When a broken leg is equal to death
It’s impossible to live on an average pension in Azerbaijan, especially after devaluation of the Manat. If you aren’t provided for by your children in your old age, you will need a cast-iron physique, since there won’t be any money left for medicines.
A blind alley behind the mosque
A road is leading from Teze Pir mosque (it’s almost in the center of Baku) along the ruins to a narrow blind alley. It seems that nothing has changed here since the last century: dilapidated houses, as if designed for the elderly people to live out their days there. Modern plastic windows are flashing here and there, baby clothes are drying on the ropes-young families live here too. No one is going either to sell or repair the apartments, since they are expected to be demolished any day now.
The house of Tamara Mammadova, 78, is the first one in the blind alley. She says that in the past, when the front door was usually open in summer time, all bypassers used to say hello and inquire about how the life was going on; the neighbors would drop in during the day. The neighbors affectionately called her ‘Aunt Tamara’. But the time is passing by, her old friends have already died; young people have started their own families and have their own concerns; those, who were girls yesterday, are already thinking about dowry for their own daughters, they no longer have time for an elderly neighbor.
A shabby front door leads into a tiny courtyard and then, into a small apartment comprising three rooms: a fairly large kitchen, a walk-through bedroom, which is dark due to the lack of windows, and a livingroom with a sofa and a TVset. “The house isn’t as small as it looks like. There was a time, when almost a dozen of people stayed here overnight, Aunt Tamara says proudly.
As she was laying homemade pickles, served as a side dish to a thick clear bozbash [a lamb soup with potatoes and peas], she said: “I can’t live without meat, especially as my blood sugar level is high and I feel sick if I don’t have my meal in time. I’m undernourished without meat. It’s been so since our childhood. Although we lived in poverty, but we have always had meat for dinner.
Aunt Tamara started working at an early age, when she was 14. “We moved to Baku from Agdash in 1952. My father never got used to living in the city, he died a year later. I was 14 and my brother was 12 then. My brother performed well at school, but as for me, I wasn’t good at studies. So I took a job to somehow support my family.
The girl was employed as a needlewoman at the factory, where she worked for 42 years. Being vibrant and energetic, she did the job pretty well. “I was nominated as an MP candidate from our district for good performance!” she says. Upon retirement, she was even awarded the Labor Veteran Order.
“I don’t even remember the amount of my first pension. It was that plague, my boss, who herself dropped a signature on my dismissal order. I was uneducated and couldn’t make head or tail of it. I should have gone to the accounting department and requested to include it in my record of service. I worked there as many as 42 years. I should have received a good pension. Luckily, my husband was also earning something. Now I think, I’d better go there and clear up the matter, maybe my pension could be increased?
Apparently, the matter is that the amount of salary, indicated at formalizing a pension, was incorrect and thus her pension turned out to be less than it should be. As a result, Aunt Tamara receives AZN202 ($120), including a welfare benefit for the loss of a breadwinner.
Tamara got married in her middle age. Her husband was a teacher and the WWII veteran. He died in 2003. “He was telling me: “Don’t worry, baby, you will enjoy benefits even after my death, says Aunt Tamara.
Being a widow of the WWII veteran, she is entitled to receive a bonus once a year, on the V-Day. Sometimes it’s AZN200, sometimes – AZN300. This year she received as much as AZN500 (about US$300). However, she’s holding out to spend that money, she is saving it ‘for a rainy day,’ for some urgent unexpected expenses. “Recently, I’ve had to change a water tap and spent AZN8 (US$5).
Aunt Tamara’s budget
When asked, how she lives on her pension, she replies: “Not too bad, I live somehow. Fortunately, my relatives help me several times a month; they bring me products and meat. She tries to economize and therefore doesn’t turn on the electric heater, she uses gas to heat her apartment instead. She ‘saves’ electricity just for extremely cold days-there is no heating system in the old houses as such.
“At least I could wrap up in warm clothes in winter, whereas in summer I have to turn on the air conditioning. I have had to pay as much as AZN20 (US$12) this summer!” Aunt Tamara said indignantly.
In the recent years, she has been suffering from vision and hearing impairment, feet pains and swelling. Therefore, she practically doesn’t go anywhere and stays at home most of the time. She buys products in a small store, arranged in a garage at the entrance to the blind alley. Fortunately, they don’t charge exorbitant prices for their goods. “Earlier, I went to the market and bought everything for cheap, whereas now, I could hardly make two steps. I don’t have to spend much on my clothes, there are some old stocks. Besides, I practically don’t go anywhere, do I?
The statutory retirement age in Azerbaijan is 63 – for men and 60-for women. It was set in 2010. Before that, the retirement age had made 62 and 57, respectively. A retired person is not entitled to any medical treatment benefits.
Officially, medicine is free of charge in Azerbaijan. However, there is an unofficial ‘payment system’ in every state-run outpatient clinic: a physician, who really doesn’t ask money for his/her service, is an exception rather than a rule.
Monthly procurement of ‘Diabeton’ medicine for type 2 diabetes patients is a serious expenditure item for Aunt Tamara.
She spends most of her time watching TV. Earlier, there were some Turkish TV channels, where she used to watch TV series and cooking shows, whereas now, after termination of the analogue transmission, there are only the local TV channels left. She could have subscribed to the cable TV, but paying AZN10 (US$6) per month is already detrimental for her.
