The Issue of David Gareji Monastery Complex

17 m.   |  2019-10-07

Azerbaijani public-political discourse in April-September 2019

In summer we go to Keshish Dagh to relax and the Georgians go to pray”
Ahmed Salimov, 61-year-old villager from Boyuk Kesik, Azerbaijani

David Gareji complex

S ince 2017, the ownership issue of David Gareji medieval monastery complex [1] (Keshish Dagh in Azerbaijani) reappeared on the agenda in spring of 2019, by shadowing Georgian-Azerbaijani fraternal and allied relations.
The complex’s map according to Europa Nostra report

After the collapse of the USSR, the state border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was not clarified. The Georgian-Azerbaijani interstate commission established in 1996 suspended its work: the last 11th meeting was convened in 2011, in Baku. Only 314 kilometres of the 480 kilometres state border is delimited and studies on 166 kilometers are still in the process. David Gareji monastery complex is on a disputed interstate border, in the areas of Sagarejo, Georgia and Agstafa, Azerbaijan administrative districts. The monastery of St. David, which is the main church of the complex, is on the Georgian side and Berdubani monastery is on the Azerbaijani side. Udabno and Chichkhituri Churches of the same complex are on the disputed territory, and both sides are discussing the border-crossing demarcation. Both Georgian and Azerbaijani sides have claims on the complex. According to Georgian claims the complex completely belongs to them. However, the Azerbaijani side finds that the monument is part of Caucasian Albanian cultural heritage and has nothing to do with Georgia. It’s noteworthy that the height on which the complex is located, has a strategic importance for Azerbaijan.

The debate over the ownership of David Gareji complex and over the demarcation has become regularly active. In April 2007, Azerbaijani foreign minister Khalaf Khalafov announced, “the monastery actually belongs to the Caucasian Albanians, who were the ancestors of Azerbaijani people”. This was followed by Georgia’s response, thus becoming an issue on the agenda for both sides. A 2012 major incident [2]  was followed by unprecedented tension in April-May, 2019, when meeting with border guards Georgian President S. Zurabishvili noted, that they should immediately resolve the border’s demarcation issue. Just afterwards, Azerbaijan blocked the monastery’s main road for several days, which raised a huge public-political wave of resentment in Georgia. The tension was temporarily reduced in June, after the reestablishment of Interstate Commission on Demarcation and after stating that an agreement was reached on restarting state border demarcation activities. However, there was a clash between Azerbaijani border guards and Georgian citizens on July 14 [3], which caused many controversies in Azerbaijani political and public-analytical framework.

The analysis of Azerbaijani actions during the whole period of tension leads us to believe

  • Azerbaijan has become a victim of its own official and anti-historical thesis, as the nation applies a thesis designed to “prove Azerbaijan’s ancient status” at the expense of Armenia and against other neighbouring countries,
  • Georgian-Azerbaijani relations are far from being purely “fraternal” and besides D. Gareji there are other problems as well [4], which may lead to an interstate crisis,
  • Even during the most stressful situations, Azerbaijani official propaganda machine is able to control and direct Azerbaijani active public circles, thus preventing the growing distrust over the official theses in its own community.

Feedback of official Baku

A zerbaijani statements made between April-May were both quantitatively and content-restrained, as Azerbaijan was acting from the position of an “accused”. By the time Georgian PresidentPrime Minister, Foreign Minister, and later the Patriarchate of Georgia voiced calls for ignoring the emotions by emphasizing the necessity for conflict resolution through negotiations, only Leyla Abdullayeva, Spokesperson of Azerbaijani MFA  clarified by noting that: “The delimitation of the state border between Azerbaijan and Georgia is being resolved within the framework of existing bilateral formats on the basis of the procedures for coordinating such issues existing in international practice and Azerbaijan is ready to complete this process as soon as possible”. The ownership issue of the complex and the causes of the problems were discussed neither in the explanation of Abdullah nor in the statement [6] made by K. Khalafov[5], Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan and special representative of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan for border and Caspian Sea issues.

The official rhetoric of Azerbaijan was partially changed after the incident on July 14. It was characterized as a “deliberate provocation aimed at provoking a clash between the two countries” both in the statement [7] made by Azerbaijani MFA and in the K. Khalafov’s interview to Azeri State media. It was mentioned that everything happened was “blow to friendly, intimate, neighbouring and strategic relations between the two countries”. Unlike the statements made in 2007, Khalafov insisted on the “Azerbaijani heritage of the complex” in both of his statements, noting that religious, civilizational and non-legal facts cannot be ground for demarcation and the complex had always been in Azerbaijani territory according to the documents.

