Strict controls at the Azeri border
Baku (Azerbaijan), September 28th 2015 

Border crossings in Central Asia and the Caucasus are sometimes accompanied by some hassle. In recent years, corruption at the borders has become less of a problem, but the fear of unwanted troublemakers and journalists entering the country is still there. One would expect that these unwelcome visitors wouldn’t get a visa in the first place and that when you possess a visa you could enter the country without further delays. When we wanted to pass the Azeri border, however, this wasn’t the case.

With valid thirty-day tourist visas in our pockets, we arrive at the border official. Kindly he collects our passports to examine them closely. He nods approvingly as he sees the entry stamps of Iran and Turkey. However, he is looking for something else: the stamp of archenemy Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia have been in conflict over Nagorno-Karabag for years. Joseph Stalin separated this area in the twenties from Armenia, to add it as an autonomous region to Azerbaijan. From 1989 until 1994 there has raged a fierce war between the two countries over Nagorno-Karabag. Officially, now there is a ceasefire, but the status quo isn’t optimal for anybody. According to almost all international protocols, Nagorno-Karabag belongs to Azerbaijan, but it still controlled by Armenia. Regularly, the ceasefire is violated so that there are casualties on both sides to regret. For a traveller, the fact that you've been in Armenia does not mean that you cannot go to Azerbaijan, but you may be put under a magnifying glass. Therefore, it does not take long before our passports are put on a separate pile. Our Armenian stamps are discovered and the officials notice that we have been there for three weeks. This means additional delays at the border.

The border officials remain friendly while they try to learn more about our intentions. They want to find out which areas of Armenia we have visited and how much sympathy we have for the Armenians. The tactics that they use are sometimes a bit out of the ordinary. We have understood from other travellers that some border officials are talking to you in Armenian to determine whether you master the Armenian language. Since we don’t speak any Armenian, we may have passed this test without noticing it. To the question: "Do you like Armenia?" we answer that Armenia is a rather poor country. It is a meaningless answer, but apparently it is sufficient.

It looks like we passed the test and that we are allowed into the country. The stamps are put in our passports, but still our documents aren’t returned to us. They disappear in the pocket of the border guard, as the officials want to search our bags first. The customs official shrugs his shoulders and says "sorry, that you must clear out your bags, but all our work is recorded with video cameras, so we cannot simply let you pass through." They look especially for pro-Armenian propaganda material and they also want to browse through the videos and pictures on our cameras. Fortunately, our pictures aren’t a problem. The only thing that raises questions is our guidebook, which doesn’t only describe Azerbaijan but also Georgia and Armenia. They want to make sure what is described in the book about Nagorno-Karabag, corresponds with the Azeri views on history. At first, one border employee looks in our book, then two, and finally there are five people with all sorts of stripes and stars on their uniforms, looking into our Lonely Planet. Edwin patiently shows them the sections about Nagorno-Karabag and the relevant maps. Furthermore, he explains that we understand how sensitive the issue is. The latter seems to be the thing that the Azeri border officials to hear. With sign language, they show that Azerbaijan is still fighting with Armenia. Ninety minutes later, we can finally close our bags. It has been rightly concluded that there is nothing inflammatory in our books, so we may keep it. We get our passports back with the well-meant apologies for the delay. "No problem" we smile to the men, and finally the time has come for us to start exploring Azerbaijan. The superiors that spy their border officers with video cameras can be satisfied: they have done their job thoroughly!

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