Davit Gareja: A Disputed Frontier in the Caucasus

The Davit Gareja monastery complex, from the Georgian side of the border.

The Davit Gareja monastery complex, from the Georgian side of the border.

Observers of the post-Soviet space are well aware of the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorny Karabakh as well as conflict in Russia’s North Caucasus. However, there are also smaller conflicts in the region, including border disputes that have yet to be resolved. One of these is Davit Gareja.

Davit Gareja is a rock-hewn Georgian Orthodox monastery situated between Georgia’s Kakheti province and Azerbaijan’s Agstafa raion. The complex has been subject to a long-running border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan that dates back to the Sovietization of the two republics in the 1920s.  The legacy of Soviet nationalities policy has only further complicated this dispute.

Establishment and development

The vast majority of Western, Russian, and Georgian academics are in agreement that Davit Gareja is clearly a Georgian monastery complex. Its inscriptions, artwork, and architectural character are clearly of Georgian origin and the site has a lengthy Georgian history.  Its two main monasteries are Lavra and Udabno.

Last Supper Fresco, Udabno Monastery

Last Supper Fresco, Udabno Monastery

According to Georgian tradition, the complex was founded by St. Davit Garejeli (hence the name), one of the Thirteen Assyrian Fathers, a group of Christian monastic missionaries who arrived in Georgia from Mesopotamia in the 6th century. It was further developed in the 9th century by St. Hilarion of Georgia, and it reached its apogee during the 11th-13th centuries, especially under the reigns of King David the Builder and Queen Tamar. Notably, it also served as a place of refuge and seclusion for the 12th century Georgian King Demetre I.

Sadly, Davit Gareja was also subject to attack from foreign powers.  It was devastated by the Mongols and the Persians but managed to remain within the Georgian cultural and political sphere.  According to Artur Tsutsiev’s Атлас этнополитической истории Кавказа (now available in English translation from the Yale University Press), the monastery complex was located entirely within the borders of the Georgian Kingdom of Kartli-Kakheti at the time of the Russian annexation in 1801. It subsequently became part of the Georgia guberniya and later the Tiflis guberniya under Tsarist rule.  In 1918, it passed to the control of the short-lived Menshevik Democratic Republic of Georgia, though the monastery and its surrounding territory were also claimed by the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic.

Origins of the dispute: Sovietization and division

In 1921, the Georgian republic fell to the Bolsheviks.  In keeping with the Soviet anti-religious policy, the complex was closed and worship was prohibited.  In terms of its location, the complex was initially entirely within the boundaries of the newly proclaimed Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR).  However, during the course of the 1920s, the boundary was readjusted, leaving Davit Gareja divided between the Georgian and Azerbaijani SSRs.

Georgian monks at the monastery in 2007 claimed that this decision was made deliberately by Soviet authorities as a “divide-and-rule” strategy in order to undermine relations between Christian Georgians and Muslim Azerbaijanis.

Location of Davit Gareja in the Caucasus

Location of Davit Gareja in the Caucasus

However, this explanation seems unlikely given that the prior Soviet division of territories in the Caucasus was based less on a divide-and-rule policy and more on geopolitical expediency.  According to the research of the academic Arsène Saparov, the Bolsheviks were primarily concerned with solidifying their control of the region in the 1920s. Establishing long-term boundaries was not their aim.  In fact, the Bolsheviks regarded national boundaries as only a temporary phenomenon that would be rendered irrelevant with the realization of an internationalist communist utopia.  It is more likely that the border in the vicinity of Davit Gareja was adjusted to accommodate the immediate needs of the nomadic Turkic population of the Azerbaijan SSR.

The boundary was finalized between the two republics by 1928.  At that time in Moscow, Joseph Stalin was consolidating his power for the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin. During the subsequent Stalin era, any debate or discussion regarding disputed borders was strongly discouraged, if not strictly prohibited. Lavrentiy Beria served as the party boss of Soviet Georgia and the whole of Soviet Transcaucasia during the 1930s.  He ruthlessly stifled dissent, especially in his native Georgia.  The culture of fear remained widespread after Beria became the chief of the all-Union NKVD in 1938.

Davit Gareja in the post-Stalin era

Following the deaths of Stalin and Beria, the Soviet state began a limited liberalization initiative under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, known as the Khrushchev Thaw (Хрущёвская оттепель). Suddenly, Georgian intellectuals had more freedom to express their opinions on disputed inter-republican boundaries established by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.

