Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Azerbaijan's Un-Transparent Corruption Law

A new law designed to end corruption may be so flawed that the real offenders will never be named and shamed.
By Emil Guliev

Azerbaijan’s parliament is mulling over new legislation designed to stamp out the official corruption that is so much a feature of life here, but many analysts are warning that loopholes in the law could actually help bureaucrats conceal their ill-gotten gains.

The draft law recently had its second reading in the legislature, a key stage in Azerbaijan because the third reading usually entails merely cosmetic changes.

The law will require all government officials, parliament deputies and judges to submit a statement of their income and assets to a special government commission every January.

If officials’ property or income is found to far exceed what they could reasonably afford on their salary, the commission automatically launches an inquiry.

The bill was drafted as part of a sweeping anti-corruption campaign first announced by President Ilham Aliev in January 2004, and formalised in law a year later. A new state commission on corruption headed by the head of Aliev’s administration Ramiz Mehtiev is to oversee the entire process.

Corruption is rife in all walks of life in Azerbaijan. Transparency International, a corruption watchdog, recently placed Azerbaijan seventh in the list of countries perceived to be most corrupt.

Some argue that officials take bribes only because they are not paid enough, but the statistics on wage differentials suggest otherwise. A government minister, for example, gets ten times the 100 US dollars a month that an average worker is paid.

The Council of Europe, of which Azerbaijan is a member, stipulated a national anti-corruption programme among the 26 additional conditions it set for the government after it joined in 2001.

Having officials declare their assets looks like a worthy attempt at pinning down the worst offenders. However, the law’s many critics say it is doomed from the start because the rules will be implemented under a veil of secrecy and contain a number of easy let-outs for the ingenious.

The bill’s supporters are naturally upbeat about its prospects. Mubariz Gurbanly, who sits in parliament as second-in-command of the governing Yeni Azerbaijan party, accepts that one law may not put an end to corruption altogether, but he believes it will certainly mitigate it.

“It’s natural that a nascent civil society like Azerbaijan should aspire towards greater transparency,” he said. “It means a great deal that from now on, the public will be informed about how much officials make and spend, how much property they have and the businesses they run.”

In fact, the law explicitly bans such disclosure. According to Isakhan Ashurov, chairman of the League of Independent Lawyers, the most problematic section in the proposed law is a ruling that the statements filed by officials cannot be made public.

“The ban on publishing officials’ financial statements violates the principle of transparency,” he said. “The public will never get to hear about which officials are making much, much more than their official salary.”

He continued, “Another thing that bothers me is that the government’s anti-corruption commission will be able to manipulate the information however it wants. It doesn’t have to inform the public when officials break the law, especially if the individual in question is their friend or has bought their silence.”

Ashurov believes other provisions in the law will also create fertile ground for corruption. For instance, Article 3 sets out a complex set of filing procedures. Top officials - including the president and his staff, the prime minister and other cabinet members, and senior judges have to submit their statements of income and assets to the main anti-corruption commission, while lower-ranking government staff will report to a subcommission specifically dedicated to their ministry or agency.

“It is unacceptable that there are so many different bodies doing the same thing” said Ashurov. “One can envisage a situation where a minister, who is himself audited by a higher body, establishes another body to check on the incomes of his subordinates. He’s naturally going to appoint people who suit him, and he will then protect those staff who are useful to him and punish those aren’t.”

Members of the legislature, on the other hand, will give their income statements to a parliamentary commission which they themselves are expected to set up.

“It’s even more confusing when it comes to the deputies,” continued Ashurov. “Not is it clear who exactly is going to sit on the commissions they create.”

Instead, Ashurov said, “There should be one body where everyone files their income declarations.”

It was this issue of different commissions being responsible for various government bodies that proved most controversial when the law was being discussed, but in the end the majority overruled any objections, arguing that having one centralised commission to handle the process would be to cumbersome and would only sow confusion.

Another provision that has raised eyebrows was a rule allowing officials to stop disclosing their income 12 months after they retire or leave their job. Opponents of this clause argue that since the smarter operators will have ensured that any businesses or other assets are registered in someone else’s name, they can simply get these signed over to them a year after they leave office.

“That’s is not how you fight corruption,” said Ashurov.

A few government officials have added their voices to the criticism. One cabinet official, who did not want to be named, told IWPR that the biggest defect in the law is its failure to require - as is the practice in other countries - that the documents be filed with the tax authorities which have the power to check information and sanction punishment.

“An independent structure needs to look after this,” he said. “Suppose an official provides false information about himself - how do you check up on that? Only his minister will ever know, and there will be no punishment for his acquisition of property from illegal earnings. The worst that can happen is that the official is be fired.”

Nusret Gasymov, deputy head of the Baku gas supply company, is sceptical about the chances of the reform having any success. He says no one will ever declare their real income, and there is no provision to force them to do so in the new law.

“How can an official build a million-dollar villa on a salary of 200 dollars a month?” asked Gasymov. “In the Soviet period, there were similar attempts to find out who earned what, and nothing came of it.”

Gasymov thinks corruption will only be reduced when tough sanctions are coupled with a situation where people earn a decent income.

“An official should be making enough to meet all his and his family’s needs, a salary that looks respectable for a modern social environment. On the other hand, there must be tougher laws for bribe-takers,” he said.

Emil Guliev is an independent journalist in Baku.