Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
At eight in the morning, the border guards open the gates and a crowd of over 1,000 people, some bent over under the weight of heavy sacks, surge across the frontier between the Armenian village of Bagratshen and the Georgian village of Sadakhlo. Some try to push their way through, but Georgian border guards force them back. "You’re behaving like sheep, wait a little and everyone will get through," one shouts.
Once through the gates, the traders find themselves at the immense international market in Sadakhlo, which is otherwise a typical village, tucked into the wedge of territory where Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia meet.
Despite all the major events that have shaken the South Caucasus over the last decade – continuing hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh that has shut down all official contact between the two countries, the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the anti-smuggling crackdown that followed it – the Sadakhlo market continues to function as a trading entrepot for Azerbaijanis and Armenians.
Persistent predictions that the market would close have never been borne out.
According to the Armenian State Customs Committee, 5,500 people visit Sadakhlo market every week. The official data suggest that the market was the source of 1.8 million US dollars’ worth of goods imported to Armenia last year, but the real figure is thought to be much higher.
The market is run by Georgians run the market, while 95 per cent of the buyers are Armenians. The sellers, by contrast, are Azerbaijanis. Many are locals, part of an ethnic Azerbaijani community that forms the majority in this part of southern Georgia.
Others are traders from Azerbaijan itself, like 38-year old Veli, a refugee from Azerbaijan's Kelbajar district, which has been occupied by Armenian forces since 1993.
Veli and his fellow traders travel eight to ten hours every week from the town of Mingachevir in central Azerbaijan, bringing jackets which they have bought on credit.
"Previously, I used to bring cotton fabric and it sold well too. Now I’m transporting leather jackets,” said Veli. “I buy them in Mingachevir at 38 dollars a time, and sell them at 43 dollars here. That earns me barely 120-130 dollars per month. Of course, if there were work at home, I wouldn’t travel to Sadakhlo every week."
All business at Sadakhlo is done in one swift weekly session, beginning after sunset on Mondays, so that by noon on Tuesdays, everyone has left.
Lilia, who runs a small shop in the Armenian capital Yerevan, has come here every Tuesday for the last two years to buy children's, men's, and women's clothes and underwear.
"I buy things very quickly, as I know who’s selling what goods," said Lilia, 43. “The Azerbaijani sellers know me too. They immediately offer me everything that is new. In addition, we agree on prices quite quickly too.”
Like Lilia, most of the Armenians come to the Sadakhlo market without any goods to sell. The exception at this time of year is apricots, which you can buy in Yerevan at 20-25 cents per kilo - and then resell in Sadakhlo at 50-60 cents.
Sadakhlo market is vast and untidy. Goods are heaped on broken counters. The air is full of dust as there is no asphalt, and when it rains, the streets turn to mud. The stalls are jammed together, barely allowing space for one person to squeeze through.
The people of Sadakhlo live largely off business generated by the market. Traders are packed like sardines into tiny rooms rented out by locals, with hardly enough room for two beds and a bedside table. The traders rent the rooms for between 30 and 50 dollars a week, a sizeable sum since they only stay there for one or two days.
Locals in Sadakhlo say trade has fallen recently, partly because of Georgia’s crackdown on crooked customs officials, and also because the Azerbaijani authorities are doing all they can to stop goods being exported to Armenia via Georgia.
Bairam, a 45-year-old resident of Sadakhlo, says turnover at the market has dropped drastically and prices have risen. "However, purchasing capacity has not declined at all. The Armenians feel a great need for food and clothes," he said.
Varuzh lives in the Armenian town of Alaverdi, and has been driving buyers to the border for ten years. He too notes a slump, "trading was busier before, and there were more people. You’d have found it difficult to move around the market. The number of our passengers has fallen, too.”
Veli, the Azerbaijani jacket merchant, says that business is still good, but that it’s been more of a challenge since Georgia’s change of regime in 2003, because the government now enforces the customs laws.
He says that before the Rose Revolution you could smuggle as many goods as you wanted into Georgia, "We just paid a small bribe on the border without even filling in a declaration." Nowadays, in order to get five or six jackets across the border checkpoint between Azerbaijan and Georgia, Veli hands them out to passengers in the bus, asking them to put them on even if the weather is hot.
The once-shabby border checkpoint at the Red Bridge now looks quite presentable and is kitted out with modern equipment. There are even enough refrigerators to hold several thousand tons of food, fruits, vegetables, and other perishable goods.
But most of the traders are unhappy with the heavy customs tariffs. "I don’t earn enough to pay 34 per cent customs duty," complained Veli.
Despite the Georgian government’s efforts, smuggling continues here. Near the Red Bridge, IWPR contributors watched as a border guard and women dragged canisters of diesel fuel across the border. A local Georgian explained that 20 litres of diesel costs three times as much on this side of the border as on the Azerbaijani side.
If customs is increasingly an issue, language is not. Zhanna, an Armenian refugee from Azerbaijan's Shaumian district who now lives in Armenia, comes here every week. She can speak Azerbaijani, while Armenian and Russian are also heard at the market.
Almost every time she comes here, Zhanna buys the popular AzerCay tea produced in Azerbaijan and much in demand in Yerevan. "When you buy things, you don’t even think about who’s selling you shirts, underwear or tea. It is not so important whether they are made in Azerbaijan or Turkey. The main thing is to buy things quickly and at good prices," she told IWPR.
Buying goods in Sadakhlo and reselling them back in Armenia earns Zhanna no more than 200 dollars per month, despite the eight-hour trips from Yerevan to the border and back and the sleepless nights.
It seems the market will continue working as long as people can earn an income from it. By 1130 am on Tuesday, Zhanna has bought all the goods she wants and plans to sleep on the bus on her way back home. "We’ll be in Yerevan before 1630,” she said. “I’ll even have some time to go to the bazaar and trade for a couple of hours.”
Farman Nabiev is editor of the Mingachevir Ishiglari newspaper in Azerbaijan. Gegham Vardanian is a journalist with Internews in Yerevan, Armenia.
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