern
communities. The number of rural inhabitants remains high because of the
wide distribution of such labour-intensive branches of the economy as
the tea and subtropical crop plantations.
Tʿbilisi, the capital, an ancient city with many architectural
monuments mingling with modern buildings, lies in eastern Georgia,
partly in a scenic gorge of the Kura River. Other major centres are
Kʿutʿaisi, Rustʿavi, Sokhumi, and BatʿḱĩĭA̡
The likelihood is great that the Georgians (whose name for
themselves is Kartveli; “Georgian” derived from the Persian name for
them, Gorj) have always lived in this region, known to them as
Sakartvelo. Ethnically, contemporary Georgia is not homogeneous but
reflects the intermixtures and successions of the Caucasus region. About
seven-tenths of the people are Georgians; the rest consists of
Armenians, Russians, Azerbaijanis, and smaller numbers of Ossetes,
Greeks, Abkhazians, and other minor groups.
The Georgian language is a member of the Kartvelian (South Caucasian)
family of languages. It has its own alphabet, which is thought to have
evolved about the 5th century ad, and there are many dialects. A number
of other Caucasian languages are spoken by minority groups; many are
Many Georgians are members of the Georgian Orthodox church, an
autocephalous Eastern Orthodox church. In addition, there are Muslim,
Russian Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Jewish communities.
The Georgians are a proud people with an ancient culture. They have
through the ages been noted as warriors as well as for their
hospitality, love of life, lively intelligence, sense of humour, and
reputed longevity (although statistical data do not support this latter
The Georgian economy includes diversified and mechanized agriculture
alongside a well-developed industrial base. Agriculture accounts for
about half of the gross domestic product and employs about one-fourth of
the labour force; the industry and service sectors each employ about
one-fifth of the labour force.
After independence the Georgian economy contracted sharply, owing to
political instability (which discouraged foreign investment), the loss
of favourable trading relationships with the states of the former Soviet
Union, and the civil unrest in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, where key
pipelines and transport links were sabotaged or blockaded. Georgia
sought to transform its command economy into one organized on market
principles: prices were liberalized, the banking system reformed, and
some state enterprises and retail establishments privatized.
The interior of Georgia has coal deposits (notably at Tqvarchʿeli
and Tqibuli), petroleum (at Kazeti), and a variety of other resources
ranging from peat to marble. The manganese deposits of Chiatʿura rival
those of India, Brazil, and Ghana in quantity and quality. Its
waterpower resources are also considerable. The deepest and most
powerful rivers for hydroelectric purposes are the Rioni and its
tributaries, the Inguri, Kodori, and Bzyb. Such western rivers account
for three-fourths of the total capacity, with the eastern Kura, Aragvi,
Alazani, and Khrami accounting for the rest. Oil deposits have been
located near Batʿumi and Potʿi under the Black Sea.
A distinctive feature of the Georgian economy is that agricultural
land is both in short supply and difficult to work; each patch of
workable land, even on steep mountain slopes, is valued highly. The
relative proportion of arable land is low. The importance of production
of labour-intensive (and highly profitable) crops, such as tea and
citrus fruits, is, however, a compensatory factor.
The introduction of a system of collective farms (kolkhozy) and state
farms (sovkhozy) by the Soviet government in 1929–30 radically altered
the traditional structure of landowning and working, though a
considerable portion of Georgia’s agricultural output continued to come
from private garden plots. Contemporary agriculture uses modern
equipment supplied under a capital investment program, which also
finances the production of mineral fertilizers and herbicides, as well
as afforestation measures. A program of land privatization was
undertaken in 1992.
Tea plantations occupy more than 150,000 acres (60,000 hectares) and
are equipped with modern picking machinery.
The vineyards of the republic constitute one of the oldest and most
important branches of Georgian agriculture, and perhaps the best loved.
Georgian winemaking dates to 300 bc; centuries of trial and error have
produced more than 500 varieties of grape.
Orchards occupy some 320,000 acres throughout the country. Georgian
fruits are varied; even slight differences in climate and soil affect
the yield, quality, and taste of the fruit.
Sugar beets and tobacco are especially significant among other
commercial crops. Essential oils (geranium, rose, and jasmine) also are
produced to supply the perfume industry. Grains, including wheat, are
important, but quantities are insufficient for the country’s needs, and
wheat must be imported. Growing of vegetables and melons has developed
in the suburbs.