Territorial claims by Georgian intellectuals and dissidents focused on two regions in Soviet Azerbaijan in particular: the multiethnic territory of Zaktala (Saingilo-Hereti) and the Azerbaijani portion of Davit Gareja.  On the latter, they periodically petitioned Soviet authorities to place the complex entirely within Soviet Georgian territory, but to no avail.  In some cases, they pointed out mistreatment of the site by Soviet Azerbaijani authorities. Georgian dissidents complained to Moscow that medieval frescoes were “blotted out.”  By contrast, they claimed that Islamic cultural monuments in Azerbaijan were receiving active attention and preservation care.

Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia

Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and former president Zviad Gamsakhurdia

One report by the Georgian dissident, nationalist leader, and future president Zviad Gamsakhurdia entitled The State of Relics of the Christian Culture in Georgia asserted that the site was also being utilized as a “firing range” by Soviet military authorities.  The report further claimed that specialists had appealed to General Shkrudnev of the Transcausian Military District with no success. In the text, Gamsakhurdia openly wondered why the general, who no doubt knew about efforts to preserve Russian architectural monuments in places like Novgorod, Pskov, and Vladimir, would be so indifferent to the preservation of Davit Gareja.

The launch of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost brought the issue of Davit Gareja from the samizdat to the open public discourse.  At the time, the disputed border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was not the primary focus of discussion.  Instead, the focus was the deplorable state of the monastery on the Georgian side and its use as a firing range by the Soviet military.

In 1987, a group of students, led by the writer Davit Turashvili and others, protested against further use of the site by the Soviet military.  Officials in Tbilisi and Moscow agreed to move the firing range away from the complex site.  However, the shelling continued in late 1988, prompting 10,000 students to angrily demonstrate on the streets of Tbilisi.  The authorities quickly relented and the shelling finally stopped.

The Davit Gareja dispute since 1991

The status of the Davit Gareja entered a new phase after the dissolution of the Soviet state in 1991.   Religious life was revived and efforts to actively restore and preserve the monasteries on the Georgian-controlled part of the site commenced.  Yet, controversy arose in 1996 when it was decided to resume military exercises in the area.  Public protest led to an end to such exercises the following year.  The complex has since become a major tourist attraction in Georgia.

The Soviet collapse also internationalized the Davit Gareja dispute.  No longer was the complex divided along an internal boundary within a single state.  It was now an external frontier between the independent republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan.   The situation was no longer an internal political matter involving Moscow and the local cadres in Tbilisi and Baku.  It now became an international dispute.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (EU)

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev (EU)

Border talks began as early as 1992.  Georgian officials proposed the possibility of exchanging the Azerbaijani section of the complex with another section of border territory.  However, Baku has categorically refused such an exchange.  This position only hardened under the authoritarian regime of Ilham Aliyev, citing the monastery’s “strategic importance for Azerbaijan.”

Little progress was made to resolve the dispute during the presidency of Eduard Shevardnadze.  After his ouster in the 2003 Rose Revolution, the new Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, played down the Davit Gareja dispute.  Unabashedly pro-Western, Saakashvili viewed relations with Azerbaijan, Washington-backed regional energy projects, and financial aid from Baku as more important.  This position prompted criticism from the Georgian opposition.

In April 2007, the situation became more complex when Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Khalaf Khalafov, controversially stated that the monastery “was home to the Caucasian Albanians, who are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of Azerbaijan.”  These “Caucasian Albanians” to which the envoy referred are not to be confused with the Albanians of the present-day Balkans.  Rather, they were a Christian Caucasian people who maintained close cultural ties with their neighbors, the Armenians and the Georgians, and even shared a similar alphabet.

The traditional Albanian kingdom, known as “Aguank” to Armenians and “Rani” to Georgians, encompassed territories in present-day Azerbaijan east of the Kura River, west of the Absheron and Shirvan, and south of the Greater Caucasus range.  It also included a region historically known as Hereti in modern-day northeastern Azerbaijan (Zakatala-Saingilo) and southeastern Georgia (southern Kakheti), which later became part of the unified Georgian kingdom.  Contested with the neighboring Armenian kingdom were the provinces of Utik and Artsakh, which today form northwestern Azerbaijan, much of the northeastern Armenian province of Tavush, and the disputed, self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic.  Eventually, Albania was overrun by the Arabs in the 7th century and virtually disappeared.  Its people were assimilated by neighboring groups.  The Christian Udi ethnic minority in the Caucasus is said to be the remnant of the Caucasian Albanian people.

