Azerbaijan and Georgia: disputed border

Fri 11 Mar 2011 06:02 GMT | 10:02 Local Time

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Seymur Kazimov looks at an ongoing border dispute between two strategic allies in the Southern Caucasus, Azerbaijan and Georgia.

The dispute centres around a 6th-century monastery on the border of the two countries – the monument is known as David Gareja Monastery in Georgia and Keshish Dag (Priest Mountain) or Keshikchi Dag (Guardian Mountain) in Azerbaijan. The monastery complex consists of more than 20 churches and numerous cave cells covering approximately 25 square kilometres and straddling both sides of the Azerbaijani-Georgian border.

The disputed territory has been discussed many times by officials of both countries and by the presidents. Tbilisi and Baku consider each other to be good neighbours and officially do not regard the border issue as a dispute; nevertheless, some 35% of the 480-km border has still to be agreed.

The dispute is related to history and, as both countries have their own historical interpretations and sources, it remains unresolved. The Georgian side says that the site belongs to them, while the Azerbaijani side says that this complex is part of the ancient Caucasian Albanian culture and, therefore, bears no relation to Georgians. When both Georgia and Azerbaijan were part of the Soviet Union, the delimitation of borders was not particularly discussed. This process started after the countries gained their independence.

The current border runs through the monastery grounds, with the majority of the churches on the Georgian side and a notable church and monastery, Bertubani, on the Azerbaijani side. There are border guards on both sides. Azerbaijani and Georgian officials are working to determine the dividing line between the two countries, but have not achieved a result as yet.

Strategic heights

Baku considers the area around Bertubani Church, part of the David Gareja complex, to be a strategic height, so it is refusing to give this land to Georgia.

“These are major heights for Azerbaijan. Although we are friends, it doesn’t mean that we will give strategic heights like these to another state,” a representative of the Azerbaijani State Border Service said.

Azerbaijani researcher and journalist Ismayil Umudlu does not believe that Baku could surrender its own land, especially heights of strategic importance to a neighbouring country. “In world practice when borders are set between countries, heights are taken as a borderline. Hillsides are not considered as the border. If we give this high ground and hillside to our neighbours, they will end up with control over the other plain, which is our territory. One country can monitor another’s territory from this high ground. There is no compromise over high ground in the border delimitation process.”

However, Iveri Melashvili, chief adviser in the Georgian Foreign Ministry's political department and a member of the commission on border delimitation and demarcation, does not agree with the Azerbaijani position: “I don’t see any strategic or serious point here. We are neighbours and I don’t believe that there could be any problems between neighbours.”

Border commissions

The disputed church complex has frequently been discussed at official and presidential level between the two countries. A commission on border delimitation and demarcation was established to resolve the problem. Though the media reported that the commission would be a joint one, Melashvili said that Azerbaijan and Georgia had each set up their own commissions. The commissions come together to discuss and share information.

Before agreeing to be interviewed, Melashvili warned that he would not give any explicit information as this could adversely affect the negotiations. “Sixty-six per cent of the borders are agreed upon. The main problem is over a couple of metres. Though we are friendly, we have different approaches to the issue. We mainly need to tackle this issue through a technical approach. Both committees try to avoid the historical, religious or political side of the issue. Both committees decided to draw borders that are convenient to people on both sides. We are working on it. Every time before the commission starts work, experts do the necessary research and pass the information to us,” Melashvili said.


The historical factor is the main obstacle in the demarcation of the border, but the presence of disputed religious and cultural monuments and areas is also a problem.

Melashvili said that historical, cultural and religious overtones would not solve the problem. Nobody is allowed into Bertubani for church services. “Our Ministry of Culture cannot renovate the place. Maybe there will be negotiations on this with Azerbaijan. From the religious point of view the place is more important to Georgians than to Azeris.”

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists at Tbilisi airport in 2007, after seeing off Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, that agreement had been reached under which Azerbaijan would keep the strategic heights while Bertubani monastery would be returned to Georgia. This prompted a furore in Azerbaijan and Georgia. The leader of the Georgian Conservative Party, Zviad Dzidziguri, told the Georgian media that the Saakashvili government was giving Georgian historical monuments to Azerbaijan because of oil and gas interests.

According to Elkhan Polukhov, who was press secretary at the Azerbaijani embassy in Georgia in 2007 and is now the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry's spokesman, said that although the transfer of the monastery to Georgia and Azerbaijan's retention of the strategic points had been discussed by the presidents, the Azerbaijani leader had not agreed to it. “Ilham Aliyev said that this issue could be looked at,” Polukhov said.

Although the church is separate from the state in Georgia, religion has a great impact on people’s life. During a meeting in Baku on 6-7 March 2007, the commissions discussed the possibility of declaring the complex “an open tourist zone”. The Georgian Patriarchate is against the use of the complex as a tourist attraction. Representative David Sharashenidze said the issue was not under discussion at present. He told ITAR-TASS news agency earlier in 2007 that: “David Gareja is alive. Monks still live there. They have their own internal rules. Declaring the complex 'an open tourist zone' will interfere with their work and may also cause other problems.”

Bertubani built by Georgians?

