Deputy Foreign Minister of Georgia Lasha Darsalia said the July 14 incident at David Gareji section of Georgian-Azerbaijani border had been defused and the border delimitation experts will meet on August 19-23, as planned.
Speaking at a news briefing on July 30, DFM Darsalia referred to the July 14 incident, when an altercation has escalated between the locals and Azerbaijani border guards.
The escalation ensued after the Azerbaijani border guards reportedly took the icons out of the Udabno caves located on the disputed territory between the two countries and handed them over to the Georgian border guards. This was reportedly done to safeguard the icons damaged by the elements. However, the locals saw it as Azerbaijani side laying a territorial claim on Udabno monastery and demanded the return of icons to their previous location. Georgian Ambassador to Baku was summoned to the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry for explanations, following the incident.
DFM Darsalia said the tensions were defused “thanks to joint and immediate actions” by the border agencies of both countries. “Active negotiations are currently underway between the border agencies to fully solve an incident and return the situation back to normal,” the Deputy Foreign Minister said.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry’s remarks came after Davit Katsarava, leader of the “Strength in Unity” activist movement, posted on his Facebook page that following the July 14 incident at David Gareji Monastery, “the road leading to the Chichkhituri Church, as well as the paths towards the Churches of the Resurrection and Udabno have been definitively closed.”
He wrote also that after the July 14 incident, “the Azerbaijanis immediately opened the second [border] base and at least tripled the number of border guards on the ridge, while number of our border guards has not increased.”
DFM Darsalia confirmed that “following the incident, the Azerbaijani side increased the number of border guards on this section and installed a temporary infrastructure necessary for logistical support on the territory controlled by them.” But, he added that “the number of Georgian border guards was also increased on the same section.”
Zaza Tatunashvili, a novice at David Gareji Monastery, said that the ridge leading to the Church of the Resurrection has been closed not only for pilgrims and tourists, but also for clerics. “Initially, it was forbidden to get to the Chichkhituri Church; then they started to close the roads leading to the Udabno Monastery and now all these roads have been closed completely. The negotiations may be underway, but they have yielded no results so far. Georgian border guards have been ordered not to allow anyone, including us, to the ridge,” he said.
DFM Darsalia noted that restrictions that have been imposed on the movement of tourists and the parish are temporary and serve security purposes, to avoid further incidents.
Darsalia added that the Georgian and Azerbaijani governments are actively cooperating on the issues of border delimitation with all “relevant” agencies involved in the process. According to him, it was decided during the meeting of the state border delimitation commission in Baku on May 23-24 that the commission experts will carry out certain works on the ground. Darsalia also noted that the initial meetings of experts are scheduled for August 19-23.
Comment by President’s Administration
The Georgian President’s Administration also commented on the issue today with President’s spokesperson Khatia Moistsrapishvili saying that the decision on border delimitation between “two friendly countries” was made jointly by the Azerbaijani and Georgian Presidents during the latter’s visit to Baku in February.
“The President of Georgia believes that the commission should be given a possibility to work. Of course, nobody has an illusion that it will happen today or tomorrow, but the commission should have a possibility to work in a calm and effective environment,” Moistsrapishvili said.
David Gareji, a medieval monastic complex located about 70 kilometers southeast of Tbilisi, has been one of the major stumbling blocks in the Georgian-Azerbaijani border talks.
Lack of agreement on where the border between the two countries passes came into a sharp focus in the end of April, when Azerbaijani border guards restricted access to parts of David Gareji Monastery. Azerbaijani decision followed Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili’s visit to the monastery.
Although the restrictions were soon lifted, activists and local residents, as well as some nationalists rallied, claiming Georgia’s rights to the disputed section.
Georgian-Azerbaijani commission, tasked with border delimitation between the two countries, met on May 14 first and later on May 23-24 in Baku.
The tensions further escalated on May 28 when Georgian Orthodox clerics, their parish, ordinary citizens and civil rights activists held another rally.
Two thirds of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan has been agreed. One third of the border, where David Gareji Monastery is located, has yet to be agreed.