Livestock raising is marked by the use of different summer and winter
pastures. Sheep and goats, cattle, and pigs are raised. Poultry, bees,
and silkworms are also significant. Black Sea fisheries concentrate on
flounder and whitefish.
The fuel and power foundation developed in Georgia has served as the
base for industrialization. Dozens of hydroelectric stations, including
the Rioni and Sokhumi plants, as well as many stations powered by coal
and natural gas, have been constructed. All are now combined into a
single power system, an organic part of the Transcaucasian system.
The coal industry is one of the oldest mineral extraction industries,
centred on the restructured Tqibuli mines. Deposits found in Tqvarchʿeli
and Akhaltsʿikhe have increased production.
Manganese and nonmetallic minerals ranging from talc to marble supply
various industries throughout the countries of the former Soviet Union.
The Rustʿavi metallurgical plant, located near the capital, produced its
first steel in 1956. There are markets for its laminated sheet iron and
seamless pipe products in Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Zestapʿoni is
the second major metallurgical centre.
The machine-building industry produces a diverse range of products,
from electric railway locomotives, heavy vehicles, and earth-moving
equipment to lathes and precision instruments. Specialized products
include tea-gathering machines and antihail devices for the country’s
plantations. Production is centred in the major cities.
The chemical industry of Georgia produces mineral fertilizers,
synthetic materials and fibres, and pharmaceutical products. The
building industry, using local raw materials, supplies the country with
cement, slate, and many prefabricated reinforced-concrete structures and
Commonly used manufactured goods were previously imported in large
part from the republics of the former Soviet Union, but a ramified
system of light industries set up in major consumption areas in Georgia
now produces cotton, wool, and silk fabrics, as well as items of
Products of the food industry include tea and table and dessert
wines. Brandy and champagne production is also well developed. Other
food-industry activities include dairying and canning.
Georgia has a dense transportation system. Most freight is carried by
truck, but railways are important. Tʿbilisi is connected by rail with
both Sokhumi and Batʿumi on the Black Sea and Baku on the Caspian.
An oil pipeline connects Batʿumi with Baku, Azerbaijan; two natural
gas pipelines run from Baku to Tʿbilisi and then turn north to Russia.
The seaports of Batʿumi, Potʿi, and Sokhumi are of major economic
importance for the whole of Transcaucasia. The country’s international
airport is at Tʿbilisi.
Administration and social conditions
In 1992 Georgia—which had been operating under a Soviet-era
constitution from 1978—reinstated its 1921 pre-Soviet constitution. A
constitutional commission was formed in 1992 to draft a new
constitution, and after a protracted dispute over the extent of the
authority to be accorded the executive a new document was adopted in
The head of state is the president, who is given extensive authority.
A prime minister and cabinet are appointed by the president. The
legislature is a 235-member Supreme Council. The judicial system
includes district and city courts and a Supreme Court.
The Communist Party of Georgia, controlled by the Communist Party of
the Soviet Union, was until the 1980s the only political party. With the
increase in nationalist sentiment and the reforms of the Soviet leader
Mikhail Gorbachev, many diverse political groups emerged. Major
political organizations now include the Citizens’ Union, an alliance
formed by the Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze; the reformist
National Democratic Party; the Georgian Popular Front, formed in 1989 to
promote Georgian independence; and the Georgian Social Democratic Party,
which was established in 1893 but dissolved after the Soviet takeover.
Georgia became a member of the United Nations in 1992 and joined the
Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in 1993; following hostilities
with Russia in August 2008, Georgia withdrew from the CIS a year later.
Armed forces and security
In the early years of independence Georgia’s armed forces were
divided, but they were gradually becoming unified by the mid-1990s. The
primary state military organization is the National Guard; paramilitary
groups also are present. A two-year period of military service is
compulsory for adult men, though draft evasion is widespread.
Substantial numbers of Russian troops remain on Georgian territory.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs oversees the regular police force.
Crime rates in Georgia increased after independence because of the
social dislocations resulting from the conflicts in Abkhazia and South
Ossetia, a lack of civil authority in parts of the country, and regional
instability caused by the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.
The level of education is relatively high. Tʿbilisi University was
founded in 1918; the Academy of Sciences (founded 1941) is made up of
several scientific institutions, which conduct research throughout the
republic. Georgia has an extensive library system.
