Azerbaijanis brace themselves for worst amid price hikes

With the steep devaluation of the manat, Azerbaijanis have seen their workloads increase but salaries shrink. Meanwhile, people brace themselves for the worst.

The New Year brought many surprises to Azerbaijan, as a second steep devaluation of the national currency, the manat, in less than a year led to sharp price hikes in the cost of basic goods. The move was long-expected by independent Azerbaijani economists, but government officials had assured the public that no such move would be necessary. When the devaluation did come on December 22, it lost 32 percent of its value on the first day.

The first to feel the effects were people from the country’s rural regions outside of Baku. They responded by occupying the streets in the hundreds and demanded assistance from President Ilham Aliyev. They received riot police instead. Protests have sprung up across the county in the last week, in the towns of Siyazan, Agjabadi, Fuzuli, Beylagan, Imishli, Aghsu and Lankaran, and always with the same grievances: unemployment and the sharp rise in prices.  So far, riot police have detained 55 protesters.

Baku residents felt the second devaluation just as sharply. Adil Imanguliyev, a 30-year-old typographist, told Meydan TV that after the second devaluation businesses in all sectors have noticed a slowdown and have reacted by laying off employees, leaving fewer employees to do more work without any guarantees.

“For example, one of my friends works at Sintex Group. For now, due to staff reductions, she is the manager of three or four clothing stores, but before each store had its own manager.  The work is tripled, but the salary is the same as it was earlier.”

According to Imanguliyev, his workplace has not suffered from the devaluation: “I work in printing house. Our team is not so big, there are only 15 people, here one person works for one department. That is why the chief cannot reduce the number of workers. But the devaluation affects the other side. For example, the work of our company depends on commercial orders, which have decreased a lot. The number is little, but still there’s still business. I think our company will keep going, but how long it will last I don’t know…”

Eldar Askerov, 34, has his own small business. He used to resell well-known tea from Lankaran, in southeast Azerbaijan.

“Before the devaluation I used to sell tea approximately from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. I had about 5-6 clients, not so many, but still. Since the devaluation during the week I have maybe 2 orders. I also sell tea with different kinds of herbs.”

Askerov said the price hikes affect tea prices as well, and trade is completely “dead.” He wondered why tea prices skyrocketed when tea is produced in local factories. Askerov joked that maybe tea plantations are mixed with dollars.

“But to be serious, I’m persistent, I’m sure I can resolve any financial problems. The rest of people will get used to the current situation as well. You know, Azerbaijani people can cope even with a 100 percent of devaluation, well, probably at first it will be a little bit difficult. Probably there will be nothing to eat, but after a year, everything will take its previous place,” Askerov added.

Nurlan Huseynov a 28-year-old student at the Georgian Institute of Public Affairs who lives in Tbilisi, said Azerbaijanis living near the border are increasingly relying on small-scale smuggling of cigarettes and alcohol to make ends meet.

“Almost everyone on the bus was talking about how to bring cigarettes and alcohol across the border. They pay one manat on the Azerbaijani border and then they get to cross 3-4 times in a day. They can earn 2 manats from each carton of cigarettes.”

“I heard that almost every day police arrest someone but let them go after a fine or a warning. People said that at nights the checking process isn’t so strict, so that’s when they prefer to cross.”

On January 15, a direct order from the office of the President cut the price of a loaf of bread to 0.30 manats ($0.15) for a 500-gram loaf and 0.40 manats ($0.27) for a 700-gram loaf, sparking widespread discussions on social media:

“This order will last for a few days, no more. Trust me, if at the beginning of March prices don’t go up, I’ll change my name to Heydar.”(March is the month when Azerbaijanis celebrate Novruz, and prices rise before the holidays).

Sara Mamedova: “They made poor people satisfied even with 40 cents for bread. We used to hear on TV channels that Azerbaijan has grain in abundance. People, 700 gram of bread should be 20 cents, not 40.”

“False orders! Nothing more!”

Others are convinced that the devaluation won’t affect grocery stores financially. “Even if prices are 80 percent higher, people still have to buy something. That’s why I think stores will not have such serious problems,” Imanguliyev said.

“When cigarette prices rose by 100%, some of my friends gave up smoking. But some still buys cigarettes. If before there were a thousand buyers, now there will be 700. I don’t think it has affected the market. It is just simple accounting,” he concluded.

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