‘If the current policy continues, Azerbaijan will be bankrupt’

Zohrab Ismayil: “In the past year and a half, the issues of civil society have started weighing a lot more than any other issues in my work.”

After a crackdown on NGOs and a number of their representatives were arrested, some saw leaving the country as a solution. The head of the Public Association for Assistance to Free Economy, Zohrab Ismayil left the country long time ago. The head of the organization currently living in the United States addressed Meydan TV’s questions.

Zohrab, there hasn’t been much information on what you are doing right now. What do you do?

As you know, back in August of 2014 when the crackdown on civil societies reached its peak, I, as a result of prosecutions against me, had to leave the country temporarily. However, this “temporary solution” gradually became a permanent one. It is due to the fact that the groundless criminal case against the organization I was leading, Assistance to Free Economy, is still ongoing. Freezing our accounts was based on the grant we received from the Baku office of the UK based Oxfam organization and the fact that there was a criminal case open against them. The criminal charges against Oxfam were dropped a long time ago, however, we are still being prosecuted. Except for a few of our arrested colleagues, there are a few NGOs back home that are interested in prolonging investigation against us.

Once I left the country, I had to live in Prague and Kiev for some time. At that time I was closely involved in international organizations’ advocating to release imprisoned colleagues and stop the crackdown on civil society. Although, we haven’t achieved much, the international organizations played an important role in easing the repressions against civil society in Azerbaijan.

All this aside, I also tried to use the time abroad efficiently. Last year I won a well-known US state program, “Hubert Humphrey Fellowship”. However, due to a health issue I almost lost this opportunity. As you may know, last year in Tbilisi, I underwent a heart bypass surgery. I was supposed to leave for the USA to start my program just 25 days following the surgery, however, my doctors weren’t too certain that would be best. The surgery went well,yet I needed 2 months for the initial recovery. As I was very persistent, my doctors finally gave in.

This program is designed for professionals in governmental agencies, civil society, and in some instances, global business. So at the moment, 165 professionals are participating in the program in about 15 different schools. This is the first time that 3 Azerbaijanis have participated in the program.  After completing a 2 month training course at the University of Kansas, I started my program at Michigan State University. My concentration is economic development. The program consists of graduate level courses, leadership and professional development seminars, meetings, trips, speeches, small presentations, and blogging. It is extremely interesting and useful. In order to gain additional experience, I am planning to move to New York in May, to work for the Institute for the Natural Resources Management.

Have you stopped the activities of the organization you are leading? Perhaps, due to what is going on at the moment, it is simply impossible to work?

We had to stop the activities due to various factors, including our frozen accounts, the criminal investigation and that the Ministry of Justice refused to register our last elections of the chairman and the board. Baku Tax Department has also unreasonably fined us for 10689 AZN. The overall fine is over 17000 AZN. Despite the fact that we have double this amount in our accounts, the tax department has not unfrozen the accounts so we can pay the fine. They bring up arrest as an excuse, however, I think the goal is simply to prevent the work of the organization.

We have taken the case to court. The European Court of Human Rights is currently looking into the case of our frozen accounts. The Administrative-Economical Court No1 has delayed our hearing for over a year and a half. Our case against the Ministry of Justice is currently being appealed. Who would want to work for an organization under such circumstances?

Will you and your organization restore activities?

Whether or not the “Assistance for Free Economy” will restore its activities is a great question. I think, even if the criminal case against us is dismissed and/or our bank accounts get unfrozen, in Azerbaijan there is a lack in even minimal conditions for NGO activities. It is impossible to get donations or receive grants from foreign organizations. The only option is to receive a fund from the Council of State Support to NGOs. Out of principle, we do not even consider applying to that organization. In my opinion, this organization was created to destroy, corrupt civil society, and make it dependable on government instead of developing and supporting it further. The Council also assisted in arrest of our colleagues. Now we can say that the Council has achieved a significant portion of its goals.

When it comes to me, I will definitely continue my activities. My program in the States will be completed in June-July of this year, and I am planning on returning home. However, if my return to Azerbaijan is still not possible at that time, I will think of where else I can continue my activities. Currently, I work as a “freelancer” for a number of international organizations. I have some job offers to consider as well. True, in the past a year and a half most of my work was focused on issues civil society faces, however, in the future I am planning on returning to my favorite research subjects, including government accountability and transparency, as well as economic development models.

At the same time, as you know, I am a member of the Board of the Republican Alternative Movement. I am planning on continuing and expanding my involvement in the currently developing Republican Alternative Party. Although, it is truly hard to do that while abroad, I can at least contribute to developing the party’s program and policy papers, as well as advise on strategic development issues. Although I do not have any political ambitions myself, I do think that it is necessary to get rid of the current authoritarian and corrupt government, and turn the country into a modern and developed state by supporting progressive political forces. At the moment in Azerbaijan, the main image of these progressive political movements is REAL.