Health and welfare
Payments from public funds provide free education, medical services,
pension grants, and stipend payments and free or reduced-cost
accommodation in rest homes and sanatoriums, as well as holiday pay and
the maintenance of kindergartens and day nurseries. Georgia ranks high
in the level of medical services, and relative to other former Soviet
republics its population has low incidences of tuberculosis and cancer.
The republic is famed as a health centre, a reputation stemming from the
numerous therapeutic mineral springs, the sunny climate of the Black Sea
coast, the pure air of the mountain regions, and a wide range of
resorts. The Tsqaltubo baths, with warm radon water treatment for
arthritis sufferers, are especially noted.
Georgia is a land of ancient culture, with a literary tradition that
dates to the 5th century ad. Kolkhida (Colchis) early housed a school of
higher rhetoric in which Greeks as well as Georgians studied. By the
12th century, academies in Ikalto and Gelati, the first medieval
higher-education centres, disseminated a wide range of knowledge. The
national genius was demonstrated most clearly in Vepkhis-tqarsani (The
Knight in the Panther’s Skin), the epic masterpiece of the 12th-century
poet Shota Rustaveli. Major figures in later Georgian literary history
include a famed 18th-century writer, Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, and the
novelist, poet, and dramatist Ilia Chavchavadze. The 19th-century
playwright Giorgi Eristavi is regarded as the founder of the modern
Georgian theatre. Among other prominent prerevolutionary authors were
the lyric poet Akaki Tsereteli; Alexander Qazbegi, novelist of the
Caucasus; and the nature poet Vazha Pshavela. The novelist Mikhail
Javakhishvili and the poet Titsian Tabidze were executed during the
Stalin era, and the poet Paolo Iashvili was censured by the government
and committed suicide. Giorgi Leonidze and Galaktion Tabidze were
well-known poets, and Konstantin Gamsakhurdia was celebrated for his
The Abkhazian literary tradition dates back only to the late 19th
century. Notable writers include the poet, novelist, and scholar Dmitri
Gulia, the novelist and playwright Samson Chanba, the poet Bagrat
Shinkuba, and Fazil Iskander, a popular satirist who writes in Russian.
Important individuals in other arts include the painters Niko
Pirosmani (Pirosmanashvili), Irakli Toidze, Lado Gudiashvili, Elena
Akhvlediani, and Sergo Kobuladze; the composers Zakaria Paliashvili and
Meliton Balanchivadze (father of the choreographer George Balanchine);
and the founder of Georgian ballet, Vakhtang Chabukiani. Georgian
theatre, in which outstanding directors of the Soviet period were Kote
Mardzhanishvili, Sandro Akhmeteli, and Robert Sturm, has had a marked
influence in Europe and elsewhere. The Georgian film Repentance, an
allegory about the repressions of the Stalin era, was directed by
Tenghiz Abuladze. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 1987 Cannes Film
Festival and was widely praised for its political courage.
The ancient culture of the republic is reflected in the large number
of architectural monuments, including many monasteries and churches;
indeed, Georgian architecture (with Armenian) played a considerable role
in the development of the Byzantine style.
Georgia has a long tradition of fine metalwork. Bronze, gold, and
silver objects of a high technical and aesthetic standard have been
recovered from tombs of the 1st and 2nd millennia bc. Between the 10th
and 13th centuries ad, Georgian goldsmiths produced masterpieces of
cloisonné enamel and repoussé work, notably icons, crosses, and jewelry.
A number of newspapers and periodicals are published, most of them in
Georgian. Radio programs are broadcast in Georgian and in several
minority languages, and television programs are broadcast in Georgian
Mikhail Leonidovich Djibladze
G. Melvyn Howe
Archaeological findings make it possible to trace the origins of
human society on the territory of modern Georgia back to the early
Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. A number of Neolithic sites have been
excavated in the Kolkhida Lowland, in the Khrami River valley in central
Georgia, and in South Ossetia; they were occupied by settled tribes
engaged in cattle raising and agriculture. The cultivation of grain in
Georgia during the Neolithic Period is attested by finds of saddle
querns and flint sickles; the earth was tilled with stone mattocks. The
Caucasus was regarded in ancient times as the primeval home of
metallurgy. The start of the 3rd millennium bc witnessed the beginning
of Georgia’s Bronze Age. Remarkable finds in Trialeti show that central
Georgia was inhabited during the 2nd millennium bc by cattle-raising
tribes whose chieftains were men of wealth and power. Their burial
mounds have yielded finely wrought vessels in gold and silver; a few are
engraved with ritual scenes suggesting Asiatic cult influence.
