Carpet Smuggling in Azerbaijan

From Salt Mag

Baku International Airport, Baku — I knew exporting my wares would not be easy. The severity of Azeri law and the arbitrariness of its execution conspire to make following rules more art than science. Many rules are unknown, some are not enforced, some are used to get a bribe, some of those bribes can be avoided. Some can’t. No two Azeri’s will give the same interpretation of a rule; no single policeman will apply the same rule evenly in two different situations.

I had bought two carpets and a few other woven crafts, and I wanted to take them back to the US. I understood from my guidebook that all carpets needed a certificate from the State Carpet Museum and that carpets older than 30 years (legally considered antiques) will not be granted export certificates. I spoke to a few carpet merchants who explained that export restrictions were more a function of the expense of the carpet, the likelihood that the purchaser worked for an oil-company, and the size of the bribe that could thus be expected. For this, they would provide a fake receipt for a much lower value. I spoke to Elshad, the procurement officer at my office who insisted that bribery was hopeless and that it was not even worth trying to export a carpet without a certificate. However, certificates could be procured for even old carpets. Finally, an expert from the Carpet Museum, Aysa, whom I hired to advise me, weighed in that the certificates were probably necessary but would not be granted for any carpet over 50 years old. I concluded that if I exported a brand-new doormat from Hong Kong with a certificate from the Carpet Museum and a receipt explaining that it was a free gift, while unshaven and wearing an NGO t-shirt, I might be safe but should staple a $20 bill to the item in question regardless.

I liked my carpets, so this caused me no small amount of worry. My first carpet was an expensive silk one and thus a prime target for a bribe, but it was new so I had managed to get a certificate. The second was wool and less expensive but a high-quality weave and 55 years old. I had a receipt saying I had paid $200 for it, but the receipt was issued on cheap newsprint in illegible Azeri (I wondered if it read “soak this tourista for at least $100 before confiscating this carpet and I’ll buy it back for $400”). Finally I had a couple saddlebags, one which Aysa insisted was 80 years old and worth $250, despite the $50 sale price.

I tried packing the carpets in different suitcases, under various quantities of laundry in various states of insalubrity. I spoke to another SC intern who had managed to get a small Afghan prayer rug out with an innocent smile and a “no carpets in my suitcase, just laundry.” I spoke to the procurement officer again who told me to abandon all hope. I spoke to the carpet merchant who assured me that it would be “no problem” (although he looked a little more concerned when I told him that the last 10% of the price would be delivered once I reached the US, minus any supplementary export duties).

I resolved to give it a try and not to do any last minute research into the penalties attendant on cultural pillaging or the conditions of Azeri penitentiaries. I packed my wool carpet at the bottom of a large suitcase, covered it with my laundry and put my silk carpet on top. My strategy was to admit that I was carrying a carpet and hand them the certificate to the silk carpet. Perhaps they would wave me through without opening the suitcase to check. Perhaps if they checked they wouldn’t notice the large bulge at the bottom that consumed half the suitcase. I would bring Elshad to the airport with me, and if they insisted, I would pass it back to him and start kissing up to anyone with a diplomatic passport upon my return to Azerbaijan.

Elshad drove me to the airport at 6:30 the next morning. I had abandoned all hope of success but was resolved to play my cards anyway. Elshad had spoken to a friend in the custom’s department who had told him that the rules were being stringently enforced. A $100 bribe wouldn’t work. A $1000 bribe wouldn’t work. Certificate or nothing.

I passed through the first x-ray machine easily. This check point was solely for security. Then I swung by a small station that “offered” (just try refusing) to wrap any piece of soft luggage in a square kilometer of plastic wrap for $3. Then we reached the customs area in sight of my goal—the British Airways desk and the opportunity to check my loot through to New York (little thought was given to JFK’s customs nor the half kilo of fresh caviar in my backpack). I stepped forward with my most innocent and friendly tourist smile and was told curtly that customs was not open. I was to fill out a customs declaration form instead.

I hadn’t counted on written documentation. I had hoped to play it by ear before seeing if I would have to declare the wool carpet. Fortunately, Azeri paperwork came to my aid. There were only 4 lines available on the front for listing “good or currency.” So I started off by listing $50, 50,000 Azeri Manats, and my 500 grams of caviar (the Azeri limit). I listed my silk carpet and then signed.

The customs gate opened and I wandered in, put my luggage through an x-ray machine, no doubt designed to detect the difference between a double-weave silk-blend carpet from Tabriz and a single-weave camel wool kilim from Quba. I wandered through with ease—the expected sirens didn’t go off; the shackles didn’t clamp down on my ankles; no shots were fired.

