Reconsidering Russia Podcast: An Interview with Sergey Markedonov

After a lengthy hiatus, the Reconsidering Russia podcast is back! The fifth and latest installment of the podcast series features Caucasus analyst Sergey Markedonov. Dr. Markedonov holds a PhD in history from the Rostov-on-Don State University and he is an Associate Professor at the Russian State University in Moscow. He is also a frequent contributor to the online news service Russia Direct.

Our discussion was wide-ranging and covered topics as diverse as the Don Cossacks, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Syria, NATO, Mikheil Saakashvili, Russo-Georgian relations, US-Russian relations, and Dr. Markedonov’s personal experience with the Caucasus region. Enjoy!

Be sure to subscribe to Reconsidering Russia podcasts on iTunes here.

Charting the historical development of protest in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia

Yerevan 1988

Yerevan 1988

While the recent Baghramyan Avenue protests in Armenia over electricity price hikes may have surprised many observers, they are arguably part of a broader tradition of civic activism in Soviet and post-Soviet Armenia.

How do the Baghramyan protests compare to other historical protests in Armenia? These latest demonstrations reportedly brought out as many as 30,000 people into the streets of Yerevan last week. This is a larger number compared to the 2013 post-election protests in Armenia, led by the pro-Western Raffi Hovannisian, which brought out at most 10,000 people into the streets. At the same time, the Baghramyan number is smaller than the 2008 post-election protests, led by Armenia’s former President Levon Ter-Petrosyan, which reportedly brought out about 50,000 to 100,000 people into the streets.

Of course, none of these protests compare to the sheer size and scale of those of the Karabakh Movement during perestroika, in which as many as one million men, women, and children went out to protest on the streets of Yerevan in February 1988. That is approximately one-third of Armenia’s entire population. Of course, the reasons and circumstances for such massive protests were quite exceptional (as was arguably the era in which they took place).  For Armenians, Nagorny Karabakh (or Artsakh) is an existential issue.

Below are figures showing the growth of the perestroika-era protests in Armenia, from September 1987 to February 1988. These figures are derived from data compiled by Mark R. Beissinger, a political scientist at Princeton and author of the book Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge University Press, 2002):

1987:
September: 200
October-December: 2,000-1,000

1988
:
January (early): 5,000
January (early-mid): 30,000
January (mid): 200,000
January (late): 500,000
February: 1,000,000

How Moscow views Nagorny Karabakh

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorny Karabakh.  This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of Karabakh’s identity

We Are Our Mountains monument in Stepanakert, the capital of the Nagorny Karabakh Republic. This statue is widely regarded as a symbol of the identity of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

One of many hotspots in the former Soviet space is the region of Nagorny Karabakh in the Caucasus. I have written about Nagorny Karabakh in the past, but this time, I would like to focus precisely on Russia’s view of the situation.

What is Nagorny Karabakh?

Nagorny Karabakh is a majority-Armenian region in the Caucasus. Its landscape is forested and mountainous, dotted with numerous historical Armenian monuments and churches. It is one of the most beautiful places in the former Soviet Union.

The region is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan, but is a de facto independent state, closely allied with neighboring Armenia. Armenia, which does not officially recognize Nagorny Karabakh, maintains that its local Armenian inhabitants have the right to self-determination (whether or not to be an independent state, part of Armenia, or an autonomous region of Azerbaijan). This position is supported by the area’s majority-Armenian population. By contrast, Azerbaijan argues for the principle of territorial integrity and that Nagorny Karabakh’s future should be determined only within the internationally recognized borders of Azerbaijan. Supported by Armenia, Nagorny Karabakh gained its de facto independence from Azerbaijan after a war in the 1990s, one of a handful of post-Soviet ethnic conflicts. Today, the status of Nagorny Karabakh is frozen and can be best described as one of “neither war nor peace.”

The name of the region, a testament to its checkered history, is a Russian, Turkish, and Persian amalgam, which literally means “Mountainous Black Garden.” The “Nagorny” or “Mountainous” aspect is important because this distinguishes the area from the traditionally majority Muslim Azerbaijani Lowland Karabakh. The term “Karabakh” is often liberally used as shorthand in the West to refer exclusively to majority Christian Armenian “Mountainous Karabakh.” However, the term “Karabakh” can also be used to refer to both the Mountainous and Lowland areas in totality. To avoid confusion, I will refer to the area as Nagorny Karabakh (henceforth NK).