Marika Lortkipanidze, professor at Tbilisi's Ivane Javakhishvili State University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, says that this issue is becoming more political than historical, although the monasteries are ancient Georgian land and the monastery complex should be returned to Georgia immediately. “On 26 May 1918 when Georgia declared its independence, David Gareja was completely in Georgian territory. Russia recognized the Georgian borders, which also included David Gareja. In 1926 some of these lands were included in Azerbaijani territory. The Bertubani Church, which is presently in Azerbaijani territory, was built by Georgians,” the Georgian historian said.

She said that the architectural style and frescoes confirmed that Bertubani Church was culturally Georgian. The academician denied that the territory had ever been part of Caucasian Albania. She added that borders were not accurately and clearly shown in books by ethnic historians.

Lortkipanidze dismissed reports by Azerbaijani academics that during the Soviet period Georgian historians had erased old writing on the walls and painted frescoes. She said there was no scientific basis for the reports. According to Georgian, Armenian and Greek sources, the monuments are in Georgian territory, Lortkipanidze said. Even the writing is in ancient Georgian script, the academic said, and could not have been added at a later date. "There is the science of palaeography that reads and analyses old writing. This science can even identify writing when the period is not known."

Another academic to have studied the church complex is Zaza Skhirtladze, a Georgian art historian and representative of the Georgian Patriarchate. He says that the research can be divided into two areas - academic and political - and that the problem should be resolved academically. He does not accept that the church complex belongs to Azerbaijan or to Azerbaijanis' predecessors, the Albanians. “It is out of the question that Gareja church and boundaries put Bertubani in Albania or Azerbaijan. It is known that the monastery was founded by a monk in the 6th century. From the 7th or 8th century it became a centre of Georgian culture. There are hundreds of manuscripts here," Skhirtladze said.

The Georgian professor says that the frescoes did not come from the ancient Albanian state. Documents clearly confirm that the church complex is Georgian, Skhirtladze said, which is confirmed by the hundreds of manuscripts, paintings of Georgian kings, mosaics, frescoes and the fact that Georgian clergymen studied there. “There are enough documents about it as well as historical facts. The manuscripts are kept in the State Archive. There are hundreds of them,” the art historian said.

Bertubani built by Caucasian Albanians?

Yunis Nasibli, assistant professor of Azerbaijani history at Baku State University and vice-president of the Caucasus Research Centre, does not agree with the arguments that David Gareja is a Georgian monument.

When Caucasian Albania was occupied by the Arab Caliphate in the 7th century, part of the population accepted Islam while others kept Christianity. Many, however, stopped going to churches and monasteries.

He said that as Georgia became more powerful in the 12th century, a number of Georgian churches were built. This can be seen mainly from Armenian, Georgian and Syriac sources, the Azerbaijani historian said. “This information can also be found in the Albanian history by Moses Kalankatuyklu."

The Azerbaijani historian has studied Georgian sources which he says show that David Gareja is not a Georgian monument. Georgian historian David Muskhelishvili in his book “Georgia in the 4th to 6th Centuries” says that these territories belonged to Caucasian Albania. Then the territories underwent an assimilation process.

Nasibli said that the attitude of the Georgian government towards monuments in Azerbaijan could only cast a shadow on relations between these two strategic partners. The Azerbaijani historian said that numerous Muslim monuments of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries in Georgian territory had been destroyed. A unique mosque where the Gorgasali monument now stands in Tbilisi was demolished. “Georgians and Armenians are professional at destroying monuments. These two nations think that any land where they have their churches historically belongs to them.”

Nasibli said that Beturbani monastery had been a military test range during the Soviet period, which accounted for the destroyed walls and frescoes. “Bullet holes can even be seen on the monastery walls. We must not forget that the atheist upbringing of the Soviets meant that  little attention was paid to religious monuments.”

Azerbaijani journalist and researcher Ismail Umudlu says that Russian military maps from the Soviet period show that the Betubani caves are located in Azerbaijan, on a hillside known as Priest Mountain in some sources and Molladag (Mullah Mountain). In Russian military maps of the Transcaucasus Military District in Gazakh District, all the place names around the mountain are Azeri names.

As for ancient times, Umudulu says that the people living in these lands were Suvar Turks, not Georgians. As proof of this, he refers his Georgian colleagues to the works of Armenian, Arab and even Georgian historians. “The frescoes added to the monastery walls after the 12th century are Georgian, because the monastery was under Georgian custody till approximately the 16th century. There was writing in the Syriac Aramaic language under these pictures. The Aramaic language is a dead language. Georgians accept this fact. It is as dead a language as Latin. The writing under the frescoes can be read using computer technology. Further serious archaeological excavation could reveal more texts in Syriac Aramaic. In the 6th to 12th centuries this language was a church language. It is of Syriac origin, not Georgian.”

Umudlu said that it was wrong to consider the church purely as a religious object. Even if this monument is considered only as a church or from the Christian point of view, Caucasian Albania would have the right to lay claims to it as well. “If the church was within its geographical territory, it belongs to it. There are different religions in every country. There are numerous mosques in Georgian territory, but this does not mean that those lands belong to us. Though it was a Christian church, Muslims living nearby considered it a holy site. Shepherds still make sacrifices to God there.”