Origins of the Georgian nation
Early in the 1st millennium bc, the ancestors of the Georgian nation
emerge in the annals of Assyria and, later, of Urartu. Among these were
the Diauhi (Diaeni) nation, ancestors of the Taokhoi, who later
domiciled in the southwestern Georgian province of Tao, and the Kulkha,
forerunners of the Colchians, who held sway over large territories at
the eastern end of the Black Sea. The fabled wealth of Colchis became
known quite early to the Greeks and found symbolic expression in the
legend of Medea and the Golden Fleece.
Following the influx of tribes driven from the direction of Anatolia
by the Cimmerian invasion of the 7th century bc and their fusion with
the aboriginal population of the Kura River valley, the centuries
immediately preceding the Christian era witnessed the growth of the
important kingdom of Iberia, the region that now comprises modern Kartli
and Kakheti, along with Samtskhe and adjoining regions of southwestern
Georgia. Colchis was colonized by Greek settlers from Miletus and
subsequently fell under the sway of Mithradates VI Eupator, king of
Pontus. The campaigns of the Roman general Pompey the Great led in 66 bc
to the establishment of Roman hegemony over Iberia and to direct Roman
rule over Colchis and the rest of Georgia’s Black Sea littoral. (See
Roman Republic and Empire.)
Georgia embraced Christianity about the year 330; its conversion is
attributed to a holy captive woman, St. Nino. During the next three
centuries, Georgia was involved in the conflict between Rome—and its
successor state, the Byzantine Empire—and the Persian Sāsānian dynasty.
Lazica on the Black Sea (incorporating the ancient Colchis) became
closely bound to Byzantium. Iberia passed under Persian control, though
toward the end of the 5th century a hero arose in the person of King
Vakhtang Gorgaslani (Gorgasal), a ruler of legendary valour who for a
time reasserted Georgia’s national sovereignty. The Sāsānian monarch
Khosrow I (reigned 531–579) abolished the Iberian monarchy, however. For
the next three centuries, local authority was exercised by the magnates
of each province, vassals successively of Persia (Iran), of Byzantium,
and, after ad 654, of the Arab caliphs, who established an emirate in
Tbilisi. (See Iran, ancient.)
Toward the end of the 9th century, Ashot I (the Great), of the
Bagratid dynasty, settled at Artanuji in Tao (southwestern Georgia),
receiving from the Byzantine emperor the title of kuropalates (“guardian
of the palace”). In due course, Ashot profited from the weakness of the
Byzantine emperors and the Arab caliphs and set himself up as hereditary
prince in Iberia. King Bagrat III (reigned 975–1014) later united all
the principalities of eastern and western Georgia into one state.
Tbilisi, however, was not recovered from the Muslims until 1122, when it
fell to King David IV (Aghmashenebeli, “the Builder”; reigned
The zenith of Georgia’s power and prestige was reached during the
reign (1184–1213) of Queen Tamar, whose realm stretched from Azerbaijan
to the borders of Cherkessia (now in southern Russia) and from Erzurum
(in modern Turkey) to Ganja (modern Gäncä, Azerbaijan), forming a
pan-Caucasian empire, with Shirvan and Trabzon as vassals and allies.
The invasions of Transcaucasia by the Mongols from 1220 onward,
however, brought Georgia’s golden age to an end. Eastern Georgia was
reduced to vassalage under the Mongol Il-Khanid dynasty of the line of
Hülegü, while Imereti, as the land to the west of the Suram range was
called, remained independent under a separate line of Bagratid rulers.
There was a partial resurgence during the reign (1314–46) of King Giorgi
V of Georgia, known as “the Brilliant,” but the onslaughts of the Turkic
conqueror Timur between 1386 and 1403 dealt blows to Georgia’s economic
and cultural life from which the kingdom never recovered. The last king
of united Georgia was Alexander I (1412–43), under whose sons the realm
was divided into squabbling princedoms.