NK is also referred to by its historical Armenian name, “Artsakh,” by Armenians in Armenia and in NK. The local Armenian population of NK speaks a unique dialect of Armenian that even standard Armenian speakers have difficulty understanding.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus.  Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Tsar Peter the Great saw great potential in expanding Russia into the Caucasus. Portrait by Paul Delaroche, 1838.

Why is Nagorny Karabakh important to Russia historically?

With regard to Russian history, NK is part of the reason that present-day Armenia (historical Eastern Armenia) and the South Caucasus generally became part of the Russian Empire. In the 18th century, Khachen (as NK was then known) and Syunik (today southern Armenia) were the only parts of historic Armenia that were able to retain a semi-independent status amid Armenia being overrun by the Mongols, Turks, and Persians. Formally, the two principalities were semi-independent vassals of Persia. Their princes (meliks), together with the king of eastern Georgia and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarch (Catholicos), formed a coalition beseeching Tsar Peter the Great to liberate their lands from their larger Islamic neighbors.

Peter was interested in the Caucasus not only to help fellow Orthodox Christians, but also as a means for Russia to secure access to profitable trade routes to India, in order to gain access to silk and other riches. Thus began the relationship between Russia and the Caucasus that would eventually culminate in the annexation of eastern and western Georgia (starting in 1801), the further incorporation of historical Eastern Armenia and present-day Azerbaijan in 1813-1828, and the conquest of the North Caucasus in the 1860s.

What are the origins of the present-day dispute over Nagorny Karabakh?

The origins of the present-day dispute over NK date to the Sovietization of the Caucasus in the early 1920s. It is important to understand how the dispute originated in order to comprehend the dynamics of the conflict today. There are two different theories in this regard that are widely repeated in the media. Neither is supported by factual evidence, but both fit conveniently into dominant political narratives.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925.  Though often blamed for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin's actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

Anastas Mikoyan, Joseph Stalin, and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, Tbilisi, 1925. Though often held chiefly responsible for assigning Nagorny Karabakh to Azerbaijan, Stalin’s actual influence was not a major factor in the final decision.

One theory asserts that the dispute began when Stalin personally decided to assign NK to Soviet Azerbaijan during the Sovietization of the Caucasus. Those who support this theory have given different possible explanations as for Stalin’s exact motivation for such a step. Some claim that he wanted to appease Turkey, hoping that under Atatürk, Ankara would develop into a communist state. Others allege that Stalin had an anti-Armenian bias. However, most proponents of this theory claim that the motivation was for Moscow to divide-and-rule Armenia and Azerbaijan. Overall, this theory is undermined by the fact that Stalin was far from the zenith of his power and was not the sole decision-maker in determining NK’s fate, even though he was the Commissar of Nationalities at the time. Moreover, he had good relations with Armenian communists like Mikoyan and was actually sympathetic to Armenian claims over NK.

The second theory holds that the Soviets assigned NK to Azerbaijan because it was economically dependent on the city and surrounding area of Baku during Tsarist times. However, if this was true, then the Armenian provinces of Syunik and Tavush (which, together with NK, were part of the Tsarist-era Elizavetpolskaya Guberniya) would have been logically assigned to Azerbaijan on the same basis. Instead, they became part of Soviet Armenia.

In reality, according to recent research by Caucasus scholar Arsene Saparov, the actual reason behind NK’s assignment to Azerbaijan was the fact that, despite its majority Christian Armenian population, it was controlled by Azerbaijani forces at the time of Sovietization. It was therefore easier for the Soviets to sanction the existing situation on the ground, while also offering the “compromise” of local Armenian autonomy. Hence the “Nagorny Karabakh Autonomous Oblast” of Soviet Azerbaijan was established. Again, it is important to emphasize that the Soviets were desperate to secure control of the region at the time and, being communist-internationalists, they believed that national borders would one day be abolished anyway. There were no sinister imperial schemes or machinations behind the assignment of NK to Azerbaijan.

How does Russia view Nagorny Karabakh today?

