Nearly one month into Azerbaijan’s anti-corruption crackdown, both the government and general public appear puzzled about how far the campaign will actually go. But amidst the uncertainties, some signs of real change are beginning to emerge – a phenomenon that is encouraging popular expectations.
Ranked in 2010 as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International (134th place out of 178 countries), Azerbaijan has long had a thriving relationship with corruption – be it in payments for state-provided medical services, entrance to universities, bribes to traffic police or to state customs officials.
But, officially, the government has long declared “a lack of serious problems” in the country. That line began to change on January 27, amidst the popular uprising in Egypt, when officials announced a no-tolerance policy for graft. Multiple local investigations have been launched, and dozens of state employees have been fired, ranging from the head of Azerbaijan’s penitentiary service to several officials from the powerful Ministry for State Emergencies.
Expectations for further change are growing. On February 21, about 20 commercial truck drivers held a demonstration in front of parliament against the “lawlessness” of Ministry of Transportation employees who allegedly demand freight transportation fees more than four times the official rate.
An extensive website, Tariff.az, recently set up by the state anti-corruption commission is an attempt to tackle such complaints by publishing official rates for everything from utilities to taxes on foreign incomes.
President Ilham Aliyev on February 10 declared that “Our fight will be tough and it is our policy on modernization;” a policy based only on Azerbaijan’s “national interests,” he stressed.
But is this policy for real?
For an answer, many Azerbaijanis are taking a look at two of the traditional hotbeds of graft – the traffic police and the State Customs Committee.
Attempts by traffic police to collect petty bribes for alleged driving violations have long been a standard feature of travel on Azerbaijan’s roads. Car owners in Baku, however, now assert that traffic police since late January have been refusing to accept the usual 20-50-manat (about $25 to $60) bribes for traffic violations.
One Baku resident, Alesger Gabibov, told EurasiaNet.org how police stopped his Mercedes because he did not yield to a pedestrian on a crosswalk.
“I offered to ‘discuss the problem’ with the inspector, but he said ‘Don’t you know what is going on in the republic?’” Gabibov related. The policeman instead issued Gabibov a 44-manat (about $25) ticket, which he paid at Baku’s central traffic police department.
Car drivers are not the only ones dumbfounded by the reported changes. Car importers are describing a reformed customs service, too.
One such importer told EurasiaNet.org that he paid only the customs duty and not “a spare cent” more in early February when he delivered a Toyota Prado from Dubai. “Extra” payments on imported cars usually range from between $500 to $10,000, depending on the car’s value; the importer estimated the “extra” payment on a Toyota Prado would run between $6,000 and $7,000.
Another importer, though, who asked not to be named, said that he was still expected to pay an “additional” $600 for delivering a second-hand Mercedes from Georgia; his protests had little effect, he alleged.
Adhering to the government line, State Customs Committee (SCC) Central Administration Chief Mirgasim Vahabov denied that Azerbaijani customs officers take “any additional fees” when clearing cars through customs. “All departments of the SCC are ordered to comply with the president’s anti-corruption order,” Vahabov said.
But, apparently, some confusion appears to exist among customs officials about what exactly that order means.
One distributor of Western consumer goods in Azerbaijan told EurasiaNet.org that he had received a consignment of products earlier this month without any “additional” payments – a situation that would never have occurred a few months ago, he claimed.
But how long that policy will continue is anyone’s guess. “When I asked the customs officers about the ‘new rules of the game,’ they said that they themselves do not know yet and are waiting for ‘future instructions,’ said the distributor, who asked to be cited only by his first name, Anar.
Some independent economic experts, though, are still pessimistic about the government’s new anti-corruption agenda.
To Natik Jafarly, head of the non-governmental Society of Economic Bloggers, so far the measures look more like a short-term campaign. “It is like each ministry has to fulfill a ‘plan’ for the dismissal of X number of employees for corruption,” Jafarly said.
Zohrab Ismayil, director of the non-governmental Public Association for Assistance to [a] Free Economy, contends that more radical reform is needed in the Azerbaijani police, healthcare, education sectors, and among state-run companies. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s tactic of firing all of Georgia’s traffic police, then hiring fresh officers is much admired in Azerbaijan.
“A new structure of governance is needed; otherwise, anti-corruption measures will not be efficient,” Ismayil said.
Jafarly stresses that showing actual change is afoot could prove critical for checking any public dissatisfaction with the government. Amidst the changes in the Middle East, “expectations in society, especially among businesses, have grown during the last month,” he said.
“Therefore, if the campaign dies after some time and everything will be as it was before, the discontent in society would grow further,” Jafarly said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation – Azerbaijan.