Turkish and Persian domination
The fall of Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) to the Ottoman
Empire in 1453 isolated Georgia from western Christendom. In 1510 the
Ottomans invaded Imereti and sacked the capital, Kʿutʿaisi. Soon
afterward, Shah Ismāʿīl I of Iran (Persia) invaded Kartli. Ivan IV (the
Terrible) and other Muscovite tsars showed interest in the little
Christian kingdoms of Georgia, but the Russians were powerless to stop
the Muslim powers—Ṣavafid Iran and the Ottoman Empire, both near their
zenith—from partitioning the country and oppressing its inhabitants. In
1578 the Ottomans overran the whole of Transcaucasia and seized Tbilisi,
but they were subsequently driven out by Iran’s Shah ʿAbbās I (reigned
1587–1629), who deported many thousands of the Christian population to
distant regions of Iran. There was a period of respite under the
viceroys of the house of Mukhran, who governed at Tbilisi under the
aegis of the shahs from 1658 until 1723. The most notable Mukhranian
ruler was Vakhtang VI, regent of Kartli from 1703 to 1711 and then king,
with intervals, until 1723. Vakhtang was an eminent lawgiver and
introduced the printing press to Georgia; he had the Georgian annals
edited by a commission of scholars. The collapse of the Ṣafavid dynasty
in 1722, however, led to a fresh Ottoman invasion of Georgia. The
Ottomans were expelled by the Persian conqueror Nādir Shah, who gave
Kartli to Tʿeimuraz II (1744–62), one of the Kakhian line of the
Bagratids. When Tʿeimuraz died, his son Erekle II reunited the kingdoms
of Kartli and Kakheti and made a brave attempt at erecting a Caucasian
multinational state based on Georgia. Imereti under King Solomon I
(1752–84) succeeded in finally throwing off the domination of the
declining Ottoman Empire.
Raids by Lezgian mountaineers from Dagestan, economic stringency, and
other difficulties impelled Erekle to adopt a pro-Russian orientation.
On July 24, 1783, he concluded with Catherine II (the Great) the Treaty
of Georgievsk, whereby Russia guaranteed Georgia’s independence and
territorial integrity in return for Erekle’s acceptance of Russian
suzerainty. Yet Georgia alone faced the Persian Āghā Moḥammad Khan,
first of the Qājār dynasty. Tbilisi was sacked in 1795, and Erekle died
in 1798. His invalid son Giorgi XII sought to hand over the kingdom
unconditionally into the care of the Russian emperor Paul, but both
rulers died before this could be implemented. In 1801 Alexander I
reaffirmed Paul’s decision to incorporate Kartli and Kakheti into the
Russian Empire. Despite the treaty of 1783, the Bagratid line was
deposed and replaced by Russian military governors who deported the
surviving members of the royal house and provoked several popular
uprisings. Imereti was annexed in 1810, followed by Guria, Mingrelia,
Svaneti, and Abkhazia in 1829, 1857, 1858, and 1864, respectively. The
Black Sea ports of Potʿi and Batʿumi and areas of southwestern Georgia
under Ottoman rule were taken by Russia in successive wars by 1877–78.
By waging war on the Lezgian clansmen of Dagestan and on Iran and
the Ottomans, the Russians ensured the corporate survival of the
Georgian nation. Under Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov, who served
with distinction as viceroy (1845–54), commerce and trade flourished.
Following the liberation of the Russian serfs in 1861, the Georgian
peasants also received freedom from 1864 onward, though on terms
regarded as burdensome. The decay of patriarchy was accelerated by the
spread of education and European influences. A railway linked Tbilisi
with Potʿi from 1872, and mines, factories, and plantations were
developed by Russian, Armenian, and Western entrepreneurs. Peasant
discontent, the growth of an urban working class, and the deliberate
policy of Russification and forced assimilation of minorities practiced
by Emperor Alexander III (1881–94) fostered radical agitation among the
workers and nationalism among the intelligentsia. The tsarist system
permitted no organized political activity, but social issues were
debated in journals, works of fiction, and local assemblies.
The leader of the national revival in Georgia was Prince Ilia
Chavchavadze, leader of a literary and social movement dubbed the
Pirveli Dasi, or First Group. The Meore Dasi, or Second Group, led by
Giorgi Tseretʿeli, was more liberal in its convictions, but it paled
before the Mesame Dasi, or Third Group, an illegal Social Democratic
party founded in 1893. The Third Group professed Marxist doctrines, and
from 1898 it included among its members Joseph Dzhugashvili, who later
took the byname Joseph Stalin. When the Mensheviks—a branch of the
Russian Social-Democratic Workers Party—gained control of the group,
Stalin left Georgia.
