Georgia-Turkey Agreement

Decisive Battle for Oshki


Sisyphus of Negotiations

Direct negotiations between the Turkish and Georgian governments on restoring Georgian cathedrals in Tao Klarjeti – the historical southwestern Georgian province now part of northeastern Turkey – began in 2005 and right from the beginning the Patriarchate of Georgia was a stumbling block to progress. “Monuments must be rehabilitated but agreement must be achieved only at the level of states being in equal position. Back in 2005, when negotiations on this issue first started, the Turkish side had similar demands as well. Our position then was strict too though we expressed it, if memory serves me right, not officially but offstage and the talks about the issue stopped instantly,” recalls Father Michael Botkoveli, Secretary of Georgia's Patriarchy.

In 2007, talks with the Turkish side resumed and a tentative agreement was actually reached by the spring of 2008. The subject of negotiations then was restoration of three cathedrals – Oshki, Ishkhani and Khandzta – in return for repair of Kvirike Mosque (in Kobuleti) and Ahmadiyya Mosque (in Akhaltsikhe) and reconstruction of Aziziye Mosque in Batumi on a site to be selected by the Georgian side. From the start, negotiations envisaged restoration of the monuments only as historic cultural icons, not active places of worship.

The Patriarchate was against those conditions as well. On 20 June 2008, the Patriarch of Georgia sent the Prime Minister a letter, which read: “When more than 240 mosques (of which 140 are in territory of Adjara), eight madrasahs, to say nothing about secular educational institutions, operate in Georgia and not a single Georgian church operates in Turkey, we deem the signing of an agreement in the current form unjustifiable…. As regards requirements of the Turkish side, it is well known that the majority of Batumi residents are Orthodox Christians. Nevertheless, quite a large mosque already operates in Batumi and it fits the number of Muslims there… On the location where ‘Aziziye Mosque’ stood residential high-rises have been built, which cannot be destroyed. The allocation of a territory in any other district of Batumi for the reproduction of that mosque, in fact, means the construction of a new mosque, which will cause huge protest among local population. We feel it is our responsibility to warn you about that.”

The continued opposition of the Patriarchate thwarted the second round of negotiations too. Sometime later, between 2008 and 2010, bas-reliefs depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary fell off the southern wall of Oshki and were lost and the cathedral’s unique dome further deteriorated; the dome of the Khandzta cathedral caved in; and deep cracks appeared on the walls of Ishkhani.

In 2010, negotiations resumed for the third time. In early 2011, agreement was almost achieved, this time on the restoration of not three but four cathedrals. The list of Oshki, Ishkhani and Khandzta was expanded to include Otkhta Church as well. In return, three mosques and a Turkish bath were to be repaired and the Aziziye Mosque to be reconstructed in Georgia. Restoration of the four Georgian cathedrals was scheduled to commence in the spring of 2011 and was expected to take five years to complete. The Patriarchate once again was quick to fire off yet another protest. The Patriarchate assessed the achieved result as absolutely unacceptable and offered the government its own conditions: “When numerous newly opened mosques operate in Georgia why cannot, at least, two or three Georgian monasteries be opened (which does not require congregations) in return in our friendly country and why does the Turkish side offer the fulfillment of that only on the basis of reciprocation and, even more so, with the 5/4 ratio?... The Georgian Patriarchate deems the restoration of Ardasheni (Ardeşen) and Khakhuli monasteries as a top priority; other churches for restoration can be selected by relevant state agencies upon agreement with the Patriarchate.”

The Patriarchate further demanded that it be included in the negotiations and that any agreement be conditioned on its approval. The Patriarchate insisted that responsibility for the care of Oshki, Ishkhani, Khandzta and Otkhta churches should be entrusted to the Turkish side and UNESCO and that Georgia should start new negotiations on other churches.

“Let us note at the very start that the monuments of such significance as Oshki, Khandzta, Otkhta, Ishkhani… could be restored under the aegis of UNESCO and, to that end, corresponding steps could have been taken earlier. Negotiation with the Turkish side would be conducted on the restoration of other churches” (18 January 2011).

