“Did you ever see that James Bond movie with Baku in it?” My new Azeri friend asked, referring to 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, which was filmed in Baku. “Well, in the end they blow up a large oil rig,” he was preparing himself for the punchline, “It is said that when one of the ministers found out how much the film crew paid to build a fake oil rig and blow it up, he told them, 'You should have just given me the money and I would have let you blow up a real one!'”
His friends erupted in laughter. They’d heard the joke before, and it is symbolic of the Azeri attitude towards the rampant corruption in their country. There isn’t anything their ministers won’t do for money.
I got a slightly more frustrated take on it from an development worker friend of mine. He gave me tales of police stopping aid workers in their cars and extorting all sorts of fines for them. “Every time I leave the city in my car, I can count on getting pulled over and paying $50 to a cop,” he said dejectedly, and the other aid workers shared his thoughts. The corruption in Azerbaijan was strangling their ability to get any real work done. Corruption is a fact of life in Azerbaijan, and it specifically targets foreigners, so you need to be prepared. It’s frustrating. It’s inconvenient, but you can’t let it ruin your trip.
On my first day in Baku I entered the subway. It was my first time on the subway, so I certainly had that “I’m not quite sure where I’m going” look on my face, and a policeman tried to take advantage. I was walking up to the turnstile and had put my token in when a gruff-looking man in a suit put his hand across my chest to stop me from entering. He flashed his wallet in that FBI fashion, revealing some sort of badge. “Let me see your Identity Card,” he said in Azeri. I still hadn’t mastered the quirks of Azeri yet and thus responded in Turkish, “They are at my hotel.” The policeman was a bit taken aback by my Turkish. He knew I wasn’t Azeri, which is why he was picking on me, but he wasn’t expecting a Turk. “So you’re Turkish…” he said, giving me a cold stare. I told him I was. The officer asked me for my passport. I told him it was at the hotel. He asked which hotel. It went on like that for a few minutes. Other Azeris passed by, giving me a sad look like they knew just what was going on but couldn’t help. He started telling me that he might have to take me in for some questions since I didn’t have identity on me. “But I have to get on the subway; I’m meeting friends and I’m late,” I pleaded. He didn’t seem concerned. He asked me if I was carrying foreign currency. I told him that I was Turkish and had only a few Lira and some Azeri Manat. He looked me up and down, thought to himself, and then decided to let me go. I guess he decided I wasn’t worth it.
The same thing happened a couple of days later, and I got off again. Talking to some expats, I discovered that this is a common thing. “You’re lucky that you aren’t blond or blue-eyed,” they told me, “You can pass for Azeri.” Many of my expat friends weren’t so lucky and didn’t have the advantage of speaking Turkish. Random police stops were regular business for them. Sometimes they would have to cough up money for a “fine,” sometimes not. Mostly, they said, it was just the police’s way of trying to keep foreign aid workers in check. Corruption is a fact of life in Azerbaijan, where, despite huge reserves of oil and gas, many people still live in poverty while their ministers enjoy penthouses in high-rise apartments. The sad part is that this high-level corruption trickles down to the lower levels of society as well.
At a Chinese restaurant in Baku some friends of mine and I checked our coats. We sat down and ate a nice dinner. When it came time to pay, I realized that I had left my cash in my jacket. I went into the coat room to find my cash and discovered that it wasn’t there. I launched into an argument with the owner, who insisted that nobody on his staff would ever steal like that. He was lying through his teeth, as it was obvious and I was out a good $30 in Azeri Manat.
At a street vendor’s near Fountains Square I was buying a key chain. It was my first day in Baku, and I hadn’t got used to the money yet. Azeri Manat have a lot of zeros, and the 1,000 and 50,000 bills look almost the same. The key chain cost 3,000. I gave the vendor 150,000. When I saw him look at the money and quickly stuff it into his pocket, I knew what happened. I asked him, in Turkish, how much I gave him, “Three thousand,” he said. I told him to take the money out of his pocket. He did and I found three 50,000 Manat bills. I scolded him and took my money back. A neighboring vendor laughed, and the shopkeeper, a boy no more than 20, just shrugged and gave me a look that said, “It was worth a try!”
Scams like that are going to be the most troubling part of Azerbaijan. The Azeris aren’t used to tourism yet, and their ideas of foreigners are wealthy oil workers who probably don’t care about dropping $20 for a cab ride, so likely your cabbie will assume that as well. Don’t let this ruin your image of Azeris. They may be slightly xenophobic, perhaps a result of Soviet rule, but they can be just as welcoming and hospitable as anybody once they warm up to you. It is frustrating, though, and if you are in Azerbaijan, you are inevitably going to be stopped by a policeman hoping for a shakedown. All you have to do is remember a few things.
1) Never hand over your documents. Once you do this, they can ask for as much money as they want. Passport copies work well for avoiding this, but the best is to just play the “It’s at the hotel” excuse.
2) If you don’t speak Azeri or Turkish, just act as dumb as possible. Pretending not to speak English as well may help.
3) Firmly stand your ground. Never follow them anywhere. If they want to search your bag, tell them to do it there. As soon as you move you’ll be done. Likely the more stubborn you are in this, the more they will see that you aren’t worth it and let you go.
4) Smile and remember that it’s just a fact of post-Soviet fallout. Don’t let it ruin your trip.