Once seen as emissaries of the dominant power, Russians in the South Caucasus now share equal status with dozens of other minority groups that have traditionally populated this mountainous area. Estimates show the number of Russians in Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia has decreased by two-thirds since the breakup of the Soviet Union. But for those who remain there, adapting to the local post-Soviet environment is a slow and painful process.
Prague, 21 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the ethnic conflicts that followed, tens of thousands of ethnic Russians left the Transcaucasian region.
According to the last Soviet census -- conducted in 1989 -- there were 392,000 ethnic Russians in Azerbaijan and 52,000 in Armenia. Today, the number of ethnic Russians in those countries reportedly stands at just 142,000 and 12,000 -- or just 1.8 percent and 0.4 percent of the total population respectively.
Results of a 2002 population census published this month show that Georgia -- the most ethnically diverse of the three South Caucasus nations -- has only 75,000 Russians left, compared with 350,000 in 1989.
In the case of Georgia, the drop can likely be attributed not only to emigration but also to the loss of Abkhazia -- a breakaway province with a significant Russian population which, together with South Ossetia, seceded from Tbilisi in the early 1990s.
The mass exodus of Russians from Transcaucasia peaked during the region's period of greatest instability -- the 1990-91 rule of Georgian nationalist President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and the domestic troubles that followed Heidar Aliev's 1993 return to power in neighboring Azerbaijan.
Economic hardship also played -- and continues to play -- a significant role in driving Russians out of the Caucasus.
Alla Bezhentseva heads Georgia's Assembly of Fellow Countrymen and Russian Organizations and chairs Georgia's Union of Russian Women. She tells RFE/RL that it was not only those Russians who immigrated to the South Caucasus area in Soviet times who left in the 1990s. She says migrs also included long-time ethnic Russians such as the Dukhobory -- descendants of religious dissidents who had been deported to the Caucasus in the 19th century by the tsarist regime.
"Most probably the first impetus [behind the mass emigration] was economic, because everything was closing down and people were losing their jobs. The second impetus, of course, was the nationalist policy carried out under Gamsakhurdia's rule, when one started hearing calls for the Russians to leave the country. That was a major impetus. Of the 7,000 Dukhobory who lived in Georgia in 1989, for example, only 1,000 remain today," Bezhentseva said.
The nearly 75 percent decrease in Armenia's Russian population over the past 12 years is primarily ascribed to economic hardship, although it is not the only reason.
Dramatically decreasing living standards throughout the 1990s, and a large influx of Armenian refugees from Azerbaijan caused by the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, resulted in an exodus of ethnic Russians to Russia's southern provinces. This included many Molokans, members of an exclusive religious group who had been living there for centuries.
Anna Matveeva heads the Eastern European program at Saferworld, an independent British think tank that specializes in conflict prevention. She is also the author of a report on minorities in the South Caucasus that was published last year by the London-based Minority Rights Group International nongovernmental organization.
Matveeva cautions against the reliability of statistics from the region, which appear to suggest that Armenia has seen the greatest proportional outflow of ethnic Russians. However, she adds, if that is the case, it may be because of Armenia's traditional ethnic homogeneity and limited use of the Russian language.
"Armenia, in the first years of independence, had a very sharp decline in living standards, perhaps [even] worse than its neighbors. That was the time when everyone who could leave left. Quite a few Armenians left as well. But also, both in Georgia and Azerbaijan, there are more [ethnic] minorities. Generally speaking, those [two] countries are more multi-ethnic. [They have] more mixed populations and there is [there] a more traditional kind of co-existence between people, through [mixed] marriages and this kind of thing. In Armenia, the dominant ethnic group is kind of more dominant than in the other two [countries]," Matveeva says.
Yuri Yakovenko is the chairman of Rossyia (Russia), a Yerevan-based nongovernmental organization that was set up 10 years ago to promote the rights of Armenia's ethnic Russians. He says that Armenia's initial state policy also pushed ethnic Russians to seek shelter abroad.
"How can this [mass immigration] be explained? It is explained by the fact that in 1993 Armenia adopted a law [that made Armenian the official language of the country]. Russian [elementary] schools and Russian faculties in universities closed down in the twinkle of an eye. Since that time, education in Armenia has been conducted in the Armenian language. That is the main reason," Yakovenko says.
Yakovenko says the situation of ethnic Russians in Armenia has slightly improved in recent years, and that migration has slowed. Notably, the Armenian government has adopted a state program to help ethnic Russians integrate into the political, economic, and social life of the country. Education in the Russian language has been re-introduced in dozens of Armenian schools and a Russian elementary school is now functioning in Yerevan.
In Georgia -- in addition to dozens of so-called "mixed schools," where education is given in both official and minority languages -- there are nearly 60 Russian schools.
But while meeting the basic demands of local minority groups, the existence of national schools prevents integration of non-ethnic Georgians into society.
Bezhentseva says Russian children born in Georgia after 1991 are being educated in Russian schools rather than in Georgian ones, mainly because parents do not trust the quality of the local educational system.
Another factor that prevents parents from entrusting the education of their offspring to Georgian teachers is the hope that one day their children will be able to find a job in Russia. A final obstacle, Bezhentseva says, is scarce knowledge of the Georgian language among adults.
"For example, if I had a child, I would not mind sending him to a Georgian school. But in that case I would be unable to help him with his homework because I do not know enough Georgian to do so. Very naturally, parents who do not speak Georgian send their children to Russian schools," Bezhentseva says.
Bezhentseva admits that the recent creation of language centers and moves to publish Georgian textbooks for Russian-speaking students are helping remove the language barrier, by allowing Russian first- and second-graders to learn the country's official language. However, she says, textbooks remain very expensive by local standards and only a few families can afford them.
Georgia's narrow job market and unattractive salaries -- combined with poor knowledge of the Georgian language -- push many young ethnic Russians to travel to Russia to study or work. But tougher immigration laws imposed by Moscow last year are likely to make it more and more difficult for non-Russian citizens to find a job in Russia.
In the meantime, those ethnic Russians who manage to find a regular or seasonal job outside Georgia remain the main source of revenue for their relatives back home. Bezhentseva says problems facing Georgia's Russian community are more economic than political.
"I would say that [our] problems are more of an economic nature at the moment. The Russian community [here] has always been concentrated in large cities. Other ethnic groups are being supported by [their relatives in the] countryside and those who have relatives in villages are getting food products," Bezhentseva says. "But this is not the case among Russians. Elder people live on their retirement pension -- or, more correctly, they 'survive,' because what can you expect with 14 laris [less than $7] a month? Male adults work in Russia [as seasonal workers] and the money they earn they send to their families here."
Although the situation facing Armenia's Russians is generally believed to be better than that of their counterparts in Georgia -- notably because, as they claim, most of them have learned Armenian -- both communities say their future is dependent on the economic prospects of their respective home regions. In the meantime, the out-migration of ethnic Russians is unlikely to stop.
Rossyia chairman Yakovenko says most middle-aged Russians are leaving Armenia to seek employment elsewhere. As for the younger generations, he says they are also considering heading abroad.
"Those young Russians who have computer skills are naturally eager to leave for Europe or America. Salaries are very low [here] and they do not see any opportunities for themselves, at least for the time being. Of course, one could object that the present situation cannot be compared to that of the years 1994-1995. But still, there are too many problems remaining," Yakovenko says.
Saferworld's Matveeva says future developments will also depend on whether Russia will remain attractive for ethnic Russians living in the Caucasus.
"That will depend on how Russia will be doing economically," she says. "If Russia's economy keeps doing better, if social conditions improve, then I believe ethnic Russians will have more incentives to leave the South Caucasus."