Ancient Christian Site Straddling Azerbaijani-Georgian Border Highlights Problems Linked To Incomplete Delimitation Of Shared Frontier
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the administrative borders between the 15 constituent Soviet Socialist Republics became internationally recognized state borders. Yet, even during Soviet times, some of those administrative borders were, in places, fuzzy and uncertain—a problem inherited by many of the newly independent states (Mqup.ca, March 21, 2018) that often continues to this day (Janarmenian.ru, September 12, 2011).
So far, Azerbaijan has only completed a full demarcation of its borders with Russia—which the two countries agreed to in 2010 (Rosbalt.ru, July 18, 2011). Part of the internationally recognized territory of Azerbaijan remain under occupation as a result of the 30-year conflict with Armenia (Mfa.gov.az, accessed May 13, 2019); thus, demarcation of their shared border is a distant prospect. Meanwhile, the borders between Azerbaijan and Georgia have also still not been fully demarcated, despite the fact that friendly relations between these two neighbors were elevated to a strategic level as early as the 1990s (Isdp.eu, September 2013).
On April 20, 2019, Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, along with representatives of Europa Nostra, an international organization for cultural and natural heritage, visited the famous network of rock-hewn monasteries, churches and vestries that Georgians call Davit Gareja and Azerbaijanis call Keshkichidag. The site straddles the border between the two countries (President.gov.ge, April 20). The delegation, headed by Zurabishvili, met with local priests, took photos with members of the Georgian border patrol service and called on Azerbaijan to accelerate the delimitation of the border (Sputnik-georgia.ru, April 20).
The complex that stretches along the mountain range for 25 kilometers has been a serious hurdle in the demarcation of the Georgian-Azerbaijani state border and periodically threatened to undermine bilateral relations. For Georgians and the Georgian Orthodox Church, this site is a special and sacred place; it is named after one of the 13 Syrian Christian monks who arrived to the region in the sixth century and is thought to have first settled there (Pravenc.ru, October 10, 2011). For Azerbaijan, with its predominantly Muslim population, the site is important due to this nation’s Christian past and its heritage of Caucasian Albania prior to the Arab invasion and Islamization. Azerbaijan’s Christian past and heritage of Caucasian Albania become a particularly sensitive issue following the conflict with Armenia; it pushed Azerbaijan to embrace this past and its successor role more passionately (Erevangala500.com, 2005; News.day.az, March 5, 2018).
In 1836, after Tsarist Russia’s invasion of the South Caucasus, Russian Emperor Nicolas I abolished by decree the Albanian Church, and all its property was transferred to the Armenian Church (Udi.az, January 1, 2011). This led to the Armenization of the Albanian Church and assimilation of the remnants of its Christian population. Later, this became a main historical argument for Armenian territorial claims against Azerbaijan. In 2003, Azerbaijan reestablished the Albanian Church on the basis of the small Christian village community of Nij (Visions.az, February 2010)—a remnant of the Christian Albanians who persisted in the middle of Azerbaijan (Udi.az, May 24, 2003)—to debunk Armenia’s historical arguments. Due to this historical importance of Davit Gareja/Keshikchidag, in 2007 Azerbaijan established the State Historical and Cultural Reserve Keshikchidag, along its part of the border.
Out of the 480 km of shared border, Azerbaijan and Georgia have so far agreed to delimitate 314 km, over the course of 11 meetings of the bilateral border commission, in operation since 1995. According to the spokesperson for Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Leyla Abdullayeva, the basic documents for the demarcation of the borders are maps that were approved in 1938 and 1963. So far, she stressed, there have not been any problems regarding these documents (1news.az, May 2). The documents place the Betubani Monastery inside Azerbaijan, which Georgia does not question; but the site’s two main church complexes, Udabno and Chichkhuturi, straddle the most disputed territories, where both sides dispute every centimeter (BBC News—Russian service, Contact.az, May 10). In order to resolve this disagreement, Tbilisi has offered land swaps along other portions of the border, but Baku did not accept them. Due to the strategic importance of their bilateral relations, both sides long agreed to maintain the status quo while negotiations continue, allowing priests, pilgrims and tourists to visit the site freely, as before.
When the Georgian president came to Davit Gareja/Keshkichidag last month, she was photographed touring disputed areas and posing with Georgian border guards and members of Europa Nostra, which specifically concerns itself with preserving “threatened” cultural sites. This triggered irritation in Azerbaijan. On April 25, just before Orthodox Easter, Baku closed access to the site for priests and visitors for several days. The bilateral issue was soon resolved at the ministerial level, however, and free access to the monasteries was restored (EurasiaNet, May 2; Contact.az, May 10).
The temporary closure of the site was nevertheless quickly seized upon by some nationalist, marginal and populist politicians in Georgia, and their actions and statements inflamed public emotions in both countries. For instance, the leader of the fringe, extra-parliamentary Georgian Labor Party, Shalva Natelashvili, visited the site with media in tow and derogatively referred to Azerbaijanis as “barbarians from Central Asia, uncivilized people” (YouTube, May 2). Former Georgian defense minister Irakli Okruashvili proudly wrote on in his Facebook page how, in 2005 (Ethz.ch, February 2005), he had threatened his Azerbaijani counterpart with expelling 500,000 Azerbaijanis from Georgia (Facebook.com, April 25). These statements sparked heated, nationalist-tinged debates on social media in both countries. Some observers claimed that third parties were interested in poisoning and damaging bilateral relations (1news.az, May 7)—and not for the first time. In January, a local town in Georgia populated by ethnic Armenians put up a monument to a veteran of the war in Karabakh against Azerbaijani forces, causing anger in Baku (Trend.az, January 26; see EDM, February 7).
All these developments in Georgia have coincided with growing anti-Turkish and anti-Azerbaijan propaganda (Gelavasadze, August 16, 2012; Newsgeorgia.ge, September 27, 2016), which has enflamed local phobias about the country’s ostensible over-dependence on Azerbaijan (see EDM, March 29, 2018). To finally resolve the issue of border demarcation, the president of Azerbaijan recently appointed Khalaf Khalafov as deputy foreign minister. Khalafov is an experienced and professional diplomat with particular expertise in border delimitation processes (Trend.az, May 3; Ednews.net, May 11). In fact, he previously held this position until December 2018, when he was promoted into the Cabinet of Ministers. Obviously, Azerbaijan and Georgia believe too much is at stake to not do everything possible to resolve their bilateral problems.
This article was originally published on www.jamestown.org.