ASTARA, Azerbaijan — Every day, up to 3,500 Azerbaijanis gather at the border with Iran, waiting for hours to cross while crowded like cattle between chain-link fences.
What is driving so many people from this oil-rich country to endure such humiliation in exchange for a brief visit to their southern neighbor?
In a word: food.
As food prices spike in Azerbaijan, many are doing their grocery shopping abroad.
One woman who was waiting to cross the border explained to RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service that her pension does not provide enough money for her to buy food in her own country.
“Why shouldn’t I go to Iran? We buy everything we need there — meat, butter,” she said. “These products are very expensive in our country. We cannot afford to buy these things here on our tiny pensions.”
Food prices in Azerbaijan have, indeed, skyrocketed in recent months. According to official figures, overall prices have gone up by 2.2 percent in February alone. The price of sugar has risen by 9.5 percent and the price of potatoes by 12.5 percent. Independent analysts say the increases are even larger.
‘We Will Die’
Vuqar Bayramov, a Baku-based economist, said he expects overall food prices to rise by 16 percent over the course of 2011.
Azerbaijanis have long been crossing the border into Georgian to buy less expensive goods there. But in February, when Tehran lifted restrictions on the amount of agricultural products that can be taken out of the country, Azerbaijanis made Iran a prime shopping destination.