Some call Tbilisi a pollywog. Others call it a huge village. Many are proud that the capital city has developed so extensively and has acquired a regional importance. Everyone can agree to one thing – Tbilisi attracts people from the rest of Georgia and is too big for a country with four and a half million population.
The distribution of population between cities is based on certain regularity – a qualitative distribution. The distribution is known as Zipf’s Law – named after the American linguist George Kingsley Zipf who studied statistical occurrences in different languages. To spare you from mathematical intricacies, I will try to explain Zipf’s Law by quoting a simple example: If the population of a country’s largest city is 100, that of the second largest city would be half that – or 50, while the third largest city would be one third the population of the largest city – or 33. And the regularity goes on in this vein.
Georgia’s population is also distributed among cities according to this law although Tbilisi is disproportionally large. Considering current sizes of Kutaisi, Batumi, Rustavi, Senaki and other cities, Tbilisi should have a maximum of 533,000 inhabitants according to Zipf’s Law. In reality, Tbilisi counts a population of more than one million. Hence the conclusion: Tbilisi is in fact abnormally large.
In a qualitative distribution, if the data on the population size of cities are plotted on one side of the graph while the cities are ranked by size of population on another and a logarithmic scale is simultaneously applied to the graph, the cities will be distributed along one line. In the case of Georgia, Tbilisi does not fit with the common picture.
This diminishes the efficiency of the country. Underdevelopment of small Georgian cities impedes the use of natural or human resources. Concentration of qualified workforce in Tbilisi complicates the organization of economic activity in smaller cities thus hampering the accumulation of social capital.
People amassed in the capital also fail to fully realize their potential due to high competition. For example, doctors in Tbilisi are more than abundant whereas qualified doctors are in short supply outside Tbilisi.
People amassed in Tbilisi have to pay for a higher standard of living as well. Life is more expensive and the environment is more polluted. All this raises the cost of Tbilisi-based businesses.
Such a situation is usually rectified by natural economic stimuli. An existing imbalance is the result of the state’s artificial economic incentives which eventually diminish the competitiveness of the country.
Among countries similar in size to Georgia, a big disparity between natural and actual sizes of capital cities is observed in Nicaragua and Armenia alone. Moreover, the deviation from a natural size of a capital is greater in those countries which existed under socialist dictatorship for years or in countries where the migration is either planned or restricted (Israel), or, in other words, where the process of migration is artificial.
Tbilisi started to grow from the end of the Nineteenth Century, when Georgia was part of the Russian Empire. Tbilisi was not meant to develop as Georgia’s capital. It was rather an ordinary city of a larger country. Its size was commensurate with sizes of other cities in a natural way. Under the Russian Empire, Tbilisi was the center of the Tbilisi administrative division and, at the same time, of the Transcaucasus.
According to the 1879 census, the distribution of the population of Transcaucasus was in conformity with the qualitative distribution with Tbilisi being the largest city. However, based on the same census, if we consider only Georgia’s cities, Tbilisi was unnaturally big even then.
Another significant wave of Tbilisi’s enlargement occurred during the Soviet period. According to central planning of those times, the growth of and migration to the city was spurred by various factors: the construction and expansion of the city; construction of factories; planned creation of jobs; funding of educational institutions; funding of culture; development of trade networks; availability of scarce commodities; and, of course, privileges to state bodies. Cities with the population reaching a million enjoyed special benefits in the Soviet era. For example, such cities were supposed to have a subway system, a certain number of higher educational institutions, to be allotted a certain number of motorcars and so on.
The state promotes the growth of Tbilisi even today through exceptional funding of the city from the budget: Tbilisi accounts for more than half of the transfers from the 2010 state budget even though only one-fourth of the country’s population lives there.
Central state bodies are mainly located in Tbilisi, thus attracting people seeking jobs as well as money spent by the state for the procurement of goods and services.
Delegating more functions to self-governance units and allowing them to have their own share in current general state taxes would result in creating competition and putting natural migration stimuli in action. This would bring us closer to a natural distribution of population among cities.
Today, many view a rural-to-urban migration as a tragedy (one can often hear laments that “villages have been deserted; no one wants to plough the land”). Urbanization is an inevitable development, however.
Forty-seven percent of Georgia’s population lives in rural areas. A similar indicator in developed countries stands at 25 percent.
According to the UN forecast, by 2050 only 29 percent of Georgia’s population will live in villages.
An estimated one million people are likely to move to cities in the future. If the process of urbanization proceeds in a natural way and the state does not distort it with artificial economic incentives, other cities will grow faster than Tbilisi. This will bring the distribution of population among cities closer to a natural distribution and we may even see a decrease in the population of Tbilisi.