February in the Caucasus: the perennial conflict over the David Gareja monastery3 min read
February editorial. The Caucasus is no stranger to border disputes. The conflicts surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia have attracted the most attention due to their explosive nature, yet even countries with seemingly amicable relations are dogged by issues of disputed territorial boundaries.
The diplomatic row between Georgia and Azerbaijan over the David Gareja Monastery is a little known source of tension originally stemming from, you guessed it, messy Soviet border demarcation. It’s a sort of perennial conflict, burgeoning every few years only to lay dormant again
The monastery itself is located on the Eastern border of Georgia, with a part stretching into Azerbaijan. Constructed in the 6th century, the monastery remains an important Georgian cultural and religious heritage site boasting surviving frescoes and hundreds of caves etched into the mountainside.
Tensions have risen in recent years between Georgia and Azerbaijan over the fate of the monastery complex. In summer 2019 rumors of Azerbaijani border guards removing religious artifacts became the cause of a physical altercation between the border guards, Georgian monks and activists.
Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova, two members of the commission tasked with demarcating the border, were jailed in October 2020 for allegedly using incorrect maps to cede territory to Azerbaijan while delimiting the Georgian-Azerbaijani border in 2006-2007. The state launched the case after Davit Khidasheli, a Georgian businessman and friend of Bidzina Ivanishvili, years later magically found historical maps more favorable to Georgia than the map used in the delimitation of the border and the monastery.
The arrest of Melashvili and Ilychova took place only 24 days before parliamentary elections and several Georgian organizations, including Transparency International Georgia, and activists have labelled the charges as political.
On January 28, the two functionaries were released on bail for a combined 12,000 dollars after a successful Facebook crowdfunding campaign. The prosecutors of the case are now switching to finding the superiors who instructed Melashvili and Ilychova to transfer the lands. Similarly, in response to the release, the Georgian Orthodox Church has called upon the government to prove that the charges were not political or without basis. They insist they are only interested in the full investigation of the cession of part of the monastery complex and lands to Azerbaijan and not in the particular detention of these specific functionaries but rather of those truly responsible.
Ultimately, the case and arrests are a part of a larger political play to further discredit opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili, whose administration oversaw the 2006-2007 delimitation. The prosecution alludes to shadowy more powerful figures instructing the two civil servants to use maps that would allow for a transfer of land to Azerbaijan, allowing for a connect the dots game.
This isn’t another Caucasian border conflict waiting to happen. Relations between Baku and Tbilisi may not be overly friendly but they sure are convenient. Additionally, both sides have bigger (perhaps in Azerbaijan’s case smaller) fish to fry.
David Gareja is a matter of national importance for Georgia, arresting officials in a pre-election stunt to further disgrace the opposition may just do more harm than good in achieving full ownership of the monastery. A mutually agreeable solution between Baku and Tbilisi is as far off as ever so parts of the monastery will remain inaccessible. For now, tourists may want to rethink this as an idea for a day trip but hopefully Georgia will also rethink its strategy in achieving full rights to the monastery.