Population change in Georgia from 1990 to 2018

Giorgi Kankia and Lika Zhvania write about population change in the country of Georgia from a spatial development perspective.

Shrinking population

The population of Georgia is shrinking. According to official statistics, it decreased by 1.2 mln (nearly 25% of the total population in 1990) in 1994 – 2018. Somewhat decreased fertility rates or armed conflicts in early 90s may be partially behind such a dramatic decline, but what stands out in the Georgian context is external migration triggered mainly by the political and socio-economic crises, and the painful transition to a market economy in the 90s, contributing to the country’s overall poor economic status.

Net migration (Fig. 1) has been especially negative from early 1990s until the early 2000s. It was somewhat stable and significantly lower in 2002 – 2011 and increased greatly from 2012, coinciding with the first democratic transition of power in the country and nearly reached positive levels during 2012 – 2017. However, out-migration started to increase again from 2018, possibly as a result of growing public disappointment with the recent political and socio-economic development trends in the country. It is worth noting that there are concerns with the reliability of the population data estimates, especially for the 1990s due to problematic registration of demographic events.

Figure 1: Net migration in Georgia 1994 – 2018. Source: Geostat, 2018

The transition to democracy and market economy were accompanied with uneven spatial development trends within the country itself as over 70% of Georgian economy and almost one-third of country’s 3.7 mln inhabitants are currently concentrated in just one city, Tbilisi – the capital of Georgia. Cities of Batumi, Kutaisi and Rustavi follow the capital and account for nearly 10% of the total number, making these four urban areas home for almost half of the country’s population. Overall, Georgia’s urbanisation rate currently sits at 57.2%, significantly lower compared to that of Armenia (63.2%) and slightly higher than that of Azerbaijan (56%).

The uneven spatial distribution of the population is clearly visible on the map below (Fig. 2) – the settlement structure and hierarchy in the western regions seem to be much more equally spread out and continuous, and it is much scattered and concentrated in a few spots in the East.

This could be explained by warmer climate and higher agricultural productivity of the land in contrast to more arid climate and lack of proper irrigation infrastructure in eastern regions of the country.

Figure 2: Population Density per 1 sq.km. Source: Geostat, 2014

Sex ratio bias

Another curious aspect of the Georgian population demographic characteristics is the sex ratio at birth (SRB) which has drawn scientists’ as well as the general public’s attention. Sex ratio at birth is measured as the number of new-born boys for every 100 new-born girls, usually naturally assessed around 102-108 boys every 100 girls. A 2015 UN report identifies a noticeable difference in average SRB for urban (109.7) and rural (113.4) births from 2005 to 2013, with the overall national SRB being at 111.1. This number is significantly lower (106.3) for 2015-2020. The disparity may be due to inaccurate data collection in 2005-2009 at municipal level, and so the assumed culprit – sex-selective abortions – may be “smaller than often portrayed”.

Even though the sex ratio at birth has been above the expected biological ratio for well over 30 years, according to 2014 data, the share of females and males of the total population in Georgia is 52.3% and 47.7% respectively. This impact on the overall gender distribution may be explained with higher female life expectancy, worse risk behaviour among men, and armed conflicts in the last decades that have claimed the lives of thousands of men in certain cohorts.

As the general population sex ratio on the maps below (Fig. 3.1) suggests, there is a disproportionately high share of males in the mountainous regions. It is especially so in the census areas of the North-Eastern regions. This may be due to the lack of economic activities and access to opportunities in rural economies, which may be driving women to more central locations. Looking at other mountainous districts such as those in Svaneti (North-West), Adjara (South-West) or Mtskheta-Mtianeti (North of Tbilisi) regions, the number of women is equal or higher in areas where there seems to be more opportunities for employment or socio-economic engagement, such as tourism and hospitality sectors.

Figure 3.1. General population sex ratio by census unit. Source: Geostat, 2014

Figure 3.2. General population sex ratio by municipality. Source: Geostat, 2014

This assumption is partially confirmed by the second map (Fig. 3.2 – Sex Ratio by municipality) showing higher share of women in urban areas, such as Tbilisi, Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi, Zugdidi and so on. However, several municipalities with poor access to opportunities also show high shares of female population.

Abandoned villages

As agricultural activities and production gradually declined over the transition years, cities, and especially the capital Tbilisi, have been attracting people living in rural areas, resulting in the complete abandonment of some of the villages. Currently, there are hundreds of abandoned villages throughout the country, clustered mainly in the mountainous areas of some of the regions and the areas bordering the conflict zone with Tskhinvali region in Shida Kartli in central part of the country.

The trend of uneven internal migration has been of growing concern within the country. As a result in 2016 the central government introduced a new law on the development of high mountainous regions, offering various types of social benefits and economic aid packages to people living in those areas. The effects of these new measures to improve the livelihood in the Georgian highlands are still to a great degree unknown.

Even with such a superficial analysis we have identified major trends and challenges – as negative net migration adds up to the uneven socio-economic and demographic development within the country, it is essential to understand these processes in spatial context. This is primarily important for efficient, socially just, redistributive and informed policies to tackle the adversities brought by the transition process and the period afterwards, as well as to look further and plan for long-term development scenarios.

Giorgi Kankia is currently pursuing a Master degree in Urban and Regional Planning at Stockholm University. He holds another Master degree in planning from the University of Granada and has a few years of working experience in the field in Georgian context. His research interests include mobility infrastructures, networks, segregation and planning practice. He has a background in GIS and spatial modelling and a strong interest in data analysis and visualization. You can read more on his blogs about spatial transformation and data visualisation.

Lika Zhvania (MSc) holds a Master degree in Human Geography from Tbilisi State University. She currently works on spatial planning issues. Lika has experience in GIS and spatial analysis. Her previous background includes network development in the telecommunication field throughout Georgia. She has an interest in urban analytics and is fascinated with data analysis and visualization.

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