By Shahin Abbasov
Farhad G., 50, of Baku, Azerbaijan, has been trying to privatize his dacha, or country house, for more than two years.
“First I applied to the State Real-Estate Registry Service (SRERS – Daşınmaz Əmlakın Dövlət Reyestri Xidməti) with a request concerning dacha privatization,” Farhad said. “They sent two engineers who drafted a drawing of my dacha. For this ‘service’ I had to pay 50 manat (US$61) to each of them.”
The payment for service was a bribe. It wasn’t the first and it won’t be the last, if he wants to finally have the land registered to his name and not the government’s.
Farhad had to register his dacha at the Executive power of the Sabunchu region of Baku, where he needed to get approval of the house design. Of course, the process did not go without bribes – he paid 5 manat (US$6) for each square meter of the house (a total area of 80 square meters).
“Another 50-100 manat (US$61-125) I had to pay for the respective approvals at the State Sanitation Service, Ministry of Emergencies and the regional housing department,” he said.
Combating bribery is at the heart of President Ilham Aliyev’s January 14, 2011, declaration to fight corruption and subsequent changes at the judiciary and other government offices, but the actions seem to be providing little relief for citizens such as Farhad.
Furthermore, watchdog groups note that the anti-corruption campaign is being applied unevenly, snaring only low- and mid-level government officials.
The president issued an order on February 14, 2011, to curb widespread corruption at the Interior Ministry’s Traffic-Patrol Service. To deter bribery by the traffic police, 25 percent of fines paid by drivers would be added to the general fund used to pay traffic police monthly wages. Also to minimize bribery, the president ordered that fines be paid only via banks and credit cards. The following month, a similar program was instituted with employees of the State Customs Committee.
To eliminate unjustified inspections of businesses, the president ordered on February 15, 2011, the creation of a common database for registry of businesses’ inspections by the law-enforcement and tax agencies.
And on May 23, 2011, a presidential decree ordered that the Ministry of Communication and Information Technologies (MCİT – Rabitə və İnformasiya Texnologiyaları Nazirliyi) create a system of “e-signatures” and “e-government” for use by citizens and government agencies.
Alimamed Nuriyev, coordinator of the Baku-based Anti-Corruption Network of Non-Governmental Organizations (ACN NGO – QHT-lerin Anti-Korrupsiya Şəbəkəsi), said he believes that the “e-signatures” and “e-government” measures are important and will help to minimize “face-to-face contact between citizens and bureaucrats and thus diminish possibilities for bribery.”
Nuriyev also pointed to changes in the judiciary system that are aimed at reducing bribes paid to judges for favorable rulings, which he said was one of the most serious and endemic problems facing Azerbaijan.
“Creation of the administrative-economic courts in 2011 improved the situation. With these courts, rulings are in favor of citizens in 55 to 70 percent of cases,” Nuriyev said. Before the establishment of the new courts, the percentage of rulings in favor of citizens was less than 10 percent.
Despite some early results of the anti-corruption campaign, there are still serious problems, and the most visible is that officials at the top seem to remain untouchable.
Nuriyev emphasized that nepotism, the practice of the head of a government agency to appoint his or her relatives to various positions, continues to be widespread. He also believes “nontransparency of the management of the civil service system inherited from the USSR” hasn’t been addressed and continues to feed Azerbaijan’s culture of corruption.
“Sectors such as transport, property ownership registration, activity of the local executive authorities and the government procurement system remain among those where the corruption level is still high because there is not enough transparency in these areas,” he said.
Top government officials admit that corruption remains a serious problem but point at other actors as the culprits. At a meeting of the State Commission on Fighting Against Corruption (SCFAC – Korrupsiyaya Qarşı Mübarizə Üzrə Dövlət Komissiyası) on January 27, 2011, its chairman, Ramiz Mehdiyev, agreed that “serious and consistent measures should be applied in fighting corruption and bribery.” In his view, special attention should be paid to elimination of artificial monopolies in the economy, ensuring free competition and fighting against tax evasion.
The government has added workers and expanded the role of some agencies. In 2011, the number of personnel at the prosecutor general office’s anti-corruption department (Korrupsiya ilə Mübarizə Departamenti) increased 2.5 times to 100 employees. The department also was granted additional authority to conduct investigations and search operations concerning corruption crimes.
From January to August 2011, the department opened 133 criminal cases, and 88 of them -- against 147 people -- were sent to court. The cases are mostly about bribes, abuse of power and money-laundering and allowed individuals and legal entities to recover 3.965 million manat (US$5.05 million).
High-Ranking Government Officials Left Untouched
However, according to the department’s official statistics, those arrested for corruption and bribery in 2011 are only low and mid-level government employees. These include heads of regional education departments, regional labor and social protection departments, teachers, doctors, chairmen of small municipalities and mid-level employees of the Ministry of Defense, Interior Ministry, etc.
Kamran Aliyev, head of the Department on Fight Against Corruption under the Prosecutor General Office, says all government employees who accept a bribe are to be punished regardless of the position they hold. “The Prosecutor General Office’s measures against corruption are based on facts and fully comply with legislation. Media often publish bias and unconfirmed information and that cannot be a reason for investigation by law-enforcement agencies,” he said.
But reasons to investigate high-ranking officials seem to abound.