But I wasn’t clear yet. I brought my suitcases over to a desk with a man, chin propped up on his hand, who looked like his job was miserable and you were personally responsible for that misery. I heaved my suitcase up onto a small table, hoping to be quickly waved away as a nuisance not worthy of his attention. Unfortunately, over my shoulder came a few lines of Azeri that caused the inspector the singular inconvenience of levering himself off his arm and forward towards my suitcase. Apparently, something suspicious had come up.

He looked up at me with a jerk of his head and asked me, “you have a carpet” with little upward intonation at the end to suggest he expected an answer. “Yes,” I cheerfully volunteered and proudly brought out the certificate to my silk.

You have to give the former Soviet Republics their due. When it comes to official-looking certificates, they are hard to top. Elaborate letter heads, detailed and illegible type, additional information penned in with an artistic scrawl. There were 2 pages to the certificate, a photocopy of my passport, and a large photo of the carpet pinned up with a large number on it. Each page had at least two stamps on it and the photo had 5 names and signatures on the back. I figured I could register a corporation in the Caymans with as much documentation.

Another two uniformed inspectors came over as did two other men in black t-shirts who leaned casually on the counter to watch the festivities. The inspector slowly scrutinized the certificate. He studied each page slowly, flipped it over, looked at the back side of the paper, holding it at different distances from his eyes as if it would reveal different secrets when viewed at different angles. He gestured for me to open the suitcase.

Resigned to handing over my treasure, and probably $50 for the privilege, I got to the work of drilling through the plastic wrap and opening up the lid. He touched the silk carpet on top briefly and then his hand wandered through several t-shirts and down to the bottom to find the massive object embalmed in black plastic bags. The face lifted and the eye brows rose. “Two carpets?” came the query. “Yup” I nodded enthusiastically, as if bringing through two but only declaring one and only having one certificate were the most natural things in the world. I jumped in and tore a small hole in the bag, showing off my plunder. I handed him the flimsy fake receipt as if it were an original copy of the US Constitution.

At this point, there were too many bystanders to consider offering a bribe. The outfit looked reasonably professional, and I doubted any one would slide an envelope into their pocket with so many others around. If nothing else, the $50 wouldn’t amount to much when split 5 ways. Maybe I had last minute thoughts about the morality of encouraging the practice NGO workers so sanctimoniously deplore. Perhaps I was just too cheap. I left the portrait of President Grant in the envelope that I returned to my hand luggage.

A more senior customs official arrived and started fingering my silk carpet. He complimented the carpet in Russian to the two men in t-shirts at the counter and turned to me, “two thousand dollars?” “No, good price” I replied with an embarrassed laugh, trying to suggest that he only asked because he was curious about my bargaining skills. I briefly wondered if the five were mentally dividing up the spoils, but then dismissed the idea—I had an ally here. He was friendly and seemed as innocent as an official can while rummaging through your personal effects.

The first customs officer frowned slightly but seemed more confused than upset. He read the rest of my customs declaration and saw the line for caviar. “Caviar?” said my laconic interrogator and the eye brows went up again. “Yes, 500 grams” came the proud reply. I had much information to withhold if at all possible, so I was relieved to be posed questions where the answer was not incriminating. The export limit was 500 grams and I was instantly glad that I heeded Elshad’s advice rather than greedily buying a kilo. I promptly pulled out my stash—a plastic bag with five jars each wrapped in newspaper. He picked that bag up to do a quick estimate and handed it back to me.

His attention turned back to the wool carpet. “It’s not old,” I lied, “so they told me that I didn’t need a certificate.” The official looked troubled but also reluctant to jump start his brain with such a dilemma so early in the morning. Why would a foreigner have gone to the trouble of getting an export certificate for one carpet and not the other? Why had he been so eager to show off the silk carpet yet so absent-minded about the wool one? How could he strictly observe the caviar export limit yet so brazenly ignore the rule on carpets? Foreigners were liable to the most curious and inexplicable behavior.

The silk carpet had caught his eye and he continued to run his hands over it, turning away every now and then to inspect the certificate. I had discovered a bug in the mental software, and the cerebral application was running in a closed loop. Fortunately, other travelers were beginning to appear (and perhaps looked more like oil workers). The senior inspector piped in that I could go, waving me off. I paused for a moment, hoping to get my certificate back. But the first inspector was still staring at it, and I decided not to wait long enough for the penny to drop. I grabbed my customs form, boarding pass, and other papers in a fist and dragged my suitcase off, still zipping the bag closed again.

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