The closure of the visa service at Baku’s international airport has many observers – not to mention frustrated travelers – scratching their heads. Reasons for the change remain unclear, with some observers proffering hypotheses ranging from bureaucratic whimsy to a desire to restrict international scrutiny of the country’s November 7 parliamentary elections.
Starting on October 15, Baku’s international airport will no longer issue visas on arrival to foreign citizens, a source at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Consular Department confirmed to EurasiaNet.org. Instead, foreigners traveling to Azerbaijan will need to submit a letter of invitation to a local Azerbaijani embassy. The date coincides with the launch of the official campaign period for the parliamentary election.
Citizens from the Commonwealth of Independent States can continue to make 90-day visa-free trips to Azerbaijan, however.
Ministry officials declined to discuss the changes, referring instead to a September 13 presidential decree that clarifies when the ministry would issue visas. The decree, however, makes no mention of the elimination of airport visas. Nor has information about the changes been posted on any official website.
Representatives of several embassies in Baku told EurasiaNet.org that they had received no warning of the change and expressed concerns that the stricter requirements would deter businesspeople and tourists from traveling to Azerbaijan, especially from countries that do not have an Azerbaijani embassy.
Any such reduction in travelers, conceivably, could also undermine the profitability of the numerous luxury hotels now being built in Baku.
Travel agencies similarly seem to know nothing about the purpose or the specifics of the changes. “They just do whatever they want and don’t even bother telling anyone,” said one travel agent.
In the absence of official commentary, hypotheses about the reason for the change run the gamut.
Eldar Aslanov, the director of the Azerbaijani Tourism Institute, an educational establishment run by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, attributed the changes to international terrorism concerns. A few days earlier, however, Aslanov had asserted that “Azerbaijan has an interest in foreign nationals not experiencing problems in obtaining the country’s visas,” Trend news agency reported.
Some civil society organizations, though, argue that the change is related to Azerbaijan’s upcoming election.
"The authorities were supposing that foreign journalists and other
observers, who were not involved in international missions, triggered
the formation of revolutionary conditions in 2005,” claimed Emin Huseynov, chairperson of the Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety, in reference to Azerbaijan’s last parliamentary vote. Regular scuffles between opposition members and police, recorded by international media, marked the 2005 election campaign.
“Therefore, we think that the authorities took this step with the aim to keep the foreign
journalists and observers out of [the] process, because they considered it a
threat for the regime,” Huseynov claimed.
[The Institute for Reporter Freedom and Safety receives financing from the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan, part of the network of Soros Foundations. EurasiaNet.org operates under the auspices of the Open Society Institute, a separate part of the network.]
Pointing out that visitors can still receive visas through Azerbaijani embassies, government officials rejected the allegations.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring this year’s vote, has not reported any problems so far with visa registrations by journalists or their own observers.
Hikmat Hajizade, the president of FAR Center, a Baku-based think tank, also interprets the changes as an effort to limit outside influence in Azerbaijan. “This is either done specifically on the eve of the elections to fence off . . .undesirable and unexpected guests, or it may be part of [a] general tendency to guard ourselves from influences from abroad,” Hajizade said. Hajizade is the father of jailed blogger and youth activist Adnan Hajizade.
Asked to explain the reason for the visa changes, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs consular department representative, who asked not to be named, answered that: “The purpose is that the president ordered the changes.”