On April 26, while visiting Shemakha, a town 100 kilometers away from Baku, Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliev was confronted by numerous complaints about rising prices in the country as well as the lack of employment opportunities. Yet, the most striking comment came from a senior citizen at the local market, who told the president, “You are good. You are trying to make a change. But those around you are not. They should also try.”
This spontaneous comment perfectly reflects the popular mood in the country over the past year or so. The media and the public have criticized state bureaucrats due to skyrocketing prices for groceries and utilities, scarce economic opportunities, and setbacks in democratization.
The first of these attacks were targeted at the mayor of Baku, Hajibala Abutalibov, for the chaotic construction projects in the capital city. Many residents believe the projects will ruin the city’s appearance, damage roads, and create safety hazards. Experts believe the January landslide was directly caused by the nearby construction projects.
In March Minister of Internal Affairs Ramil Usubov found himself in the hot seat with the revelation of a criminal ring headed by high-ranking officials in the Ministry. Usubov could hardly claim ignorance, as he has headed the Ministry of Internal Affairs for more than ten years. The criminal group was involved in several high-profile murders as well as the kidnappings of more than a dozen wealthy businessmen and their relatives. President Aliev did not sack Usubov, as expected, and now public confidence in the police is at an all-time low.
Opposition newspapers Yeni Musavat and Azadliq launched an attack on the head of the Baku Metro, Tagi Ahmedov, who had prohibited the sale of opposition newspapers inside metro stations. When asked at the congress of the YAP ruling party in March about the rationale behind this ban, Ahmedov simply said, “Don’t allow and that is all. A businessman can do whatever he wants in his store and that is the same with me.” Media outlets were outraged about the comparison of the state-owned subway system to a private enterprise. While the ban was lifted after President Aliev’s personal intervention, Ahmedov’s reputation has been greatly damaged. The journalist union RUH has filed a lawsuit against Ahmedov, accusing him of violating the freedom of press and harming the newspapers’ revenue.
One of the most influential politicians in the country, Minister of Health Ali Insanov, became caught in this “anti-bureaucrat campaign” when he publicly insulted an ANS TV journalist and accused a popular and wealthy private clinic of violating standard medical practices. Both the media outlet and clinic have filed lawsuits, yet even without these allegations, public anger at the minister exists due to the high levels of corruption in Azerbaijani hospitals.
Finally, the Council of Businessmen has recently re-launched an attack against the head of the customs agency, Kamaleddin Heydarov, who is widely believed to be one of the richest oligarchs in the country and the person behind many business monopolies. Entrepreneurs argue that the existence of monopolies in the export-import sectors of the country hinder market competition and thus limit economic growth. As if the accusations of the businessmen were not enough, ANS TV added fuel to the fire by publishing the first issue of the magazine HESABAT, which ranked Heydarov as the richest person in the country. Meanwhile, a well-known anchor at ANS TV, Ganira Pashayeva, rhetorically asked on a weekly analytical program, “People are wondering why the president is still keeping these officials with negative reputation.”
Indeed this question is on the minds of many Azerbaijanis. Having come to power on promises of further democratization and economic growth, President Aliev has largely been unable to deliver because of the lack of reforms in the country. Many local analysts tie this dilemma to the slow pace of cadre changes. Since his election, Aliev has sacked only four ministers and changed 20 local governors. Although once again confirming in Shemakha that he “will bring to power cadres with a modern world outlook and progressive work style and will not tolerate those do not work for the welfare of people,” President Aliev has been hesitant to make drastic changes to the ruling elite in the past 17 months. Most analysts relate this to his unwillingness to shake up the ruling party prior to the November parliamentary elections. Similarly, President Aliev is aware of the danger of sacking powerful officials, many of whom will end up in the ranks of the opposition. Yet, keeping these old cadres also means lack of reforms and complaints by both the local public and the international community.
As if understanding the urgency of the situation, President Aliev last week sacked the chair of the Supreme Court, Sudaba Hasanova, and head of the Court of Appeals, Gulzar Rzayeva. Yet, the powerful “sharks” remain in place and it is unlikely that they will be removed anytime soon due to the complexity of Azerbaijani politics.
(Xalq Qazeti, ANS-TV, Baku Sun, Azadliq, Turan, Yeni Musavat, Zerkalo, Ekho, April 20-29)