Bridge to Russia Costs Azeris a Fortune

On the so-called Golden Bridge, which crosses the river dividing Azerbaijan and Russia, huge sums change hands daily.

Bridge to Russia Costs Azeris a Fortune

On the so-called Golden Bridge, which crosses the river dividing Azerbaijan and Russia, huge sums change hands daily.

Tuesday, 14 April, 2009
Passengers intending to cross from Azerbaijan into Russia, and then making the return trip, need to bring bulging wallets with them.

That is what this IWPR correspondent discovered after making the journey and watching the cash flow from travellers to taxi drivers and Azeri and Russian border guards – all just to cross a few hundred metres.

Their wallets spring open as soon as they get to the Azeri customs checkpoint. After that, they find themselves beset by a horde of Azeri minibus and taxi drivers, vehemently pressing their services.

Walking across the bridge over the river Samur, which marks the border between Azerbaijan and Russia, is forbidden. Travellers must be driven.

Not everyone observes the pedestrian ban, however. This correspondent disobeyed and – together with two other Azeris – walked on foot towards the bridge.

It is known as the Golden Bridge, a well-deserved nickname, referring to the sums of money made on it, and on either side.

We reached the bridge at the same time as one of the minibuses. The passengers in the battered Gazelle were annoyed to find out that some of us had made it by foot. They had paid 30 rubles (about 1 US dollar) each for the short drive.

The next leg, a stretch of a few hundred metres from the mid-point of the bridge to the Russian customs post again can only be made by either taxi or minibus, this time Russian ones. The price? About 150 rubles per person for the former; and around 100 for the latter.

The fare sounded overblown to the passengers, after they had paid only 30 rubles for the 500-metre drive from the Azeri checkpoint to the middle of the bridge.

Together with the new arrivals, about 50 or 60 people were now on the bridge. Some had been waiting for more than two hours for a lift to the Russian customs post.

“This Golden Bridge really hurts people,” a man called Mekhti noted. “People have to chase after buses and taxis, just to be driven a few hundred metres, for which they have to pay a lot of money.”

At last a Gazelle drove up and was filled in a flash.

The vehicle started off for the Russian checkpoint. Five minutes later, a Russian officer was scrutinising us.

Seeing a young man, the only one standing up in the vehicle, he grabbed him by the sleeve, motioning to follow him and saying that standing during the ride was against the rules.

When the young man resisted, an argument broke out as some of the other passengers intervened on behalf of the lad.

“If something is wrong, get the driver to explain,” an elderly woman protested. “He picked up too many passengers.”

The officer responded harshly, telling the woman to “sit down and keep your mouth shut!”

Another squabble broke out after the driver then refused to pay some extra money to the officer. “So that’s that!” the officer said, enraged. “You’re going to find yourself in big trouble; you’ll be staying here a long time!”

It was only after about 20 minutes that the vehicle was allowed to move and the passengers reached the Russian checkpoint at Yarag Kazmalyar.

Once inside the checkpoint, they received blank forms that they had to fill out. Because some travellers found it difficult to fill in the forms, they had to seek the services of the checkpoint employees, one of whom offered to “help” – for a fee of a hundred rubles.

With their Russian entry stamps in their passports at last, many of the travellers relaxed, hoping their financial ordeal was over.

This was premature. Indeed, for the unwary, the next stretch of the journey proved the most expensive of all.

Once outside the checkpoint, a couple of people started walking towards the exit gate, about 50 metres away.

An official then stopped them, saying that those who had left the checkpoint on foot faced a fine. It was a thousand rubles!

An Azeri who introduced himself as Allahverdi Aliev confirmed this was the truth, having just paid the penalty.

Aliev, a resident of Stavropol, explained, “I was back in Azerbaijan for my brother’s funeral and having passed through all the formalities, I left the checkpoint building.

“When I asked an officer to direct me to the exit, he motioned towards it. I started walking, but before I’d had time even to reach the gate, another officer called out and said I’d committed a serious offence by walking across the courtyard and had to pay a thousand rubles.”

Chastened by this alarming information, the rest of the group decided to wait for the Gazelle that had driven them across the bridge.

Over 20 minutes later, their driver arrived – but without his vehicle.

The driver had had his own problems, it turned out. His vehicle had been taken off to an anti-drug trafficking department for an inspection. Later, the minibus was returned to him, and finally they all left the checkpoint.

It was not the last expense for the weary travellers, of course. The ride to Makhachkala, capital of Dagestan, about 200 kilometres away, costs between 200 and 400 rubles, depending on whether the journey is made by minibus or taxi.

Locals in Makhachkala are well aware of the lucrative trading and fleecing that goes at – and between – the Azeri and Russian customs posts on either side of the so-called Golden Bridge.

Gurban Gasanov, owner of a garment shop, said he had firsthand knowledge of the difficulties facing travellers.

“There are even more problems for the shuttle traders,” he said, referring to the men who scratch a precarious livelihood from buying goods on one side of the border and then selling them on the other.

Tarana Zulfugarova, a shop saleswoman, said the pretexts for extorting funds from travellers used to be even more bizarre than they are today.

“People who wanted to cross over into Azerbaijan had to pay a sum of money to ‘prove’ they weren’t infected with bird flu,” she recalled. “Now the threat of an epidemic is over, those ‘dues’, at least, are no longer charged.”

The saleswoman said people carrying oversized bags through the checkpoints were made to pay a small fortune, “The bigger the bag, the more you have to pay.”

At a bus station in Makhachkala, a driver, Ilyas Jalilov, said he had little time for the drivers who plied their lucrative trade on the bridge. “Most.. don’t even have driving licenses,” he claimed.

On the return leg of the journey, a number of empty Gazelles and taxis waited at the Russian checkpoint to take people back to Azerbaijan. The drivers sat there, engines off, waiting for the Russian border guards to open the gates.

Once again, it took money to get anything done. Only after negotiations between one of the drivers and a border guard, during which money could be seen changing pockets, were the gates opened.

The travellers submitted their luggage for screening. But instead of watching the monitor to see if anyone is trying to bring in prohibited goods, the customs officer concentrated on extracting cash.

He tendered out an inspection book to each traveller who approached him, and each of the latter placed a banknote in it.

Then they were able to board their respective Gazelles to the Golden Bridge. At the mid-point, Azeri border guards warned travellers against crossing the border on foot. Asked about the purpose of the ban, one said, vaguely, “It’s an order from above.”

IWPR approached both the Azerbaijani and Russian authorities to respond to travellers’ complaints about the exploitative minibuses and taxis and the allegations of corruption, but both declined to comment.
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