Across Continents

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Reflections on Azerbaijan

May 25th, 2010

“…one does not have to believe everything is true, one only has to believe it is necessary…” Franz Kafka (’The Trial’)

Corruption distorts, undermines any sense of fair play, the Rule of Law. And in a society where it’s part of the very fabric of everyday life, the consequences can be quite perverse. Embezzlement for example. You’d be forgiven for thinking going to the Police, placing your trust in the Judiciary, would be pointless. The perpetrators could simply pay off the right people, the case against them petering out. But, I learnt, you’d be wrong. Threatening to call in the Police is a powerful lever. Not because they’d be likely to arrest anyone, let alone charge them. No, because they’d demand a significant cut of the stolen funds. Justice of sorts?

Azerbaijan, it is widely acknowledged, is a very corrupt nation. And with little incentive to change. No lack of foreign investment. You might wonder why anyone would wish to invest in a country where much of your profit is likely to be skimmed off? Unless of course earnings are vast, illicit payments lost amongst them. As might be the case, say, if you had huge oil revenues. Which Azerbaijan does. The price of doing business? Not that I believe that respectable foreign companies are actually complicit in dubious or illegal practices – no one wants to loose profits, it’s just unavoidable.

What helps perpetuate corruption is, for all the mobile phones and Mercedes, the almost feudal structure of sections of society. Payments are often collected not for the pockets of those extorting them, but for their masters. If they wish to keep their job. You sense ordinary people just accept that this is how it is, shoulders shrugged, resigned to it. Most have food on the table. And they want to keep it that way. Of course, not everyone is corrupt, far from it. Problem is working out who to trust.

Family ties are an important part of life here. Nepotism? Not unique to Azeri society, I’d venture even in the UK connections can play a part in getting a job, or at least a foot in the door. But merit still counts for a lot. Not so sure here. Want a decent job? Try hard cash as well. For the employer. Not you. I’d met a graduate still doing bar work after five years, unable to buy into a job, lacking the family connections. Should you be concerned? If you live here, certainly. Imagine the unfortunate situation of, say, ending up in hospital, having to go under the knife. Picture yourself on the trolley, on your way to the operating theatre. Pondering just how the surgeon got the job. You’d be hoping it was on merit.

I’ve also sensed a lethargy amongst the older Soviet generation. Familiar with a time when the State gave you somewhere to live, a job for life. Whether you actually did anything or not really made little or no difference. Not corruption, more a bar to progress. I’d learnt of an architect who spent twenty years knitting. Mind you, quite understand not wanting to put your name to any of the hideous concrete structures that sprang up under Communism.

But what are my own experiences of corruption here? Lots of anecdotal evidence, reliable sources, but directly? A little. Surprised? No. I’m not in business here, a foreigner, a visitor to the country, passing through. The odd unexpected fee to pay. Volunteered of course, so I suppose that makes it just semi-consensual theft. Oh yes, and I haven’t driven here. Standards on the road pretty reasonable, for the most part. But seems ex-pats not so good. Get stopped an awful lot by the traffic police.

For the most part, I’ve just had to put up with incessant efforts at over-charging or vastly inflated prices. Admittedly largely confined to the centre of the Capital, Baku. I’ve seen filter coffee for about ten pounds. Corruption? No, more a distortion, people eager to exploit those they perceive to be wealthy – Western Europeans amongst others – encouraged by a good many willing to pay far over the odds for things. Some would say it’s just good business.

But for all the societal problems, ordinary people, especially in the towns and villages, in roadside cafes, have been incredibly friendly, at times with an almost a child-like innocence, inquisitive. Many individual acts of generosity, the extent unimaginable in supposedly more developed nations. Much of it against the backdrop of the Greater Caucasus Range, its snow capped peaks contrasting with the sun baked wide valley flood plains below. Would I return? Of course. A fascinating country, warm and welcoming, albeit with a society so markedly different to my own. Intriguing.

[Author’s note: This post is dedicated to Carol, fellow traveller in Tbilisi, Georgia, regrettably unable to visit Azerbaijan herself. Various independent sources rate Azerbaijan as a very corrupt nation, but they’re far from the top spot. Presumably to secure that they’d need to pay a small fee…. But, most of all, thanks to those individuals, understandably wishing to remain anonymous, who’ve been very candid about their experiences of life here]

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