Today, Moscow ultimately wants to see some sort of resolution, but it realizes that devising one is virtually impossible right now, given current conditions. It therefore favors the status quo and continued peace talks.

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Map of Armenia and the self-proclaimed Nagorny Karabakh Republic (NKR) in the Caucasus

Along with the United States and France, Russia is a co-chair of the OSCE Minsk Group which facilitates talks on the NK issue. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments are committed to these talks. However, the present government of Ilham Aliyev in Azerbaijan, which has engaged in high military spending and bellicose anti-Armenian rhetoric, is unwilling to compromise on anything short of NK’s total return to Baku. Armenia in turn has stood firmly in favor of Karabakh’s self-determination. The unrecognized NK Republic is currently not involved in the negotiations, but states that it should be, due to the fact that it is the representative of the local Armenian population.

As of a result of the NK war of the 1990s, the NK Republic also controls a handful of districts of Azerbaijan proper, giving them contiguous frontiers with Armenia and Iran. A potential compromise solution may require forfeiting some of these districts, such as Aghdam. The status of refugees and other issues also need to be discussed, but the main sticking point for both sides remains the determination of NK’s ultimate status.

It is important to note that Armenia relies on Moscow for security vis-a-vis Azerbaijan and Turkey, both of which have closed their borders with Armenia since the 1990s. However, Turkish-Armenian relations have improved significantly since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (or AKP) came to office. For instance, though Turkey still denies the 1915 Armenian Genocide, the issue is no longer a taboo in Turkish society and is now openly discussed. However, largely due to pressure from Turkey’s domestic nationalists and from official Baku, the border between Turkey and Armenia remains closed, despite the obvious benefits for both Ankara and Yerevan. Nevertheless, Turkish-Armenian relations will continue to improve and will be further helped by growing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on issues such as the proposed Turk Stream gas pipeline.

Meanwhile, relations between Yerevan and Baku remain tense. In this regard, Armenia looks to Moscow for security and is therefore a close ally of Moscow and Russia’s main “center” in the South Caucasus today. By contrast, Azerbaijan was engaged in a flirtation with the West for some time, especially with oil lobbyists and neoconservative politicians in Washington eager to undermine Iran and Russia. The latter two groups have been very interested in creating alternative energy pipelines from post-Soviet Central Asia through Azerbaijan and to Europe, at the expense of traditional energy routes from Russia.

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

The mountains of Nagorny Karabakh. (Photograph by this writer)

However, Azerbaijan’s flirtation with the West appears to have diminished in recent years, amid mounting criticism regarding Baku’s human rights record. Baku has therefore engaged in new thaws with Moscow and Tehran. However, it is unlikely to join the Moscow-backed Eurasian Union any time soon, given Aliyev’s interest in keeping Azerbaijan independent of any supranational union or alliance. However, Baku has a finite supply of natural energy reserves and will have no choice but to turn to regional cooperation, compromise, and economic diversification in the future. In this respect, it would do well to discard the bellicose discourse and adopt a more balanced and constructive approach.

In Moscow’s view, a resolution of the NK dispute is not only desirable for regional stability but also for Russian security. Russia continues to face challenges on its troubled southern frontier in the North Caucasus with Islamic extremists. In order to help contain and isolate this threat, Russia seeks to solidify its position in the former Soviet South Caucasus states. A strong “buffer zone” of secure and friendly countries to the south of the North Caucasus is therefore an important vector of Russia’s policy toward the region.

Russia is also concerned about the potential expansion of NATO in the South Caucasus, particularly in Georgia. Additionally, it is concerned about the expansion of US-supported energy projects designed to undermine Russian energy exports to Europe. Moscow is puzzled by these American-backed steps, which are viewed as a throwback to Cold War “containment” and as a provocation intended to isolate and weaken Russia. They are also regarded as spurning potential cooperation on serious matters such as fighting Islamic extremism in the area. Indeed, Georgia has recently faced problems with Islamic radicalism in the Pankisi Gorge and attempts by ISIS to woo the region’s local population of ethnic Kists (a Chechen subgroup). Notably, the infamous ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani is originally from Pankisi. Given such concerns, it is clear that if Moscow, Tbilisi, and Washington all worked together to combat this common threat, the benefits would be optimal.

