Azerbaijan continues to keep its land borders closed, citing COVID-19 as a concern

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Azerbaijan shut down all its land borders with neighboring Russia, Georgia, Turkey, and Iran at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus further due to the growing number of infections (the country's border with Armenia, has been closed for more than 30 years). Three years on, while the world, including Azerbaijan, lifted most, if not all, pandemic-related restrictions, Azerbaijan continues to keep its land borders closed for passenger traffic, citing the pandemic as an ongoing threat. This move comes despite the  World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General's conclusion “that COVID-19 no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC)” on May 3, 2023.

As recently as June 23, 2023, the state extended the special quarantine regime until October 2, 2023, while President Ilham Aliyev said the borders will remain closed for as long as it takes to prevent people from getting sick. Meanwhile, closed land borders have deprived Azerbaijanis of employment opportunities in neighboring countries, primarily Russia and Turkey; prevented many of its citizens already living in neighboring countries from traveling back to Azerbaijan as the only remaining alternative is expensive airfare; and in some cases, led to tragic consequences as was the case with four Azerbaijani students studying in Turkey who perished during the deadly earthquake in February because they could not afford flight tickets to travel home.

An absence of a legitimate reason

As early as November 2022, the Azerbaijani fact-checking platform, Fakt Yoxla, concluded: “that at a time when mass immunity has arisen, the infection has seriously decreased, and mass gatherings and events are free in the country, keeping the country's land borders closed does not have a legitimate basis and is not in line with the recommendations of the WHO.”

Some lawmakers, including those representing the ruling New Azerbaijan Party, have also raised eyebrows over ongoing border closure. As have civic activists:

In July, scores of political activists took to the streets protesting the ongoing closure. Police were quick to respond:

Joining the calls to open the borders or at least offer alternative routes have been ethnic Azerbaijanis living in Georgia. On August 13, some 1,000 citizens signed an online petition calling on President Ilham Aliyev “to restore at least limited movement across the Georgian-Azerbaijani land border.”

In March 2022, shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, hundreds of Azerbaijani labor migrants were reportedly stuck at the Azerbaijan-Russia border due to the closed borders policy.

According to reporting by OC Media, the status quo has left many Azerbaijanis living in Azerbaijan facing grave economic constraints. In an interview with OC Media, Farid Mehralizade, a Baku-based economist and co-founder of Agora Analytical Collective, said among the Azerbaijanis most affected by the closed borders are students studying abroad, patients receiving medical treatment in neighboring countries, as well as citizens who rely on tourism. “Now that the road is closed, they are forced to use alternative routes or cannot travel at all. As a result, expenses have increased.” 

And according to Bloomberg, “visits [by Azerbaijanis] abroad in 2022, reduced by 73 percent below their level in 2019.” Similarly, Bloomberg reports that restricted travel routes halved the total amount Azerbaijanis spent abroad in 2022 compared to the year before the pandemic breakout.

In an interview with Turan News Agency, economist and member of the political party ReAL, Natig Jafarli, questioned the legitimacy of keeping the borders shut while air travel is open to visitors, which refutes government claims that the borders remain closed due to the pandemic. “If it was related to the virus, then flights would also be suspended. So, we can say with confidence that COVID-19 has nothing to do with it. If, however, this is related to security issues, which is also often said, then this explanation is also illogical because, again, air traffic should also be closed,” explained Jafarli in an interview in July 2022.

However, the absence of alternative explanations complicates the situation further, according to Jafarli. He said, “Let's assume that there really are good reasons to keep the borders shut and the government, due to some circumstances, cannot explain the reason for this. In this case, it would be necessary to give citizens at least some explanation as to why borders remain closed.”

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