“Nothing is going to break me, neither prison, nor anything,” Iveri Melashvili told a Tbilisi court earlier this month. “Be my guest, put me in prison, but I’m not going to put up with this accusation.”

Melashvili, 62, is at the center of a strange and convoluted case, in which two Georgian cartographers stand accused of trying to give away a spiritually significant piece of their homeland to neighboring Azerbaijan. 

He and colleague Natalia Ilychova were arrested on charges of treason on October 7, and now face jail sentences of up to 15 years. Both are saying they are shocked and confused by the charges and so is much of the country. Critics charge that the Georgian government invented the case to manipulate voters and discredit political rivals ahead of a fiercely contested parliamentary vote.   

The story began with a concerned citizen, who apparently unearthed maps of the border between Georgia and Azerbaijan dating back to the 1930s that prove Georgia’s ownership of a piece of territory claimed by both countries. Their supposed discovery triggered an investigation that snowballed into a scandal, in which history, the present, fact and fiction all collide.  

To hear the Georgian government tell it, the two cartographers knew about the 1930s maps all along, but intentionally hid them to help neighboring Azerbaijan walk off with 14 square miles of land. 

At the heart of the matter is a 30-year-old tug of war between Georgia and Azerbaijan for a sliver of rugged terrain on their mutual border. Azerbaijan views the disputed area as a strategic military point, while Georgia regards it as a major spiritual and cultural heritage site, including part of the ancient, rock-hewn Georgian monastery complex of Davit Gareji.       

To make their cases for the land’s ownership, the two countries have been dusting off maps from decades ago, when the boundary between the then Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan was in a state of flux. Melashvili and Ilychova long served as cartographers on the Georgian commission for border delimitation talks with Azerbaijan. 

Georgian prosecutors claim that the pair ignored a 1930s map that allegedly bolsters Georgia’s claims for the land and deliberately relied on versions that supposedly put their own country’s case at a disadvantage. 

“For years, the experts withheld relevant documentation and made decisions deleterious for Georgia,” said the Prosecutor’s Office.  

The cartographers describe the accusations as preposterous. 

“I feel deeply insulted and unjustly humiliated by these ugly accusations,” Melashvili wrote in a statement for this story, sent from prison via his lawyers. 

Melashvili and Ilychova say that they did not use the 1930s map during talks, because it was too inaccurate to serve as a basis for border demarcation. 

“Even if these maps put Georgia in a slightly more favorable position, it is impossible to base your case on them, as they are imprecise,” commented Giorgi Mshvenieradze, Melashvili’s lawyer. 

The arrested cartographers say that they have become pawns in a government plot to smear political rivals on the eve of Georgia’s October 31 parliamentary vote. The ruling party, Georgian Dream, accuses its predecessor and main opposition, the United National Movement (UNM), of conspiring to surrender the land to Azerbaijan during its term as the governing party. 

Cartographers Iveri Melashvili and Natalia Ilychova stand at the center of a complex case involving a sliver of land on the Georgia-Azerbaijan border

For the last decade Georgian politics has been defined by bitter rivalry between Georgian Dream and the UNM, and their respective leaders, billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili and ex-President Mikheil Saakashvili. This antagonism has been characterized by kompromat wars that tend to intensify before elections.      

While opinion polls put Georgian Dream in the lead, the party hopes to secure a decisive majority over the UNM in the nation’s 150-seat legislature.  

Pre-election scandals

Georgian Dream officials insist that the alleged attempt to hand over this tranche of territory to Azerbaijan dates back to border talks held in 2005 and 2006, when the country was ruled by Saakashvili and the UNM. This gives the party ammunition to use against the UNM and its offshoot, European Georgia, ahead of the polls. 

Any debate surrounding Davit Gareji monastery complex, viewed as a cradle of Christian civilization by Georgia, hits a nerve among voters in this devout nation. The electoral choice is going to be between “patriotism and treason,” as Defense Minister Irakli Gharibashvili bluntly put it in a recent televised interview. He also called for a ban on the “treasonous” UNM. “The truth is on our side, on their side are big lies, deception and treason,” he added.     

