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[Corruption] has infiltrated all levels of government and is inseparable from the state. When corruption persists at the top, that culture of corruption becomes institutionalized. Azeris are fond of saying that corruption is so endemic that the country would come to a stop without it. – Alec R. Rasizade
Azerbaijan—situated in the Caucasus region along the western shores of the Caspian Sea between Russia and Iran—is a country rich in natural resources, a favorable climate for agriculture and located on the Silk Road between Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Azerbaijan’s mineral, climatic and geographic richness has created problems throughout history. Empires have always wanted to take some piece of this wealthy country. The Azerbaijani people lived under the occupation of Arabs, Mongols and Soviets until their country gained independence in 1991. New Azerbaijanis (as some scholars call them), who were members of the Soviet Communist Party, took charge of the country after gaining independence. Since then, the scale of destruction, abuse of national wealth and level of corruption have become more intense than ever before.
As a citizen of Azerbaijan, corruption in public administration is a very sensitive issue for me because everyone I know suffers from its political effects. Like a spider web reaching out to every aspect of society – from education to national defense, from health care to the judicial system – corruption negatively affects all areas of society. It is a pervasive problem and often condoned at the highest levels of government. Several international surveys have shown that Azerbaijan has become one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Transparency International cites Azerbaijan as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, noting in its 2011 Corruption Perception Index that Azerbaijan scored 2.4 (on a 10-
The Azerbaijani Constitution prohibits government administrators from having businesses. However, Rasizade notes that, “neither the Russian, nor Western understanding of corruption applies to the Azeri pattern of kleptocracy: it is not a chaotic profiteering, where anybody can grab anything, for it is tightly controlled.” The institutionalization of corruption has evolved, as Rasizade concludes, into two intertwined systems: 1) the distribution of bribes through the chain of superiors and 2) the buying of lucrative positions through payments to top officials (Rasizade, 2004).” For example, a university professor gives 75 percent of profits from bribes to higher executives; the dean keeps 25 percent of what was submitted to him, and passes the remaining percentage to the university president and so forth.
Public administrators’ excessive appetite for profit does not recognize any rules or inhibitions. At first glance, it looks like chaos as everyone tries to take something from the collective whole. In fact, it is not like this. As mentioned above, corruption is institutionalized, and the only obligation is to share part of the illegally garnered-
The administrators who do not follow these unwritten rules are fired, prosecuted and captured, the wealth he\she obtained for many years is taken and all mistakes and faults that other administrators made are attributed to the dissenting individual. Positions in law enforcement like the interior ministry, prosecutor’s office and the judicial, tax and customs service, as well as most national and local executive positions, generate bribes for the same reason. As a result of these administrators being appointed by higher officials, they are not accountable to the Azerbaijan citizenry.
Several years ago, Azerbaijan had another constitutional referendum, the goal of which was to strike the constitutional article restricting the president’s tenure to three terms. The referendum passed with over 90 percent support, largely from civil servant fear of losing jobs and being treated poorly. Civil service workers were told that they needed to vote to approve the referendum or they would lose their jobs. Soldiers were lined up and forced to vote in favor of the referendum. Students were asked for their identifications so that professors could cast a vote on their behalf.
Need for Transparency in Education
Education is one of the most important areas in need of transparent administrative involvement. After the Soviet Union collapsed and Azerbaijan obtained independence in the early 1990s, the education system remains inefficient to this day. It has been 21 years, but still the topic of adopting a new education system is put on the agenda of the Parliament each year, but to no avail. The low level of public spending on education results in decreased faculty salaries, which in turn results in corruption throughout the education system.
Corruption exists from elementary schools to universities. University examinations are very competitive for students. The level of education given at secondary schools does not adequately prepare students for university entrance exams. Teachers intentionally withhold information that will be on the exams in order to set the students back. Therefore, parents put their children into private tutoring. Teachers who do not make enough from the salary the government pays become less interested in teaching at schools and more interested in private tutoring. They approach their school jobs as extra income and do not teach students well at school in order to get students to come to tutoring. As a result, both students and teachers become less interested in public education. This in turn results in equity problems, such as parents with higher incomes hiring better tutors while others send their children to tutoring who may have obtained their own degrees through paying bribes.
Corruption in institutions of higher learning is even worse. Almost every student who graduates from an Azerbaijani university has been coerced to participate in corruption. It is almost impossible to graduate without it. The professors, who lost their Soviet era privileges and standard of living, are the ones soliciting the maximum bribes from students to obtain desired grades. University professor monthly wages range from $150-
The end of semester time is a busy time for students in Azerbaijan, as it is everywhere; but, our students’ anxiety is not about how to finish their papers or from studying for final exams. It is about how to find the required money to give the professors to pass the semester. The students who want to get their grades without paying a bribe are threatened and discriminated against. I have been one of these students, with many personal examples of trying to fight the system of corruption within my own university. My acquaintance with bribes started as a freshman. I had five final exams, so I worked hard and did really well on the exams. When I found out my grades, they were not even close to what I was expecting. My professors failed me on three of the exams, and I got a “C-
Curbing Corruption in the Military
Despite the government’s efforts to improve administration within the army, the resources devoted to curbing corruption do not reach the lower levels. Assignment of military officers to high levels of responsibility is rarely according to their ability, but rather a function of their loyalty to other corrupt officials. As a result, high-
Army service in Azerbaijan is mandatory, everyone has to participate and there is legal punishment for those who seek to escape from serving. However, there are illegal ways to escape from army service. First, you have to have a tie with “new Azerbaijanis.” Second, you have to pay a lot of money to obtain military documents illegally. Again, this corrupt practice results in inequality. Poor people actually serve in the army in the worst places, on the border with Armenia, always under fear of getting shot. Meanwhile, the more affluent spend their service in bars, expensive restaurants and traveling around the world. At the end, those who pay bribes get their military documents and claim they had served in the army.
