Azerbaijan Shies Away from Dropping Visa Requirements for Iranians
Azerbaijan finds itself caught in a diplomatic cul-de-sac as it debates whether to eliminate visa requirements for Iranians and Turks in reciprocation for similar privileges granted by Iran and Turkey to Azerbaijani citizens. Concern over the political situation in Iran influences Baku's caution toward Tehran, while concern over Turkey's rapprochement with Armenia makes it sluggish toward Ankara. Meanwhile, both Iran and Turkey are pressing for a final decision.
Iran, which neighbors Azerbaijan to the south, has attracted the greater attention. As of February 1, Azerbaijani citizens will be able to enter Iran visa-free for one-month stays, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced earlier this month. Tehran has indicated that it plans to increase that period to three months.
What prompts the open-door visa policy is debatable. The Iranian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Mohammad-Baghir Bakhrami, cited the cultural and religious ties between Iran and Azerbaijan, a predominantly Shi'a Muslim country, as the reason for Tehran's decision. Ethnic Azeris make up some 24 percent of Iran's population of 66.4 million. "There are probably no other two countries which would be united by so many things," Ambassador Bakhrami commented at a December 9, 2009 press briefing in Baku.
Azerbaijanis mostly travel to Iran for trade, visiting relatives and medical services. In areas that border on Iran -- southern Azerbaijan and the autonomous republic of Nakhchivan - such links carry significant economic and community value.
Tehran expects Baku to respond in kind; but, for now, little indication exists that Azerbaijan is ready to make that move.
Azerbaijani foreign ministry spokesperson Elhan Polukhov told EurasiaNet that Baku will consider Iran's proposal "on the basis of the national interests of Azerbaijan."
Sizing up the chances for an influx of refugees from Iran enters into that analysis, one Azerbaijani analyst believes. In December 2009, eight protestors were killed in clashes with police in Tehran. Thousands of Iranians have been arrested in the weeks since the violence, international news agencies report.
"No one knows how the situation in Iran will develop further, how far government repressions against the opposition would go, and how the millions of ethnic Azeris living mostly along the border with Azerbaijan will behave," commented Rauf Mirgadirov, a political columnist for Baku's Russian-language Zerkalo (Mirror) daily.
Along with constant instability in Russia's North Caucasus, the situation in Iran has prompted concern about the security of Azerbaijan's borders, he continued. "[I]t is one of the reasons why Baku is not ready to eliminate the visa requirements for Iranians," Mirgadirov said.
Elhan Shahinoglu, head of the non-profit Atlas research center, believes that other concerns also drive the government's reluctance to drop visa requirements for Iranians. "Baku is concerned about Iran's active intelligence activity in Azerbaijan, unhappy with Tehran's close relations with Armenia and with cross-border drug trafficking and religious extremism and propaganda problems," Shahinoglu commented.
Iranian Ambassador Bakhrami, however, noted that "[w]e never heard objections [to eliminating visa requirements for Iranians] during talks" with senior Azerbaijani government officials.
Iranians accounted for roughly 15 percent of foreign visitors to Azerbaijan in 2008, according to Faig Gurbatov, director of the Baku Tourism Center, a joint government and United Nations Development Programme project. Baku and Nakhchivan were the destinations of choice, a selection indicated by the increased numbers of Iranian license plates seen in Baku recently.
One Baku hotel manager believes that the Azerbaijani capital's proximity to Iran, its open access to alcohol and the lack of need for women to wear hijab motivates the interest of many Iranian tourists in Baku.
Iran is not the only country looking to Azerbaijan for visa-free access, however. Turkey, too, has proposed that both countries lift their visa restrictions; it lifted its own restrictions for Azerbaijanis a year and a half ago. "Technical issues" allegedly postponed Azerbaijan's reciprocation of the deal during a December 2009 visit to Ankara by Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov.
Deputy Foreign Minister Vagif Sadikhov told reporters in Baku on January 11 that the issue is still under consideration. "One decision or another will be taken after a detailed discussion on the issue," Sadikhov said.
Analyst Shahinoglu believes that there will be no decision until definitive movement occurs one way or another on the reopening of Turkey's border with Armenia, a country with which Azerbaijan has a 21-year dispute over the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. "The decision on simplifying visa requirements for Turkish citizens will depend on developments in the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement process," Shahinoglu forecast. [For details, see the Eurasia Insight archive.]
Iran, in turn, factors into the Turkey visa decision, he added. "[I]f Azerbaijan will take a positive decision on Turkey, the Iranian government will inevitably press for a similar step for its citizens," he said.
That means Baku is likely to move cautiously on both fronts. But how long "Azerbaijan will be able to postpone a decision" is "difficult to say," Shahinoglu said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance correspondent based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Institute-Azerbaijan.