While it is true that the original site of Davit Gareja falls within the Hereti region, which was variously controlled by the Albanian and Georgian kingdoms, the fact remains that the area was in the Georgian political and cultural sphere by the time the monastery complex was founded.  Further, the numerous Georgian inscriptions and work of Georgian artists attest to the complex’s distinct Georgian character.  The assertions from Baku that Gareja is an Albanian, not Georgian, monastery complex have caused bafflement and indignation among Georgians.

Georgia’s then-Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili stated that Khalafov’s “history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible” and that he “should read up on world history.”  A monk from the monastery also dismissed Azerbaijani claims as “simply absurd,” adding that if the monastery was built by Caucasian Albanians, then “you might as well say that Georgians built the Great Wall of China.”

Udabno Monastery

Udabno Monastery

However, Khalafov is not alone in his assertions. They are also widely endorsed by Azerbaijani academics who oppose ceding any land whatsoever to Georgia. Khalafov’s statement was also made in the context of a greater effort on the part of Baku to claim “Caucasian Albanian” origins of Armenian cultural monuments, monasteries, and churches in its dispute with Armenia over Nagorny Karabakh.  This “academic war” over the Caucasian Albanians involves such controversial personalities as Ziya Bunyadov and Farida Mammadova.

The influential Georgian Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II stated that Davit Gareja is a “holy shrine” and should be located “entirely on Georgian soil.”  His position is shared by the Georgian public, which is generally opposed to conceding any portion of the monastery to Azerbaijan.  In 2007, Giga Bukia, a member of Georgia’s then-opposition (now a member of the ruling Georgian Dream coalition) stated that “Georgians will never, under any circumstances, give up this territory” and that “Azerbaijan has absolutely no historical rights to this land.”  He also openly wondered if the Aliyev government was planning to go to war with Georgia, given Baku’s interest in the site’s “strategic significance” on a heights overlooking Georgian territory.

In the latest episode, which occurred in May 2012, Azerbaijan stationed border guards inside the complex’s Udabno monastery, refused to allow Georgian pilgrims to pray, and informed them that the monument was not Georgian but Caucasian Albanian. This caused outrage among the Georgian public and protests in Tbilisi.  It also sparked a diplomatic row between Georgia and Azerbaijan, which became so serious that it prompted a direct meeting between Saakashvili and Aliyev on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Chicago. Ultimately, the two sides agreed to allow tourists open access to the site while continuing border negotiations. However, the dispute remains unresolved and tensions persist.

Keeping Georgia Balanced

Georgian Defense Ministry Building (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Georgian Defense Ministry Building (Georgian Ministry of Defense)

Sparks flew in Georgian politics recently when the Georgian Defense Ministry issued a statement in connection with the death of Aleksandr Grigolashvili, also known by his nom de guerre “Chuzhoy.”  A Georgian citizen and former soldier, Grigolashvili, joined a formation known as the “Georgian National Legion” to fight in the Donbas. He died near Luhansk on 19 December. Notably, Georgians, like Chechens and Armenians, can be found on both sides of the Ukrainian conflict. The “Georgian National Legion” that Grigolashvili joined is ideologically pro-Saakashvili and pro-Kiev.  Through the legion, Grigolashvili fought with the controversial Aidar Battalion which has been accused by Amnesty International of war crimes, including “abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible executions.”

The statement from the Defense Ministry placed “full responsibility” for the death on “representatives of previous authorities, who are calling on Georgian citizens to take part in military operations outside of our country.” It further emphasized that the Defense Ministry “has noted for more than once that such calls are irresponsible and aim at misleading active and former servicemen of the Georgian armed forces.” It called on Georgian citizens “not to yield to provocation and not to endanger their own lives in exchange of various offers.”

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP)

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP)

The statement is indeed grounded in reality. Earlier in December, Saakashvili accused the Defense Ministry of pro-Russian sympathies and that “many Georgian officers are left without any other option but to go and continue service in friendly Ukraine, which fights the war against Georgia’s enemy.” The Defense Ministry refuted this statement.

