The Azerbaijani State Border Service has warned that the organisers of ‘provocations’ at the border with Georgia will be ‘held responsible’. They claimed on 3 June to have learnt a plot by four people to violate the border near the disputed Davit Gareja monastery complex (known as Keshikchidagh in Azerbaijan) the following day.
On 4 June, the border service said that they had foiled the plot with the help of their Georgian counterparts.
The warning came a day after it emerged that the Georgian State Security Service (SSG) had summoned Davit Katsarava, leader of the Power is in Unity group for questioning.
Katsarava and his group held several protests over the closure of access to the Udabno Monastery by Azerbaijani border guards in April 2019.
On 30 May, the SSG announced they had launched an investigation into an unnamed group for ‘racial discrimination’.
In a statement, the SSG said they were looking into attempts to stoke tensions between ethnic Georgians and ethnic Azeris in Georgia’s Kvemo Kartli and Kakheti regions. They did not specifically mention Katsarava or if their investigation concerned developments around Davit Gareja.
Speaking to Formula, Katsarava said he ‘asked them why they were summoning me, they said that they were going to question me regarding Gareja. They didn’t say anything else, unfortunately’.
In their statement, the SSG said that certain individuals were trying to incite national rivalry between ethnic Georgians and Azerbaijanis by spreading false information.
‘The group of individuals is trying to portray a situation through its public statements or ideology, as if ethnic Georgians are given advantage in comparison to other citizens of Georgia of ethnic minority, which increases risks of arising of a national conflict’, the statement said.
The State Security Service has also questioned Marneuli-based ethnic Azerbaijani activist Samira Bayramova as a witness.
Bayramova told OC Media that she was not allowed to discuss the questions she was asked. She added that she spoke about a controversy surrounding a statue of Nariman Narimanov, a Tbilisi-born Azerbaijani Bolshevik politician and writer, in Marneuli.
The statue was recently renovated by the Marneuli Mayor’s Office. On 24 May, Marneuli and Hujabi Bishop Giorgi Jamdeliani criticised the mayor ‘for renovating a figure of bolshevik past’ and demanded the statue be taken down.
‘Everybody should know that this is a multi-ethnic settlement. Azerbaijanis, Greeks, and Armenians live here. These centuries prove that we lived united as brothers. Moreover, they should remember that they are citizens of this country, that they live on our land. Who loves our land, uses it and is ready to come out to protect it, regardless of their ethnicity or religion, may they rejoice in Georgian land’, said Jamdeliani on 24 May.
Ethnic Azerbaijanis in Marneuli criticised the demand, alleging that the real reason for the protestations was Narimanov’s ethnicity, which Jamdeliani denied.
Samira Bairamova told OC Media that some of the questions she was asked were insulting.
‘I told them about the Bishop’s discriminatory comment. He said that ethnic Azerbaijanis live and use Georgian land, which is discriminatory, unacceptable and insulting. They are trying to portray it as if Georgians are supreme and others are settlers’, said Bayramova.
The SSG told OC Media that no one had so far been charged or arrested.
Tensions over Davit Gareja
The issue of the undelimited border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was raised by Georgian president Salome Zurabishvili during a visit to Baku in February 2019. After meeting her Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, Zurabishvili said that Georgia and Azerbaijan ‘should finally define their mutual border’.
On 20 April, Zurabishvili visited Davit Gareja following which Azerbaijan closed access to the Udabno Monastery for several days.
The ban triggered protests both at the Monastery complex and in front of the Azerbaijani Embassy in Tbilisi. Georgian activist groups and clerics also held several rallies at Davit Gareja in late May.
[Read more about Davit Gareja on OC Media: Azerbaijan restores Georgian access to Davit Gareji monastery]
A similar controversy occurred in May 2012 when Azerbaijan restricted access for tourists travelling from Georgia to the Udabno Monastery for 15 days.
Azerbaijan has claimed the area is a site of ancient Caucasian Albanian origin and part of Azerbaijan’s cultural heritage; Georgia insists it is a Georgian Orthodox site.
‘We shouldn't succumb to provocations’, the head of the Georgian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Ilia II, stated on 27 May, warning against any third parties working to disrupt Azerbaijani–Georgian relations.
Earlier that month, the Patriarch’s office disavowed anti-Muslim statements after Archimandrite Iobi said the controversy could turn into a ‘religious war’ and that priests should be first to lead ‘if blood needs to be spilt’.
On 15 July, the Georgian Foreign Ministry urged the public to exercise restraint in order to ensure a proper environment for the joint Azerbaijani-Georgian delimitation commission to continue its work.
The same day, officials from both countries met at the border. The joint commission met twice in May 2019 and was set to continue meeting.
On Thursday, Archpriest Shio Mujiri, the incumbent to the patriarch’s throne, told journalists that he was hopeful they would soon be able to restart prayers in the Gareja monasteries.
‘As you know, there’s a new mutual commission. We hope that this commission is more persevering […] and therefore we are hopeful that soon we will be able to pray here. We also hope that our brotherhood with Azerbaijan will also be retained and the truth will be ascertained’, Mujiri said.