Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan's Passport Rush

Chaos and corruption as Azerbaijanis trade in their old identity documents.
By Sebuhi Mamedli

For the hundreds of thousands of Azerbaijanis working in Russia, 2005 began with a bureaucratic nightmare. The old Soviet passports they were using were declared null and void from January 1 and the only way they could get new documents was by returning to Azerbaijan to face long queues at the passport agencies.


At 9 am on a recent morning, the crowd in front of reception at interior ministry’s visa and passport office in Baku brought back memories of a vodka queue in the Gorbachev era, when alcohol was banned. People were squeezed between metal barriers, men and women standing separately. The narrow door opened and around a hundred people tried to get in at the same time.


“I came here at half past midnight and signed up as number 272,” said a tired-looking Kamil Samedov. “They opened at eight. It’s nearly ten o’clock now, but I’m still halfway down the queue. I hope I can file my papers by noon: that’s when they close. If I don’t, I’ll have to do the whole thing over again.”


“It was worse in December, when fights were quite frequent here,” said Namik Gasimov, a security guard at the centre.


Azerbaijan and Russia, which have a reciprocal visa-free travel agreement, made a deal several year ago to let Azerbaijani citizens cross the border with their old Soviet passports as well as new plastic identity cards. The same arrangement applied to Azerbaijani citizens travelling to Georgia and Central Asian countries, with the exception of Turkmenistan.


But as of January 1, Russia no longer admits citizens of neighbouring states carrying old Soviet passports. Inside Azerbaijan, these passports will continue to be valid until the end of May, when they will be replaced with plastic ID cards. But some government-sponsored institutions are already forcing their employees to have their Soviet passports replaced with new-style national IDs by withholding their wages until they do so.


The passport agency warned citizens about the upcoming changes at the beginning of last year, but many Azerbaijanis still hold old passports and that includes the majority who are currently working in Russia. Facing the threat of deportation, many Azerbaijanis are flocking back home to get new documents. According to unofficial estimates, as many as two million Azerbaijani nationals currently live and work in Russia.


Sakit Allahverdiev has lived in Siberia for the last 10 years. “Few people can afford to travel 5,000 kilometres to Baku from where we live,” he told IWPR. “It took me a week to get here. I’ve been in Baku for three days, and God knows how much longer I have to stay here before I get my new ID. Then it’s another week to travel back to Siberia. Meanwhile, my business is sitting idle. I’m wasting time and losing money. Why couldn’t they replace our passports at the Azerbaijani embassy in Moscow?”


Eskhan Zahidov, press spokesman for the interior ministry, told IWPR that this practice, common in western countries, was not implemented by Azerbaijan. “A passport as a symbol of statehood cannot be issued in another country,” he said.


Inside Azerbaijan, as of December 31, air, railway and bus ticket offices stopped selling tickets to holders of Soviet passports and other obsolete types of ID. Frontier guards have reported around 100 instances of attempted border crossing in the past month by people carrying no valid national passport.


The passport agency relieved tensions somewhat by extending its passport replacement deadline until March, and also promising migrant workers from Russia shorter processing times instead of the 30 days allowed by law. “As an exception, holders of a valid migration card will be issued new passports in two weeks or sooner,” said Zahidov.


But there is a catch for Azerbaijanis working in Russia. All foreigners, including Azerbaijanis, have to give up their migration cards at customs when they leave Russia, which means that they cannot show these documents back home.


Rustam Ismailov from the Agjabedy district is number 317 in the line, and he’s getting worried. “It doesn’t look like I will be able to get in today,” he said. “Must try again tomorrow. The worst thing is that my wife is pregnant and cannot come here and wait in line all night long.”


At this point, a young man who introduced himself as Nurmamed came up and offered to broker new passports in two weeks at a cost of 150 dollars per person, or within a week for 250 dollars. Nurmamed could have it done in even less time for a bigger fee. Ismailov talked the man down to 120 dollars for getting his passport in two weeks.


As they were bargaining, a middle-aged woman came up and asked Nurmamed if she could have her passport for the same amount. “My passport has expired, but I have to go to Turkey on business in two weeks,” she said. Nurmamed promised to help her out for the same fee, which does not include the official passport charge of 112,000 manat (about 23 dollars), which has to be paid at the bank.


National passports are issued in six regional agencies across Azerbaijan. The office in Sheki near the Georgian border is probably the hardest-pressed as it serves as many as seven neighbouring provinces. “Our region is home to many ethnic minorities with lots of relatives in Russia and Georgia, so everyone wants their new passport as soon as possible,” reported Ali Samedov, a local journalist in Sheki.


When asked why new passports could not be issued in every district, passport agency chief Fahraddin Aliev said this would be beyond the modest financial means of his organisation. “However, we will consider it once resources become available,” he promised.


Aliev could not give exact figures for how many Azerbaijani citizens are yet to receive their new passports. “Last year’s report is still in preparation, so I cannot give you the figures,” he said. “All I can say is that we are determined to accelerate the passport issuing process.”


So far, the long lines show no sign of abating. “I wish all these people from Russia would get their passports and go away,” said a woman who lives next to the passport agency. “They start gathering there in the night and I can’t sleep for the noise.”


The owner of a small café nearby has seen a dramatic upsurge in profits, as his café has been working round the clock since the passport rush began. “People from the passport queues come in for a cup of tea or a snack at night, so we’re doing good business,” said Gasim, who waits tables at the café.


Sebuhi Mamedli is an independent journalist in Baku.


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