In addition, the pro-Saakashvili television network, Rustavi-2, which was instrumental in the success of the 2003 Rose Revolution, has been vocal in its support and encouragement of Georgians fighting in Ukraine. Members of Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) party have likewise been vocal in this regard.

The release of the Defense Ministry’s statement triggered considerable protest, led by Saakashvili but also supported by Irakli Alasania, Davit Usupashvili’s Republicans, and pro-Western NGOs. Politicians from the UNM alleged that the statement was in “Russia’s interests” and that the pragmatists in the ruling coalition were “Putin collaborationists.”

Seeking to calm the situation, Garibashvili called the statement a “mistake.” The Defense Ministry subsequently apologized for the statement, claiming that it was the responsibility of lower level officials.

Irakli Alasania (RFE/RL)

Former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Alasania (RFE/RL)

However, Alasania and his ally, former Foreign Minister Panjikidze, say that this is not enough and they want those responsible for the statement to “stand trial.” Panjikidze also called the statement a “catastrophe” for the government. Official Tbilisi dismissed such assertions. Additionally, Usupashvili’s Republicans too are increasingly vocal in their criticism of Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze, and Saakashvili’s UNM is calling for his outright dismissal. Janelidze has only been in the post for less than two months and is unlikely to resign.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili, who has used his position to act as a mediator between the pragmatists and the pro-Western hawks, urged for calm. “I think we should give him [Janelidze] an opportunity to voice his position. We should have a bit calmer reaction on issues like this,” he said.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili (Press office photo)

Speaking about the issue again on 24 December, Prime Minister Garibashvili remarked:

The stir around the MoD’s statement and calls for resignation of batoni Mindia [Janelidze] is completely incomprehensible for me; I think this is not a serious talk and I want to say to everyone that perhaps it would be more reasonable to put an end to such talk and this hysteria.  The fact that UNM’s call has caused such a stir is very irrelevant, as well as insulting and underrating for our Defense Ministry.

The controversy over the statement reveals the difficult position of Georgia’s pragmatists, led by Prime Minister Garibashvili. The vast majority of the Georgian population supports them (especially in the regions).  However, they are opposed by a very vocal minority of pro-Western political parties (the UNM, Free Democrats, and Republicans) and pro-Western NGOs.

These pro-Western hawks also have representation in parliament that is proportionally higher than their actual electorate. In addition, they have support from influential Western politicians, especially in Washington as recent support for former President Saakashvili illustrated.

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Bidzina Ivanishvili (TASS)

Consequently, the line that the pragmatists have to tread is difficult. Recently former Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili, who supports the pragmatists, stated that Georgia’s “geographical position as well as internal and regional problems put us in a rather difficult situation; however, all resources to achieve our common and long-cherished goal [of a prosperous state] are in our hands today.” He also added “the former authorities, who now represent the opposition, still endeavor to put pressure on our people; although all their attempts to do this have ended in failure thus far.”

Yet, despite the challenges, Prime Minister Garibashvili is fully committed to keeping Georgia balanced. Throughout this past year, the Prime Minister has proven himself to be very much to be his own man, contrary to opposition allegations of him being an “Ivanishvili puppet.”

In fact, Garibashvili continued balancing his government’s pursuit to normalize ties with Moscow while keeping the pro-Western hawks at bay. Further, in the aftermath of the Alasania scandal in November, it was Garibashvili who single-handedly managed to keep the coalition together and to avert a crisis.

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and son (Press office photo)

Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and son (Press office photo)

Also under Garbashvili’s watch, the Georgian economy grew. Even in recent months, when the lari suffered a fall in connection with the depreciation of the ruble, the government managed to stabilize the situation.

With regard to the Abkhaz and the Ossetes, Garbashvili’s conciliatory statements and actions have helped to build confidence more so than any other political leader in Georgia’s post-Soviet history. Sadly, his overtures were complicated by more bellicose and provocative steps taken by former Defense Minister Alasania. Still, the fact remains that Garibashvili is firmly and sincerely committed to the restoration of Georgian unity through peaceful and pragmatic means.

