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.
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.
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.
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.
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 are the only 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 asserted that Khalafov’s “history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible” and added that the Azerbaijani envoy “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.”
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.