The presidents of Azerbaijan and Russia have spoken two days in a row following a violent crackdown on Azerbaijani labor migrants who were protesting their inability to cross the border to return to their home country.
Ilham Aliyev and Vladimir Putin spoke on June 18 and “exchanged opinions on the situation on the Russian-Azerbaijani border,” Aliyev’s press service reported, according to local media. That followed another conversation between the two men the day before, though Putin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov told Russian media that the border situation had not been one of the topics on the agenda then.
“The presidents agreed on additional orders which will be given to the relevant government structures in connection with the resolution of the situation on the border,” the Azerbaijani statement said, without providing details.
The conversations followed clashes between Russian police and Azerbaijani migrants on the evening of June 15. The migrants had protested against the Azerbaijani government’s refusal to open up the border and let them return home; most of them have lost their jobs in Russia as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic and have been waiting at the border in Russia’s republic of Dagestan for weeks.
Azerbaijan, however, has only been admitting them in stages, arguing that the country does not have the quarantine capacity to let the several hundred migrants on the border in all at once.
Azerbaijani social media has been full of outrage against both their own country’s refusal to open the border and the Russian police’s violent crackdown, using tear gas and bludgeons, of the protest. Graphic videos have circulated of police dragging bloodied, barely conscious men across pavement.
The Azerbaijani official response has been muted, however.
“We express regret in connection with the incident that took place on the Kullar border crossing,” said Hikmet Hajiyev, Aliyev’s foreign policy adviser, in a June 16 statement. “In total, because of the COVID-19 global pandemic, since the middle of March more than 20,000 citizens of Azerbaijan have returned to our country via land borders and charter flights,” he said, not mentioning the protests or clashes.
Russian media reported, citing diplomatic sources, that an Azerbaijani delegation was headed to Dagestan the day after the protest to attempt to resolve the situation, but there has been no coverage of that delegation in either country’s press.
One member of Dagestan’s parliament, Marat Aslanov, told RFE/RL that some Azerbaijani officials had visited the area but he said they were indifferent to the plight of the migrants.
“Azerbaijanis on the border are running out of patience because nothing concrete is told to them,” he said. “Some Azerbaijani officials visit here. However, believe me, nobody meets with this community. Azerbaijanis visited the office of the Derbent district authorities, took photos with certain officials and left.”
Eighty of the protesters have been arrested and placed under 10-day confinement, the governor of the Magaramkent district in Daghestan, Farid Akhmedov, said on June 18. Daghestani officials have said that nine police officers were injured and five police vehicles were destroyed in the violence.
One resident of the migrants’ tent camp on the border said that the situation is calm following the protest.
“All we want is to return to Azerbaijan, to our families,” the man, Elshan Mukhtarov, told the independent Azerbaijani news site Turan. “I have been here for two months. At first, we slept on cement, then we set up a campground. The return process is slow. One hundreds to 120 people pass per week. The problem is that the selection is carried out according to incomprehensible criteria. We have been living here for two months, and they are letting in new arrivals. There must be justice.”
Aliyev’s press service said following the conversation with Putin that about 700 Azerbaijanis have crossed the land border since May 18. Of those, 155 crossed on June 16, with another group of migrants scheduled to cross again next week, Dagestani officials have said.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.