Author: Fuad HILALOV
Yet another incident at the border of Georgia with Azerbaijan took place on July 14 near the complex of cave monasteries Keshikchidagh (David-Gareji). A group of Georgian citizens, violating the state border of the Republic of Azerbaijan, attacked Azerbaijani border guards, offended them, and took their military ammunition.
According to Georgian media, the incident occurred after Azerbaijani border guards allegedly took out the icons from the monastery and polluted the surrounding area. However, Teimuraz Kupatadze, deputy head of the border police of the Georgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told ITAR-TASS that according to Azerbaijani border guards, the icons were deteriorating due to bad weather conditions, and “to avoid accusations against them, they took them out of the monastery and handed over to the Georgian border guards.” As for the alleged “pollution” of the territory by Azerbaijani border guards, the Georgian official said: “Nothing like that happens there, trust me. The garbage is left by tourists and pilgrims, not Azerbaijani police. It has been there since tourists were allowed to visit the sacred place.”
As we can see, even Georgian officials reject the accusations of the so-called Georgian activists. But instead of gratitude for taking care of the heritage of their monastery, Azerbaijani border guards were offended and attacked by Georgian nationalists.
These outrageous facts caused a great resonance and wide discussions in social networks in Azerbaijan. The reasons are obvious. First, there is a fact of disrespect towards Azerbaijani border guards and the state border of Azerbaijan. It is surprising that after each such incident around the monastery, Georgian officials call it a provocation, but they do not take any measures to prevent similar incidents in the future. In the current situation, declarative statements about good-neighbourly relations should be backed with practical steps such as, for example, initiating a criminal case against provocateurs.
Tensions around Keshikchidag are the result of minor incidents that took place at the beginning of this year due to self-indulgence and tacit consent of Georgian authorities. Given the apparent orchestration of the event (cameras, journalists) and the openly defiant behaviour of Georgian “activists”, it is possible that they tried to provoke Azerbaijani border guards to make at least a warning shot.
These provocations also demonstrate disrespect for the history of Azerbaijani people. In fact, before the adoption of Islam, the inhabitants of ancient Azerbaijan were Christians. Thus, the desire of the Georgian nationalists to appropriate the monastery and adjacent territories only because of religious considerations looks absurd. For centuries, ethnic Azerbaijanis made up the majority of the population of Tiflis - now Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. There are still many mosques in the city where the ancestors of Azerbaijanis used to pray. According to the logic of Georgian nationalists, it turns out that Azerbaijan has a full right to appropriate these Muslim temples on Georgian territory. Or, if one of the mosques were located near the border of Azerbaijan, would it be appropriate to raise the issue of the transfer of these territories to Azerbaijan? By the way, the old claims of Armenia to hundreds of churches on the territory of modern Georgia fit well into this logic of actions. However, in this case, official and spiritual authorities of Georgia stick to a rather tough and principled position and react to Armenian attacks quite promptly.
“On July 14, a group of persons committed a provocative criminal act against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Azerbaijan,” Khalaf Khalafov, special representative of the President of the Republic of Azerbaijan on issues of border and Caspian Sea, described the event. In his interview with AzerTAG, he noted that “it is the Georgian border guards who are responsible for free passage of these provocateurs and criminals into the territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan.”
Khalafov's following statement regarding the status of the monastery and the issues of border delimitation sounds more than convincing: “Any cultural, religious and other non-legal facts cannot serve as a basis for the delimitation of the state border. The area encompassing the Keshikchidag complex, according to all existing legal documents and the actual state of use, belongs to Azerbaijan. This is also reflected in the topographic maps approved by the Supreme Soviet of the Georgian SSR as early as in 1963, and was accepted by both sides as an administrative boundary until the collapse of the USSR.”
In contrast, the statements of Georgian officials never show clarity and accuracy on the processes taking place around Keshikchidag. Georgian journalist Mzevinar Khuchishvili told about this in her interview with R+: "the ongoing events are the fault of the current and former authorities of Georgia because the issue of David-Gareji has not been widely discussed with the population.”
