Azerbaijan's borders remain shut three years after pandemic began
The deaths of four Azerbaijani students in the Turkey quakes have fueled frustration.
On February 14, Azerbaijani media reported that four Azerbaijani students had been found dead among the rubble in Malatya, Turkey, following the deadly earthquakes in the area eight days earlier.
They were students at Inonu University and had been sharing an apartment.
The news saddened many in Azerbaijan, which was already in shock at the tragedy experienced by the country's closest strategic ally.
A particularly resonant Facebook post by an Azerbaijani student elsewhere in Turkey lamented that the four might have survived if it weren't for the protracted closure of the country's land borders.
"Four people. Four futures. Four hopes. There was a study break at the university. Three weeks ago, I returned to Baku with two of my friends. Normally, we all return to Azerbaijan during the winter holidays," wrote Ibrahim Ibrahimov, a student at Anadolu University in Eskisehir.
"But the closure of the land borders and the exorbitant prices of AZAL [Azerbaijani Airlines] prevented those children from visiting their native country on vacation. All those children were the hope of their families. But those hopes are gone."
Earlier, Esmira Huseynova, the mother of one of the students, Shahin Valiyev, told ATV that her son informed her in early January that the university had been discussing the high risk of quakes in the area, and that she had advised him to come home. "But he said it would cost him too much to go back and forth, and it wasn't clear if the border in Nakhchivan was open or closed, so he didn't want to come," she recalled.
Azerbaijan closed its land borders with Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Iran to passenger traffic back in March 2020 as the COVID pandemic began. Cargo traffic was unimpeded. The remaining land border, with Armenia, has been closed for more than 30 years because of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
At some point later on, the short 13-kilometer land border with Turkey and Azerbaijan's Nakhchivan exclave was opened, though it was closed again in July 2022. It was later again opened but only to Azerbaijani citizens (from anywhere in the country) entering Nakhchivan from Turkey and for Nakhchivan residents crossing the border in either direction.
But even in that case, the only way to travel between Nakhchivan and mainland Azerbaijan is to buy a ticket on national airline AZAL at a cost of 60 manats (about $35) one way.
Feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva wrote on Facebook that one woman she knows, who travels to Baku from Nakhchivan to attend her daughter's court hearings, is paying 360 manats every month for flights back and forth. "We have to pay a fortune to travel both inside and outside the country. It was these astronomical prices that caused the four students to die in the earthquake because they could not return from Turkey for vacation."
The continuing border closure is especially relevant as, since the earthquakes, Turkish universities have switched to remote classes for the remainder of the academic year, meaning that Azerbaijani students could otherwise attend classes from back home.
Azerbaijan's insistence on keeping its borders closed long after most other countries have opened theirs has had humanitarian implications before. In March 2022 following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 1,000 Azerbaijanis were stopped at the border crossing while trying to flee sanctions-hit Russia. Many of them were forced to camp out in the freezing cold.
The official explanation for the closed land borders remains COVID, even though all other pandemic measures have been lifted.
The border closure has repeatedly been renewed, usually by a few months at a time. It is currently set to be in place until March 1.
Given the fact that there are no other COVID restrictions and air travel has long been resumed, independent analysts don't buy the COVID explanation.
"Officially, this is due to the pandemic, but de facto it is due to other reasons. Most likely, this is related to security issues," the director of the Citizen Rights Institute NGO, Bashir Suleymanli, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani service, going on to suggest a gradual reopening: "For example, the land border with Georgia can be opened first so that students can return to their country from Turkey through Georgia. The government should open these borders."
Heydar Isayev is a journalist from Baku.
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