For the past two decades a giant monastery complex Davit Gareja, 60 km to the southeast of Tbilisi, on the Georgian-Azeri border, has been the subject of dispute and tensions in the relations between Baku and Tbilisi.
The complex that stretches for 25 kilometers is of exclusive value with its numerous rock-hewn churches built between the 6th and 8th centuries. The main monastery is the Lavra of Saint Davit of Gareja– Eastern-Christian Assyrian monk who lived in 6-7th cc.
There are a great number of Georgian and Armenian inscriptions preserved there, as well as eight Greek and more than twenty Arabian.
For more that two decades Georgia and Azerbaijan are trying to do demarcation and delimitation of the border, however after 2007 no step has been taken in that direction. The Georgian foreign ministry reports that only 66 percent of the frontier has been reconciled so far.
Tensions have escalated again, this time in early May, when Azeri frontiers without prior agreement or warning advanced their outpost for some two kilometers into the Georgian area.
Azerbaijan’s one-sided actions outraged Tbilisi, which led to a public march of protest against the Azeri aggression, which had willfully taken control over the disputed border land.
Thousands of believers participating in the march – among them about 100 clergymen, famous workers of art, politicians – walked all the way from the center of Tbilisi to the monastery complex.
Social movement “Protect Davit Gareja” took up mobilization of volunteers ready to stand up for the Georgian people’s right to the holy place.
The movement leaders doubt that the issue can be solved by peaceful means, hence have started recruiting war veterans with combat experience.
The dispute origins date back to the soviet times and the carelessness with which USSR leaders drew administrative borders among the member-republics.
As a result the giant monastery complex comprising of twenty rock-hewn churches, hundreds of cells, chapels, refectories, and living quarters, got divided by the border with the main church – Lavra of Saint Davit of Gareja – appearing on the Azeri side of the Soviet-drawn border.
Recently Najaf Museybli, deputy director of the Institute of Ethnography and Archeology of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, stated that: “In the ancient times an Albanian kingdom settled these territories, and Georgians didn’t live here. With time our ancestors settled here…It’s not subject to discussion.”
”Azerbaijanis’ claims that they are successors of Caucasian Albanians sound almost the same as if today’s Turks would claim they are successors of Byzantine,” countered Tbilisi-based political analyst Soso Tsintsadze.
During their May 21 meeting Georgian and Azeri presidents instructed their respective border departments to carry out joint control over the disputed land.
But it’s only a temporary solution, officials in Tbilisi warn. Commissions on delimitation of frontiers have yet to define on whose territory the disputed part of the monastery is located.
“Tbilisi has a concrete offer,” Giga Bokeria, head of the Security Council of Georgia said during live broadcast on the First Georgian TV Channel. “In exchange for the disputed land Azerbaijan is free to choose one the other five border lands of Georgia of equal value.”
Nonetheless, Tbilisi made a similar offer several years ago, and Baku turned it down.
“None of the sides wants to allow a precedent, when the border gets even slightly changed and lands are exchanged. It’s a very delicate issue for Georgia and Azerbaijan for as long as each has its own issues with territorial integrity,” says theologian Levan Abashidze, expert at Georgian Parliament’s department of research.
No doubt he was referring to the Armenian-Azeri confrontation.
The disputed story of Davit Gareja Monastery is “Karabakh in Miniature”. Azeri authorities call Armenian churches Amaras, Dadivank, Gandzasar and the entire territory of historic Artsakh (Nagorno Karabakh) as “monuments of Albanian-Azeri heritage”.
But if in their case Georgians insist on the victory of “historic justice”, they turn a blind eye to the same justice when it comes to Armenians.
Hence, the Davit Gareja Monastery issue once again demonstrates international double standards in miniature.