The fact that the Official Baku avoided to speak about the ownership of the complex and to emphasize the legal solution of the problem, shows that the policy based on the Azerbaijani cultural heritage of the complex is somewhat exhausted. It remains unanswered why Azerbaijan is ready to concede its “historical heritage” to Georgia. 

Azerbaijani expert estimates

P resident I. Aliev’s visit to Georgian-Azerbaijani border in 2005, highlighted the state policy on the sight’s issue, aimed at acquisition and Azerbaijanization of the complex. On December 19, 2007, the monumental-cave part of David Gareji ranging on the Azerbaijani side was declared as the State Historical and Cultural Reserve of the Republic of Azerbaijan "Keshikchidag" according to Aliev’s decree. Shortly thereafter the complex was presented at the international conferences [1,2,3], insightful tours were organized [1,2], documentaries and videos were shot with the State support. All this resulted in not only awareness raising on the existence of "Keshikchidag" but also mastering a historical concept on the “Azerbaijani heritage of the monument”. As a result, the first reactions to the tension in Azerbaijani public-analytical circles were completely influenced by the official position. 

In addition to the claims of the sight being Albanian, Azerbaijan presented Azeris as one of the oldest ethnicities in South Caucasus, particularly in the South and East of Georgia  and even presenting territorial claims to Tbilisi, insisting that it was within the borders of Caucasian Albania  [1,2,3,4,5]. “Centuries-old brotherly relations between Georgian and Azeri peoples and Azerbaijan’s permanent support to Georgia” was stressed. In this regard, it’s typical reaction of Azerbaijani Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences in response to the statements made by Georgia’s former Defense Minister I. Okruashvili and by the leader of the Labor Party Sh.Natelashvili. The latter called Azerbaijani people “occupiers” saying that they came from Middle Asia and had nothing to do with the Caucasus. Azerbaijani historians claimed that in those statements they were given the term “shepherd, newcomer” by saying ironically, “actually Georgians came from Iberia and Imereti and settled in historical land of Azerbaijan.  Moreover, 45 thousand out of the 65 thousand Army of King David IV of Georgia consisted of those “shepherd” Turks”. Such kind of statements were met in Parliamentary speeches of G.Pashayeva, T. Kermili, F. Guliyev and during the media’s  interview with Q. Hassanguliyev . Pashayeva insisted that the complex is an Azerbaijani monument, calling his compatriots not to use David Gareji name for the complex, as “it is the historical Azerbaijani Keshikchidag”. We warned Georgia to respect the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan, by emphasizing, “The more Georgia needs Azerbaijan, the more Azerbaijan needs Georgia”. In addition to Pashayeva’s statement, Q. Hassanguliyev insisted that by acting so Georgia “was endangering the existence of its state”. He emphasized that Georgia was getting in touch with the outside world through Azerbaijan’s brother Turkey, which let Azerbaijan impose sanctions on Georgia, not worrying about the communicative dependence. It was possible to make an impression through this and other viewpoints,, that Georgia is still “on its feet” due to Azerbaijan.  The repeated thesis, that the complex is of fundamental importance for Azerbaijan is also very interesting, as in case of denial of the “Albanian heritage”, Armenians will get an advantage by demanding “other Albanian monuments”. This viewpoint proves that within the context of aspirations for presenting ancient people and statehood, Azerbaijan has to oppose “brotherly Georgia” in order to justify the struggle against the Armenian people. 

Provocation or an unsuccessful attempt “to cast the blame on others”

A t the beginning of the tensions over David Gareji complex, opinions started to emerge from the Azerbaijani side, that what happened, was controlled by one center. It wasn’t spontaneous and was a deliberate provocation aimed at “deterioration of friendly and strategic relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan”. Haji Ramin Igidov, Chairman of the Georgian Muslims Office, Zelimkhan Mammadli , Chairman of the Borchali Society, as well as political scientists Qafar Chahmakli and Ilhan Shahinoglu voiced that point of view. R. Igidov insisted  that by taking advantage of uncertainty of the borders between the two states during Soviet times, “some forces” tried to increase tensions in the Georgian-Azerbaijani relations and exacerbate the situation in the region. Z. Mammadli tried to connect things with the developments in Georgian-Armenian relations, with the monument installation of M. Avagyan, an Armenian freedom fighter in Javakhk, with new Armenia-Russia transit routes and in general, with the intention of strategic relation development between Armenia and Georgia. Georgians marching to “Keshikchidag” and raising claims against Azerbaijan wasn’t a coincidence for him. Mammadli insisted that the tension in Baku-Tbilisi relations is in the interests of the Kremlin and Tehran. Political analyst Q. Chahmakli believed, that the relations with government who placed the “monument to the Armenian terrorist” in his country should be revised, pointing out the Armenian press activity’s coverage of the issue amongst the reasons for the tension.

