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The Cartographers Case: How A Border Dispute Became Georgia's 'October Surprise'

Some parts of the ancient Davit Gareja monastery complex lie astride Georgia's border with Azerbaijan.

The Davit Gareja monastery is carved into a mountain that sits astride the Georgian-Azerbaijani border. It is said to have been founded by one of the monks who came from Mesopotamia to bolster Christianity in Georgia in the sixth century, St. David Garejeli.

Georgia and Azerbaijan have been attempting to demarcate the border in that area since both became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. Georgia's offer to exchange other areas for the entire monastery complex was refused by Baku, which said the heights had strategic importance. Only a small portion of the monastery complex is in dispute.

Now, two former members of the government commission tasked with negotiating the border demarcation have been arrested, in what opposition parties and nongovernmental organizations say is a politically motivated case organized by the ruling Georgian Dream party ahead of parliamentary elections on October 31.

'A Case Of Treason'

Speaking on Imedi TV on October 18, Defense Minister Irakli Gharibashvili said it wasn't a "case of cartographers, but a case of treason." He labelled the then-ruling United National Movement (ENM) "traitors" for seeking to give up Georgian territory and said the party should be banned. He said voters had "a very simple choice: either they choose betrayal, or loyalty to the state, patriotism."

On October 7, the Prosecutor-General's Office detained Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova on charges of violating the country's territorial integrity, which could see them jailed for 10 to 15 years. On October 8, they were ordered to be held for two months of pretrial detention.

Prosecutors allege that, as members of the Commission on Delimitation and Demarcation under the Foreign Ministry, they used the wrong map, from 1970-80, which would see Georgia surrendering 3,500 hectares of its territory to Azerbaijan. They also accuse the pair of hiding the map they should have used, from 1936-38, which coincides with Georgia's historical borders. The prosecutors say that the unfavorable map was used to demarcate some areas of the border in 2006-07.

Natalia Ilychova (left) and Iveri Melashvili appear in a Tbilisi court on October 7.
Natalia Ilychova (left) and Iveri Melashvili appear in a Tbilisi court on October 7.

According to the prosecutors, Ilychova hid the existence of the original 1936-38 map, and the members of the commission only had a copy and so could not use it to determine the border. As for the later map of the 1970s-80s taken from Melashvili's office, the prosecutors say that he refused to hand over the document and that they had to search to find the map that Melashvili had been working on for more than 20 years.

In a recent interview with RFE/RL, Melashvili said that he and other members of the commission knew about the 1936-38 map, but did not use it because it contained significant technical defects.

"I have participated in discussions before and even then there were, so to speak, 'dissidents' who cleverly 'discovered' that if we were to follow this 1:200,000-scale map of 1936-37, the other side of the Davit Gareja ridge would be ours. In fact, this is not the case. On this map, this material has the greatest technical flaws, the technical use of which is not advisable. And most importantly, it is not a legal document. Do you think that, if this map could have been used at least a little, we would not have used it?"

'Political Prisoners'

Ilychova's lawyer, Nestan Londaridze, said on October 16 that, as she got acquainted with the case, she became more convinced of the defendants' innocence. "The more I know about the material, the more I am convinced that these two people are political prisoners," she said.

On October 9, 15 NGOs, including Transparency International Georgia and the Open Society Foundation, issued a statement describing the case as "a politically motivated investigation" and urged the prosecutors to "stop manipulating sensitive topics for the population before the elections."

According to the Prosecutor-General's Office, the basis for launching the investigation on August 17 was information received from the Defense Ministry. The ministry received the maps of 1936-38 from businessman Davit Khidasheli, who reportedly obtained them with the help of Russian foreign intelligence officer Oleg Mubarashkin.

Davit Khidasheli
Davit Khidasheli

Khidasheli initially said in testimony to prosecutors in August that his friend Bezhan Maisuradze asked him to help him find the maps in Russia and hand them over to the Defense Ministry. But in an interview on Rustavi-2 TV on October 13 he said the request to find the maps came not from Maisuradze, but from Bidzina Ivanishvili, the head of the ruling Georgian Dream party, whom he first met in 2017.

As for Maisuradze, he is reportedly the co-founder together with Igor Giorgadze of the Compatriots Foundation, which aims to revive the spiritual-historical and national-cultural traditions of Georgian and Russian citizens. Giorgadze, a former national-security minister, is wanted in Georgia for allegedly plotting a 1995 assassination attempt against then-President Eduard Shevardnadze.

Khidasheli says that he owns a number of businesses and is currently the chairman of the board of the Greek company Intracom SA Telecom Solutions. However, from 2007 to 2014, he held positions, including vice president, in the management of one of the largest Russian corporations, AFK Sistema. Intracom SA Telecom Solutions is itself 51-percent-owned by Sistema through a firm registered in the Czech Republic. In his October 13 interview, Khidasheli categorically denied any involvement of the special services.

'Game Of Fire'

Meanwhile, opposition parties have described the arrests as merely a preelection stunt. Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president and honorary chairman of the United National Movement, described the investigation as a "game of fire and a cheap Russian special operation," and that an agreement had been reached with Azerbaijan at the 2012 NATO summit, including on Gareja, but that the Georgian Dream government could not maintain diplomatic relations.

Davit Gareji Monastery
Davit Gareji Monastery

Pikria Chikhradze of the Lelo for Georgia bloc, a centrist grouping seeking to break Georgian Dream and ENM's dominance in the country's parliament, told RFE/RL that, while concern about the fate of the Davit Gareja monastery was genuine, the government had turned it into a "preelection trap."

"It turns out that the national and strategic interests of Davit Gareja and Georgia must be sacrificed for the paranoid struggle of Bidzina Ivanishvili and Mikheil Saakashvili," she said.

Chikhradze is convinced that given the current difficult situation in the South Caucasus, the only country that benefits from the emergence of this type of tension is Russia. "I am afraid that this harmful behavior of our government will cause serious damage to both Davit Gareja and the national interests of Georgia, the [Georgian] Patriarchate, and the [Orthodox] Church," she said.

Dean Andria Jagmaidze, head of the public relations department of the Georgian Patriarchate, said on October 7 that "the decisions made by the [demarcation] commission were to the detriment of Georgia." On October 9, he said that the patriarchate was thinking about the issue only in the sense that the Davit Gareja complex should remain fully within Georgia, not about the timing of the elections.

Beka Mindiashvili, the founder of the Institute for Tolerance and Diversity, considers the patriarchate's desire to bring the whole monastery complex within Georgia to be absolutely natural, but "the game in which the government has now entered is extremely dangerous and it can become extremely damaging to the state, including the resolution of the Gareja issue."

Written by Dan Wisniewski based on reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian Service