Instead, one can hear various statements of Georgians about the third parties interested in the deterioration of Azerbaijani-Georgian relations. Azerbaijani side has also raised the same issue before and now. The only difference is that in Georgia these parties found fertile ground for the implementation of their plans.
Georgian political life has been caught in instability since the end of the last year. Georgian authorities still have problems with the control of the situation in the country. After the October 28, 2018 presidential elections, when the opposition did not acknowledge the results and began protest actions, it was not possible to restore stability in the country. This is followed by mass anti-government and anti-Russian statements, which have already led to the resignation of the chairman of the Georgian parliament. Parliamentary elections will be held in the country very soon. Apparently, the ruling party Georgian Dream may even lose the power to the opposition. Economic situation in Georgia is also worsening amidst the devaluation of the national currency to a historical minimum. Georgian society is deeply polarized. Besides, after the next failure on the Ukrainian political scene, it seems the former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili again misses his historic homeland. It may well be that some political circles, whipping up the situation around David-Gareji, are trying to distract public attention from pressing social and economic problems. Another important backstage actor in these processes may be the Georgian Orthodox Church. Incidentally, Azerbaijan is the only truly secular country among the rest of South Caucasian countries. In both Armenia and Georgia, the church plays an important and sometimes decisive role within the country. Georgian Orthodox Church and circles close to it always strictly demanded that the authorities resolve the issue of border delimitation on the Keshikchidagh section in favour of Georgia, subjecting the territory of the monastery completely to their jurisdiction.
Although none of the parties voices the forces that may be interested in escalating tensions, some experts see Russian hand again. They assume that the activists who staged an attack on Azerbaijani border guards are related to the political power of the Alliance of Patriots, which advocates rapprochement with Russia and often criticizes the authorities for allowing Azerbaijan and Turkey to “creep economic expansion of Georgia." In addition, the Georgian Orthodox Church, an ally of Russia, supports Alliance of Patriots. These assumptions also imply the ill-fated image of another Russian 'ally', the ruling Georgian Dream, although practical actions of the authorities do little to confirm this assumption.
But there are different opinions as well. For example, according to political analyst Tofig Abbasov, “there are external forces that use Georgia to drive the country into chaos in order to strengthen their own power. Of course, there are marginal adventurous forces, but who attracts them into the orbit of their plans? This absolutely does not correspond to Russian interests in the South Caucasus, because the idea of placing hot spots and zones of instability along the entire perimeter of Russian borders is a Western, American plan.”
Remarkably, anti-Russian and anti-government protests in Georgia began immediately after Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili answered negatively to the question of opening a NATO base in the country. Considering the situation around Iran, there is no reason to discuss the importance of an American military base at Iran's northern borders.
By the way, when the protesters seized Rustaveli Avenue and the square in front of the Georgian parliament, they voiced anti-Azerbaijan slogans and demonstrated banners mentioning the David-Gareji monastery. Almost at the same time, Georgy Gabunia of the leading Georgian opposition TV channel Rustavi-2 insulted the deceased parents of the current president of Russia with obscene words on a live TV program. The spirit of dead parents is as holy for every person as are the frontiers of every state. Perhaps that’s the reason why Georgian authorities so stubbornly refuse to give a clear definition to that “third force”, although in other cases they do it easily. For example, immediately accusing Russia of organizing anti-Russian rallies. Some forces are very interested in the chaos and uncertainty in the country in order to bring to power completely loyal manual control satellites.
We think there is no need to underline the interest of Armenia and the Armenian diaspora, which has rather strong positions in the Georgian political establishment, in the current situation. Armenians has always dreamed of embroiling the two allied neighbouring states, Georgia an Azerbaijan.
Either way, the Georgian authorities should take care that such incidents do not take place in the future. Otherwise, it will be the state interests of Georgia that suffer the most.