Azerbaijan and Georgia Narrowly Avoid Fresh Border Conflict
On May 28, as Azerbaijan marked its most important national holiday, Republic Day, and finalized preparations to host the UEFA Europa League Final at the Baku Olympic Stadium (May 29), events around the sprawling Davit Gareja (named Keshkichidag, in Azerbaijani) Monastery complex again started to escalate. Specifically, thousands of Georgian activists and believers, at the beckoning of top hierarchs of the Georgian Orthodox Church, jointly advanced toward the ancient religious site, which straddles the modern-day border between Georgia and Azerbaijan (Kommersant, May 28).
One of the organizers of the action was David Katsarava, the leader of the “Anti-Occupation Movement of Georgia.” He often arranges similar mass demonstrations on the “Russian occupation line,” near South Ossetia. In an interview with this author, Katsarava claimed that, on May 28, “Azerbaijan was preparing a provocation at the Georgian Davit Gareja monastery.” He explained, “The Azerbaijani side planned to bring thousands of its activists to Davit Gareja in order to declare this ancient Georgian monastery complex as the property of Azerbaijan. We went to the Monastery to meet our Azerbaijani friends and peacefully, calmly explain to them that they are mistaken.” He stressed that Davit Gareja “fully and inseparably” belongs to Georgia and any claims of Azerbaijan over this “ancient Georgian Christian monastery” are allegedly unfounded (Author’s interview, May 28).
As the massive convoy of cars from all over Georgia headed toward the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, Azerbaijani border guards had already reopened passage for Georgian citizens to the Udabno and Chichkhituri monasteries, located on the territory of Azerbaijan. The border was temporarily closed in late April (on the eve of Orthodox Easter weekend), following statements by Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili about the need to speed up negotiations on delimiting the section of the border that crosses through the monastery complex (see EDM, May 14). President Zurabishvili had been visiting the historical site on April 20.
On the evening of May 27, at the call of some hierarchs of the Georgian Orthodox Church, hundreds of Georgians blocked the strategic Baku–Tbilisi–Ankara–Istanbul highway for several hours. Car traffic stopped at the “red bridge” south of Davit Gareja (Kommersant May 27). This road serves both passenger and trade traffic between Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. Azerbaijan and Georgia have practically no other roadway links with Turkey, the largest trading partner of both countries.
Georgian police managed to convince the participants of the “blockade action” to open the highway in two hours. Katsarava explained to this author, that the Anti-Occupation Movement did not take part in blocking the road on May 27. “It was the initiative of David Gareja priests. The action was a warning,” he stressed (Author’s interview, May 28).
But the following morning, about three thousand demonstrators approached the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, crossed it, and surrounded the Chichkhituri and Udabno monasteries with a “living chain.” The Azerbaijani side responded with deliberative restraint: the officers of the Azerbaijani border troops agreed with their Georgian colleagues that they would not interfere with the movement of unarmed people. Georgian and Azerbaijani officers together accompanied the protesters (Kommersant May 28).
From the tower near Chichkhituri, the activists raised a Georgian state flag, whose design, prominently displaying the Cross of St. George, closely resembles the flag commonly associated with the Crusades (Kommersant May 28). Subsequently, the demonstrators returned to the territory of Georgia and peacefully dispersed.
An important role in overcoming the potential crisis was played by the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Catholicos Patriarch Ilia II. In particular, he called on the hierarchs of his Church not to jeopardize Georgian-Azerbaijani relations and accused an unnamed “third force” in the Caucasus region of aggravating relations between the two neighboring states (Tabula.ge, June 2)
But just because the two sides succeeded in preventing the events of May 27–28 from spiraling out of control, that does not mean the underlying issues surrounding the trans-border monastery complex have been resolved. The last round of inter-governmental negotiations on border delimitation ended without any progress (Ekho Kavkaza, May 27).
Many experts in Tbilisi are confident that Azerbaijan will never accept the Georgian side’s offer of swapping some territories in exchange for the Orthodox Christian Davit Gareja complex to fully reside inside Georgia. For instance, historian David Avalishvili explained that Azerbaijan “is building a European-style multicultural nation. And although the majority of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim, the ancient monastery complex reinforces Azerbaijani identity as a nation whose citizens can be Christian as well as Muslim” (Author’s interview, May 28).
In response to the recent protest actions at Davit Gareja, former Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili offered to mediate between Baku and Tbilisi. Saakashvili recalled that before the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party of billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili came to power, there were no cases of excesses or provocations at the historic monastery complex (Kommersant May 28).
In turn, former Georgian ambassador to the European Union and current member of parliament Salome Samadashvili (from Saakashvili’s United National Movement party) told this author that GD cannot avoid responsibility for the “dangerous developments and the deterioration of Georgia’s relations with its strategic partner Azerbaijan.” She continued, asserting, “The dangerous processes were triggered by the statements and actions of President Salome Zurabishvili, which were fully supported by Georgian Dream during [last year’s] presidential elections” (Author’s interview, May 25).
Indeed, since the 1990s and until recently, Georgia and Azerbaijan respected the status quo that had developed around the monastery complex over the past 50 years. Azerbaijan tolerated the Georgian Orthodox Church’s de factocontrol of the entire monastery complex—including Chichkhituri and Udabno monasteries, which, according to most available maps, are located on the territory of Azerbaijan. In turn, Georgia has not tried to rush the border delimitation process.
The most potentially dangerous consequence of the ongoing confrontation around Davit Gareja was the bolstering of islamophobic, turkophobic and anti-Azerbaijan forces in Georgia. In particular, the situation has raised the profile of local voices warning that Georgia was becoming overly “dependent” on Azerbaijan and Turkey (see EDM, May 14).
These concerns and associated demagogic rhetoric about the “discrimination of Georgia by Muslim neighbors” were further strengthened a couple weeks after the Easter closure of the border. The trigger was Baku and Ankara’s unusual decision not to invite Georgian representatives to a significant meeting (with Russian representatives) about modifying the Baku–Tbilisi–Kars (BTK) railway project (see EDM, May 20). Georgia’s absence at the Ankara meeting was perceived as a “humiliation” by the country’s stronger and richer neighbors. The still-unsettled nature of Davit Gareja/Keshkichidag will likely continue to fuel such sentiment.