Original Post (Approximately 4:30 PM, local time, May 16, 2012)
My region has been in the news quite a bit lately, so I thought I should fill you all in. The Davit Gareji Monastery, a popular tourist site with great importance in Georgian culture and religion, has long been subject to a border dispute between Georgia and Azerbaijan. Recently, the dispute has become more major with the news reports that Azeri border guards are currently stationed on Georgian territory in the monastery.
Allegedly, the exact border between Georgia and Azerbaijan was drawn by Stalin back in the Soviet days, when it wasn’t so important exactly which territory was Georgian and which was Azeri, because ultimately all were part of the Soviet Union. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Soviet internal borders were maintained as national borders. This border left the Davit Gareji complex split between the two countries.
When my friends and I visited Davit Gareji at the end of March, we knew we were very close to Azerbaijan, but we didn’t even realize where we entered Azeri territory. There were certainly no guards there– we only encountered two other people on our trek up the mountain to the cave sites. Now that I’ve heard about the controversy, I’m quite sure that we were in Azerbaijan, but there were no obvious indicators of the fact. (I’m under the impression that the low fence is, in fact, the border–at the time I just thought it was a rather ineffective means of keeping people from tumbling off the mountain). I recently spoke on the phone to a friend (a fellow foreigner living in Georgia) who had visited Davit Gareji in the past few weeks. She mentioned at one point “You know the place where the guards are?” So, clearly the situation for tourists there has changed a bit in the last month. She said she and her friends were discouraged from lingering or taking photos of Azeri territory by the guards posted there (which is a shame, because it was a really stunning view).
According to the news, there are now Azeri soldiers at the border, including in the monastery complex, and the two countries have been discussing the border dispute with more urgency. In an article dated May 15, The Messenger, an English-language paper based in Tbilisi, notes that Georgian border guards are now also present, and that tourists are prevented from visiting the full extent of the site. An Azeri news website, Contact, reported on May 14 that Azeri guards had previously been barred from visiting the monastery, and have now entered Georgian territory.
Although I am in this raion, my knowledge of the situation is based on what I’ve read online and seen in the news. It’s certainly been a major topic of conversation, but I haven’t gotten the impression that people feel unsafe, just worried about preserving their cultural heritage and making sure it stays in Georgia’s possession.
Update: 10 PM local time, May 16, 2012
Rumours are flying that the territory has been ceded to Azerbaijan. At this time I haven’t found any official (or even somewhat reputable) sources offering this information. Will update if and when I find out more.
Update: 11 PM local time, May 17, 2012
Still no actual updates on the subject–legitimate news sources suggest that negotiations between the two countries are still ongoing, while many Georgian interlocutors have told me “What a shame that place is no longer ours!”
Update: 4 PM local time, May 18, 2012
“Word on the street” remains the same. Democracy and Freedom Watch has published a nice summary of the situation here.
Update: May 20, 2012
Meetings are continuing, and the situation feels far less tense. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (of Georgia) has issued a statement here. Meetings are scheduled to take place on the issue in conjunction with the NATO summit in Chicago. As I understand it, the border remains the same as it always has, but Azeri guards are now enforcing it, blocking tourist access to the Udabno monastery.
Update May 24, 2012
The situation at Davit Gareji is resolved for the time being. Though the legal border remains in dispute, Georgia and Azerbaijan have agreed to return to the status quo regarding tourist visits to the site. Civil.ge offers a full report on the May 20 agreement. So if you stumbled upon my blog trying to learn whether or not you can visit as a tourist again, it appears that you can! Enjoy!