By Khadija Ismayilova
Angry demonstrators in Cairo most definitely don’t have the right to vote in Azerbaijan. But officials in Baku seem to be acting these days as though they do.
As part of an apparent campaign in Azerbaijan to minimize public grievances with the government, authorities are implementing anti-corruption measures. Some analysts see the clean-up effort as motivated more by Egypt’s ongoing political unrest than with any deep-rooted desire in Azerbaijan’s leadership to tackle rampant graft. Opposition activists at the same time are ridiculing the government response.
“What we see is . . . plastic surgery on a patient who needs urgent heart surgery,” said Qan Turali, a columnist for the opposition Azadliq (Liberty) newspaper. Turali added that the current anti-corruption effort reminded him of the “‘self-criticism campaigns’ of the Gorbachev era,” a reference to the Communist Party leader who presided over the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991. “In the case of the Soviet Union, the patient ended up in the morgue.”
Many ordinary Azerbaijanis on the streets of Baku were similarly skeptical. When asked to comment about the government’s pledge to get serious about corruption, some responded with a well-known Azeri proverb: “A fish is cleaned from the tail, although it stinks from the head.” [“Balıq başdan iylənər, quyruqdan təmizlənər.”]
Said one 45-year-old Baku taxi driver, who gave his name as Agabala, and who referred to senior government officials and their relatives: “Let’s see if any of those Bentley owners will be asked about the origin of their money.”
Government corruption in Azerbaijan is seen as a longstanding source of public discontent. In 2010, the country ranked in the bottom quarter — 134th out of 178 countries — in a global index of citizen perceptions of government corruption compiled by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International. In 2009, Azerbaijan placed 143rd out of the 180 countries TI surveyed.
Official efforts in recent years to tackle corruption complaints have been largely hit-and-miss. But, now, amid ongoing street protests for political change in the Arab world, the government in Baku appears eager to show that it is listening. Government sources told EurasiaNet.org that unofficial directives have already been issued to employees ordering them to avoid irritating the public and to work more effectively.
The announced crackdown on graft follows a January 27 session of Azerbaijan’s anti-corruption commission, a body headed by Ramiz Mehdiyev, who is believed to be one of President Ilham Aliyev’s most influential aides. It was the commission’s first such session since 2009.
Soon thereafter, the State Customs Office, long a prime target for anti-corruption activists, announced on February 3 that four of its employees had been arrested on charges of corruption and falsification of documents. A day later, Chief Prosecutor Zakir Garalov announced plans for “serious measures” against allegedly corrupt prosecutors, and signaled that the measures could mark the start of a far-reaching investigation into those “who live a life of luxury.”
“We have to start with ourselves, so we will be entitled to demand the same attitude from others and investigate corruption by other people” Garalov said, local news outlets reported. He did not provide specifics.
Other state agencies have been similarly eager to demonstrate a zest for clean governing. Health Minister Ogtay Shiraliyev, for example, declared that he had uncovered evidence about payments to medical staff in state-run hospitals for services and drugs that are supposed to be free. Tax Minister Fazil Mammadov announced stricter oversight of employees and measures to encourage “free competition” and to fight against “monopolization.” The Ministry of Culture and Tourism opened a hotline for citizen complaints, while the Ministry for Communications, like other ministries, also emphasized the need for a better mechanism to respond to public complaints.
Meanwhile, pro-government media outlets have been quick to play the part of Greek chorus. The state TV channel AzTV broadcast a report in which Mehdiyev cited findings by international organizations, including Transparency International, that identified problem areas concerning corruption. Such findings had previously faced criticism from President Aliyev and other top government officials, who inferred that bias on the part of international organizations toward Azerbaijan drove the results. Meanwhile, the official newspaper of the ruling Yeni Azerbaijan Party declared that anti-corruption measures are now “a matter of principle” for the government and “constitute the main strategic direction of state policy.”
Some critics argue that the government’s newfound enthusiasm for fighting corruption will not translate into an expansion of civil liberties.
“Without systemic change, without establishment of a real system of checks and balances, when parliament has control over the executive branch and the court system is truly independent, all anti-corruption efforts, if they really exist, will be sentenced to failure” said Erkin Gadirli, a founder of the Republican Alternative Civic Union, an opposition group.
Vahid Ahmedov, an independent MP known for his pro-government views, believes the anti-corruption crackdown is sincere. But he expressed a desire to see the government do more: a government reshuffle would be the best way to improve its public image. “A new government should start from scratch, so that problems would be solved,” Ahmedov asserted, in comments reported by the news website Media Forum.
There are no indications that President Aliyev is considering a cabinet overhaul.
Gubad Ibadoglu, head of the Economic Research Center in Baku, suggested that anti-corruption measures should be extended to include measures that promote greater transparency in the finances of public officials. A 2006 law that requires all government officials to declare their personal income and property should be implemented, he said. “If they are sincere, why not start with this minor step? Have everyone declare what they own,” said Ibadoglu.
Eldar Namazov, a presidential-advisor-turned-government critic, says real reform in Azerbaijan requires the political will and the capacity for reform, two qualities, he argues, that are presently absent. Until those criteria are met, Namazov contended, no investigation will have any hope of reaching the root of high-level corruption.
Khadija Ismayilova is a freelance reporter based in Baku and hosts a daily program on current affairs broadcast by the Azeri Service of RFE/RL.