Georgian activists hold another rally at monastery on disputed stretch of Georgia-Azerbaijan border
A political conflict between Georgia and Azerbaijan continues to develop around the ancient monastery complex in the mountains on an undivided stretch of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan.
In Georgia, the complex is called David Gareji, while in Azerbaijan, it is known as Keshikchi.
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David-Gareji / Keshikchi was created around the 6th Century. Since then, state borders in this region have repeatedly changed, and today the undivided part of the Georgian-Azerbaijani border passes right through the complex. Negotiations on the delimitation of this section of the border and, accordingly, on the fate of the historical site, have been repeatedly resumed between Azerbaijan and Georgia, but have failed so far.
Azerbaijan and Georgia also show very different historical data about who owns David Gareji / Keshikchi. Georgia says that this is a legacy of Georgian culture, Azerbaijan refers it to as being a remnant of Albanian culture.
Georgian activists and priests held another protest in David Gareji on May 28: hundreds of citizens formed a living chain around the tower of Chichkituri on the ridge along which the border passes, and raised the flag of Georgia at the top of the ridge.
“This is the reaction of Georgian society to the threat against David Gareji. We fear that David Gareji will yield. The pressure exerted by the Azerbaijani side on our authorities is very great, and our government can not withstand it. That’s why our citizens gathered here”, said one of the organizers of the rally, David Katsarava
Posted by დავით ქაცარავა on სამშაბათი, 28 მაისი, 2019
Georgian border police officer Temur Kupatadze says that the border guards, along with their Azerbaijani colleagues, monitored the territory where the protest rally took place and helped its participants and clergymen to safely hold the event.
“Disinformation was spread that there would be a provocation from the Azerbaijani side. On the other side, not a single citizen of Azerbaijan came here, only the same border guards who carry out their duties are standing there. Border police officers are on the ground, prevent all types of provocations and ensure the safety of our citizens”, said Kupatadze.
On May 27, the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Georgia Ilia II made a statement concerning the situation around David Gareji.
“It is necessary to keep calm; more prudence and civic responsibility must be shown, especially to the clergy and believers”, the Patriarch noted in a statement read by his secretary, Mikhail Botkoveli.
The Patriarch’s statement notes that an analysis of recent events leaves the impression that a third party wishes for tension in relations between Georgia and Azerbaijan, and that this is unacceptable.
“We also urge the authorities of both Georgia and Azerbaijan to conduct negotiations in order to achieve a fair result, to preserve and deepen the friendship between our peoples and our countries. For its part, the Georgian church expresses readiness to actively participate in this process”, the patriarch said in a statement.
On May 26, Georgian activists held another protest in David Gareji – agains, hundreds of young people stood, holding hands, all over the crest of the hill. This “living chain” stretched to the tower of Chichkhituri and the temple of Udabno, which are located in the Azerbaijani part of the monastery complex. The Georgian flag was erected on the mountain.
“We demand that the entire complex of David Gareji, the Temple of Udabno and the Church of Chichkhituri be constantly open for access. […] we will not give up any part of our land – we have no right to do so”, said one of the organisers of the demonstration, David Katsarava.
Activists promise to hold a new rally in David Gareji on May 28. Activists say this will be a joint protest action of clergy and public groups, which will be called “Gareji, Georgia and the Caucasus – our home.”
“We will bring the flags of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and it will be a message that we do not want hostility with anyone, much less in our house with our brothers, Caucasians,” the activists said in a statement.
The reason for the new protests of Georgian activists in David Gareji was the construction of a new road near the complex on the Azerbaijani side.
Georgia says the work continued until May 25, and this was confirmed by footage captured by a drone deployed by Georgian activists.
However, the Azerbaijani side claims that no construction work was carried out in the area of the monument.
The problem of defining the border
Press Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan Leyla Abdullayeva says that out of the 480 kilometers of the border between the two countries, only 314 kilometers have been agreed upon.
To resolve the issue around the remaining 166 kilometers, a Georgian-Azerbaijani bilateral commission on delimitation and demarcation was established in 1996. But the commission’s work has never been active, and since 2011 has not gathered at all.
All this time, clergymen and tourists could freely visit David Gareji from the Georgian side, including partially transferring to the Azerbaijani side, without checking passports and restrictions.
The situation sharply deteriorated in April-May 2019, when Azerbaijani border guards closed access to the complex on their side.
The acute phase of the conflict was resolved in just several days.
On May 23-24, Baku hosted the first meeting of the commission on delimitation and demarcation of the border since 2011. Georgia was represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Lasha Darsalia and Azerbaijan by Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov.
The next meeting of the commission is expected in Tbilisi in the second half of June 2019.
“The issue of David Gareji is very sensitive for Georgian society,” said Georgian Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze.
He appreciated that “Azerbaijan took into account the request of Georgia and stopped construction work at the monastery complex, despite it being carried out exclusively on [the Azerbaijani] side”
Mamuka Bakhtadze says that “the process [of border delimitation] will be brought to an end within the fraternal and strategic partnership between Georgia and Azerbaijan.”
On May 22, representatives of the Azerbaijan Research Institute Azerberpa visited the Keshikchi reserve.
Director of the State Service for the Protection, Development and Restoration of Cultural Heritage at the Ministry of Culture Teymur Karimli said that for the convenience of visitors, modern infrastructure will be created on the territory of the historical monument.
“We are currently negotiating the construction of an administrative building for employees of the reserve. In addition, roads will be repaired and measures for the conservation and protection of monuments will be strengthened” ONA.az reported Karimli as saying.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan, in turn, stated that “Azerbaijan has always been a supporter of the speediest delimitation of the Azerbaijani-Georgian border.”
Experts in Azerbaijan call on Georgia not to politicise the issue of the complex.