By Harut Sassounian
Publisher, The California Courier
In keeping with the holiday spirit, my last column of the year is devoted to a light-hearted topic!
In a story titled: "Imported Cattle no Bovine Boon for Azerbaijan," Seadet Akifqizi of the Azerbaijani Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported that the government of Azerbaijan spent $23 million to import "4,500 pedigree cows from Germany and Austria in an effort to improve livestock quality and boost milk production." Each European cow was expected to produce 40 liters (10.5 gallons) of milk a day compared to the domestic Azeri cow that yielded only 9 liters (2.4 gallons), Akifqizi wrote.
Unfortunately, the project was a failure and the invested funds were wasted. Many of the high-class European cows could not survive the miserable living conditions in Azerbaijan!
Baku officials blame farmers for "not caring properly for the imported cows, which apparently require a certain degree of pampering." Azeri agricultural analyst Vahid Maharramov explains that the cattle brought from overseas "require high-quality feed and special hygiene."
Farmers, on the other hand, complain that they cannot afford to extend such lavish care and attention to the foreign cows, because "it is not cost effective and would lead to a steep increase in the price of milk."
Farmer Tarbiya Yusifova is unhappy that her major investment in imported cows did not pay off: "The price of the milk we produce is expensive for most customers because the hay we buy for the cattle is very expensive."
This is how the government’s ‘lease a cow’ program works: Farmers pay half the price of the cows when leasing them from the state-controlled firm Agrolizinq. The balance is to be paid in three years. Farmers must "have their own sowing area and adhere to strict guidelines for their barns," Akifqizi explained. "The humidity and lighting needs to be just right, and their diets and hygienic conditions should remind the European cattle of home."
However, conditions in Azerbaijan are far from ideal for the imported cows. When the RFE/RL reporter visited Firudin Hasanov’s farm in the Qushchu village, she learned that the farmer had to send most of his 30 pedigree cows to relatives in the Baku area because he was unable to provide the proper living conditions for them.
Akifqizi describes Hasanov’s farm as "a squalid barn that looks like it hasn't been cleaned for months. It is littered with manure, spiders climb the walls, and flies buzz around the feed containers." Hasanov explained that he "couldn't afford to upgrade his barns because in the countryside he can't sell his milk" at a price that would cover his costs.
To make matters worse, farmers have to pay Agrolizinq the full amount of the lease, even if the cows die prematurely. RFE/RL reports that "at least 260 of the imported cows have died since 2009, equal to around $1.3 million in losses." It is not known how many of these cows committed suicide because they could not stand living in such unbearable conditions!
The story takes a more serious turn when the RFE/RL reporter raises serious questions about the price of the European cows and the identity of the companies that imported them.
Agricultural analyst Maharramov notes that "the prices Azerbaijani farmers are being asked to pay for the pedigree cows is significantly higher than in other countries." RFE/RL revealed that "pedigree cattle imported from Austria cost $5,000 per head, as opposed to around $3,000 in Turkey."
According to Agrolizinq, three little-known companies had won the tenders to import European cows to Azerbaijan: Rista Alliance, Ninox Alliance, and Swisspoint Merchants Limited, which was registered in New Zealand from 2009 until 2011. "The website of the New Zealand commercial registry says the firm was directed by a Latvian citizen named Inta Bilder," RFE/RL discovered. A search of the registry identified "Bilder as the director or shareholder of hundreds of companies. Earlier this year, the Ukrainian newspaper ‘Dzerkalo Tyzhnia’ reported that one of those companies, Falcona Systems, was linked to an alleged fraud worth more than $150 million involving state-owned companies."
Maharramov is suspicious. He told RFE/RL: "Considering that the government directs budget resources [to buy cattle from abroad] hastily and without any preparation, you can suspect that there were some other intentions in this."
Maharramov should be very cautious when talking about imported animals. In 2009, Azeri blogger Emin Milli was jailed for reporting that the government of Azerbaijan had paid exorbitant prices for imported donkeys!