Whatever the future, for Moscow, the Caucasus remains an important area within the post-Soviet space and a potential flashpoint for future conflict. Despite the dispute over NK, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have co-existed and lived together side-by-side in the past. Peace is possible, and indeed NK would greatly benefit from cooperation between Russia and the West.

The Georgian Who Would Be Governor: Saakashvili in Odessa

Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP-Getty / Jim Watson)

Mikheil Saakashvili (AFP-Getty / Jim Watson)

On 29 May 2015, the current Ukrainian government made a jaw-dropping move. As if Kiev’s controversial de-communization laws were not enough, the new government decided to appoint Georgia’s provocative ex-president Mikheil “Misha” Saakashvili to the post of governor of the Odessa Oblast. Immediately prior to this (literally within hours), Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko granted Saakashvili Ukrainian citizenship, thus making him eligible for the governorship. On Twitter and Facebook, future governor Saakashvili expressed his love for Odessa.

Needless to say, Saakashvili is no Prince Vorontsov.  Unabashedly pro-Western and hawkishly anti-Russian, Saakashvili is regarded by many as one of the most unstable politicians in the entire former Soviet Union. It was he who recklessly launched the disastrous South Ossetian war in 2008. Currently, he is a wanted man in his native Georgia, charged with abuse of office. In fact, Prosecutors in Tbilisi are seeking an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. Further, Russia, acting on behalf of Georgia’s breakaway province of South Ossetia, is also seeking the arrest of Saakashvili in connection with war crimes from the 2008 war. This has not prevented Saakashvili from periodically threatening to return to Georgia via revolutionary means, despite the fact that he is widely unpopular in Georgia.

Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko hands Mikheil Saakashvili his identification card, identifying him as the new governor of the Odessa Oblast. (Press office photo)

Ukraine’s Petro Poroshenko hands Mikheil Saakashvili his identification card, identifying him as the new governor of the Odessa Oblast. (Press office photo)

However, Saakashvili is very popular among officials in Kiev, where he retains many ties from his university days. As a supporter of the Maidan from the very beginning, Saakashvili became an advisor to the Ukrainian government. Many officials from his former administration in Georgia, including some also wanted in Tbilisi, have joined him. This has sparked protest, outrage, and indignation from Georgia, its breakaway province of Abkhazia, and Russia.

None of this seems to have fazed Kiev, which appears to dismiss and act in defiance of these protests, especially those from Tbilisi. In fact, not only has Kiev refused to extradite Saakashvili back to Georgia, but it is also widely believed to be obstructing the Interpol Red Notice arrest issued against Zurab Adeishvili, Georgia’s controversial former Justice Minister under Saakashvili.

There is also the question of Saakashvili’s Georgian citizenship. According to Georgian law, Saakashvili cannot be both a citizen of Georgia and a citizen of Ukraine simultaneously.  As such, Saakashvili will have to be excluded from the Georgian political process because under Georgian law, foreigners cannot participate in Georgian politics.

This will also mean that Saakashvili will have to resign as chairman of the pro-Western United National Movement (UNM) opposition party in Georgia. That party has already seen a string of resignations this past week and declining popularity in Georgia in general. If Saakashvili resigns as the UNM’s chairman, it may further diminish its presence in Georgian politics.

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (Newsday.ge)

Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (Newsday.ge)

Saakashvili’s appointment by Kiev as the governor of the Odessa Oblast has already prompted strong reactions from Tbilisi. Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili was at a loss for words regarding Saakashvili’s acceptance of Ukrainian citizenship. “I want to express my strongly negative stance” on the issue, he told reporters. By relinquishing his Georgian citizenship, he added, Saakashvili “humiliated the country and the presidential institution. From my point of view, values are more significant than a career… Georgia’s citizenship represents such a value.” To President Margvelashvili, such a step was “incomprehensible.”

Davit Saganelidze, the leader of Georgia’s parliamentary majority, told reporters that the decision to appoint such a “deranged person” to the post of governor of Odessa was a “very serious mistake on the part of Ukrainian authorities.” He also stated that he sympathized with the Ukrainian people.

