By Molly Corso
Always on the lookout for economic opportunity, officials in Georgia are trying to encourage members of the country’s far-flung Diaspora to organize, and bring their skills and cash back home.
Tbilisi’s challenge may seem clear, but it isn’t straightforward. Georgians are famed for their close ties with family and friends, yet analysts believe their natural gift for networking falters when they emigrate abroad.
While there is no firm data on the number of Georgians living abroad, the government estimates that around 1.5 million Georgians have left the country since 1991, and believes there are around 3 million members of the “historic” Diaspora now living in Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan. The historic Diaspora comprises those who emigrated before the Soviet era.
If the government projections are accurate, the overall number of Diaspora members may approach Georgia’s 2011 population of roughly 4.47 million. Although no data exists on the specific amount of money sent home by Diaspora members, remittances to Georgia in 2011 were an eye-popping $1.26 billion – roughly 33 percent of projected tax revenues for 2012.
Tapping into the Diaspora’s financial muscle requires organization, and, for the most part, Georgian emigrants who build new lives abroad do so on their own, and not with the help of support groups.
The government hopes that new passport-style identity cards, introduced on March 1, will help foster a greater sense of community. The card allows the holder to enter Georgia without a visa, have access to government scholarships for Georgian public schools and universities and join national sports teams. Any person with ties to Georgia through birth, ancestors going as far back as five generations, or marriage can apply for the card. In addition to the card, the government is offering a variety of cultural enrichment programs, including summer camps for children, folk dance and singing groups, plus schools in 50 Diaspora communities that offer lessons in Georgian language, history, geography and literature.
First Deputy Minister for Diaspora Issues Irakli Nadiriadze believes the identity cards and cultural programs could help emigrants form “stronger” Diaspora communities with solid bonds to their homeland.
“It is possible that [the Georgian Diaspora] will be more active [once they receive this card],” Nadiriadze asserted.
The deputy minister added that Tbilisi is not “reinventing the wheel.” Government agencies, he said, have carefully studied policies in Armenia, India and other countries with large Diasporas to see what techniques are used to maintain and strengthen Diaspora ties to the homeland.
The role of Diaspora Indians – at 25 million, the world’s second-largest Diaspora community after the Chinese, according to the United Nations Development Programme — stood out by their practice of “helping economically, investing and visiting their country,” Nadiradze said. Armenia, renowned for the influence of Armenian Diaspora organizations, was a model for involving the Diaspora with events taking place at home, he said.
Georgian sociologists and political scientists who specialize in migration issues are skeptical that government policies can quickly build a more unified Georgian Diaspora.
Many Georgian emigrants are more focused on their immediate needs — sending money home “to fight for their survival and their families’ survival” and maintaining ties with those relatives — than on joining forces with Georgians they do not know to help each other, commented Tbilisi State University sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili, who researched US-based Georgian immigrants from 2000 to 2003.
Koba Turmanidze, country director for the Caucasus Research Resources Center (CRRC), agreed that Georgians are “notorious” for not being “very helpful” to each other abroad. In part, he believes, that is because of a desire to avoid giving the impression that they left Georgia to escape poverty — a sensitive point in Georgia’s highly status-conscious society.
“Georgians used to sometimes avoid meeting other Georgians aboard because all this migration was caused mainly by poverty and economic hardship. And someone who managed to pull himself or herself out of that economic poverty abroad does not want to risk that status by helping other poor people from his or her country,” Turmanidze said.
A 2010 CRRC survey demonstrated a sharp difference in attitudes toward venturing abroad between Georgia and Armenia. Out of 2,089 Georgian households questioned in the survey, just 7 percent of Georgian respondents said they would leave the country permanently if they could, compared to 29 percent of the 1,922 Armenian respondents about Armenia.
Georgian émigré Mamuka Tsereteli, director of the America-Georgia Business Council in Washington, DC, doubts whether identity cards will play a role in building a more active Diaspora community. While greater numbers of Georgians are going legally to the United States, the ones working without proper documentation still “do not want to lead public lives,” and would shy away from the new Diaspora identity cards, added Tsereteli, who came to the United States 17 years ago.
The Diaspora Ministry’s Nadiriadze hopes that, in the end, love for the homeland will triumph over such concerns for most of the Georgian Diaspora. “It is not just about benefits,” he said. “There is also a sentimental moment . . . we believe that they will be highly honored to have this document.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist who also works as editor of Investor.ge, a monthly publication by the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia.