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The Turkic-Speaking Greek Community of Georgia—and Its Demise

Readers who have carefully examined the maps of the Caucasus posted recently in GeoCurrents may have noted an area marked “Greek” in south-central Georgia. This Greek zone appears on most but not all ethno-linguistic maps of the region, sometimes as a single area, and sometimes as two. Depicting Greek communities here is historically accurate but increasingly anachronistic. Since 1991, the Greek population of Georgia has plummeted from over 100,000 to less than 20,000, due largely to emigration to Greece. Many of the remaining Georgian Greeks are elderly, and a few locales are reported to have only a handful of remaining Greek residents, putting the survival of the community in some doubt

But regardless of the community’s future, its Greek nature raises some interesting issues about identity. Members of the group consider themselves Greek, generally belong to the Greek Orthodox Church, and use the Greek script when writing their own language; they are also reckoned as Greeks by the Athens government. As a result, their homeland has been accurately mapped as “Greek” on ethnic maps. It is a different matter, however, when it comes to linguistic maps, as most of the Greeks of south-central Georgia speak a Turkic language called Urum. They are not unique in this regard. Many of the estimated 1.5 million Greeks expelled from Turkey to Greece in the 1920s were actually Turcophones. Today, the remaining Turkic-speaking Greek population is concentrated in three areas: south-central Georgia, the north Azov area of southern Russia, where the community was reported to be 60,000 strong in 1969, and in Donetsk Oblast in southeastern Ukraine, which Ethnologue claims contains 95,000 Urum speakers.*

The Greek presence in the area that is now Georgia apparently dates to antiquity. The ancient Greeks were a maritime people who established outposts all along the shores of the Black Sea, many of which survived, in one form or another, into the modern era. The focus of this so-called Pontic Greek community was the coastal strip of what is now northeastern Turkey, an area that enjoyed its heyday from 1204-1461 as the Empire of Trebizond, a prosperous and highly cultured Byzantine successor state. After the Ottoman conquest of Trebizond in 1461, some of its Greek residents abandoned Greek for Turkic dialects while remaining Christian and Greek-identified, others retained both Christianity and their distinctive Pontic Greek dialect (or language), others converted to Islam and adopted the Turkish language, and still others became Muslim while continuing to speak “Rumca,” the local term used to denote Pontic Greek.** Those who retained Greek identity tried to build a Republic of Pontus during the chaotic years from the end of World War I until the early 1920s, but were unsuccessful. After repelling the Greek invasion from the west in 1922, the Turkish government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established a firm hold over Anatolia. Turkish assaults at this time on the Greek community in the northeast have been deemed by some the “Pontic Genocide”; in the end, most of the Greeks of Turkey were expelled to Greece, just as the Turks of Greece were expelled to Turkey. Today, Trebizond is an ethnically Turkish area described by the BBC in 2007 as a football-mad hotbed of Turkish nationalism.

The Pontic Greeks were not limited to northeastern Anatolia, as hundreds of thousands lived in the coastal areas of what are now Georgia, Abkhazia, southern Russia, and Ukraine. These communities also suffered periodic bouts of persecution in the twentieth century. Under Stalin, as many as 100,000 Pontic Greeks were exiled to Central Asia in two waves, the first in the late 1930s and the second in the late 1940s. Even after Stalin’s death, Greeks in the Soviet Union faced discrimination. According to one source, “Under both the Khrushchev and Brezhnev regimes, Greeks (with few exceptions) continued to occupy a disadvantaged position in Soviet society and were unable to obtain high positions in political, military, scientific, and academic hierarchies.” Ronald Suny, however, notes that Greek interests were accommodated in Georgia under the government of Eduard Shevardnadze in the 1970s and early 1980s (see The Making of the Georgian Nation, p. 313).

One of the main centers of Greek culture in the early Soviet Union was the city of Sukhumi in Abkhazia, formerly part of the Georgian Soviet Republic and now a self-declared independent state aligned with Russia. Before World War II, Sukhumi’s Hellenic community of some 65,000 supported Greek schools, theaters, newspapers, and libraries. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Sukhumi still had some 17,000 Pontic Greeks. As Georgians, Abkhazians, and Russians began to struggle over the fate of Abkhazia in 1991, the local Greeks began to flee, even though “[they] were encouraged by both sides to remain in the area throughout the conflict, and were even offered high ministerial and administrative positions.” In 1993, the Athens government carried out “Operation Golden Fleece” to evacuate most of the remaining population from the conflict zone. By 2003, only around 2,000 Greeks still lived in Abkhazia.