Even overtly pro-Western political figures in Georgia were critical of Saakashvili’s new governorship. Georgia’s Defense Minister, Tina Khidasheli, the wife of the Georgian Parliamentary Speaker Davit Usupashvili, said that Saakashvili “showed everyone his so-called devotion to Georgia” and that “now everyone can see he doesn’t care about the citizenship of his own country.”

Russia too also reacted to Saakashvili’s appointment. On Twitter, Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev tweeted that “the circus comes to town… Poor Ukraine.”

As if this were not enough, the oblast to which Saakashvili has been appointed to govern is a hotbed of anti-Kiev activity and resentment.  The memory of the terrible Odessa Massacre of May 2014 is still very fresh in the minds of many Odessans.  In that massacre, 48 people were killed, largely anti-Kiev activists. Most were burned to death in the Odessa House of Trade Unions. Independent research confirms that Right Sector (Praviy Sektor), together with far-right football hooligans known as the Ultras, were responsible for what had happened. However, official Kiev, which is allied with these nefarious groups, has tried to downplay the tragedy and instead blame it on the anti-Kiev activists, contrary to the evidence.

As such, opposition to the Kiev government is seething among many in this multicultural port city, a Black Sea cultural center renowned for its sense of humor and its mixed Russian, Jewish, and Ukrainian heritage. The recent Trade Unions massacre re-awakened bad memories of World War II. This is due especially to the presence of far-right groups, like Right Sector, within the Ukrainian government. Kiev relies on these extremists to clamp down on free expression and political dissent in Odessa. This has created much anger that is barely contained by the Odessan public.

Monument to Duke de Richelieu in Odessa (ua-travelling)

Monument to Duke de Richelieu in Odessa (ua-travelling)

It is this city and its surrounding area that the overtly pro-Western Saakashvili will be governing. The situation brings together one of the most volatile personalities in the former Soviet space with one of the most high tension regions of Ukraine. The potential for instability is high. “Governor of Odessa? What a great idea,” sarcastically remarked Fred Weir, Moscow correspondent at the Christian Science Monitor. “Take a divided city, in the midst of an existential crisis, and send in Mikheil Saakashvili to run things.”

As for President Poroshenko, his move has certainly “left a large number of political observers at a loss for explanation,” remarked the BBC. “Many are struggling to see the strategy behind naming a former leader of another country to run a provincial government… The move could be a stroke of genius on Mr. Poroshenko’s part — or a blunder of breathtaking magnitude.” Many Georgians who know Saakashvili all too well would most certainly agree with the BBC’s latter assessment.

“In Russian folklore,” quipped Vladimir Golstein, a professor of Russian literature at Brown University, “there are tons of Odessa jokes and there are equal amount of Georgian jokes. But only one person managed to combine the two. And it ain’t funny.”

There have been different possible explanations as to why Poroshenko decided to appoint Saakashvili to be the governor of the Odessa Oblast.  Some have speculated that the “chocolate king” (as Poroshenko is known) sought to simultaneously annoy Moscow and send a message to controversial oligarch and former Dnepropetrovsk governor Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who finances many of Ukraine’s notorious volunteer battalions. Others regard it as a desperate move by Kiev, amid a growing thaw between Washington and Moscow, to regain full but diminishing Western support in a belief that Saakashvili still commands a “hero” status in the West.

Others believe that the appointment of Saakashvili to the Odessa governorship may signal a sort of “demotion” for Saakashvili’s status in Kiev and that Poroshenko’s ulterior motive was to get him out of the capital.  In a press conference with reporters, Georgian Justice Minister Tea Tsulukiani, who had just returned from a working visit to Kiev, seemed to favor this latter explanation.  After telling reporters that legal efforts to extradite Saakashvili back to Georgia had been exhausted, given his new Ukrainian citizenship, she added:

I saw that Saakashvili’s team has failed to succeed there [in Kiev].  Reforms are on hold; the Ukrainian people and the media have serious questions about these so-called experts. He was sent away from Kiev because he was unable to carry out reforms. I have no doubt that he will not do any better in Odessa. It’s a message of warning for the Ukrainian people and media.

Overall, whatever the motives for Kiev’s move, the appointment of Saakashvili has certainly raised eyebrows among serious observers of the region. Yet, whether it raises eyebrows for Kiev’s Western backers and supporters will remain to be seen.

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.”