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Caucasian Enemies Engage in Unofficial Trade

Karabakh conflict doesn’t stop Armenians and Azeris buying each others’ goods.
By Lusine Musayelyan
Armenia and Azerbaijan have no official ties but goods from the two neighbours manage to slip round the closed borders and into each others’ shops despite official efforts to keep them out.



Even shops in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians broke free of Azeri control in a war that ended in 1994 but still poisons relations between Baku and Yerevan, stock Azeri tea. It is, residents say, too good to miss out on.



“I have Azeri tea in my shop, and it is much in demand here,” said shop assistant Ashot Hayrapetian.



“We buy this tea in Yerevan and sell it in great quantities. The tea is very popular with old people, who say that once you’ve tasted it, you will want no other tea.”



Across the border, which is still patrolled by troops and bristling with weapons, Azeri shops occasionally stock Armenian brandy, the country’s most famous export.



Azerbaijani Salekh Mamedov, 52, who is a lover of wine and port, told IWPR he didn’t mind drinking good cognac, even if it was Armenian.



“I still remember how Ararat tasted,” he said, referring to the most famous Armenian brand of brandy. “Of course, we can’t forget about the lost lands, but goods don’t matter, do they?”



But many people on both sides of the border think they do matter, saying buying such products amounts to giving support to the enemy.



“Armenian goods are mostly smuggled in through markets on the border between Georgia and Armenia,” said Eyub Husseinov, chairman of Azerbaijan’s Free Consumers Association.



“Trains for Baku and Yerevan depart from the railway station in Tbilisi every 40 minutes. In that time, many Azerbaijanis and Armenians communicate and even trade with each other. I have seen this with my own eyes more than once.”



Azerbaijan’s state customs department said such unofficial trade was the only real source of Armenian goods in Azerbaijan.



“The few Armenian goods that emerge on the local counters now and then are mainly brought in from Georgia by individuals and in allowable quantities,” said a spokesman.



“These may be confined to two or three boxes of cigarettes or a couple of bottles of cognac. What can the customs do in such cases? Citizens themselves should have enough patriotic spirit to stop them buying goods made in the enemy country.”



Occasionally, shops are found selling Armenian goods. A shop in Baku was caught selling Armenian coffee wholesale last year. The whole stock was confiscated and destroyed.



“Just the other day, our agents found napkins made by a ‘Markarian AE’ on the shelves of a shop in the Khachmaz district,” said Husseinov. Markarian is a typical Armenian name.



“The owner of the shop said he had brought them from Georgia, that when buying them he did not pay attention to the label.”



He said Jubilee brandy, Areni wines and Cigarone cigarettes were among the most popular Armenian goods in Azerbaijan.



“The bottle of the Areni wine bears a label that shows a map of Armenia embracing Nagorny Karabakh - our lands! - as part of it,” he said angrily. “How dare citizens of Azerbaijan buy these goods and - what’s worse - bring them into the country?”



One 47-year-old owner of a wine shop in the centre of Baku said that Armenian brandy did appear in his shop now and then.



“My partner in Georgia sends the brandy to me every three or four months,” he said. “Sometimes it is ten bottles a time. I must admit that Armenian cognac has always been in demand here because of its good quality and taste. I have regular clients who favour this cognac.”



Tea is nowadays the only Azeri product to be seen in Karabakh’s shops and markets, although over the years chocolate, sweets and flour have also been sold there.



Valery Simonian, chief of quality control at Nagorny Karabakh’s ministry for territorial management and infrastructure development, said goods that had no Armenian information on their packaging were banned from sale in Karabakh.



“We are entitled to deliver a written warning or ban this or that product from sale,” said Simonian. “But goods are imported by private traders and we are not in a position to control every one of them.”



A saleswoman called Anahit in Stepanakert told IWPR that customers could choose between Azerbaijan’s Azerchai tea and tea imported from Turkey.



“But Azerchai sells better, as it is cheaper and of a higher quality,” said Anahit. “Besides, it is Azeri tea, not Turkish tea that is famous all over the world for its taste and properties.”



Azerchai is also popular in Armenia, especially among Armenians who fled Azerbaijan during the armed conflict.



“I always buy this tea, because its brew is so strong and wonderful,” said Yerevan resident Tatiana Babian, 55, who used to live in Baku. “Baku Armenians are famous tea-drinkers.”



“Most probably, this is contraband, which should not be allowed into trade outlets, but the market is difficult to control,” said Anahit Voskanian, spokesman for Armenia’s economy and trade ministry.



“Even if there were many officers, they wouldn’t be able to monitor the whole of Armenia and Karabakh. The same applies to the trade in Armenian cognac in Azerbaijan.”



Armenian customs officials say no large quantities of Azeri goods had entered the country for three years, and the trade was conducted by individuals.



“Armenia’s laws do no not forbid the importation of commodities from [Azerbaijan], a country with which we have no diplomatic ties,” Gagik Kocharian, head of the trade and services department at the trade and economy ministry, told IWPR.



“There’s no avoiding the fact we are neighbours with Armenia,” Novruz Mamedov, chief of the international relations department of the Azeri presidential administration, told the APA news agency.



“Of course, political, economic and cultural relations between our countries will be restored one day. However, so long as our lands remain occupied by Armenia, it’s wrong to bring their goods into our country and thus help them earn money.”



And some residents refuse to even countenance buying goods that originate over the border.



Ashraf Aliev, a 39-year-old resident of Baku, said he could not understand people who sold Armenian goods in Azerbaijan nor those who bought them.



“We have no shortage of any sort of commodities. So why should we use Armenian goods? They would not mind poisoning us and doing harm to us once more,” he said.



Karabakh resident Marina, 42, is equally wary of Azeri products.



“Even in the starving war years, we never used the flour that was brought in from Baku for free, and, all the more, I won’t buy goods from Azerbaijan now,” she said.



“They would profit from my buying their goods. Besides, there’s the risk factor – you never know what these products might contain.”



Sabuhi Mammadli is a correspondent of the newspaper Yeni Musavat, Baku. Lusine Musaelian is a correspondent of the newspaper Demo, Stepanakert. Naira Melkumian is a correspondent of the news agency Arka, Yerevan



This article is a product of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network funded by the European Union and other donors.