Tolerance and Diversity Institute

What We Should Know about Azerbaijani Fellow Citizens

Authors: Oktai Kazumov, philologist, translator, researcher at the Shota Rustaveli Institute of Georgian Literature; Giorgi Sordia, researcher, Director of Centre for the Studies of Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CSEM)

We often call them “Tatars,” “herb vendors,” sometimes “infidels.” There are many stereotypes about how they look or what they do. However, they would like to be perceived by the majority as equal members of society, not visitors or aliens.

What do we know and what should we know about fellow citizens of ethnic Azerbaijani background?

A Brief History of Azerbaijanis[1] in Georgia and the Identity Issue.

Georgia always maintained close political, economic and cultural ties with the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan or Turkic-speaking khanates and atabegates in the territory of Iranian Azerbaijan. Sometimes, those ties led to kin relationships. For example, Tamar, a daughter of David the Builder, was married to the Shirvanshah[2]; that’s why Polaki of Shirvan, a court poet of Shirvanshahs, lamented the death of King Demetrius I in his marsiya, a poem of morning. Moreover, in his monograph “Rustaveli and the Oriental Renaissance,” a Georgian scholar Shalva Nutsubidze noted that Shirvan was the birthplace of renaissance in literature and Georgia absorbed the advanced ideology of Persian-Arab culture from there.  

As regards Azerbaijanis living in Georgia, their ancestors appeared on Georgia’s economic and political scene at later times. Historical records on this issue date back to the period of King Erekle II (earlier, however, King Vakhtang VI tried to create a legislative framework for their integration in his legal code, dasturlamali). It seems that Erekle II needed their support to strengthen the military potential of the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti so badly that in 1755 he brought back all inhabitants of Borchalo[3] who had moved to Erivan Khanate and Qarasu. In 1756, he also brought back Elis[4] from Samtskhe, intending to settle in Iran.

When several tribes moved to Akhaltsikhe eyelet, Giorgi XII, the King of Kartli and Kakheti, lodged a complaint with the sultan and brought them back. Such efforts and steps of Georgian kings were not driven by emotions, but by the need to form an army. Indeed, Erekle II had a personal military unit of Borchalo inhabitants, led by a renowned warrior Khudia of Borchalo. Moreover, according to some reports, five or seven of 12 personal guards of the King were from Borchalo. Together with the King, inhabitants of Borchalo mainly fought against Laks, but participated in other military operations too. The most well-known of these operations is the Battle of Aspindza (in 1770) in which Khudia of Borchalo, together with Aghababa Eristavi and Svimon Mukhran-Batoni, turned the course of the battle by sawing both ends of the bridge. Borchalo inhabitants fought in the Battle of Krtsanisi (in 1795) too. Later, more than 100 inhabitants of Borchalo, along with Khevsurians, were killed when defending the King of Dusheti.

Azerbaijanis are often wrongly and disparagingly called “Tatars.” This is because after the invasion of Georgia by Mongol-Tatars the word “Tatar” became associated with Turkic-speaking peoples. This term came to be used towards modern-day Azerbaijanis after the expansion of the Russian Empire to the Caucasus. Having conquered the Caucasus, Russians started to call Turkic-speaking peoples Caucasian Tatars or Caucasian Muslims because of the language similarity, although Tatars were descendants of Kipchak branch of Turkic peoples and were ethnically related to Oghuz Azerbaijanis as, for example, Russians were to Serbs.

In parallel to these denominations, a narrative of ethnic self-identification as “Turk” or “Caucasian Turk” continued to exist. Therefore, in 1918, when the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was founded, Turk was used to denote the nationality. At that time, the Ottoman Empire (with the citizenship “Ottoman”) still existed and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk started his reforms only five years later. The state of affairs did not change after the Sovietization of Azerbaijan (since 1920) and the ethnonym Turk was applied to the majority living in Azerbaijan. It was not until Stalin strengthened his regime and the Republic of Turkey used the term “Turk” to denote its nationality that the leadership of the Soviet Union decided to replace the ethnonym “Turk” with “Azerbaijani.” Since then this word has been used towards Turkic-speaking population of Georgia.

