05/30/2019, 17.01
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Georgian “crusade" in Azerbaijan

by Vladimir Rozanskij

An Orthodox monastery from the 6th century located on disputed territory is claimed by both Baku and Tbilisi. Georgian Christians want to assert their rights "calmly, but firmly on principles". Despite decades of diplomacy, who owns the area has not yet been decided.

Baku (AsiaNews) – A monastery complex located in a border area disputed by Georgia and Azerbaijan is the subject of a claim by Orthodox Georgians. On Tuesday, Azerbaijan’s Independence Day, Georgian activists gathered at the 6th century site dedicated to Davit Gareja, an ancient Christian saint.

With the support of the Synod of Bishops of the Patriarchate of Tbilisi, the group wants to assert their rights "calmly, but firmly on principles". Decades of diplomatic negotiations have not settled the issue of the monastery's title.

As activist Davit Katsarava, leader of the movement against the occupation of the monastery, told Kommersant, "thousands of young people and patriots from all over Georgia have decided to go to the monastery, despite the opposition of Azeri authorities" to highlight the importance of Davit Gareja to the Georgian Church. The event began with some monks taking to the streets, backed by the Georgian Synod, who fear the "provocations" of the Azeri government, which has owned part of the complex since Soviet times.

There are various reasons for the conflict. Azerbaijani scholars say that the monastery, which they call Keshikchidag, is not associated with Georgia, but with Caucasian Albania, of which Baku claims to be the legitimate heir. For Georgians, this view is unscientific.

Former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze proposed a swap to Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, giving Azerbaijan four times as much land in exchange for the monastery, but his proposal was turned down. The same proposal was made again in 2007 by then Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, and rejected once more by another Azerbaijani President, Ilham Aliyev.

Despite the disagreement, Georgian priests and pilgrims have been allowed to enter the monastery area under Azerbaijani control and freely celebrate services. Everything changed last April, when the current President of Georgia Salome Zourabichvili, during a visit to Baku, openly raised the issue, asking that the disputed area me transferred to Georgia. Once home, she went to the walls of Davit Gareja, took a picture of herself with Georgian soldiers and the monastery in the background. As a result, The Azerbaijan closed off the site.

Diplomatic talks have resumed, but so far nothing has been decided. As in the past, the Azeris want access to the monastery from both sides of the border, something the Georgians have turned down. Meanwhile, the Azeris have opened a new road to the monastery, which Georgians resent. Protests risk causing an escalation: activists have blocked the Baku-Tbilisi-Ankara highway, causing havoc to the movement of goods and people.

Under its new president Zourabichvili, Georgia seems to be embarking on a new phase of external confrontations. Last March, She started a controversy with Armenia, already embroiled in a conflict with Azerbaijan. During a visit to the Armenian capital of Yerevan, she accused the Armenians again of occupying Nagorno-Karabakh, another disputed area where fighting was suspended 25 years ago following a ceasefire.

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