Monday, 3 October 2011

Monastery dispute stalls Azerbaijan-Georgia border demarcation

Talks on demarcating the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia have stalled again, according to officials at the Georgian foreign ministry. The main issue to be settled is the fate of a 6th century monastery complex which straddles the mutual border.

The demarcation process has been drawn out for years, despite the cordial relations between Baku and Tbilisi and their joint interest in facilitating greater cross-border ties. The old Soviet borders are currently used as a placeholder, whilst the Alazan river also forms a natural boundary along some of the 480km of their boundary.

According to Georgian officials, 160km still remains to be demarcated. The biggest issue is the fate of the David Gareja Monastery, known as the Keshish Dag in Azerbaijan, which sprawls across a mountain slope dividing the two countries – both sides claim that the bulk of the complex lies within their territory. The monastery was founded in the 6th century and is Georgian Orthodox, giving it great significance for modern Georgia.

For Azerbaijan the monastery is significant for two reasons. Firstly it is claimed to be the work of 'Caucasian Albanians', believed to be the ancient inhabitants of Azerbaijan and regularly used as a historical weapon in Azerbaijan's battle with Armenia over who has the 'right' to the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. Secondly and more prosaically, the site is viewed as a strategic height which Azerbaijan is reluctant to give away.

Although officials have downplayed the long-running dispute, public opinion is vociferously opposed to any compromise. The rest of the border can probably be delimited without much controversy, but it remains to be seen whether a compromise can be struck over the fate of the monastery.

The lack of a demarcated border has not been much of an impediment to relations between Azerbaijan and Georgia, which are close and based on extensive energy and infrastructure projects. Given nationalist sensibilities in both countries, however, sacrificing anything believed to be an integral part of national history would be a major headache for the authorities. In the South Caucasus 'compromise' is often equated with 'surrender'.

It seems, therefore, that the commission working on border demarcation is simply seeking to put off the issue of the monastery complex for as long as possible. It has not stopped cooperation, and the ambivalence of the status quo seems to be a situation which everyone can live with, for now.

Sources:, Institute for War and Peace Reporting

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