Officials from Azerbaijan and Georgia have, uncharacterisically, exchanged verbal shots over a disputed section of the border, which has religious and cultural significance for both sides.
News-Azerbaijan, a news agency affiliated with Russia’s RIA Novosti, broke the story on March 27. They quoted Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalap Khalapov as saying that Baku would not give up “Keshikchi.” Some Azerbaijani historians argue that Keshikchi, known to Georgians as Davit Gareji, was home to the Caucasian Albanians, who are believed to have been the earliest inhabitants of Azerbaijan. The area is rich in historic monuments, with a complex of cave monasteries forming the center-piece of what has become a major tourist attraction.
Khalapov, who is also a co-chairman of the Georgian-Azerbaijani State Border Delimitation Commission, was quoted as saying that the “Albanian monastery of Keshikchi remains one of the disputed portions of the border.” His remarks triggered an angry response from the Georgian foreign minister, Gela Bezhuashvili.
“It is absolutely unclear to me," he told reporters on April 3, "why my colleague made these remarks." "I think he should not have entered into a debate of an historical nature, because this is beyond his remit. The mandate of the state border delimitation commission does not envisage such a debate; defining the border is its sole responsibility. His history lessons are absolutely incomprehensible. He should instead read up on world history.”
35% of the border between the two countries still remains to be agreed upon, including the Davit Gareji section. This complex of cave monasteries, located in the Gareji semi-desert, is listed as one of Georgia’s cultural and religious heritage sites.
Meanwhile, the Georgian Minister for Culture and Protection of Historic Monuments has tried to downplay the cross-border tiff. “I think that Georgia and Azerbaijan enjoy good relations," Giorgi Gabashvili told reporters on April 4, "which will enable us to solve this kind of issue based on a consideration of the interests of both countries.”
His soft line mirrors earlier comments made by President Saakashvili. Speaking with reporters last February, the president said that “this is not a dispute.” He explained that "this legal problem" was a hangover from Soviet times, when borders were arbitrarily penciled in. He said that the issue would be dealt with through consultation and dialogue.
The issue, however, is potentially politically sensitive for the authorities. Opposition figures, including those from the Conservative Party, have accused them of softening their stance after Azerbaijan had agreed to lend Georgia USD 200 million for the construction of its portion of the Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway. Officials have vehemently rejected the allegation.
The Georgian Orthodox Church has also become involved in this issue. In late March it strongly protested the Ministry of Culture’s reported offer to turn the complex into “an open tourism zone” with joint Georgian-Azerbaijani control. The ministry has denied that such a proposal was made.
An earlier Georgian proposal for a land swap was, according to Georgian media sources, rejected by Baku because it would have left it at a strategic disadvantage. The monastery complex occupies high ground, which is considered to be of strategic importance.