Iveri Melashvili, chief adviser in the Georgian Foreign Ministry's political department and a member of the commission on border delimitation and demarcation, said that all the obstacles came from journalists in search of big stories who stirred up the public. “It is not because we give no comments. Any inappropriate word to the media affects the negotiating process. Therefore, as per mutual agreement the outcome of the negotiating process is not made public. We have normal working relations. There are certain things which, if disclosed will be misunderstood. We will not be able to get on with our work if we inform the public about the negotiations.”

Conflict management expert Margarita Akhvlediani summed up Melashvili's attitude as “if you have a headache cut your head off instead of going to a doctor”. She said it was important to keep the media informed about the process. She said a public outcry could be created by the state authorities, patriarchate or city authorities expressing their opinion on the matter. “The commission has been set up but nobody knows who is on it. I support publicity for disputes and public discussions. Passing David Gareja to Georgia does not mean that the Georgians will transport the complex to Tbilisi or that Azerbaijan will take it to Baku. It will stay where it is. It can be used by both parties. Lack of information can cause sabotage, even bloodshed.”

Akhvlediani implies that commission members and politicians are mainly to blame for the strained situation among the public. She says that the main source of inaccurate information is not journalists but the specialists themselves. “Who stops these people going to the press? Why don’t they organize programs on Public TV? They should invite their Azeri colleagues. Then the journalists will be powerless. They should be working together with the media. There are many smart people among the public; they are capable of analysing all the facts.” At the same time she did not deny that some journalists misrepresented information to stir up public opinion.

According to Akhvlediani, delimitation will not help find a quick solution to the problem, as it does not work when historians and archeologists are needed. She said that officials should work with specialists on researching the foundations, walls and frescoes of the monastery complex. “Because a historian on one side puts forward arguments without knowing the arguments of the opposite side. One should learn the opinion of the opposite side and review one's own ideas. Ten centuries ago this monument was used by both sides. Historians should note all the events from different historical periods."

As well as being a historical and religious monument, David Gareja is also a cultural monument. We contacted the ministries of culture of both countries but could not get a full response from the Georgian Ministry of Culture, Protection of Monuments and Sport. We could not get a response from the press office or historical monuments department or even the deputy minister, David Skhadadze. When we said that we had come from Azerbaijan and would like to learn their opinions, the press service said: “You know, this is a very sore point for us, so nobody wants to express an opinion.”

The press secretary of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Intiqam Humbatov, said that on 19 December 2007 Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev signed a decree declaring Guardian Mountain in Agstafa District of the Azerbaijan Republic a state historical and cultural reserve. He said that the reserve was open, had administrative buildings and managerial staff had been appointed. “The management of the reserve is planning to arrange excursions from nearby schools to the complex to help with the study of Azerbaijani history," Humbatov said.

According to information from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Keshikchidag (Guardian Mountain) State Historical and Cultural Reserve is in the hands of researchers. There are 70 caves, one castle, two churches and one chapel there. An expedition from Azerbaijani National Academy of Sciences' Archaeology and Ethnography Institute started research at the complex after it was made a reserve. “They discovered that this old Albanian settlement Keshikchidag (Guardian Mountain) was built in the Middle Ages for defensive purposes. The latest investigations uncovered three graves in one of the caves. This area was closed in the 19th century, because it was used as a military testing ground. Repairs and restoration work are planned in the complex. It is planned to use one of the caves as a museum for objects found on the reserve," Humbatov said.

Latest meetings

The Azerbaijani and Georgian commissions on delimitation of the state border last came together in September in the Azerbaijani town of Balakan, their third meeting in 2010. The Georgian delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister David Jalagania and the Azerbaijani delegation by Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov. "We have agreed two-thirds of the total length of our common state border. So far, we have delimited 300 out of 480 kilometres of the state border," Khalafov said after the meeting.

Despite the increased activity, the two sides appear no nearer agreement on David Gareja.

Georgian Deputy Foreign Ministry Nino Kalandadze said in December that Georgia was not going to compromise over David Gareja, but that a territorial swap with Azerbaijan might be possible. Georgian experts had been suggesting that Azerbaijan might give up David Gareja in exchange for the village of Erismedi, another disputed spot along the border. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov soon ruled this out, however, saying that a territorial exchange was not under discussion.

The chairman of Azerbaijan's State Land and Cartography Committee, Garib Mammadov, said a week ago, on 3 March, that  experts had completed work on demarcation of the border and were waiting for an invitation from the Georgian side to discuss the outcome.

He said that borders could not be decided because of the presence of historical monuments and that Soviet-era maps had been used in determining the border. The demarcation is unlikely, therefore, to suit the Georgian side.

What can solve this dispute? Georgian conflict expert Margarita Akhvlediani suggests a territorial exchange as one option and the creation of a tax-free trade zone as another. A third option is to give another area for Azerbaijan's use for some years, while Georgia would retain freedom of movement in David Gareja, though the area would remain part of Azerbaijan.

Seymur Kazimov,
Baku, Tbilisi, Kakheti 2009-2010


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