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Nearly three-quarters of Georgia's five and a half million people are ethnic Georgians, with some 80 other nationalities divided among the remaining 30 percent. But even the Georgians themselves are diverse - the extroverted Megrels or Mingrelians of the west have different characteristics than the more easy-going wine-loving Kakhetians of the east, for instance. And while most of this 70% Georgians are Christians of the Georgian Orthodox Church, a significant number are Moslem.

Armenians make up over 8% of the population, according to a 1989 census, though are in the majority in a few areas such as Akhalkalaki and Ninotsminda in the south. Many are descended from refugees of the devastating social upheaval in Armenia during the First World War. A robust Armenian population is also found in Tbilisi. Armenians usually speak Russian, not Georgian.

Russians are also found in significant numbers in Georgia, 6.3 %, especially in the cities of Tbilisi, Rustavi and Abkhazia. Many of them arrived during the Soviet era, and they also speak Russian as their primary language. Their integration with Georgian society is uneven, and many are attempting to emigrate out of Georgia to the U.S.

Azeris are found in the rural south-eastern part of the country. They speak Turkish and are Shia Moslems, though not highly religious, with close ties to the population and government of neighboring Azerbaijan. Though over time many Turkish speaking peoples have migrated though Georgia and settled in waves, most of them now identify themselves as Azeri.

Ossetians comprise about 3% of Georgia's population, and are found straddling the northern border adjoining the Northern Ossetian province in the Russian Federation. Their language is Indo-European, related to Iranian, and tradition holds they are descendents of the Alan nomads of Asia. They live in their own contested autonomous region, which tried to secede from Georgia during a separatist war in the early 1990s. Currently their status remains unsettled, although their relationship with the Georgians are showing signs of improvement. Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion, though there's also Moslems and a strong undercurrent of paganism.

The Abkhazians of the northwest also had their own autonomous region until their war with the Georgians in 1992-3. Until then Georgians occupied 44% of Abkhazia's population - Abkhaz 17%. They have their own language related to the north Caucasian group. Currently the status of Abkhazia is uncertain. The region is embargoed on all sides, has lost two thirds of its population, with its 250,000 Georgian inhabitants expelled. The situation remains in stalemate and many Abkhaz have left the region.

Other Ethnicities
Ethnic Kurds from the Ottoman empire are fairly common in the larger cities, and Jews have lived in Georgia for 2,600 years without persecution (some say because their affection for wine endears them to the Georgians). A significant number of Anatolian Greeks live in the southeastern part of the country, and maintain strong contact with their homeland across the Black Sea. Finally, Meskhets of Turkish origin were formerly numerous in Georgia but were deported to Central Asia under Stalin during the Second World War. A controversial movement is underway to repatriate them.

Georgian Orthodox Church
A word about the Georgian Orthodox Church: though similar in many ways to Eastern or Russian Orthodoxy, the Georgian brand of Christianity is one of the oldest in the world, being introduced in 330 A.D. by St. Nino. It is an "autocephalous" church, meaning it has its own head or patriarch, known as the Catholicos. This tradition began in the sixth century, and while the Russians abolished the Catholicos in the 19th century the position was reinstated in 1917. The current leader is Catholicos Ilya II, whose seat is near the Sioni Cathedral in Tbilisi.

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