MINELRES: Caucasus Reporting Service No. 274: Georgia: Smuggling Crackdown Hurts Azeris

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WELCOME TO IWPR'S CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE, No. 274, February 17,
2005.

CAUCASUS NEWS UPDATE FEBRUARY 17

NORTH OSSETIA: ARREST OF MUSLIM LEADER FUELS TENSIONS Detention
highlights the authorities' growing suspicion towards parts of the
Muslim community in predominantly Christian North Ossetia. By Alan
Tskhurbayev in Vladikavkaz

AZERBAIJAN: OIL WORKERS ALLEGE FOREIGN DISCRIMINATION A growing litany
of complaints from Azerbaijanis employed by international companies in
Baku. By Samira Ahmedbeili in Baku 

GEORGIA: SMUGGLING CRACKDOWN HURTS AZERIS Ethnic Azerbaijanis claim that
raids by Georgia's financial police are targeting their community
unfairly. By Ramilya Alieva in Vakhtangisi

CHECHNYA: CONFLICT EMPTIES VILLAGES Dozens of mountain settlements are
being steadily depopulated by the ongoing conflict. By Umalt Dudayev in
Usum-Kotar

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GEORGIA: SMUGGLING CRACKDOWN HURTS AZERIS

Ethnic Azerbaijanis claim that raids by Georgia's financial police are
targeting their community unfairly.

By Ramilya Alieva in Vakhtangisi

Azerbaijanis in southern Georgia are complaining of ethnic
discrimination after a series of police raids designed to stop smuggling
hit the local economy hard. 

Villagers protested in the regional centre Gardabani last week initially
about a reduced electricity schedule that gave them only a few hours'
power a day. But they then began to complain that they were being
discriminated against on ethnic grounds by the Georgian authorities.

"We will carry on protesting and keep on demanding solutions to all our
problems," said one protestor, Yashar Orujev, from the village of
Vakhtangisi. 

"They are acting against Azerbaijanis. The police are stopping our
business and calling it smuggling while local Georgians carry on
transporting their goods freely," he claimed.

"We don't have any prospects of building a career and getting jobs with
the local authorities. There is no gas in our villages, practically no
electricity and you can't even turn on the television - there's not
enough current."

Azerbaijanis are one of Georgia's biggest national minorities with a
population of around 300,000 people. Most live in the east of the
country near the border with Azerbaijan and are often isolated from what
is going in society and the rest of the country because few speak
Georgian.

This community has now become caught up in one of Georgian president
Mikheil Saakashvili's major government programmes - an anti-smuggling
campaign on all the country's borders designed to boost the state
budget. 

The interior ministry's financial police raided Vakhtangisi, a village
is on the Georgian side of the frontier with Azerbaijan, on January 20
in an operation to confiscate counterfeit goods. However, a fight broke
out, and three locals and some policemen were wounded in the ensuing
shootout.

The financial police told IWPR that following last summer's closure of
the Ergneti market inside the Georgian-Ossetian conflict zone, which had
been a major base for customs-free goods, the main smuggling route into
Georgia is now from Azerbaijan at Sadakhlo and Krasny Most.

"That is where most of the goods which are sold in Tbilisi and other
cities, in markets, supermarkets and even fashionable shops comes from,"
said Tea Rusikashvili, head of the press office of the financial police.

Rusikashvili, who took part in the anti-smuggling operations in
Gardabani region, told IWPR, "We confiscated black market electrical
goods worth eight million lari (4.4 million US dollars) from just one
family in Gachiani. They opened fire on the police and we had to call up
300 special forces soldiers."

When the police travelled to the next village, Vakhtangisi, Rusikashvili
said that they met fierce resistance.

"The police were following a minibus carrying smuggled goods," she said.
"Inside the village the driver vanished but the residents did not let us
take the vehicle, they attacked us with stones and Molotov cocktails.
One woman spat in my face and pulled my hair. We had to take shelter at
the frontier post."

It was during this episode that the police opened fire and wounded three
locals. An investigation is continuing into the incident. 

The Azerbaijani villagers complain that the authorities are cutting off
their livelihood without giving them any alternative means of earning
their living. 

"Now apart from all our other problems we've been condemned to live in
hunger," said Orujev. "We can't bring in big cargoes because we have to
pay high taxes on them and you can't earn anything from small cargoes."

Customs duties in Georgia range from 30 to 35 per cent of the cost of a
product. 

Rusikashvili told IWPR that corrupt customs officers had exacerbated the
situation. "Importing goods worth one million laris, some owners
declared it as a cargo worth one thousand lari and did great damage to
the state budget," she said. 

"Of course the customs played their part in this. All this business
starts on the other side of the Azerbaijani border near Lagodekhi, and
three customs officers have been arrested there."

But local Azerbaijanis are not convinced by these arguments, and say
they are the victims of an ethnically motivated campaign to make them
feel unwelcome in Georgia.

"Why are [the authorities] always breaking into the houses of
Azerbaijanis and punishing only them?" asked Orujev. 

"The moment we don't pay for your electricity, they turn it off. But in
the neighbouring villages where Georgians and Svans [related ethnically
to Georgians] live they don't pay either but they get 24-hour power.

"And what can we do now, when they've taken away the only means of
feeding our families and not offered us anything else? The Georgians
don't want us to live here."

In another part of eastern Georgia, a land dispute around the Kulari
stud farm resulted in the death of one local Azerbaijani woman late last
year. That dispute is still unresolved. (See CRS 266, December 16, 2004.
"Azeris Angry over Georgia Killing".)

The local leadership of the Gardabani region strongly denies the charge
of ethnic discrimination against the Azerbaijani minority. 

"In actual fact the Azerbaijanis live better than the Georgians, you can
see that for yourselves and the best proof of that is that Georgians
never persecute Azerbaijanis," said David Nadareishvili, head of the
Gardabani administration.

"We installed gas in two villages at the end of last year and have
improved the electricity supply. 

"And we have given help to people who suffered during the recent
anti-smuggling operation. We paid for their treatment in hospital and
medicine." 

But local Azerbaijanis dispute these claims. "Both villages which
Nadareishvili is talking about are Georgian," said Orujev. Relatives of
two of the wounded men also told IWPR that they had covered their own
medical costs.

Ramilya Alieva is a correspondent for Georgian Public Television in
Tbilisi

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ISSN: 1477-7959 Copyright (c) 2004 The Institute for War & Peace
Reporting 

CAUCASUS REPORTING SERVICE No. 274