On April 21, Azerbaijani border guards closed access to the parts of David Gareji Monastery located on the south-eastern slope of the mountain range, Archimandrite of the Monastery, Kirion (Oniani) reported earlier today.
Commenting on the report, Georgian Foreign Ministry representatives said time was required for solving the problem. Later today, Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani reported that the Azerbaijani government “made a decision” to re-open access. Civil.ge has no independent confirmation at the time of writing, on whether the access has been restored.
Historical site straddling the boundary
Davit Gareji monastic caves located in Gareji semi-desert about 70 kilometers southeast of Tbilisi were founded in the 6th century, and reached their hiatus in late 11-early 13th centuries. The caves are one of Georgia’s important cultural and religious heritage sites, where the monastic life is still ongoing.
Straddling the rocky mountain range, David Gareji has been one of the major stumbling blocks in border demarcation talks between Georgia and Azerbaijan. About 65% (300km) of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan has been agreed, but the demarcation works are temporarily suspended.
During the Soviet times the monastery complex was split by administrative border with major part of the complex falling within Soviet Republic of Georgia and another portion within Soviet Azerbaijan. The two countries have been trying in vain to agree on the lay of the border since.
Azerbaijani officials have been periodically closing off access to the parts of the monastery during the past decades, although most often the interruptions were temporary and lasted one or two days.
The largest previous controversy started on May 6, 2012, when Azerbaijani border guards have been stationed in a disputed border section, cutting off access to visitors. Several opposition parties have hit the streets to protest what they saw as government’s insufficiently assertive stance vis-a-vis Baku.
Following the talks between the Azerbaijani and Georgian Presidents, Ilham Aliev and Mikheil Saakashvili on the sidelines of the NATO Summit in Chicago on May 20, 2012, the heads of the border guard services of the two agreed to remove the troops to the previous positions.
President Zurabishvili’s statements a trigger?
Achimandrite Kirion claims the Azerbaijani border guards have sealed off access to the parts of the monastery immediately after President Zurabishvili’s departure, voicing displeasure at not being informed about the visit. Kirion said that President Zurabishvili was accompanied by three Azerbaijani officials, saying the lack of notification seems to have been a mere pretext.
This visit was not the first time President Zurabishvili paid attention to the border demarcation issue. She has raised David Gareji in Baku directly with the Azerbaijani counterpart, telling him on February 27, 2019 that it would be logical considering our friendly relations, if the issue were closed after so many years”.
Georgian Foreign Ministry’s Reaction
Commenting on the issue on April 25, Vladimer Konstantinidi of the Georgian Foreign Ministry noted that “time is needed to solve similar issues.” “We should refrain from emotional actions and statements in similar situations,” he said, adding that two thirds of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan have already been agreed and the work is underway concerning the remaining section.
He also noted that the commission on border demarcation will resume its work “as soon as the process of renewal of its composition is over.”
Later on today, Foreign Minister Davit Zalkaliani also commented on the issue, saying that the Azerbaijani government made a decision to open the road. “We will work actively in future to ensure that the process related to Georgian-Azerbaijani border demarcation is carried out more intensively,” Zalkaliani noted.
Lasha Zhvania, head of the President’s Administration also stressed the importance of resuming the commission’s work, saying that “such artificial tensions should not reoccur in the future.”