“For example, the son of Transport minister Ziya Mammadov, Anar, owns Transgate, which controls the lion’s share of passenger transportation in Baku. This cries out as a conflict of interest,” said Azer Mehdiyev, chairman of the Center for Assistance to Economic Initiatives (CAEI – İqtisadi Təşəbüslərə Yardım Mərkəzi), a Baku-based nongovernmental think tank.
According to Mehdiyev, Anar Mammadov owns 81 percent of the shares of the Bank of Azerbaijan, a large private commercial bank that has most of the businesses operating in the transport sector among its clients. He’s is also chairman of the supervisory board of the large private holding company ZQAN, which has a large market share in the transport sector and has received important government contracts.
The Ministry of Transport does not deny the fact that his son owns the company. Answering media questions on the issue in 2010, the ministry’s press office said: “Anar Mammadov is a private entrepreneur and can work in any sector of the economy.”
“The government does not even bother itself to explain to the public recent well-sourced publications in foreign media (The Washington Post) about ownership by the president’s family members of multimillion-dollar villas in Dubai, acquisitions of large shares in local banks, and one of the three cellphone operators Azerfone,” Azer Mehdiyev said.
WikiLeaks also disclosed information about alleged illegal revenue, real estate and business of Aliyev’s family and other high-ranking officials.
“The government did not refute these disclosures. However, law-enforcement agencies did not investigate even a single case,” he said. In his opinion, this clearly shows “a lack of the authorities' political will for a real anti-corruption fight.”
Azer Mehdiyev believes that the anti-corruption campaign in Azerbaijan is only for show. “Corruption in Azerbaijan is not just endemic; it informally turned into a management tool,” he said.
The government has a different perspective. “The fight against corruption is not a campaign but consistent government policy. It is serious policy, and no one has immunity here,” said Ali Hasanov, head of the political department of the Presidential Administration (Prezident Administrasiyasının Siyasi Şöbəsinin müdiri).
According to him, opposition and media outlets wrongly criticize the government’s policy and by doing so decrease the public effect of anti-corruption efforts. “The fight against corruption is being done not only with administrative ways. The government also applies economic tools, such as increasing transparency, amendments of legislation and others,” Hasanov said.
One thing everyone seems to agree with is that curbing corruption will require continued long-term efforts.
Much Work to Be Done
Mirvari Gahramanly, coordinator of anti-corruption commission of the pro-opposition “Public Chamber” civic movement for democracy (PC – "İctimaiPalata” Demokratiya Uğrunda Vətəndaş Hərəkatı) said authorities’ true will to fight corruption is being tested.
“As early as 2005, the president ordered the government to define rules so bureaucrats start filing income statements. Six years later, nothing has been introduced,” Gahramanly said.
PC is now initiating activity to generate international pressure for further transparency reforms.
Leyla Yunus, an Azerbaijani human rights activist and director of the Peace and Democracy Institute (PDI – Sülhvə Demokratiya İnstitutu), thinks lack of transparency may have even increased in the last years.
As an example, she pointed at the recent demolition of houses in Baku under the flag of land improvement, an area vulnerable to corruption in Azerbaijan. “Citizens receive low financial compensation for the violation of their ownership rights. The process is not transparent at all – we do not know how the amount of compensation is calculated.
“People are offered amounts two to three times lower than a market process of demolished houses and apartments; those who disagree are evicted forcefully,” she said.
Yunus herself became a victim of such action on August 11, 2011, when the PDI office-building in downtown Baku was demolished.
Isa Gambar, leader of the opposition Musavat Party, believes that “corruption reaches scale when it threatens Azerbaijan’s statehood.”
“It is the result of a regime that wants to waste the country’s resources without any control,” Gambar said.
For some experts, the problem requires serious and comprehensive reforms to the country’s political system. “The country needs timely replacement of high-ranking officials, genuine separation of powers, and civil society control over the government, including free media,” said Mehdiyev.
In Azerbaijan, the prime minister and most of the ministers have been in their positions for the last six to 15 years, while the Prosecutor General has been the same for 10 years.
Regarding media, local and international watchdog organizations say there is no truly independent TV or radio. A Freedom House report indicates more than 80 percent of newspapers are state-owned or controlled by government officials.
Laws Come and Go, Bribes Continue
Despite the anti-corruption decrees and orders, everyday citizens continue to face the demand for bribes as the normal course of doing business.
Farhad’s dacha still hasn’t been privatized. And he is still paying – or being asked to pay – bribes, including 50 manat to the State Land Committee (SLC – Dövlət Torpaq Komitəsi) “to speed up the process,” he said. “Nevertheless, I had to wait longer than a month until the committee’s officials came to my dacha.
“Another 50-100 manat (US$61-125) I had to pay for respective approvals at the State Sanitation Service, Ministry of Emergencies and the regional housing department,” he said.
And Farhad learned after all of this that his dacha area is larger than allowed for gratuitous privatization. “Now the SRERS officials demand a 7,000 manat (US$8,900) bribe for legalization of the spare territory,” Farhad said.
* This article was first published at the website of Global Integrity Report. Shahin Abbasov is Baku-based journalist who currently works as freelance reporter of Eurasianet (www.eurasianet.org) in Azerbaijan. He has more than 17 years experience in print media in Azerbaijan. In 1999-2004 he worked as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of Zerkalo and then Echo daily newspapers in Baku.