However, Georgian human rights organizations have condemned the arrest of Melashvili and Ilychova and excoriated government officials. 

“The timing of the investigation, the pre-election context, the populist statements made by the ruling party leaders and the violation of presumption of innocence raise doubts that the investigation is politically motivated, aimed at creating misconception and discrediting political rivals,” reads a collective statement issued on October 9 by leading civil-society groups, including Transparency International Georgia and Open Society Georgia. 

The provenance of the 1930s map reinforces such suspicions. A Moscow-based businessman named Davit Khidasheli, who found it, has said that he went on a search for documents on request of billionaire Ivanishvili, chairman of Georgian Dream and the man widely believed to be behind Georgia’s levers of power. 

In the government’s telling, the Russian gave the map to Gharibashvili, a longtime confidant of Ivanishvili. He, in turn, handed it over to state prosecutors. A police search then found copies of the same maps in the offices of Melashvili and Ilychova. Defense lawyer Mshvenieradze, however, says that these supposedly secret documents were never a secret at all, and that they have been discussed and reviewed many times before.

Saakashvili, the perceived real target of this case, has claimed that Ivanishvili invented the charges to divert attention from his own failures. 

“The collapse of state institutions, the spiral of poverty, the robberies, the turning of the entire country into a private property of one mad feudal lord — all this they hope to eclipse with nonsense that even a three-year-old is not going to believe,” said Saakashvili in an October 7 video address.       

European Georgia, the opposition group also implicated in the scandal, has pointed out that the two officials are accused of a crime that was never even committed. According to Giga Bokeria, one of the party’s leaders, there has been no agreement between Azerbaijan and Georgia that would define ownership of any part of Davit Gareji monastery. Speaking of the case, he said, “The core allegation at the heart of it is fundamentally false.”  

An uneasy past

Civil rights groups have likened the arrests to Soviet-era trials of prominent figures on blanket charges of high treason. 

The case of the Georgian cartographers certainly hearkens back to Bolshevik Russia’s takeover of the South Caucasus in the 1920s. Unsure of how to handle and administrate the conquered land, the Soviets first lumped the whole region together into a single federal entity. They then split it apart to create the socialist republics of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, sprinkling a handful of autonomous regions in between. 

This resulted in a cacophony of territorial disputes following the Soviet Union’s implosion, from which emerged three countries and three breakaway regions. Echoes of this history still reverberate, most prominently in the recent spiral of Armenia and Azerbaijan’s conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh into full-blown war.

Despite occasional intensifications, border disputes between Georgia and Azerbaijan have been comparatively low-key. But this case could trigger a flare-up at a particularly precarious time for the region. 

The arrests also come at a time when the Georgian Dream faces public discontent about its management of the pandemic and law in order in the country. Ahead of the election, the ruling party has used the cartographers’ case to change the subject.

The opposition “is doing everything to drown out the case of David Gareji, which sounded like thunder in the sky,” said Gia Volsky, first vice speaker of parliament, when asked about a rise in crime within the country. 

It is not the first time that a scandal that disorients voters and tarnishes political rivals has broken ahead of an election. Ivanishvili’s party rose to power in the 2012 parliamentary election, partly on a wave of popular anger triggered by leaked videos of torture in Georgian prisons and accusations of the then ruling UNM’s responsibility for the death of a 10-month-old baby. None of the allegations resulted in any charges, and some proved to be fake, but they did help the Georgian Dream to win.

“In campaign periods we see a torrent of dirty, if totally absurd, accusations meant to demonize opponents of Ivanishvili,” said Bokeria.   

Bokeria maintains that Georgian Dream excels at launching disinformation campaigns that feed on the sensitivities of voters. “Propaganda does not have to be accurate or nearly accurate, it can be absurd and totally illogical,” he said, adding that the idea is to “deafen the audience with its message.”  

As the rival parties continue to attack one another, Georgian voters are left scratching their heads over this strange and convoluted case. Meanwhile, Melashvili and Ilychova have been refused bail. They remain in jail, awaiting trial. 

Additional reporting by Makuna Berkatsashvili