The house roof has started leaking during heavy rains. “It’s been rotten so much, that it’s even dangerous to climb up there, because it may collapse, says Aunt Tamara. So, I am running with water basins all night long, crying and running. I can hardly wait for this shack to be demolished at last.
Emilia Rahimova, 72, had been a senior physician at the children’s outpatient clinic for nearly 40 years. A decree on forced retirement of all public sector employees above the age of 65 was issued in 2011.Emilia hanum was 67 then, so she had to leave.
“It totaled AZN165 (US$98). Though, I was repeatedly hinted that I could get more, if I paid to a right man. That’s what some of my acquaintances did. And now they receive AZN220 (US$130).
AZN220 is not just a little sum, its humiliating for a person, who has worked as a doctor for almost 40 years. At the same time, the prosecutors’ pensions, for instance, are several times higher, because they are allegedly the ‘public servants.’ But the doctors are the public servants too, aren’t they?
The pension sum calculation system has been changed in Azerbaijan several time, therefore, it’s hard to trace any logic in who is paid a pension and how much he/she gets. The pensions (a base part thereof) have been also increased several times, but it has never been a significant increase: for the majority of the elderly it has just increased by a couple of Manats.
The retirement period has an influence on a pension sum: in 2006, the system was once again rebuilt and the pension fund contributions were transferred ‘on the cards’, i.e. on a special account for each employee officially put on staff- the so-called defined contributions system. The amount accumulated at retirement is divided by 144 (which is assumed as a pensioner’s average life expectancy) and added to the base portion.
Those, who had retired before 2006, got the same pensions, calculated based on old methods. There was a period, when a salary for the last two work years was taken as a pension base, and long before that, there had been a system of ‘pensionable earnings plus length of service, multiplied by a certain coefficient.’
Gulnara Efendiyeva, an accountant: “I inquired in the pension fund, how the pensions were accrued, and I was told: “It’s too complicated, you will make nothing of it, there are various coefficients.
This non-obviousness of the calculation system, especially in the first years of independence, allowed the pension fund employees to offer people ‘to assign’ certain amount to a retirement benefit in exchange for a bribe. One could hear a housewive, who, under the law, was supposed to receive a minimal pension, saying: “So what, that you’ve worked for 40 years, I will pay 50 dollars and will be accrued the same amount.
However, Gulnara hanum says, the bribe-takers probably just pretended they were doing something illegal, taking advantage of the fact that people were unaware of how much they were actually supposed to receive.
A ‘retirement calculator’ is now available on the State Social Insurance Fund’s website. And it’s a great helping hand for those, who are going to retire now, after 2006. In fact, their pensions will be a bit higher due to the new system.
The calculator doesn’t take into account the allowances for titles, awards, etc., that is, here you can see your ‘minimum’.
Sevda Efendiyeva is the office manager at the advertising agency. In fact, she has been working for already 9 years, but she hasn’t been officially put on staff anywhere – the small business owners are often unable to pay income tax and social contributions. As a result, employees of the private enterprises couldn’t count on the state support in their old age at all.
“My family members are just ready to kill me for not having an official record of service. Whereas I think, my childred will support me anyway, so who needs that AZN 200 (US$120) pension? I’d better give birth to more children or open an account myself, better if it’s a foreign bank account, so that I could provide for myself in my old age.
Sevda says, all those hopes for retirement are just the Soviet-era holdover: “Our people have got used to looking forward to some freebies from the government, and, as a result, for 50 years, they are working themselves to death for peanuts. Earlier, there were no other options, but now there are.
According to the official data, an average pension in Azerbaijan amounts to AZN177 (US$105). A minimum pension, i.e. a pension for those, who have never worked, makes AZN110 ($ 65).
The upper limit-the so-called ‘presidential pension’, which is granted to the National Heroes of Azerbaijan, now amounts to AZN1300(US$770), after the recent increase (earlier it made AZN1,000).
A geologist with 30 years of work experience, including 14 years in harsh conditions, receives AZN300 (US$178).
A head of department at the university, with 32 year length of service -AZN470 (US$280).
A carpet weaving workshop employee, with 37 year length of service -AZN155 (US$90).
A chemist, research assistant, with 30 year length of service – AZN340 (US$ 200).
The subsistence minimum in Azerbaijan for 2016 was projected at AZN136 (US$80). However, a drop in the Manat rate has literally ‘killed’ this sum. Earlier, it was just enough to buy products, whereas now, after covering all public utility service costs, one can only afford buying bread, onions and potatoes for AZN136 or AZN177, which is an average pension.
For comparison, the cheapest train ticket to Tbilisi costs AZN 50, a physical therapy course at the state-run clinic – AZN40, treatment of dental caries at its early stage-AZN 40, 1 kilo of meat – AZN10, a pair of any kind of footwear- from AZN40. You can either dine in the cheapest café for AZN177 for 28 days (and there will be still something left to cover the public utility service costs), or just buy 4 bottles of good wine. Traveling, new furniture, nice clothes, all that is unaffordable for the retired by default.
‘Presidential pension’ seems to be the only one that can ensure a dignified old age. Even if you are a research fellow and can afford buying clothes and eating meat daily for AZN400 (US$237), without others’ support, a pneumonia or hip fracture will still be equal to death for you.