Statistical Data

Azerbaijanis represent the largest ethnic minority in Georgia. As many as 233 024 Azerbaijanis, that is 6.3% of the total population, live in Georgia, according to the 2014 general population census conducted by the National Statistics Office of Georgia. The absolute majority of them is Muslim with a large segment amongst being Shia Muslims and the rest Sunni Muslims. There is also a small number of Salafi Muslims.

As regards the regional distribution, Azerbaijanis mainly live in four regions of Georgia: Kvemo Kartli, Kakheti, Shida Kartli and Mtskheta-Mtianeti; they create compact settlements in Tbilisi too.

The largest number of Azerbaijanis lives in Kvemo Kartli, comprising 41.75% of the local population. By municipalities, the highest indicator is seen in Marneuli (83.77%), followed by Dmanisi (65.46%), Bolnisi (63.38%), Gardabani (43.53%), Tsalka (6.98%) and Tetritskaro (7.33%).

Renowned Azerbaijanis

Russian occupation of the Kingdom of Kartli and Kakheti and then, Transcaucasia, also, the stationing of a viceroy in Tbilisi turned this city into a political and cultural center of Transcaucasia. Intelligentsia of Caucasian nations, including Azerbaijani thinkers from Baku and Elizavetpol (i.e. Ganja) governorates, came to Tbilisi. Three most renowned of them were: Mirza Shafi Vazeh, a poet and intellectual, founder of a salon in Tbilisi to discuss philosophy, culture, poetry, et cetera; Abbasqulu aga Bakikhanov, a poet, interpreter of the governor and scholar, author of geography, physics, and history schoolbooks as well as a Persian grammar manual in the Russian language, which was taught at Tbilisi gymnasium for quite a long time; Mirza Fatali Ahkundov, a literati and first playwright called the “Molière of the Caucasus,” and prominent thinker in the Muslim East. Mirza Fatali Akhundov arrived in Tbilisi in 1834. In 1878 he died in Tbilisi, in his own house (it is now the museum after his name and houses the cultural center of Azerbaijanis). He was buried in the modern-day Botanical Garden (at that time, the cemetery of Muslims of Tbilisi). His play The Vizier of the Lenkoran Khan was translated by Akaki Tsereteli and performed on a Georgian stage during many years. Owing to the efforts of Mirza Fatali Ahkundov, an Azerbaijani language department was opened in the pedagogical seminary of Gori. A satirical journal Molla Nasraddin, founded and published by Jalil Mammadguluzadeh[5] and Omar Faig Nemanzadeh[6] in Tbilisi in 1906, should also be attributed to his influence and viewed as the continuation of his school. This magazine soon gained wide popularity not only in Georgia but beyond its borders. The Russian gendarmerie raided the printing house several times and banned the publication of the magazine. The generation of authors publishing their works in this magazine was later called the “Molla Nasraddin generation.”

Abdulla Shaig, from Sarvaneli (modern-day Marneuli) by origin, was born in Tbilisi in 1881 and until the sixth grade studied at the Muslim school in Tbilisi. He was a poet, writer, playwright, publicist, teacher and most importantly, founder of Azerbaijani children literature. Since 1901 Abdulla Shaig lived in Baku. He died in Azerbaijan in 1959.

Peri-Khan Sofieva was a significant and exemplary political figure for the Georgian statehood. In 1918, at the age of 34, she ran for, and was elected in, the local election as an independent candidate. Sofieva was the first Muslim woman to be elected formally in the world. She was born in the Karajala village in Karaiazi (modern-day Marneuli). The communist regime seized her property in the dekulakization campaign and executed her brothers. She died from heart attack in 1953.

Mirza Huseyn Hasanzadeh was one of four deputies nominated by the national Muslim council of Georgia to the Constituent Assembly of Georgia’s Democratic Republic in 1918. He was born in the 1880-es. Together with Nariman Narimanov, Mirza Huseyn Hasanzadeh opened a school, which is now named after Mirza Fatali Akhundov, and served as its first director. In 1920, he was awarded the title of “national teacher.” In 1912, Mirza Huseyn Hasanzadeh published a textbook titled “Tatarian alphabet.” He died in 1947.