Soon thereafter, on 4 February 2011, the Patriarchate issued another statement which made it clear that the government of Georgia did not intend to consider demands of the Patriarchate: “We hoped that after the statement of 18 January 2011, the Patriarchate would be involved in the negotiation on the restoration of churches and mosques, which is underway between Georgia and Turkey. Unfortunately, that did not happen and the process is being developed without accommodating interests of the Church, which we deem unacceptable because without transfer of Khakhuli and Ardasheni churches – that is, without such type of reciprocation – we consider the commencement of construction of mosques unjustified. We would like to explain that Ardasheni is not merely a church, it is one of the Episcopal centers of historical Lazeti and its restoration means featuring not only Ardasheni, but also the entire Lazeti province as an integral part of Georgian ethnic culture and church.”

A few weeks later, on 21 February 2011, Nika Vacheishvili, Director General of the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation of Georgia, cited “public opinion and activity” as the key consideration in enacting the agreement with Turkey. That meant the Georgian government had to secure wide-scale public support for restoration of the monuments in Tao Klarjeti or else the agreement would again be threatened no matter what happened. When the society failed to show any strong support for salvation of the churches, the announced restoration works did not commence as planned in the spring of 2011.

It is hard to say why, but the number of churches and mosques had decreased from four to two by the time the 2012 negotiations were underway. Georgia limited itself to Oshki and Ishkhani while Turkey requested only restoration of the Jaqeli mosque in Akhaltsikhe and reconstruction of the Aziziye Mosque. Perhaps the Georgian government saw this as a compromise that would pacify the Patriarchate. If so, the gambit did not work.

In late-January 2012, immediately after the public learned that a positive result had been reached by the two sides, the Patriarchate issued a new and even harsher statement to the government. The Patriarchate accused the government of grossly violating its constitutional agreement with the Orthodox Church, “because the Georgian Patriarchate, which is the owner of each and every Georgian church and monastery, has not and is not involved in official negotiation.”

Moreover, instead of pressing its “priority” issues of the Khakhuli and Ardasheni monasteries, the Patriarchate put forward a new demand calling for restoration only of Ardasheni and renewal of Episcopal activity there. It may be that the Patriarchate took a reciprocal step in response to the two sides’ halving the number of mosques and regarded that step as a compromise on its part. Whatever its intention, the Patriarchate’s tone was anything but conciliatory: “[I]f Turkey, for any reason, finds the fulfillment of this condition unacceptable, we will deem the construction of the Aziziye Mosque – a symbol of difficult period in our history – in Batumi on the premise of saving Oshki and Ishkhani absolutely unacceptable.” That statement of the administrative body of the Georgian Orthodox Church again placed responsibility for tending Oshki and Ishkhani on Turkey and UNESCO.

* * *

Below, I will try to highlight the main demands and arguments of the Patriarchate and evaluate each of them critically.

Who do they belong to?

The Patriarchate deems it inexpedient for Georgia to conduct negotiations around Oshki and Ishkhani (before that, it also deemed negotiations on the Khandzta and Otkhta churches inexpedient). It believes that UNESCO and Turkey are responsible for care of these monuments.

The position of the Patriarchate on this issue is strange, to put it mildly. It seems clear to everyone else that rescuing Georgian monuments is as much the obligation of Georgia as it is the responsibility of Turkey. That is simple to explain and should be easy to understand – the architecture of Tao-Klarjeti is part and crown of Georgian religious culture. The Georgian state is obliged to fulfill that mission not only to preserve its architectural past, protect the present sites and ensure its future legacy, but also because the Constitutional Agreement between the State of Georgia and the Georgian Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Georgia requires it. Article 10 of the Constitutional Agreement decrees, “The State shall conduct negotiations with relevant states about the protection, maintenance and ownership of each and every Georgian Orthodox church, monastery, ruins thereof, other religious construction and religious items existing on the territories of those states.”