Garibashvili’s government has had more difficulty in its relations with Ukraine. In particular, the new Kiev government’s proximity to former President Saakashvili, who is wanted in Georgia for abuse of office, has alarmed Tbilisi’s pragmatists. Relations recently went from bad to worse when the Poroshenko government decided to appoint Saakashvili political allies to top government posts.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili

Poroshenko even considered making Saakashvili himself Deputy Prime Minister, a position that the former Georgian President eventually declined. The decision to appoint Saakashvili allies also sparked indignation in Ukraine due to the fact that they were foreign citizens to whom Poroshenko had to grant immediate citizenship.

Responding to the appointments, Garibashvili emphasized that the presence of Saakashvili-era officials in the Kiev government was damaging relations between Georgia and Ukraine. He found it incomprehensible that Kiev would be interested in appointing Zurab Adeishvili, the Saakashvili-era Justice Minister who is wanted by Tbilisi via an Interpol Red Notice, to an official position. He also accused Saakashvili’s former Healthcare Minister, Aleksandr Kvitashvili, who was appointed by Poroshenko as Kiev’s new Healthcare Minister, of “destroying the Georgian healthcare system.”

Though he is experiencing difficulties with Ukraine, Garibashvili remains committed to restoring relations with Russia. At his recent marathon press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated his readiness to meet with the Georgian political leadership.  “We are ready to move in this direction,” said Putin, “and if the Georgian government considers it possible, we will be glad to see any representative of the Georgian leadership – the President or the Prime Minister, in Moscow.”  In response, Garibashvili announced that the Georgian government is now officially ready for such a summit, which may take place in 2015.  Such a meeting would be a positive step forward for regional security, cooperation, and stability.

Regardless of what finally happens, Garibashvili must be cautious and pragmatic while simultaneously keeping Georgia’s national interests at the forefront. If this past year is any indication, the 32-year-old Prime Minister is certainly up to the task.

UPDATE (29 December 2014): On Friday, Georgian Defense Minister Mindia Janelidze spoke about the controversial Defense Ministry statement, again emphasizing that it was a mistake.  Meanwhile, in the Georgian parliament, a brawl erupted, instigated by an MP from Saakashvili’s UNM.  On Monday, the Georgia’s Chief Prosecutor Giorgi Badashvili stated that Tbilisi will spare no effort to convince Interpol to issue a Red Notice for former President Saakashvili.

Further commenting on the Defense Ministry statement controversy at a recent press conference, Prime Minister Garibashvili remarked that the government seeks to only grant humanitarian aid to Ukraine, not military assistance.  He noted that the government has “strongly distanced itself” from those Georgians fighting in eastern Ukraine. One reporter from the pro-Saakashvili Tabula magazine then asked Garibashvili whether or not “Putin was the common enemy of Georgia and Ukraine.” Garibashvili refused to answer the question, stating that it was a “reckless provocation” prepared by Saakashvili and the UNM. He maintained that:

The fact that former president Saakashvili, who is charged with multiple crimes, and his team were calling on Georgian soldiers – and they were negotiating it in their private conversations – to give up their Georgian citizenship, to quit Georgian armed forces and go to Ukraine, because of high payment there – it is a direct treason and calls for betrayal, I am saying it with full responsibility.

As for the Defense Ministry statement, Garibashvili remarked:

I said that the Ministry itself should not have made such statement, but if the minister or a politician had made such a statement, there was nothing unusual written in that statement.

What the former president is doing is a direct provocation. It is a betrayal to call on a soldier of your country to quit the armed forces and to serve and fight elsewhere in exchange of payment. This is a betrayal.

When pressed further by reporters, Garibashvili stated:

Saakashvili is the enemy of our country and the enemy of our people.  What the former commander-in-chief is doing is a shame and betrayal of our country and our people.

Emphasizing the government’s responsible position to the pro-Saakashvili Tabula journalist, he added:

There is extremely difficult situation in the region. Ukraine is in flames. Your favorite Saakashvili has only one thing on his mind – to cause conflict and unrest in Georgia and to lead Georgia into armed confrontation with Russia. This is the enmity against our country and our people and we will not allow it happen; we are the responsible government… I assure you with 101% that Georgia would be in war now and in a worse situation than Ukraine is, if Saakashvili and his sect – [and the UNM] has turned into sect, because only those [who] are left there… are tied to each other with ideology… – were still in power.

Asked whether or not he wanted to meet the former Saakashvili officials now in the Kiev government in Ukraine, Garibashvili responded “Not only do I have no desire to see them in Ukraine, but I have no desire to see and meet them in Georgia either.”