These views became more profound following the clashes between Georgian activists and Azerbaijani border guards on July 14, the events were fully considered within the context of provocations provoked by outside powers. It’s not surprising, that first of all Armenia and Russia were presented as such forces and later did the “world power centers” [1,2,3,4]. Russia appeared on the list of culprits because of tense relations with Georgia, large powers seeking to establish their positions in the region, whereas the opinions related to Armenia were more polarized. Although Azerbaijani side does not miss the opportunity to accuse Armenia owning to various events in Azerbaijan, this time provocative shades aimed at violating Armenian-Georgian relations were noticed. Articles on searching Armenian trace in the tension over David Gareji  were published on websites, were the idea that Armenia wants to open a second front against Baku, to provide the blockade of Azerbaijan and to strengthen its position in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution by deteriorating Georgian-Azerbaijani relations. They also referred to the Armenians participation in anti-Russian protests running at that time in Georgia. It was particularly mentioned, that the protests were organized by Armenians aimed at dividing Georgia and occupy Javakhk.

Former Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan T. Zulfugarov, MPs R. Musabeyov and G. Pashayeva, Director of the Institute of History of National Academy of Sciencies YMahmudov, Chairman of the National Congress of Azerbaijanis of Georgia ABabayev, political commentators Zh. AlizadehE. Amashov and many others claimed the presence of Armenian sabotage in these events. Mahmudov claimed, that the provocation was directed to Georgia-Azerbaijan-Turkey cooperation’s disruption. Babayev noted that Armenian had prepared the provocation since the Soviet times. Amashov argued about the intolerance towards Georgian-Azerbaijani friendship and not only towards Azerbaijan, but also towards Georgian power. The Armenian Diaspora with its lobbies was definitely mentioned in the list of culprits.

Along with all of that, during the tensions in July, strong emphasis on Georgia and Georgians could also be met. Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of the “Atlas” Research Center stated that Azerbaijan should tighten its policy towards Georgia.

“Georgia cannot break ground in Azerbaijan under pressure.  If they bring us territorial claims, we can also raise such claims and this will not promise anything good for Georgian-Azerbaijani relations”, - he mentioned.

MP F. Mustafah says that it is shameful for Azerbaijan to leave this incident without any response. G. Hasanguliyev in his turn noted about not repeating the mistakes they made against the Armenians. “We should make the last warning to Georgia and if it doesn’t work, we must build one-sided frontiers”, he insisted. Political commentator Sh. Jafarli called the situation at the border unacceptable and A. Yagublu didn’t consider Azerbaijani MFA official statement sufficient, insisting that at least it would be more appropriate to give a statement on July 14 incident.

Thus, Azerbaijani side has blamed all a range of possible culprits including neighbouring countries and larger powers for the tensions in D. Gareji, forgetting about the conflict’s bilateralism and that it’s based on its own attempts at appropriating Georgian religious-cultural heritage.

Territorial claims Borchalu

A zerbaijani side also voiced some ambitions towards Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli (former Borchalu) during the public debates on David Gareji ownership.  41,8 percent of Kvemo Kartli’s population are Azerbaijanis, who according to Azerbaijani historical claims, are “the indigenous owners of those territories”. Borchalu was considered to be the second possible territorial problem in the Georgian-Azerbaijani relations after D. Gareji. It’s noteworthy, that a bilateral incident related to Borchalu was noted in summer 2015. During the Azerbaijani “Gabala” and Georgian “Dynamo” match, Azerbaijani fans raised the map of Azerbaijan, comprising of southern and eastern regions of Georgia including Kvemo Kartli and posters “Borchalu is an old Azerbaijani territory”, “Choruq Gamerli not Bolinisi”, “Sarvan is not Marneul”, after which official statements were made by Georgian side and the events were again labeled as “provocation”. This time Borchalu was considered to be a possible playcard for Azerbaijani side in public discourse in case of D. Gareji loss. Before presenting some of the views, it should be noted that they were generally brief and contextual in nature. MP G. Pashayeva noted in his speech about Gareji that “it’s not a right approach to say that the issue of D. Gareji is too sensitive for us, everything is sensitive for us and the issue of Borchalu is also too sensitive for us, as well as the monuments of Tbilisi…”, emphasizes E.H.. Political scientist Q. Chhmakli expressed confidence that the problem related to Gareji issue won’t stop and other “provocations” will follow: “Borchalu is a ready made problem” (emphasized E.H.).  And the words by the politician I. Shahinoglu were spread in the press titled: “If they demand Keshikchidag, we will demand Borchalu”.