The Patriarchate’s position regarding UNESCO is not correct either. UNESCO cannot settle this issue for one simple reason – UNESCO can only consider an application about this or that monument if it has been submitted by the state in which the monument is located. In the case of Georgian cathedrals in Tao Klarjeti, the applicant country would have to be Turkey. At this stage, Turkey has submitted

applications to UNESCO on only eight monuments. UNESCO is busy compiling lists of only those monuments “transferred” to it; it does not engage in the process of restoration at all. UNESCO’s scope of interest is strictly limited to those designated monuments for which maintenance is assumed as the responsibility of the state. Given the specific nature of UNESCO activity, neither Oshki nor any other Georgian church located in present-day Turkey will fall under UNESCO supervision unless and until Turkey officially assumes responsibility for its maintenance. The most expedient way for Georgia to rescue its churches is by negotiating directly with Turkey. Turkey may thereafter apply to UNESCO for supervision of, for example, Oshki. But even if that were to happen, UNESCO at the end of the day does not possess any lever to exert actual influence on the will of the state. That much was proved with the Bagrati Cathedral reconstruction. UNESCO has no power to impose a fine on a disobedient country or to impose an economic embargo or to deploy a punitive army – that all lies beyond its ambit.

Commensuration and Reciprocation

Under “commensurate negotiations,” the Patriarchate implies negotiations on construction of the Ardasheni basilica and full-fledged restoration of the Lazeti or Tao-Klarjeti eparchy. Its understanding of “reciprocation” is explained by reference to the numerous mosques which operate in Georgia and are the property of Muslims.

The principle of “reciprocation” as proposed by the Patriarchate is rather unreasonable, to say the least. Today, in the Twenty-First Century, its perspective on that issue can even be assessed as an expression of medieval reasoning. In the Middle Ages, church and state were not separate, though now and then they were subordinate to each other. Georgia and Turkey are not theocratic states, but modern, western-style secular countries. Any negotiation on satisfying Turkish religious interest in Georgia – or vice versa, gratifying the Georgian State’s religious aspiration in Turkey – would be unconstitutional in either country. Neither Turkey nor Georgia has a foreign religious confessional interest. Consequently, the two states could not possibly conduct any type of negotiation – let alone commensurate – in this respect. The only possible context of the negotiations is cultural-historic.

Viewing mosques and madrasahs in Georgia as “objects” serving the interests of another country is – to use the Patriarchate’s own terminology – “absolutely unacceptable.” Those mosques and madrasahs serve the religious needs of Muslims living in Georgia. For one country to negotiate with another country on the basis of religious “reciprocation” would be tantamount to bartering the religious rights of its own citizens. That would offend the self-esteem and dignity of Georgia’s Muslims because their own government in that case would be telling them, “You belong to Turkey.” In Georgia, Muslims – as well as Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Jews and Jehovah Witnesses – have and must have the constitutional right to build and worship in mosques, churches, synagogues or other religious facilities. What the Patriarchate proposes is precisely an unconstitutional, anti-state and anti-Georgian concept.

As for the Ardasheni basilica itself, one can say that no competent directories provide any valuable information about it. Art historians and critics do not view Ardasheni as a monument of world cultural heritage. There is not even any evidence proving its Georgian origin. Given these circumstances, Ardasheni is not an appropriate subject of negotiations between the two countries.

Blackmail or Real Threat?

The Patriarchate sees danger in restoration of a mosque in any form in Batumi. It claims that any such restoration could spark protest among local Orthodox Christians and trigger tensions between Muslims and Orthodox Christians.

If that is really a threat, then both the Patriarchate and the state should spare no effort in averting religious tension. And they must do

that because of the unwavering principle that the rights of religious minorities must be fully protected and realized. Protection of minority rights is one of the cornerstones of the modern Western liberal-democratic state. At the same time, that should be the mission of any church that holds itself out as an institution based on love of compatriot and respect for humanity. So far, mosques have been built in Adjara and throughout Georgia and, as a rule, intolerance against them has been short-lived. Threatening the government with religious unrest in this instance looks more like attempted blackmail than legitimate concern.

