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A Bum Steer for Baku Cabbies?

Private taxi drivers in Azerbaijan’s capital say new regulations, and new cars, are driving them out of business.

by Shahla Sultanova 28 March 2012

BAKU | Hosting the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest should be a boon for Baku businesses that cater to tourists. But on 19 January, more than 100 taxi drivers demonstrated outside the Azerbaijani Transportation Ministry, claiming that Eurovision was instead costing them their livelihood.


The target of their ire was the ministry’s moves to tighten taxi regulations ahead of Eurovision, which takes place in late May. The government wants to clear Baku’s streets of private cabs officials say do not meet safety standards – particularly the Russian-made Ladas, many dating to the Soviet era, that are a primary or sole source of income for thousands of people in the capital.

Baku intends to replace the Russian-made Lada taxis with new London cabs, which it says are safer.


Until recently, any Azerbaijani citizen could use a private car as a taxi; all he or she had to do was pay the Transportation Ministry 150 manats ($189) for a five-year cab license and a monthly 19 manat ($24) fee. Now the government plans to cap the number of licenses at 5,000, 1,000 of them to drive new “London taxis.” Baku has purchased a fleet of the iconic Hackney cabs, painted purple and locally called TX4’s, from a U.K. manufacturer at a cost of $27 million, and it has set a 1 May deadline for getting the Lada cabs out of business.


Ministry spokesman Namiq Hasanov said the approximately 17,000 taxis now operating in Baku – a city of 2 million people – is more than three times the number needed and that the older Ladas present a safety hazard because they lack airbags and other modern equipment. The switch to a set number of newer-model taxis “is part of reforms we have been implementing since 2006, but we sped it up due to Eurovision so as not to have dangerous cars in the city,” he said.


Alongside the London taxis, thousands of newer, foreign-made sedans will make up the Baku fleet. The new cabs will have meters and set fares (1 manat to start the ride, 0.20 to 0.70 manats per kilometer depending on the distance traveled). In the private cars, driver and passenger generally negotiate a fare beforehand.


Hasanov said private drivers are being offered jobs with the Baku Taxi Company, the entity established by the ministry last summer to take over taxi regulation.


The first 1,000 London taxis might be just the beginning. John Russell, chief executive of Manganese Bronze Holdings, the British firm that makes the cabs, was in Baku earlier this month to negotiate the sale of 3,000 more of the TX4 cars over the next two years. Ilgar Gasimov, director of Baku Taxi, told local media he and Russell discussed reducing the $27,000 per-vehicle price.


Natiq Alakbarov, head of the Independent Transporters Union, contends the safety issues are an excuse to target the private cab industry.


“Ladas are the most-used cars in the country. There is no government restriction on their import into the country,” he said. “If they can be used as individual cars, why they can’t they be used as taxis? If they are not safe, why are individuals not warned or stopped from using them?”


Private cabbies say that since early January, officials with Baku Passenger Transport, an arm of the Transportation Ministry (and distinct from the Baku Taxi Company), have been stopping Ladas and confiscating drivers’ taxi licenses and signs. These moves prompted the 19 January protest, at which drivers clashed with police and 15 people were arrested.


Some drivers say they’ve had their documents taken several times, requiring them to pay a 100 manat fine to get them back.


Vugar Abdullaev, a father of two whose taxi service is his family’s only income, said his taxi sign was repeatedly taken by people who told him they were with Baku Passenger Transport.


“I stay around the area I live. People know that I’m a cabbie even without a sign,” Abdullaev said. “When I move to different area I put the sign inside. I’m going to do it until they force me to stop. I have no choice. I have school-age kids, they need to be fed.”


The dragnet has even affected Lada drivers who say their cars are purely for personal use. Rahman Mammadov, a builder, said he was pulled over while taking his assistant to their work site. “I was stopped by civilians and my documents were taken. They said I cannot use my car,” he said while lined up outside the Baku Passenger Transport Company to pay the 100 manat fine for allegedly using his private car as a taxi.


Sahib Mammadov (no relation to Rahman Mammadov), director of the anti-corruption Citizen’s Labor Rights Protection League, said some of the taxi reforms have merit, such as requiring safety equipment and introducing meters. “But the policy being implemented now is not right,” he said. “It should be done in stages, not in a short period of time.”


Mammadov maintained the “main focus” of the new regulations is not passenger safety but “building a private business.” He declined to elaborate, but other critics are more direct in asserting that the government’s interest is in establishing a stranglehold on the taxi trade.


“Purchasing thousands of taxis with state money, limiting others’ activity in the field, and offering desperate people jobs with them under hard conditions are signs of a monopoly,” said Rovshan Agayev, deputy chairman of the Center for Assistance for Economic Initiatives in Baku.


Those conditions have deterred some drivers from taking the offered jobs with Baku Taxi. Rather than using cars they own, several London cab drivers said they effectively lease the TX4’s from the firm. But Gasimov, the taxi company director, said the arrangement amounts to a 200 manat refundable deposit when a driver starts working in order to ensure he keeps the car in good condition. Drivers may also buy their own cars, albeit for a hefty 30,000 manats. So far, the company has one order from an individual and 100 orders from small companies, Gasimov said.


Employees of the taxi company also pay 40 manats a day, every day but Sunday, and missed payments are deducted from their monthly salary of 240 manats. 


Gasimov said most drivers can afford 40 manats per day, but Khalis Shikhaliyev, a Lada cabbie who has not gone to work for Baku Taxi, disagreed.


“That’s what I usually earn for a day,” he said. “What will be left to me if I have to spend 40 manats a day? The monthly salary is very low. With my own Lada I earn much more.”


The new cars are also available for hire only through dispatchers, or at designated taxi stands, which drivers say restricts their freedom in seeking out fares. And they can be driven only within Baku, which cuts out customers who live in neighboring towns but work in the capital.


Orkhan, a driver who did get behind the wheel of a purple Hackney (and who declined to give his last name), said he manages to earn a profit by driving from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., but he expects even that margin to disappear after Baku’s big party in May.


“I think after Eurovision, it will not be profitable,” Orkhan said. “It’s Eurovision that makes [the new cars] appealing to drivers. But I think after that, people won’t be interested in London taxis anymore.”

Story and photos by Shahla Sultanova, a freelance journalist in Baku.
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