The 1905 Revolution in Russia led to widespread disturbances and
guerrilla fighting in Georgia, later suppressed by Russian government
Cossack troops with indiscriminate brutality. After the Russian
Revolution of February 1917 the Transcaucasian region—Georgia, Armenia,
and Azerbaijan—was ruled from Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) and known
as the Ozakom. The Bolshevik coup later that year forced the
predominantly Menshevik politicians of Transcaucasia to reluctantly
secede from Russia and form the Transcaucasian Commissariat. The local
nationalisms, combined with the pressure brought on by an Ottoman
advance from the west during World War I (1914–18), brought about the
breakdown of the Transcaucasian federation. On May 26, 1918, Georgia set
up an independent state and placed itself under the protection of
Germany, the senior partner of the Central Powers, but the victory of
the Allies at the end of 1918 led to occupation of Georgia by the
British. The Georgians viewed Anton Ivanovich Denikin’s
counterrevolutionary White Russians, who enjoyed British support, as
more dangerous than the Bolsheviks. They refused to cooperate in the
effort to restore the tsarist imperial order, and British forces
evacuated Batʿumi in July 1920.
Georgia’s independence was recognized de facto by the Allies in
January 1920, and the Russo-Georgian treaty of May 1920 briefly resulted
in Soviet-Georgian cooperation.
Incorporation into the U.S.S.R.
Refused entry into the League of Nations, Georgia gained de jure
recognition from the Allies in January 1921. Within a month the Red
Army—without Lenin’s approval but under the orders of two Georgian
Bolsheviks, Stalin and Grigory Konstantinovich Ordzhonikidze—entered
Georgia and installed a Soviet regime.
After Georgia was established as a Soviet republic, Stalin and
Ordzhonikidze incorporated it into the Transcaucasian Soviet Federated
Socialist Republic. The still-popular Georgian Social Democrats
organized a rebellion in 1924, but it was brutally suppressed by Stalin.
During Stalin’s despotic rule (1928–53), Georgia suffered from
repression of all expressions of nationalism, the forced
collectivization of peasant agriculture, and the purging of those
communists who had led the Soviet republic in its first decade. Stalin
installed his Georgian comrade Lavrenty Beria as party chief, first in
Georgia and later over all of Transcaucasia. Even after Beria was
transferred to Moscow to head the secret police, the republic was
tightly controlled from the Kremlin. In the Soviet period, Georgia
changed from an overwhelmingly agrarian country to a largely industrial,
urban society. Meanwhile, Georgian language and literature were
promoted, and a national intelligentsia grew in number and influence.
After Stalin’s death, a freewheeling “second economy” developed, which
supplied goods and services not otherwise available.
Under the reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s,
Georgia moved swiftly toward independence. The former dissident Zviad
Gamsakhurdia led a coalition called the Round Table to victory in
parliamentary elections in October 1990. After Georgia declared
independence on April 9, 1991, Gamsakhurdia was elected president. But
Gamsakhurdia’s policies soon drove many of his supporters into
opposition, and in late 1991 civil war broke out. In January 1992
Gamsakhurdia was deposed and replaced by the Military Council, which
subsequently gave power to the State Council headed by Eduard
Shevardnadze, former Soviet foreign minister and one-time first
secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia. In October, 95 percent of
voters elected Shevardnadze to serve as chair of the Supreme Council,
Georgia’s legislature, a position then tantamount to the country’s
David Marshall Lang
Ronald Grigor Suny
At the same time, secessionist movements—particularly in South
Ossetia and Abkhazia—erupted in various parts of the country. In 1992
Abkhazia reinstated its 1925 constitution and declared independence,
which the international community refused to recognize. In late 1993
Georgia joined the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), a loose
confederation of former Soviet republics; following a cease-fire reached
with Abkhazia in 1994, CIS peacekeepers were deployed to the region,
although violence was ongoing. Georgia later signed an association
agreement with the European Union, joined the Council of Europe and the
World Trade Organization, and became a partner in the North Atlantic
In 1995 a new constitution, which created a strong president, was
enacted, and in November Shevardnadze was elected to that office with 75
percent of the vote, and his party, the Citizens’ Union of Georgia
(CUG), won 107 of the parliament’s 231 seats. In legislative elections
four years later, the CUG won an absolute majority, and in 2000
Shevardnadze was reelected president with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Accusations that he condoned widespread corruption and that his party
engaged in rampant election fraud haunted Shevardnadze’s administration.
