What seems fishy about the ‘hunt for corrupt officials’ in Azerbaijan?
Five administrative heads of various regions in Azerbaijan have been arrested on charges of corruption and theft in the last five months. This is something that the country has not seen in a very long time.
The deep-rooted public opinion about administrative heads is that they all accept bribes, steal, and generally do whatever they want in the areas they control, and are never held responsible. This has already been accepted as the norm.
And so many thought it strange when the government suddenly started going after these corrupt officials and thieves.
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The charges against these officials are all quite similar – corruption, misappropriation of social benefits and state funds allocated for improving their administrative area, misappropriation of payroll cards. They are all members of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party and have occupied their posts for many years.
Incidentally, they were not elected to these positions – the administrative heads are chosen by the president.
And in all five cases, the numerous crimes were covered up following complaints by local residents.
Part of the population was glad to hear the news, feeling that justice had finally prevailed.
But there were far more who are suspicious of this sudden call to justice. Especially considering the fact that the falling oil prices have caused Azerbaijan’s currency to depreciate significantly.
On top of that, the country has imposed a strict quarantine regime because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving many without work. In other words, more than one sickness is plaguing Azerbaijani society.
True, the first of these arrests was made in December 2019, before the pandemic and the serious financial problems.
Economist Gubad Ibadolgu points out that there are only 87 administrative heads in Azerbaijan and, that if the government has decided to arrest one of them, they might as well arrest all of them – one per month. That being said, he does not consider arresting them to be an effective method in the fight against corruption:
“If the first arrest did not frighten the corrupt officials enough to make them stop their ways, then this method is not effective. Furthermore, all of the administrative heads were arrested on charges of accepting bribes from private entrepreneurs and misappropriating funds from an equally well-protected layer of society. And this means that the current system of social assistance and fund distribution does not work. It needs to be changed. And finally, why are we not holding the people who helped these officials get these positions accountable? They did not put themselves in charge of their districts. And they have been in charge for 10-15 years. What, they only recently started taking bribes?”
Ibadolgu proposes abolishing the current administrative branch and delegating the power to the municipalities.
In its annual report on the global state of human rights, international human rights organization Freedom House classified Azerbaijan as an authoritarian state. The organization believes that President Ilham Aliyev is making changes in the upper echelon of the government in order to benefit his wife and first vice president of the country, Mehriban Aliyeva.
“During the conditions of economic recession and amid growing tribal politics, Aliyev, who is losing public support, is getting rid of the ‘old guard’ officials and trying to reduce the likelihood of a conspiracy among the elite class. Those who he got rid of were individuals who opposed Aliyev’s wife or, at least, were not loyal to her,” explains Freedom House.
Former political prisoner and activist Qiyas Ibrahimov is certain that these arrests, as well as the decision to put certain municipalities on lockdown and strict quarantine measures (which are eased, and then tightened again) – are just tricks used by the government to divert people’s attention from oil prices and the threat of crisis, and to prevent public outrage.