At the customs controls at Krasny Most (or Red
Bridge) on the Georgian-Azerbaijani border, long lines of buses,
lorries and people wait to cross the frontier.
A series of exasperating customs procedures and
other checks leave many travellers looking exhausted. “I have just
two bags and I’m going on foot, but the Georgian customs officers
still found fault with me and haven’t let me across for several
hours now,” said Teimuraz Mamedov, an Azerbaijani heading for
Georgia. The tomatoes in his bags were going bad in the heat.
Crossing the busiest border post between Azerbaijan
and Georgia – supposedly the two friendliest states in the region –
is slow, agonising and an object lesson in how underpaid officials
use a complicated system to exact maximum personal profit for
At Krasny Most, the traffic - comprising small
traders ferrying household equipment and clothes and farmers laden
with agricultural produce - goes mostly one way, from Azerbaijan
The travellers have to negotiate their way through
customs control, visa authorities (Georgians and Azeris do not need
visas to visit each other’s countries, but require an entry and exit
stamp in their passports), and plant, veterinary and health ministry
They have no choice but to put up with the endless
delays. “It’s no secret that for many people delivering different
goods from Azerbaijan to Georgia and selling them there is the only
way they can earn a living,” said Eteri Kalanadze from the Georgian
town of Rustav.
The bus in which she was travelling back to Georgia
had been standing for more than two hours in a queue. “And this
happens every time,” said Kalanadze, who travels from Georgia
through Azerbaijan to third countries to buy goods.
Georgian customs officials insist the hold-ups have
less to do with the number of checks than the fact that many of the
traders lack the right sales purchase documentation for their goods
- which are required for items worth more than 700 laris (around 350
“They deliberately create a lot of small and large
problems for us – for example they ask us for documents which we
don’t have, as we do not do our shopping in supermarkets. We look
for cheap wholesale markets or go directly to farmers so what kind
of stamps and signatures can we have?” said Kalanadze.
In the absence of documentation, traders have to pay
an import duty determined by local customs officers. Since the
latter is invariably less than official tax rates, there’s little
incentive for traders to produce sales documents.
Georgia’s two most recent tax revenue ministers,
Mikhail Machavariani and Levan Dzneladze, have both outlined
ambitious programmes for reforming the customs system, but neither
has proposed simplifying procedures.
In this situation, it is easy to understand why,
according to the Association of Young Economists, 95 per cent of
those carrying goods across the border at Krasny Most try to ease
their way through the border controls with “tips”.
The Association of Young Economists is currently
working with Armenian and Azerbaijani colleagues on a joint project
to try and make customs procedures more transparent. One of their
main conclusions is that frontier officials often don’t understand
customs legislation. And that’s not surprising, as the experts also
found it to be unclear.
The group believes wholesale changes are needed, but
in the meantime proposes a short-term solution in the form of a
joint mobile customs group, consisting of officers from the two
countries, which would attempt to speed up the flow of traders
across the frontier.