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Abusing democracy: power elites in Azerbaijan

On 9 October Azerbaijan goes to the polls in what is little more than a show presidential election. Despite a push to unite the opposition behind a single candidate, President Ilham Aliyev will likely win a third term, consolidating the power of the Aliyev dynasty, which has held the presidency since 1993 when his father first took office. Though the 1995 constitution allowed maximum of two terms for the presidency, a controversial referendum in 2009 scrapped term limits, which has paved the way for Aliyev the run for a third term.

In a country that is overwhelmingly controlled by one family and its circle of connections, it has been impossible to develop a democracy where people have real choice and believe their votes count. The ruling party can effectively dominate political campaigns using its power to control the media, limit the space for civil society and stifle any public criticism. Ruling party candidates use public resources to fund their campaigns and any public protest results in strict crackdowns by the police.

This election year the government has increased fines for public disorder to 60 days in jail from 15 days. Many opposition politicians have had been arrested on trumped up charges and critical journalists also find themselves harassed or jailed.

The run up to the election has been relatively quiet and there will be international election monitors to see if the voting is free and fair. What the monitors won’t be able to address are the months of campaigning during which opposition candidates were denied the kind of media access and resources to mount campaigns that were likely to reach the voters.

The main opposition candidate, Camil Hasanli, has called for a change, citing the country’s high level of corruption and the power of the ruling oligarchy, which controls the highly lucrative natural resources of the country. Despite evidence to support Hasanli’s call for a new beginning, profound structural change is unlikely and corruption will remain systemic.

Although the government has introduced a number of different laws over the years to fight corruption – like a push towards more transparency with e-government and improved access to some basic public services through one-stop public service shopping halls known as ASAN Centres – the anti-corruption laws lack enforcement and given the limited access to information, civil society does not have the tools to hold government to account. In addition, the judiciary is not independent of the government, allowing those with connections to the ruling elite to act with impunity.

Corruption in Azerbaijan

In a recent European Commission-funded report on anti-corruption in European Neighbourhood Policy, Transparency International found that Azerbaijan suffers from weak enforcement, lack of transparency and limited independence as the executive branch exerts strong control over judicial appointments. The civil service has made some progress regarding recruitment of young professionals and has increased the ethics and integrity training, but a lack of managerial skills continues to weaken the public sector.

Azerbaijan ranked 139th out of 176 in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index with a score of just 27 out of 100, indicating high levels of corruption.

The more recent 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, a survey of ordinary people, shows that 27 per cent believe corruption is getting worse. Respondents said healthcare, the judiciary and the police were the most corrupt institutions. But there was an improvement in people’s perceptions of the government’s ability to fight corruption, which may mean that some of the anti-corruption initiatives – in particular providing basic services – are beginning to have an effect.

Fighting back

Despite the challenges, Transparency International Azerbaijan is making a difference where it can: on the street. Since 2006 its three advocacy and legal advice centres across the country and Rule of Law Legal Resource Centres have allowed citizens to complain about corruption and get practical information on how to confront it in their daily lives.

So far more than 32,000 people have used their services to ask advice about everything from improper dismissals from work, to bribes for public services. In 2012, Transparency International Azerbaijan gave legal advice to more than 1,100 people and filed 182 legal complaints on behalf of ordinary citizens who came up against corruption and did not know what to do.

In one recent case the Rule of Law Legal Resource Centre in Ganja, a city of 313,000 people west of the capital Baku, helped a woman get the compensation she was due after a fire in her house. The fire was caused by faulty equipment that the gas supplier, Azerigas, was supposed to inspect but had failed to find. The centre's lawyer took the state oil company, SOCAR, which controls Azerigas, to court for negligence.

After many hearings that led to a Supreme Court decision, the woman received the compensation she was due and the company had to pay the court costs. Unless someone seeks damages and retribution, companies will simply ignore complaints and their duties. Unfortunately too many people do not have the resources or the knowledge to take cases to court to keep companies honest.


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