Parties to Negotiation

Since the negotiations concerned those churches which the Georgian Orthodox Church, based on the constitutional agreement, deems as its own property, the Patriarchate believes that constitutional agreement was grossly violated because the Patriarchate was not fully involved in the negotiation process.

The constitutional agreement does not say what the Patriarchate claims it says. The Patriarchate of the Georgian Orthodox Church legally owns only that property of Orthodox Christian historic heritage which is located within the territory of Georgia; Georgian churches located outside the territory of the country do not fall under its ownership. However, the Georgian Orthodox Church does have the independent right to pose its own question to the government of Turkey about the registration, as well as return to the Patriarchate, of any Georgian Orthodox church.

It is easy to establish whether or not the government actually violated (grossly or otherwise) the constitutional agreement. That issue is resolved by the obligation which Article 10 of the constitutional agreement imposes on the Georgian state to negotiate “with relevant states” to ensure “protection, maintenance and ownership of each and every Georgian Orthodox church, monastery, ruins thereof, other religious construction and religious items existing on the territories of those states.”

Thus, conducting negotiations of that type with other countries is the exclusive prerogative of the state. Inclusion or exclusion of the Patriarchate in that process is at the discretion of the state. If the state decides to conduct negotiations with another state without involving the Patriarchate, it has every legal right to do so.

The real problem is that, from the start of negotiations in 2005 until recently, the Georgian government has shown extreme deference to the Patriarchate. By trying to get the Patriarchate to agree with the results of each negotiation stage, the state instead enabled the Patriarchate to derail negotiations.

That seems to explain the inexcusable delay in the rehabilitation of Oshki and other churches. Had rehabilitation work on those monuments started in 2005, or even in 2008, that work might have been completed by now; the dome of Khandzta might not have caved in; Oskhi might not have lost its precious bas-reliefs, and the issue of rehabilitation of Otkhta and Khandzta might not have been taken off the table at the negotiations.

Dilemma of Aziziye

Another important question that must be answered: Is the Aziziye Mosque a “Turkish time bomb,” to use the bellicose language of a tense period? After all, what does Aziziye symbolize? Does it actually symbolize occupation?

True, the history of the first mosques in Batumi is connected with the epoch of Ottoman rule and Aziziye was constructed during that period, namely, in 1863, at the initiative of Valide Khanum, mother of Sultan Aziziye. But Turkish imperialism had long since given way to liberal reform. Today, Turkey and Georgia are linked through political and economic friendship. Negotiations should not create a chasm between friends. To the contrary, reconstructing the Aziziye Mosque in Batumi as well as rehabilitating the Oshki and Ishkhani cathedrals in Tao Klarjeti should deepen those ties. The historical-cultural relevance of these churches and mosques should serve as symbols of Turkish-Georgian friendship.

Is that a realistic wish? The answer to that question – as counterintuitive as it may seem – can be found in the relationship between the Georgian Patriarchy and Russia. The Georgian Patriarchate stubbornly maintains that Russian and Georgian people are brethrens sharing a common religion – regardless of the fact that Russia is occupier; regardless of the fact that Russia pursues expansionist religious policies on the canonic territory of the Georgian Orthodox Church in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and obstructs full-fledged restoration of the Patriarchate’s jurisdiction there; regardless of the fact that any trace of the Georgian legacy is being systematically erased in Georgian churches in Abkhazia and the fact that the Ilori Church is already covered with an onion-shaped dome.

A change in the attitude of the Georgian Patriarchate toward Turkey and Aziziye mosques is not only possible and necessary, it is a moral obligation of the Patriarchate. In contrast to hostile Russia, Turkey is a friendly country. The Georgian government has the prospect of negotiating on a wider scale with the Turkish government – Khandzta, Otkhta, Bana, Doliskana, Opiza, Tbeti, Khakhuli, Parkhali, Shatberdi, Artanuji are all awaiting new agreements.

It is as simple as that – churches in Tao-Klarjeti must first be saved physically in order to conduct religious services there in Georgian some fine day.

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 88, published 20 February 2012.






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