In 2003 former justice minister Mikhail Saakashvili, the head of the
National Movement party, lead a peaceable uprising—termed the “Rose
Revolution”—that drove Shevardnadze from power. Saakashvili was elected
president the following year and immediately opened a campaign against
corruption, sought to stabilize the economy, and attempted to secure the
country against ethnic strife.
Because of a pattern of human rights abuses and a growing sense of
authoritarianism, the administration of President Saakashvili was
shortly confronted by growing—if loosely knit—opposition. Journalists
and international observers noted that the country’s freedom of speech
practices, though protected by law, were susceptible to influence by
indirect pressure tactics, and Saakashvili’s campaign against graft was
criticized for its focus on the president’s opposition while corrupt
practices were allowed to persist among administration associates.
Highly critical of the fraud and corruption he had noted among defense
officials was Irakli Okruashvili, an opponent of the administration and
its onetime defense minister. During his tenure Okruashvili had made
public his observation of graft so widespread among armed forces
officials that the army itself had fallen into a poor state of order. In
2007 he established an opposition party, Movement for United Georgia,
and appeared on Imedi TV, an independent television station, to issue a
number of direct accusations against President Saakashvili.
Though the statements served as a rallying point for a largely
disorganized opposition, they resulted in Okruashvili’s arrest on
extortion charges of his own. His televised appearance a number of days
later, in which he pled guilty to the charges against him and retracted
his earlier accusations, was largely held by others among Saakashvili’s
opposition to be the result of duress; the circumstances under which he
left the country following his release on bail were unclear.
These events contributed to the culmination of a number of points of
criticism against Saakashvili and his once-popular government, providing
opposition activists with the opportunity to arrange for massive
demonstrations—thought perhaps to be as large as those that had
previously brought Saakashvili to power—in Tbilisi in early November
2007. Though Saakashvili initially met the protests with several days’
silence, forcible measures were soon employed in breaking up the
demonstrations, and it was announced that a potential coup had been
thwarted. Saakashvili’s declaration of a 15-day state of emergency—
criticized both locally and abroad—was quickly followed by his call for
early elections in January. Though emergency rule was formally lifted a
week after it had begun, Imedi TV remained off the air; ongoing
demonstrations called for its return to broadcast, which finally took
place approximately one month later. In late November 2007, Saakashvili
resigned as president as required by law in preparation for the early
In January 2008, Saakashvili was reelected, narrowly attaining the
majority needed to forego a second round of voting. Although opposition
groups criticized the process as flawed, the election was largely deemed
free and fair by international monitors, who noted only isolated
procedural violations and instances of fraud.
Meanwhile, the simmering conflict between Georgia and its breakaway
regions had returned to the fore following the 2004 election of
Saakashvili, who prioritized Georgian territorial unity and the
reduction of ethnic strife. Although in mid-2004 Saakashvili
successfully forced the leader of the autonomous republic of Ajaria from
power and returned that republic to central government control,
hostilities continued in the territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Offers by Saakashvili in 2005 to discuss autonomy for South Ossetia
within the Georgian state were rejected, and in late 2006 the region
reiterated its desire for independence through an unofficial referendum.
The ongoing conflict also exacerbated Georgia’s tense relationship with
neighbouring Russia, which Georgia accused of providing support for the
In August 2008 the conflict with South Ossetia swelled sharply as
Georgia engaged with local separatist fighters as well as with Russian
forces that had crossed the border with the stated intent to defend
Russian citizens and peacekeeping troops already in the region. In the
days that followed the initial outbreak, Georgia declared a state of war
as Russian forces swiftly took control of Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian
capital; violence continued to spread elsewhere in the country as
Russian forces also moved through the breakaway region of Abkhazia in
northwestern Georgia. Georgia and Russia signed a French-brokered
cease-fire that called for the withdrawal of Russian forces, but
tensions continued. Russia’s subsequent recognition of the independence
of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was condemned by Georgia and met with
criticism from other members of the international community. In the
midst of its hostilities with Russia, Georgia announced its intention to
withdraw from the CIS and called upon other member states to do
likewise; in August 2009 Georgia formally withdrew from the association.