Following a series of protests and heightened tensions earlier this year at the Davit Gareja/Keshikchidag monastery complex (see EDM, May 14, June 6), which straddles the border between Azerbaijan and Georgia, an even more serious incident occurred there on July 15. That day, a group of Georgian civilians were filmed confronting several Azerbaijani soldiers and disarming at least one of them (YouTube, July 15). The Georgians were apparently angered by news of Azerbaijan allegedly removing Orthodox Christian icons from the monastery complex located on the Azerbaijani side of the frontier (Interpress News, July 15). Naturally, the border altercation in turn sparked fury inside Azerbaijan and an official rebuke from Baku (RIA Novosti, July 15).
Locally, such incidents raise the profile or visibility of the individuals and actors directly involved. But even if those individuals honestly believe in the “cause” they fight for, they miss two important, higher-level considerations. First, the timing is not expedient: both Azerbaijan and Georgia are still experiencing traumas due to 20 percent of their internationally recognized territories being under foreign occupation. Second, Georgia is home to hundreds of thousands of ethnic Azerbaijanis and dozens of mosques, while Azerbaijan is home to a few thousand ethnic Georgians. Azerbaijan has declared multiculturalism as a state policy and embraces essentially all faiths and religious sites on its territory, including the disputed Orthodox monastery. Therefore, the confrontational activities of local actors have the potential to be beneficial to adversaries of both Georgia and Azerbaijan (Vedemosti.az, Kavkazsky Uzel, May 6; Contact.az, May 10; Fpri.org, June 14, 2019; Randall E. Newnham, “Georgia on my Mind? Russian Sanctions and the End of the ‘Rose Revolution’,” Journal of Eurasian Studies, July 2015). But they can also fit into the agenda of various national-level actors in Georgia.
The ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party’s popular support has been declining for years. Indeed, the GD-backed candidate, Salome Zurabashvili, barely won the presidential election in the November 2018 runoff. And GD’s ratings have taken an even more serious hit amidst the recent scandal involving a nationalist Russian legislator. The latter had been invited by the Georgian government to a joint parliamentary assembly in Tbilisi and was seated in the chair normally reserved for the Georgian speaker of parliament (see EDM, June 24). In the face of weeks of massive street protests initially sparked by widespread outrage over the optics of this episode, the GD government has had to accept public demands to revert to a proportional voting system in the 2020 parliamentary elections. Additionally, due to the violent police crackdown on the demonstrations, the protesters have called for the resignation of Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia, who is close to Georgia’s informal leader, Bidzina Ivanishvili. Finally, Georgian Dream is losing seats in the legislature, with several deputies having already left the party. In turn, former president Mikheil Saakashvili’s United National Movement (UNM) is reclaiming a stronger position. In light of these political dynamics, the ruling GD party could be increasingly tempted to evoke nationalist sentiments surrounding the monastery dispute in order to distract the population from major issues in the lead-up to the 2020 snap parliamentary elections. In fact, Georgian Dream already exploited the monastery issue to try to discredit Saakashvili in 2012 and again in 2019. The populist, opposition Alliance of Patriots party has also tried to follow suit (Georgia Today, July 12; 1tv.ge, July 17; Jam-news.net, June 16; Caucasuswatch.de, July 16, June 21, 2019; Civil.ge, May 18, 2012).
Internationally, the Georgian-Azerbaijani monastery dispute flare-ups, in 2007, 2012 and now in 2019, have coincided with increased Russian-Georgian tensions (Jam-news.org, July 16, 2019; Yenicag.ru July 22, 2019; Eastbook.eu, May 20, 2012; Civil.ge, April 4, 2007). And several notable developments are taking place concurrently with the current monastery incidents. First, the Russian parliament hosted a delegation from the aforementioned Alliance of Patriots on July 15. In Moscow, the Alliance’s members condemned the “destructive forces in Georgia” that undermined relations with Russia and demanded that Tbilisi do everything possible to resolve the crisis (Sova.news, July 15). Second, realizing that Russia can no longer directly influence Georgia’s geopolitical orientation, Moscow passed a flight ban and threatened further economic sanctions on the South Caucasus country. Finally, also following the Georgian-Russian scandal sparked by the inter-parliamentary assembly fiasco (see above), Russian media outlets promoted a narrative that Turkey is taking over the Ajaria region of Georgia—echoing similar assertions frequently made by the Alliance of Patriots (1tv.ru, Vesti.ru, YouTube, June 30; Kp.ru, June 27). The Alliance is known for its populist messages, anti-Turkish rhetoric and a political agenda that significantly aligns with the Kremlin (Mythdetector.ge, June 25, 2019; Civil.ge, June 21, 2014). During the ongoing conflict over the Azerbaijani-Georgian monastery, its members have fueled fierce nationalist sentiments. For instance, on June 1, the Alliance organized a rally in Tbilisi under the slogan “Davit Gareja is Georgia” (Patriots.ge, June 15).
The video of the aforementioned July 15 border incident shows Georgian border guards watching the tumultuous situation without intervening or attempting to prevent the crowd from harassing the Azerbaijani soldiers, who refrained from resisting let alone using force. While Azerbaijan should arguably have foreseen provocative scenarios of this sort and proactively tackled them (see EDM, July 8), it was primarily the Georgian authorities’ duty to prevent its own citizens from illegally crossing the border or crossing any potential diplomatic red lines. Though the Georgian authorities referred to previous such incidents as “provocations” (see EDM, June 6; EurasiaNet, May 2), they ultimately failed to prevent a repeat of them weeks later. The Georgian government’s ambiguity, if it continues, could contribute to the situation spiraling out of control, while simultaneously undermining Georgia’s own national interests. For example, the breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia habitually push the narrative that they originally became part of Georgia due to unjust or wrongheaded Soviet-era policies. Likewise, those actors currently inflaming the monastery dispute with Azerbaijan claim that parts of this border area fell under Azerbaijani control as a result of Soviet dictates. The latter claim, thus, threatens to legitimize the former, hence utterly undercutting one of Tbilisi’s top national security priorities: restoring Georgian sovereignty over Abkhazia and South Ossetia (Agenda.ge, July 24; Fpri.org, June 14).