Recent progress in e-governance in Azerbaijan has dramatically reduced petty corruption in many sectors. But for those visiting public hospitals, sending their children to kindergarten, or dealing with the traffic police — the problem of bribery can still be a part of daily life.
Malahat (not her real name) is 54 years old and lives alone in a region not far from Baku. She is living with cancer. She has no children as she married late and her husband died of heart failure five years ago.
Two years ago, Malahat was diagnosed with a tumour and six months later she underwent an operation to have it removed. Since then, she has had to undergo frequent rounds of chemotherapy to prevent the cancer from returning.
‘Every 21 days I go to Baku for tests. Each time I receive chemotherapy and each time I spend at least ₼300 ($180) on all the procedures’, Malahat tells OC Media.
Malahat is receiving treatment at the National Oncology Centre. She says that although the hospital is run by the state, and in theory her treatment should be free, she still ends up having to pay. She claims the centre refuses to treat people who don’t have money.
‘Everything there has a cost; it’s very difficult. We end up giving all our money to the hospital.’
Azerbaijan’s public hospitals, along with the National Oncology Centre, and the Ministry of Health have issued repeated statements denying such a situation exists.
Officially, treatment in public hospitals in Azerbaijan is supposed to be free of charge, but in practice, many doctors demand bribes from their patients. Public hospitals and clinics are among the institutions that receive the most complaints from citizens of petty corruption. The Ministry of Health has put in place a telephone hotline where people can report bribery, but it is has not so far proved sufficient to tackle the problem.
A young man named Toghrul, tells OC Media of how he recently complained against a state hospital where his mother was being treated.
‘Every doctor in the hospital demanded payment in advance. And we had to raise large amounts of money. We made a complaint using the Ministry of Health hotline and they said that the issue would be resolved.’
According to Toghrul, the hospital administration subsequently contacted them and said that all tests would be performed free of charge.
‘They made a note on [my mother’s] patient records and afterwards, no doctor asked for payment. But the examination and tests were of a pretty poor standard and in the end we had to go to a private hospital.’
The ASAN Service — ‘eradicating bribery’
Progress has been made in tackling petty corruption in Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani Service and Assessment Network (ASAN) was established in 2012 by presidential decree. While the service’s main aim is to make public services, such as the issuance of documents, more easily accessible to citizens, it was also designed to to prevent bribes.
Although this service led to a dramatic decrease in bribery in many areas, such as the issuance of passports, ID cards, real estate documents, marriage licenses, and birth certificates, the problem still remains within sectors which fall outside ASAN’s remit.
People complain that bribes are still demanded by staff of state-owned hospitals and clinics, as well as in kindergartens, schools, and universities. Bribes are also demanded by the police (mainly the traffic police) and military, and by staff responsible for overseeing social welfare payments.
Executive Secretary of the opposition REAL Party, economist Natig Jafarli, says the ASAN service has managed to eradicate most of the bribery that used to be a part of daily life, but the process is not complete.
‘There are areas that cannot be addressed by ASAN. Bribery remains a part of life in the education and healthcare systems, and also among the police and other law enforcement agencies, and within the judicial system’, Jafarli tells OC Media. ‘Bribery in these areas has not been eliminated yet and the problem remains.’
Jafarli says the government should implement serious management and structural reforms in order to prevent bribery in daily life.
‘There should be a radical change in management. The ideal way to prevent bribery in the healthcare system is to enforce compulsory health insurance, but for many years the Azerbaijani government has failed to do this. A decision has been made on this and the law has been adopted, but it has not been implemented.’
‘Wherever compulsory health insurance is applied, daily bribery in the health sector is almost eliminated. Education is a bit [more] difficult [to tackle], but it is possible through public control.’
He also points to the widespread use of bribes as a way of supplementing low wages in the public sector. He says that health and education workers would not resort to taking bribes if they had proper salaries.
‘Direct contact or mediators?’
Alimammad Nuriyev, President of the Constitution Research Foundation, a local democracy and anti-corruption advocacy group, agrees that social vulnerability among education and health care workers is partly to blame for petty corruption in Azerbaijan.
He says the problem is most acute in the health and education sectors — especially in preschool admissions.
‘The small number of kindergartens in the country allows directors of kindergartens to manoeuvre, to make deals [with parents]’, Nuriyev tells OC Media.
As a solution, Nuriyev proposes eliminating direct communication and interaction between citizens and those providing services using e-governance.
‘All services must be fully digitised to eliminate these situations. All vacancies should be publicly advertised. These issues require full transparency.’
This should not, Nuriyev stresses, mean that citizens should appoint someone to act on their behalf.
‘Sometimes mediators appear. The mediators prepare documentation to apply for pensions or disability allowance [on their client’s behalf]. They go and negotiate with the authorities. Mediators allow the daily corruption to flourish.’
‘The social trouble in front of every society’
Zahid Oruj, an MP on Azerbaijan’s Parliamentary Committee on Defence, Security, and Anti-Corruption, says the problem is not unique to Azerbaijan.
‘Petty corruption is a problem facing every society as a public nuisance. Especially throughout the post-Soviet space, it has been formed over many decades. It has become a challenge, and has turned into habits, features, traditions, set in stone, and crystallised.’
Oruj tells OC Media that it is the government’s job to eliminate this problem completely. He also suggests applying e-governance in many areas to eliminate the human factor.
‘This should be continued. It’s possible to apply the ASAN service to the government as a whole; steps are being taken in this direction. It’s possible to apply an easy government model in all areas except for the external and internal affairs agencies, as well as secret services.’
The MP says that harsh fines are ineffective at fighting petty corruption, and that it is therefore necessary to change the mechanism of the fight.
Oruj insists: ‘we must give priority to these reforms’.
He says that forms of automation and e-governance should be applied ‘from kindergartens up to large investment projects.’ In such a case, he says ‘people’s lust’ for money will not come into it.
Oruj says that once an environment free from bribes gradually transforms into normal life, everyone will benefit from it.
According to Natig Jafarli, the main thing needed to completely eradicate bribery in Azerbaijan is enough political will to tackle the problem.