Although the Greek communities of the coastal zone are of long standing, those of interior Georgia date back only to the late eighteenth century. In 1763, Heraclius II, one of the last independent Georgian monarchs, enticed a sizable contingent of Pontic Greeks to settle in the area that now straddles the border of Georgia and Armenia, where he was developing silver and lead mines as part of an aborted modernization program. A second group fled the Ottoman Empire for Russian-ruled Georgia in 1829-1830, after the Greek War of Independence triggered the harassment of Anatolian Greeks. These refugees settled mostly in the Trialeti Plateau region of south-central Georgia, with the multi-lingual and now majority Armenian city of Tsalka forming their hub. Although these so-called Tsalka Urums were almost entirely Turkic-speaking—as the label “Urum” indicates—late Soviet ethnographic studies found that “36% of them considered Greek their mother tongue despite their lack of knowledge of that language, [and that] 96% expressed their desire to learn Greek.”

With the downfall of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia, the Tsalka Urums began to forsake Georgia for Greece. According some reports, the Greek community of south-central Georgia declined from 35,000 in 1989 to 3,000 in 2002, although the 2002 Georgian census still listed 7,415 “Greeks” in the Kvemo-Kartli administrative unit. The reasons for this precipitous decline are debatable. Some Greek sources claim that the Tsalka Urums were basically driven out by other ethnic groups. According to an April 2005 report in the Hellenic Resources Network, “Greek families have been massacred and others have been forced out of their villages, according to local ethnic Greek organizations.” Another report on the same site claims that internal migration within Georgia added to the community’s woes: “The remote Tsalka … became attractive for the Svanja, the domestic immigrants from western Georgia, and the Adjarians. … The squatters committed acts of violence … to force the ethnic Greeks to abandon their homeland.” The same sources, however, also mention an economic rationale for the migration, noting that retirees in the area receive pensions equivalent to twelve Euros a month, far less that what they are able to collect in Greece.

Several lessons can be drawn from the story of the Pontic Greeks of Georgia. The first is that ethnic mapping often fails to keep pace with events on the ground. Older maps depicted a substantial Greek population in south-central Georgia, as was indeed appropriate. More recent maps tend to copy from these sources, failing to capture such recent changes as the near disappearance of this Greek community. Recent maps also generally fail to note the disappearance of the southernmost area of Ossetian inhabitation in Georgia. I have accordingly changed one of the most widely used ethno-linguistic maps of the Caucasus, erasing the “Greek” and “Ossetian” areas from Georgia proper. I have also deleted the “Georgian” area from South Ossetia, as a significant degree of ethnic cleansing has occurred here as well.

A second lesson concerns the complex relationship between ethnic identity and language. One might assume that an area labeled “Greek” on an “ethno-linguistic map” would be Greek-speaking, but that is not the case in regard to Tsalka. Strictly speaking, such a designation is incorrect, as Urums are Greek only in the ethnic sense. Yet polling data from the late Soviet period indicated that many people here proclaimed a Greek linguistic identity even though they did not actually speak Greek, but merely hoped to learn it. Also important was their use of the Greek script to signal group membership.

Finally, the plight of the Georgian Greeks also speaks to the broader reduction of the Greek community abroad. The Greeks, like the Jews, the Armenians, and the Lebanese, are one of the great diasporic peoples of western Eurasia, their communities historically scattered over a vast territorial expanse. But ethnic persecution and economic hardship abroad, coupled with enticements from the national homeland, have reduced the extent of the Greek diaspora. In the process, the modern ethnic map of the Caucasus has become less intricate than that of the recent past.

In a similar process, many members of the Armenian community living in other parts of the Caucasus have relocated to Armenia (and Nagorno-Karabakh), a movement that has been going on for some time. Yet Armenia is now to sending many more migrants abroad than it takes in, thus perpetuating the Armenian diaspora in a different manner, as we shall see in a subsequent GeoCurrents post.

* The 2001 Ukrainian census lists 91,000 “Greeks” for the country as a whole, whereas the 1989 census counted 98,500 Ukrainian Greeks, only 14,286 named Greek as their native language. Whether the others are Turkic or Russian speakers was not mentioned.

* Some sources claim a few thousand Rumca speakers, many of them elderly, still live in northeastern Turkey, although the comprehensive Ethnologue has no information on the group


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