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  5. Heydar Isayev: Georgian Azerbaijanis ask Azerbaijan’s president to open border

Heydar Isayev: Georgian Azerbaijanis ask Azerbaijan’s president to open border

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Members of the ethnic Azerbaijani community of Georgia have called on the Azerbaijani president to open the border between the two countries.

It is a rare public expression of grievance over Azerbaijan’s continued closure of its land borders since the COVID-19 pandemic started over three years ago.

On August 23, Azerbaijani media reported that more than a thousand people, in both Georgia and Azerbaijan, had signed an online petition asking Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to either open the border altogether or create some sort of pass system.

“Apart from being friendly and strategic states, there is a human factor that unites both countries spiritually. Georgian Azerbaijanis have close family relations with Azerbaijani citizens, and vice versa. The fact that the borders have been closed for many years has caused serious mental damage to these ties,” reads the petition authored by Georgian Azerbaijani activist Samira Bayramova.

It adds that the closure has had a detrimental impact on Georgian-Azerbaijani economic relations and that opening the border could boost trade at the local level and improve the lives of Georgian Azerbaijanis in particular.

According to Georgia’s most recent census in 2014, Azerbaijanis are the largest ethnic minority, numbering just over 233,000, or 6.3 percent of the population. The majority of Georgian Azerbaijanis live in the southern Kvemo Kartli Province, which borders Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan closed its land borders with Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Iran to passenger traffic 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.

In May 2023, the World Health Organization announced that COVID-19 “no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern.”

Azerbaijan has long since lifted domestic COVID-19-related measures such as face mask requirements and restrictions on public gatherings, but it maintains what it calls a “special quarantine regime” that in effect only stipulates the closure of land borders. The quarantine regime was most recently prolonged until October 2.

In a cabinet meeting last month, President Aliyev stood by his decision to keep the borders shut. “Our land borders are closed and should be closed. Why? So that people do not get sick. Because the direction of spread of this disease is land borders,” he said. “That’s why we keep our borders closed – and we are doing the right thing. We will keep the borders closed as long as necessary.”

The petition is a rare but not unprecedented public expression of grievance against Azerbaijan’s insistence on keeping its borders closed. The continuing closure periodically attracts media attention due to the difficulties it causes. In February, four Azerbaijani students died in the earthquakes in Turkey after they reportedly failed to come back home during winter break due to the closed borders and the high prices of plane tickets.

“The current notoriously high cost of airlines is unaffordable and limiting for thousands of disadvantaged individuals. Elderly people in particular are unable to use air travel since it is too risky or difficult for them,” the Georgian Azerbaijanis’ appeal notes.

“Many people in Georgia and Azerbaijan who would otherwise live with the support of close relatives have been left totally vulnerable due to the closed land borders. People cannot be with each other and share their joys and sorrows during happy and sad days.”

Heydar Isayev

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