You have been abroad for a while now. A lot of things happened in your absence. Do you follow the news?

I try to follow news as much as possible. My main information sources include the official media outlets, media materials shared on Facebook, radio Liberty, radio Voice of America, radio BBC, Meydan TV as well as foreign media. Socio-economic issues in Azerbaijan are deteriorating and the geopolitical situation worsens as well. However, the Azerbaijani government is still capable of monitoring the processes, and it has enough resources to do so. Despite the fact that the Azerbaijani government is constantly fueling propaganda against West, insults European values and continues to ignore its obligations regarding democracy, human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly- the Western countries do not really take any serious measures. There are two reasons for this: one is Russia, another is the country’s oil and gas resources. The Azerbaijani government periodically sends a message to the West:  if you push too much; we will surrender to Russia’s full control. These are, in a sense, threats to give up the independence and start the war. It is as if the Azerbaijani government tells the West- ‘if you push me too much I will burn myself or jump of a bridge.’ The West is very careful when it comes to these kinds of messages, it is both interested in Azerbaijan’s independence and the peace in the region.

On the other hand, there are economic interests. Oil and gas companies are very influential. They are more confident in influencing their governments. American, British and European companies are involved in Azerbaijan’s oil projects and make a lot of money on them. There are now opportunities to take advantage of oil and gas projects. In other words, the status quo is convenient for Western oil and gas companies.

If you look closely, you will see that although pro-government media outlets and state officials lead propaganda against Western countries and their values, they never mention Western oil and gas companies.

During this period, two devaluations happened. Some experts call it an economic crisis. What do you think? Would you classify current events as economic crisis?

I think Azerbaijan is now going through not only a socio-economic crisis, but also an institutional one. Despite the fact that the government has wasted around $90 billion in the past 10 years, no fundamental issues have been solved. There are no quality education or health care systems in place; over half of the villages have issues with roads, gas, and drinking clean water. These issues have continued for years now, and have become more visible as oil revenues drop.

The construction sector- that not long ago was feeding on corruption and wasting oil revenues- is now collapsing, which in fact leads to an increase in unemployment. The service sector is also experiencing a sharp decline in revenues. Banks fail and are not able to get their loans back. The government makes wrong decisions, and almost immediately cancels them. It is obvious that the Azerbaijani government is not in a state to operate efficiently, and the reason is that the essence of governance in Azerbaijan is patronal. The country is ruled by patrons and they have networks of their own customers. They cooperate, they compete, and sometimes get into mortal combats with one another.

It is clear that the government’s main goal is to keep everything under control as opposed to actually solving the issues. This is precisely why devaluations happened. Unfortunately, some economists present the matter of devaluation as the government’s inability to control the manat exchange rates. When in fact, this measure was taken in order to enable the government to address the state budget deficit. For instance, until February 21st of last year oil dollars brought 78.5 cents revenue to the state budget. Today this number is 1.64 AZN. This is how the government has fulfilled its budget obligations at least nominally. In this scenario, those who lost the most include the people, banks, and companies that provide services on state budget. In fact, the government is simply deceiving them by paying the twice pre-devalued manat. On the other hand, the government is also not giving up on its wasteful expenditures.

Is it too late? Or are there still opportunities for change?

Currently, one of the most pressing issues is that the Central Bank has experienced a sharp decline in foreign currency reserves. One can see that the government is now worried of additional foreign currency reserve decline; therefore, they decided to let the manat float. True, the oil prices have gone up a little bit; however, since Azerbaijan’s oil reserves decline every year, the issues will now become even more obvious. It is unfortunate that our government is unable to think strategically.

Of course, it is never too late. Azerbaijan still has a considerable amount of resources and potential to develop economically. However, each and every passing year is a lost opportunity. The Oil Fund’s reserves have reduced in the last 2 years. We haven’t yet entered the post-oil period. Azerbaijan still receives oil money, and the Oil Fund has some assets, however, in the next 5 to 10 years, our situation will be catastrophic. Right now, as the government is not able to fill the state budget and fulfill their obligations for the scale gas projects, they are thinking of getting loans. If the current economic policies continue, Azerbaijan will become bankrupt in the post-oil era.

What is the solution in your opinion?

The solution is not an easy one. As we know, the government is not willing to carry out fundamental economic reforms; in fact, they see those as a threat. They are concerned that in an environment of economic freedom, transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, they will lose their political power.

Perhaps, as the result of further deepening of the socio-economic crisis, changes and reforms will be possible in the future. Here, a lot depends on the society itself. As the oil resources decrease, these opportunities will emerge. However, it is not going to be easy.

Investigation of the case against you is completed. Will you return to the country or do you still think there is a danger for you?

I cannot imagine myself as a citizen of any other country but Azerbaijan. At the very least, I want to maintain the ability to go back and forth. Of course, there is still a threat; however, it is significantly less than what it was in Summer or Autumn of 2014.

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