By Umberto Bacchi
MOKHE, Georgia - On a snow-covered plateau in southern Georgia, a wooden cross marks the construction site of a monastery that has triggered a bitter land dispute between local Muslim villagers and the Christian Orthodox Church.
The quarrel revolves around property registration issues that have haunted the Caucasian nation since the collapse of the Soviet Union, despite the 2016 launch of a heralded new blockchain-based land-titling system.
The disputed land, seven hectares (17 acres) of an eight-hectare plot surrounded by forest, lies in a mountainous area in the Adigeni municipality, near the Turkish border.
Families from nearby villages, who belong to the Muslim minority in an overwhelmingly Christian country, say they have owned and used the lot for decades to grow hay and graze cattle - their main source of income.
"We have no land other than this, so if (the church) takes it away, we will have nothing left," said David Beridze, 33, as he walked on the snow-covered plot with a group of farmers.
Yet, according to the government the land belonged to no one before 2018, when it was registered as state property and donated to the Georgian Orthodox Patriarchate, which wants to build a new monastery there, near the remains of a small 10th-century church.
"We have just taken back what was historically ours," said Archimandrite Nikoloz Getsadze, the priest in charge of construction works.
"They (Muslims) have been using the monastery land for so many years and haven't even expressed their gratitude," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, as he sat sipping tea in the living room of a clergy house in the nearby village of Mokhe.
FROM PAPER TO DIGITAL
Last year, with help from the Tbilisi-based Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC), Beridze and four other farmers took the case to a district court in the southern city of Akhaltsikhe in a bid to get the land back.
They say local families collectively worked that land throughout the communist era and were each assigned a portion of it as Georgia moved to a private property system in the 1990s.
When asked for proof, Beridze produced a partially handwritten document bearing an official stamp from a land reform commission and containing a general description of his family's plot as well as a list of its neighbours.
Similar documents are common across the country and have become a familiar source of tension and confusion, said Teona Zakarashvili, a lawyer at corruption watchdog Transparency International.
When Georgia modernised its paper archives, launching an electronic land database in the mid-2000s, the onus of registering titles was left to property owners, she said.
But this has proven difficult and expensive for the many people who hold vaguely-worded papers and who, on top of registration fees, might have to pay for a lawyer and an expert survey to accurately demarcate property boundaries, she said.
"Regular farmers can hardly afford this," said Zakarashvili in an interview at the NGO's offices in Tbilisi.
In 2016 Georgia moved to a blockchain-based system, becoming one of the first countries to use the technology - which underpins digital currencies like bitcoin - for land registration.
The innovation made transactions transparent and immutable, allaying fears that titles could be lost, damaged or tampered with, but did little to help people register their land, according to land rights experts.
"A blockchain registry can make it easier to search, update, and visualise records, but it can't go out and collect the information," said Yuliya Panfil, property rights director at New America, a U.S.-based think tank.
"If the information isn't in the registry, then no bells and whistles will suddenly make it appear," she said in emailed comments.
As of today, only an estimated 25% of all land in Georgia has been digitally registered, Zakarashvili said.
While registering titles is not mandatory, not doing carries risk, as owners are invisible to officials who tend to check only the digital database when the government decides to give some land to investors or other entities, she added.
HAY VS. HONEY
For years, registering the disputed lot in Adigeni seemed an unnecessary expense to the farmers using it.
"We knew what land belonged to each person and we never had any dispute among ourselves," said Beridze.
That changed in September 2018 when priests accompanied by construction workers showed up and started delimiting the perimeter with iron poles, he said.
The locals turned to the National Agency of Public Registry of Georgia (NAPR) with their papers, only to find that the lot had already been recorded as Church property - so they took the government to court, said EMC lawyer Meri Agapishvili.
"Even if they didn't register the land it doesn't mean they waived their right to it," she said.
A spokeswoman for Georgia's economy ministry said it donated the land to the church following a request from the Georgian Patriarchate, adding that an onsite investigation found "no physical entity" was using any of it at the time.
Locals said that although no Christian family lives in the area, they are happy to leave one hectare (2.5 acres) for the Church to build its monastery, as long as they could keep farming the rest.
"We respect everyone who believes in God ... but one can easily understand that you do not need eight hectares of land to build a church," said 30-year-old Zaza Shavadze.
But Archimandrite Nikoloz noted the Church needs the plot to produce honey, cheese and vegetables to feed its monks.
He dismissed the farmers' claims that the plan would threaten their livelihoods as "lies", saying locals had access to other fields and pastures.
"They have so much hay, that it's getting rotten," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
NAPR did not respond to several requests for comment.
According to the agency's website, since 2016 more than 40,000 land parcels have been registered as part of a pilot initiative to increase registrations.
In December 2019, the Akhaltsikhe court ruled against the farmers, saying they could not prove that the lot described in their titles was the same land that was assigned to the Church, said Agapishvili, the lawyer.
The farmers, who kept using the land up to ruling, are now appealing.
Zakarashvili, the lawyer at Transparency International, said the organisation deals with about 40 such cases every year.
These types of disputes will remain common, she added, until the government carries out a nationwide land survey to define exactly who owns what and where.
That would benefit investments, easing fears businesses might have of potential property rights disputes, and help locals get more from their land by allowing them to safely sell or mortgage it, she said.
"We understand that the history of the Soviet Union and the administrative relics we inherited are not the best start to defining property rights," said Zakarashvili.
"But there has been ample time for the state to realise that the current approach is not working and something else should be done to systemise land ownership," she added.
($1 = 2.8500 laris)
(Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)