According to the reports, at the initiative of Noe Zhordania, the order of hero was awarded to Ali, nicknamed Chopura, from the Ashagi Sarali (Kvemo Sarali) village in Marneuli district. In the 1918 Georgian-Armenian war he was a machine gunner and distinguished himself several times when defending his native area. As the print media of those times reported, Borchalo residents formed two military units and joined the military forces of Georgia.

The Bolshevik period adversely affected the integration of Azerbaijanis living in Georgia. They were no longer encouraged to engage in the administration of the country and therefore, the majority of school graduates left for Azerbaijan to continue their studies and to work. As a result, the field of science of Azerbaijan alone has over 100 renowned figures who were born in Georgia. The same holds true for the fields of politics, business and culture.


    Problem of Civic Integration 

    Although ethnic Azerbaijanis represent the largest ethnic minority in Georgia, the degree of their civic and political involvement is low.

    One of important factors impeding full civic participation of Azerbaijanis is the language barrier – they do not know the state language. Over the past few years an increase has been observed in the number of ethnic minorities admitted to universities. For example, in 2015, having passed general skills tests at the unified national exams, which were specifically compiled in Azerbaijani language, 522 school graduates obtained the right to study at Georgia’s universities; this number increased to 660 in 2016 and further to 773 in 2016.

    Georgian language is still not taught properly at public schools in the regions with compact settlements of local Azerbaijanis. In parallel to this problem, the state faces another challenge – to facilitate the teaching of native Azerbaijani language and support a general education in Azerbaijani language.

    According to official data of the Ministry of Education and Science, there were 82 Azerbaijani and 29 mixed Georgian-Azerbaijani schools in Georgia in the 2017-2018 academic year.

    Another important issue is a limited political participation of ethnic Azerbaijanis in both local and central governments. For example, the local ethnic Azerbaijani community in the Kvemo Kartli region is not represented adequately in the local self-government. Managerial offices are mainly held by non-Azerbaijanis. The 2017 local elections also resulted in a disproportionate and incomplete representation of Azerbaijanis in local government. Ethnic Azerbaijanis are not proportionally represented in newly elected municipal councils in any of the municipalities where they comprise the majority of the population. For example, the share of ethnic minorities in the 35-member municipal council of Marneuli stands at 51% although they make up 91% of the population in this municipality. The situation is similar or even worse in other municipalities of Kvemo Kartli.  

    Apart from local self-government, ethnic minorities, including Azerbaijanis, are also inadequately represented in the central government. The current composition of the Parliament of Georgia counts only 11 members from ethnic minorities with only four amongst representing the ethnic Azerbaijani community.

    After the Soviet period and the 1990es, disagreements, phobias and stereotypes created a rift between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Azerbaijanis. A correct state policy and change in social attitudes are necessary to facilitate a comprehensive integration of ethnic Azerbaijanis into society.

    This article was made possible by the generous support of the American People through The United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of this article is the responsibility of TDI and the author and does not necessarily reflect the views of East West Management Institute, USAID or United States Government.

    The project is implemented by the Tolerance and Diversity Institute within the framework of USAID program, Promoting Rule of Law in Georgia (PROLoG), carried out by the East-West Management Institute (EWMI).


    [1] The majority of Azerbaijanis are descendants of Oghuz branch of Turkic people, but there is also an ethnic mixture of various Turkic groups as well as Albanians, Arabs, Persians and other Caucasian peoples. Historically, Azerbaijan was the name of northern Iran. The modern-day Azerbaijan, i.e. northern Azerbaijan, was called Albania.

    [2] According to sources, Tamar married Shirvanshah Manuchehr II in 1105 or 1106.

    [3] Derives from the name of one of a Turkic tribe Borchalu, who lived in Kvemo Kartli. It then became a geographic name.

    [4] Eli (Turkic) – tribe

    [5] Jalil Mammadguluzadeh (1869 – 1932) – writer, playwright, publicist, public figure, founder of Molla Nasraddin.

    [6] Omar Faig Nemanzadeh (1872 – 1937) – born in the village of Atskuri in Akhaltsikhe district. In 1891, he finished his education in Istanbul and worked in a post office there for some time. In 1898-1902 he worked in Azerbaijan. His contribution to founding and publishing Molla Nasraddin was great. In 1937, after returning to his native Atskuri, he was executed under the order of Stalin.