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Georgia blames former ‘senior officials’ for Davit Gareja border dispute

22 January 2021
Davit Gareja. Photo: via Georgia travel

The latest from the Georgian probe into two former officials accused of pursuing an adverse border arrangement with Azerbaijan has hinted at yet unidentified senior officials under the former government. The critics fear that the case might be politically motivated.

On 21 January, the Georgian Prosecutor’s Office unveiled surveillance materials involving Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilichova, the two Georgian cartographers indicted for forfeiting state lands to Azerbaijan.

The prosecution argued that two separate recordings made last year indicated that the two, who worked at the Georgian Foreign Ministry under the United National Movement’s government, and were responsible for signing the 2006 border agreement with Azerbaijan, ‘acted as instructed by their superiors’.

With the latest press conference on 21 January, the Prosecutor’s Office tried to clarify the motive of the cartographers allegedly acting ‘in detriment of Georgia’s territorial integrity’, the lack of which had been often underlined by the lawyers of the indictees and the media. Prosecutor Amiran Guluashvili stopped short of identifying the names of their superiors who allegedly pressured them into committing a crime.

The former members of the commission on delimiting and demarcating the state borders stand accused of forfeiting about ten separate sections of Georgia’s land bordering Azerbaijan, amounting to 35 km².

What electrified Georgian public the most was the fact that under the agreement, Azerbaijan has claimed a plot of 2.7 km² which includes a section of the Davit Gareja Monastery Complex, a major Georgian cultural and religious monument and a popular tourist destination. The control over the undemarcated area has been a delicate issue as it overlaps with Keshikchidagh, the Azerbaijani cultural heritage site.

[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijan–Georgia row reignites over Davit Gareja monastery complex]

The Prosecutor’s Office argued on Thursday that Melashvili, surveilled in his office last September, confirmed on tape that he had received orders from his superiors to identify the Georgian–Azerbaijani border running on the top of Udabno mountain.

A video from Prosecutor’s Office allegedly containing footage of Melashvili.

‘Discrediting government rivals’

The authorities brought the charges against the cartographers mere weeks before the 31 October parliamentary election. The timing triggered major opposition groups accusing the government of fabricating the case to tap into voters’ worries over an unsolved territorial dispute with Azerbaijan and to implicate the formerly ruling United National Movement party (UNM).

The probe has been widely welcomed by the Georgian Orthodox Church and several nationalist groups who had recently been rallying against Azerbaijan restricting access to a part of the Davit Gareja complex.

[Read more on OC Media: Azerbaijan–Georgia row reignites over Davit Gareja monastery complex]

Last year, on 16 November, Georgian watchdog Media Development Foundation (MDF) said that the Davit Gareja controversy and alleged ‘concession’ of the territories to Azerbaijan were actively used in the election campaign by the ruling party and conservative opposition groups to discredit government rivals associated with UNM.

‘Political prisoners’

Within the investigation, Georgian prosecutors questioned a number of former officials as witnesses. However, in spite of the demands of the lawyers of the indictees, the founder and the former Chair of the ruling Georgian Dream, Bidzina Ivanishvili has never been questioned.

According to investigators, Russia-based Georgian businessman Davit Khidasheli retrieved the ‘original’ Soviet maps of Davit Gareja from Russian archives on behalf of Bidzina Ivanishvili. 

Bidzina Ivanishvili. Screengrab from Georgian Public Broadcaster’s 12 January interview.

Upon promising to retire from politics for the second time in his latest interview, Ivanishvili hailed Khidasheli for his ‘patriotic’ contribution.

The critics of the indictments, including Tbilisi-based rights group EMC that prepared an amicus brief for the court last year, argued that the cartographers, even as civil servants, cannot be accused of forfeiting the state territories considering the limited mandate of the state commission experts.

On 21 January, Saakashvili’s ex-ally and the leader of the conservative and Russia-friendly Democratic Movement — United Georgia party, Nino Burjanadze speculated that Melashvili and Ilichova would not be the primary targets of the probe as the authorities, according to her, mull implicating some senior official in it. 

Burjanadze has voiced the suspicion long present among the opposition groups currently boycotting the newly elected parliament. Among their demands are ‘releasing all political prisoners’. Melashvili and Ilichova are also considered to be among them.

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