Corruption remains endemic in Azerbaijan

Last week, Transparency International released a report studying corruption in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. According to the report, corruption remains endemic in the five countries. The report singled out Azerbaijan for “intimidation, harassment, persecution and detainment of civic activists and journalists.” Corruption permeates all spheres of public life, “with entrenched political patronage networks and widespread conflicts of interest closely connected to the political elite," according to the report findings.

Meydan TV spoke with Anne Koch, Director of Europe and Central Asia Department at Transparency International, to discuss the report findings and what international community can do to pressure Azerbaijan to combat corruption.

What are key observations on Azerbaijan?

Our report, which looks at corruption issues and trends across five Eastern European countries – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine – shows that corruption remains endemic across all five countries.

While Azerbaijan has made some positive steps forward in terms of anti-corruption reform – particularly with the National Action Plan to Combat Corruption and the introduction of ASAN centres for improving business start-up procedures – some important gaps in legislation still exist and need to be addressed, such as lack of whistleblower protection, comprehensive conflicts of interest legislation, and private sector anti-bribery legislation.  

Of particular concern in Azerbaijan is the weak system of checks and balances, with a largely ineffective judiciary due to the executive’s control of the judicial budget, which can lead to political interference in terms of which cases are pursued. The legislature, chamber of accounts and the ombudsman also have limited oversight of the executive, while new legal reforms have limited the work of non-state watchdogs, such as media and civil society.

How does Azerbaijan fare compared to the other four countries? What are commonalities among the five subjects, and what sets Azerbaijan apart from the others?

All five countries assessed in the report are dominated by powerful executive branches – and in some countries, such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, numerous, influential senior politicians also maintain strong connections to the business sector. Another related trend that emerges in the report is that the executive across all five countries remains largely unaccountable, as other state actors, such as the judiciary and legislature, have very little oversight or ability to hold the executive to account.

Azerbaijan’s growing control over civil society and media is especially worrisome, particularly given the recent legal amendments that give the government tighter control over monitoring funding of civil society organisations (CSOs). CSOs have also been shut down for relatively minor offences. This, coupled with arrests and, in some cases, imprisonment of dozens of political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and lawyers on allegedly fake charges, makes the situation for non-state watchdogs in Azerbaijan especially bleak.

The report emphasizes that the responsibility to fight corruption resides not only with the five countries but the EU. What levers of influence does international community have to pressure Azerbaijan in particular?

Over the next five years, billions of euros in assistance is expected to go from the EU into these countries. The risk of this money going into corrupt pockets rather than helping people live better lives is unacceptably high. The EU should ensure that specific anti-corruption commitments are agreed to and upheld so that this money can get where it needs to go. 

Our report also asks that the EU continue to improve support of and dialogue with civil society, making sure that civil society, a key partner in the region in the fight against corruption, remains free from restriction, intimidation and political interference. This is especially relevant for Azerbaijan.

Events like the European Games result in funds mismanagement in a country where the Aliyev family directly or indirectly controls the key sectors of the economy. Should corruption perception factor into awarding major sports or other international events?

Perception of corruption in Azerbaijan is very high. According to our Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, Azerbaijan scores 29 – where 0 is perceived to be highly corrupt and 100 very clean. This is just three points higher than Ukraine, who scores lowest (26) amongst the five countries assessed in this report.

Corruption perception in a country should indeed be taken into account when a country is considered to host large international events. With large investments going into the selected host country, having the right anti-corruption safeguards in place – for example, in the case of Azerbaijan, private sector anti-bribery legislation and comprehensive conflicts of interest legislation – is essential to make sure the money is well-spent and does not fuel corruption.

The TI report makes recommendations to implement reforms. How can the Azerbaijani government make those reforms when the government itself is allegedly complicit in institutionalized corruption? 

Our report calls on the government to pass reforms that will ensure a healthy system of checks and balances can be in place.  More specifically, we call on the government to ensure financial independence of the courts; to tighten the regulatory framework to ensure sanctions are imposed for failure to act on findings of the ombudsman and chamber of accounts; and to repeal the recent restrictions on civil society as well as end persecution and harassment of civil society and journalists. These crucial reforms would ensure effective oversight of the executive and strengthen democratic progress in the country.