Tbilisi, October 8, 2019
His Holiness Patriarch-Catholicos Ilia II of Georgia met with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier yesterday, imploring him to help resolve the delicate issue of Georgian territorial integrity, which, in the Patriarch’s view, is the greatest and most painful problem currently facing the nation, reports the press service of the Georgian Church.
“20% [of our territory] is captured by another country,” Pat. Ilia lamented, “but I want to say that this problem is also a great burden for Russia. We have to do everything to resolve this problem.”
The venerable Patriarch also expressed his hope that Germany would help find a resolution: “We believe that Germany has enough power and authority to take an active part in this process. I believe the military bases should be withdrawn from these territories,” he said, referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two breakaway republics that consider themselves independent, while Georgia continues to consider them part of Georgian territory, though under Russian military occupation.
According to the Patriarch, the visit of the German President, who arrived in Georgia on Monday and is leaving today, is very important for Georgia and gives the Georgian people hope, given Steinmeier’s long history of diplomatic work.
President Steinmeier’s name has been huge in the media lately, given Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky’s signing of the “Steinmeier Formula,” which aims to resolve the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
In turn, the German President noted that he sees attempts from the Georgian government to resolve the matter diplomatically, and said that Russia’s active participation in the process is inevitable.
At that same time, he recalled his visit to Georgia in 2008 as Prime Minister of Georgia, when they failed to find to prevent a conflict in the breakaway regions, whose independence Georgia does not recognize.
“When we talk about Georgia, it is impossible not to note the challenge and problems associated with the occupation of Abkhazia and Ossetia. You said that it is necessary to find solutions to this conflict. I want to recall that when I first arrived in Georgia in July 2008, we wanted to find a way out of the situation in order to avoid escalation, but, unfortunately, we could not. Your leadership is looking for a diplomatic solution to the conflict and, of course, the other side should be involved in this process. Russia’s active participation is inevitable,” the German head of state said, reports RIA-Novosti.
However, as recently as this summer, the Georgian Patriarchate has accused Russian leadership of worsening the situation. While in Ekaterinburg in July, President Vladimir Putin spoke of the history of Russia, Georgia, Ossetia, and Abkhazia, though the Georgian people largely rejected his version of history.
Referring to Putin’s statement that Georgia “engulfed” Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Patriarchate responded that “Such distortion of historic facts continues to deepen the existing conflicts.”
President Steinmeier also met with Georgian Prime Minister Giorgi Gakharia and Parliamentary Speaker Archil Talakvadze and visited the administrative line of South Ossetia to get acquainted with the situation on the ground.
“It is clear for Germany that the territorial integrity is a principle, which is crucial to maintenance of the peace in Europe,” Steinmeier said, welcoming the resumption of discussions between Georgian and Russian foreign ministers.
Concerning Church territory, in 2011, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill assured Pat. Ilia that Abkhazia and South Ossetia remain within the canonical jurisdiction of the Georgian Church, though this has not prevented all confusion on the ground. There is a schismatic “Abkhazian Orthodox Church” and the famous New Athos Monastery is in schism, rejecting the authority of the Georgian Church, but unable to convince the Russian Church to accept it.
In 2017, Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili accused Russian forces of destroying a church in Abkhazia to build a military base.
Georgia is also currently facing troubles with its neighbor Azerbaijan. Their 300-mile border has never been clearly defined, and tensions have raged over the past few months around the history Davit Gareja Monastery which straddles the border, but is hugely important for the history of the Georgian Orthodox Church and the Georgian nation itself.
South Ossetia declared independence from Georgia on May 29, 1992, during the 1991-1992 South Ossetian War, and Abkhazia declared independence after its own war with Georgia in 1992-1993. Both regions stand on the border Russian-Georgian border.
Diplomatic relations between Georgia and Russia began to deteriorate in the early 2000s, which eventually led to the Russo-Georgian War in August 2008 in which Russia fought with Abkhazia and South Ossetia against what they believed was Georgian aggression against the breakaway republics. Georgia considers, however, that pro-Russian separatists violated an earlier ceasefire agreement, and that Russia is militarily occupying its territory.
Russia recognized the sovereignty of both republics on August 26, 2008, though they are only partially recognized by 5 countries in all.