“The Azerbaijanis living in Azerbaijan and Georgia have always supported the territorial integrity of Georgia and never demanded autonomy for Azerbaijanis. However, our compatriots live in the historical lands of Azerbaijani … Georgians should be told in a non-diplomatic language that if they will not give up our territory, they will bring their claims against Georgia on the agenda. If they claim a small part of our temple, then we can also claim our historic land”, said Shahinoglu.

Events development trends and possible impact on Georgian-Azerbaijani relations

It has been 5 months, since the debates over the ownership of David Gareji monastery complex and demarcation of state border have been priority issues on the public-political agenda of Georgia and Azerbaijan. There has not been any acceptable solutions for both sides yet. Azerbaijani experts have made proposals to declare the monument as a common historical-cultural heritage and to establish a joint “David Gareji / Keshikchidag historical and cultural reserve”. Though this solution cannot be acceptable to Georgia, who controls over 95% of the complex. It will not only undermine Georgian national and Georgian Orthodox Church interests but will also confirm the Azerbaijani claims on Albanian cultural heritage of the complex, and therefore the Albanian ownership of eastern and southern regions of Georgia. Moreover, in that case, Georgia will also provide Azerbaijan with an opportunity to take control over the height of strategic importance.

The high level of bilateral Georgian-Azerbaijani relations has so far allowed these two sides to take control over the situation and to calm down public passions. Nevertheless, the conflict may take new scales, particularly after the recent actions by Azerbaijani side to concentrate forces, conduct engineering and construction works and to establish military camp in the territory of the complex.  The strategic nature of Georgian-Azerbaijani relations will make them avoid escalation of the situation and find short-term solutions, whereas in the long run the issue will remain on the agenda, as there aren’t any mutually acceptable solutions yet. 

[1]  David Gareji Monasteries and Hermitages, Georgia, Technical Report, Europa Nostra, 2018.

[2] In May, 2012 Azerbaijani border guards didn’t allowed Georgian clergymen to enter Udabno Church of the complex.

[3] According to Azerbaijani claims, [1,2,3,4] a group of Georgians crossed the border and attacked Azerbaijani border guards, by seizing the gun belonging to them, when one of the Georgian workers of the monastery complex insisted that the Azerbaijani border guards removed icons from the church without having any permission.

[4] Վրաց-ադրբեջանական սահմանային վիճելի հատվածում է գտնվում նաև վրացական Էրիսիմեդի գյուղը: Այդտեղ տեղակայված է սահմանային անցակետը, որով ստիպված են անձնագրերով անցնել նաև գյուղի բնակիչներն ու այցելուները: Էրիսիմեդիի շուրջ իրավիճակը սրվել է 2010թ., երբ ադրբեջանցի սահամանապահների կրակոցից սպանվել է գյուղի բնակիչներից մեկը:  Վիճելի խնդիր է նաև վրացական կողմից սահմանի մի հատվածի ականապատվածությունը: Մանրամասն տե՛ս՝ Ս. ՊՐՈՒՏՅԱՆ, Վրաց-ադրբեջանական տարածքային վեճերը «Դավիթ գարեջի» վանական համալիրի և Էրիսիմեդի բնակավայրի շուրջ: Կողմերը միմյանց դեմ ունեն նաև «պատմական պահանջներ», ինչպիսիք են Քվեմո Քարթլին (նախկինում՝ Բորչալու) ադրբեջանցիների և Հերեթին՝ վրացիների համար:

[5] On May 3, 2019 K. Khalafov was appointed Deputy Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan and special representative of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan for border and Caspian Sea issues. He had previously held that position from 1997-2018 as well.

[6] Մայիսի 17-27-ը ընկած ժամանակահատվածում ադրբեջանական կողմից դեպի համալիր նոր ճանապարհ էր սկսել կառուցվել: Այդ կապակցությամբ մայիսի 28-ին վրացի ակտիվիստները համալիրում կրկին բողոքի ակցիա էին կազմակերպել «Գարեջին Վրաստանինն է, Կովկասը՝ մեր տունը» կարգախոսով: Խ.Խալաֆովը հանդես եկավ հայտարարությամբ` ասելով, թե Քեշիքչիդաղը պահպանվել և շարունակում է պահպանվել Վրաստանի և Ադրբեջանի սահմանային ծառայությունների կողմից, իսկ սեփական տարածքներում գյուղատնտեսական կամ այլ բնույթի աշխատանքների իրականացումը տվյալ կողմի սուվերեն իրավունքն է:

[7] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan stated that Georgian Ambassador to Azerbaijani was invited to MFA and was asked for an explanation of July 14 incident.