Corruption continues even after a person enters military service. Soldiers are not appointed to jobs according to their abilities, but rather according to how much they pay to get “easier jobs.” These are administrative jobs, not combat duty or posts in severe conditions. For example, I served in the army between 2009 and 2010, stationed on guard duty at an army base because I did not pay a bribe – even though I was a university graduate and qualified for many other jobs.
Distribution of military ranks in exchange for money is also common in Azerbaijan. There are two ways to earn military ranks. First you have to graduate from the Azerbaijan Military Academy as a lieutenant, and later increase your rank through job experience. Second, after finishing army service some people prefer to stay in the army because they know that there are not many civilian jobs available. Therefore, some young men prefer to stay in the army and start at lower ranks to gradually become officers. A common alternative route is through bribery – which involves little or on military education and diminishes the professional ethos preparedness of the army. (See Shahin Abbasov, November 14, 2011, Azerbaijan non-
Corruption and Public Health
Another weak strand in the spider web is the public health system, which has its roots in the inefficiencies of public education. After two years of intensive tutoring, students who score highly on university entrance examinations are able to go to the Azerbaijan Medical University. Here, they spend twelve years completing their studies, and usually experience less corruption than elsewhere. However, that does not mean there is no bribery for getting grades. The “price tags” for grades are much higher than ordinary universities, which makes life easier for wealthy students, but very difficult for the less affluent. Typically, upon graduation, it’s the ones who did not study and paid bribes who find jobs at hospitals – including payment of a bribe to get their first job out of medical school.
Medical care in Azerbaijan is funded by the government. Medical services are free and medicine is provided to hospitals free of charge. However, doctors demand money from patients as bribes for treatment. Here again, the main driver of corruption is the low salary ($150-
Need for Administrative Reform in the Judicial System
Administrative reform in the judicial system is very important. Since 1993, when former-
Recently, action to create fairness for political prisoners in Azerbaijan has increased. Some are appealing through higher courts. Sadly, higher courts do not approve their claims. In this case, the only option they have is applying to European courts. Several political prisoners obtained their freedom as a result of pressure from European courts. Bakhtiyar Haciyev, an alumnus of Harvard University in public administration was arrested and put in jail for two years because he was talking about public sector corruption, unfair policies of the government and administrative malfeasance of public officials during his parliamentary campaign. His arrest once more showed that top level administrators do not want bright young people to lead the country, nor to expose weaknesses or flaws in the current system of government.
Change on the horizon?
Notwithstanding, this gloomy account of governance in Azerbaijan – 20 years after becoming an independent democratic republic – recently the government has begun allowing greater freedom and transparency in its public sector operations. For example, Azerbaijan is considered a high achiever among those countries which have developed e-
That said, for e-
Moreover, people are now more able to use their freedom of speech, talk about current political issues and even criticize specific policies. There are two reasons for this change: 1) Azerbaijan is planning to host Europe’s biggest song contest in May 2012 and the European Rhythmic Gymnastics Championship in 2014, clearly an opportunity to promote a positive public image of a modern, open society; and 2) Azerbaijan is getting pressure from outside to allow fundamental rights and obey international laws as a member of the global community of nations.
Furthermore, NGOs – which the government of Azerbaijan encourages – are becoming a big source of support in developing civil society institutions across the country. Recently, the number of NGOs focused on human rights has been increasing. They organize educational workshops to explain people’s fundamental rights, and for this purpose NGOs get a lot of grants from the government of Azerbaijan. Interestingly, NGOs also are playing an important role in curbing public sector corruption, and the government is cooperating with them, as well as other civil society institutions international organizations. In fact, in July 2007 the president proposed a National Strategy on Increasing Transparency and Combating Corruption, which includes provisions for government accountability, access to information, prevention of corruption and responsibility for enforcing corruption-
On the topic of human rights, Azerbaijan should explore what other former Soviet republics have attempted in this area. For example in 2003, after the “Rose revolution,” the new Georgian president, Michael Saakashvili, released 32 political prisoners. Also, after Saakashvili was re-
1. Alec Rasizade (2004) Azerbaijan descending into the third world after a decade of independence, http://www.azadliq.org
2. International Monetary Fund. Azerbaijan progress toward the achievement of Millenium Development goals. Baku 2004. Retrieved from http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2004/cr04322.pd.
4. Shahin Abbasov ( Novebmer 14, 2011) Azerbaijan non-
Tural Abbasov is an Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellow studying towards his Masters in Public Administration (MPA) at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has a BA in linguistics from Ganja State University in Azerbaijan and has been involved with civic engagement, youth leadership and local NGO activities both in Azerbaijan and abroad. It was through his work as a language and cultural facilitator with the US Peace Corps in Azerbaijan that he gained familiarity with life in America. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Accountable Governance: Curbing Public Corruption in Azerbaijan
By Tural Abbasov