Vodka, cigarettes and diapers
The border between Azerbaijan and Georgia or, to be more precise, the border checkpoint ‘Synyg Korpu’, also referred to as the ‘Red Bridge’, has turned into a rather strange workplace for petty traders and their aides.
The aides’ main duty is to take goods across the border in small portions. They receive 1 AZN per item taken across the border. Formally, it is legal, since certain volumes of any product can be taken through customs. But the fact is that the goods are split up into smaller lots and the aides are assigned to take them across the border in order to evade payment of a stamp duty and an informal fee to the customs officers. The sellers claim this amounts to almost half of the product’s value.
The people residing in proximity to the border, in the villages in the Gazakh district and even a little bit farther into the country, in Tovuz, earn their living here. According to them, what they can buy for cheap in Georgia are diapers, cigarettes and alcohol that are more expensive in Azerbaijan and thus, they provide themselves with a daily wage. But it’s not so easy.
In their words, Fariz and Kyamal, the customs officers there, as well Tevekkül, the shift supervisor, are a real nightmare for the petty traders and their aides. The citizens say these people treat them as they wish, seizing their goods and passports every now and then.
Samina hanim, 59, says she is the caretaker of nine family members. She works as a janitor at a school and receives a salary amounting to 80 AZN, but this money is hardly enough to live on.
Since she has no money, she cannot become involved in trading. So, she just takes some goods across the border for her acquaintances once a day and gets 1 AZN per item: “I earn AZN 10, spend AZN 2 on transport and what is left is only 8 AZN. Tell me, how am I supposed to live on 8 Manats’?
However, she says sometimes she cannot earn even those 8 Manats. Samina hanim claims the customs officers grab away goods from traders or their aides whenever they feel so disposed, and send them to a warehouse. They also seize their passports and tell them they could come back and get them the next day, whereas it can take them a month to return the goods.
According to Ulvi, 52, the goods are often not returned at all. When people requested their goods back on March 15, the customs officers claimed they had sent them to the military. Then Ulvi asked, “I understand about the cigarettes and alcohol, but have they really sent to the military the diapers that were seized from us, too?
Tahmasib Mammadov, 26, says he occasionally brings various products from Georgia and Turkey, and every time he faces the same exact problem. I can speak on behalf of one person who once was carrying an elevator motor across the border, whom a customs officer made stay at the border post for two days: ‘I was waiting there for two days. Then I called my relative, who, in turn, called someone else, and finally, they received a phone call from the authorities and let us go. Now, in order to get the goods back from Baku Customs Department, I have to pay a 22% duty. However, yesterday I was requested to pay 1,000 AZN instead of 220 AZN.
Zyargyalyam, 64, a resident of the village of Birinci Shikhli, says that it’s actually neither the traders nor the customs officers’ fault. It’s all due to unemployment. ‘Customs is not and will never be a proper workplace. People themselves are also to be blamed. There are people, for whom one time is not enough, and so they cross the border two or three times a day in order to earn more money. That’s when a customs officer becomes rude.’
Reyhan M., 52, is an agriculturist. She says she had tended the vineyards in Birinci Shikhli in Soviet times. However, as the vineyards vanished, she lost her job. ‘I graduated the Institute of Agriculture in Gyanja. They are trying to implement projects here to support agricultural development. However, there are almost no skilled people here, but I know my stuff. Let them give me a job. I am a university-educated agriculturist. Instead of dragging goods for someone across the border I’d be better off farming, so that I can provide for my children and be a benefit to people. Whereas, here we squabble with customs officers every day; it’s a darn shame.
Those who frequently cross the border say there have been minor and serious confrontations between civilans and the border check-point officials from time to time since the beginning of 2016 until present. The first incident that gained public resonance took place on January 8, whereas the last one was in May of this year. The confrontations begin the same way-traders refuse to pay the duty in place and the border guards refuse to let the cross the border. Since the duty is set individually for each product and does not represent an ad valorem duty, the amount of tax gives rise to unfavorable criticism. And this is what happens at the border.
Togrul Mashalli, an expert economist, notes that the district of Gazakh’s economy was based on agriculture. Vineyards and wheat production, as well as livestock breeding, were the key fields that provided the district with income. At the same time, 55% of district-made products accounted for their industry: ‘Lime and bentonite were the main things produced and carpets were woven. Carpet weaving no longer happens nowadays.
We have always exported bentonite to Russia. However, if a few years ago we exported 150,000 tons of bentonite, now we sell just 80,000 tons of this product. There has been also a drop in lime production, since the main sales market is Baku, where the rate of construction has considerably declined.
This is the reason why lime production has decreased in the country in 2016.
Expert believes that another reason that led to the growth of the unemployment rate is the suspension of construction of lime and asbestos-producing plants: ‘The construction of this business was suspended due to the crisis. It’s what left the village population without jobs.