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South Caucasus: Is Any Real Progress Being Made In Tackling Corruption?

In its latest global corruption survey, the Transparency International nongovernmental watchdog ranked the three South Caucasus states among countries perceived as being the most corrupt. Armenia ranked 78th among 133 countries, while Georgia and Azerbaijan -- countries where the group said corruption is "pervasive" -- trailed behind, tied at 124th place. All three regional governments have taken steps that suggest a willingness to address the issue. But how far are they ready to go?

Prague, 27 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan are required to combat corruption as members of the Council of Europe, but none of them has yet achieved many breakthroughs. All three countries faced various levels of criticism for failing to tackle the issue at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last month.

Anticorruption strategies have followed different patterns in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

Rena Safaraliyeva heads Transparency Azerbaijan, Transparency International's chapter in Baku. She credits Georgia with being the first country in the region to take anticorruption steps, contrary to the generally accepted idea that former President Eduard Shevardnadze encouraged illicit practices.

"If one compares efforts undertaken in Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia to fight corruption, one has to admit that Georgia has done much more [than the other two countries] in that direction. Already under President Shevardnadze, the government was combating corruption. Georgia adopted anticorruption legislation and a national anticorruption program. That this did not bring the expected results is a separate issue. But, obviously, attempts were made [to fight corruption]. As far as I know, the new Georgian government intends to fight corruption even more actively than its predecessor. I wish they would achieve some results," Safaraliyeva told RFE/RL.

"You can raise public awareness under an authoritarian regime, but that does not really matter."
Shevardnadze was forced to resign last November in the wake of street protests sparked by controversial parliamentary elections. His successor, opposition leader and former Justice Minister Mikheil Saakashvili, has made the elimination of corruption a top priority of his government.

Since entering politics in the late 1990s, Saakashvili has built an image as an anticorruption crusader, which largely contributed to his landslide victory in last month's early presidential polls.

Saakashvili has launched what he describes as an unprecedented crackdown on corruption. Dozens of state officials and businessmen reportedly linked to the Shevardnadze administration -- including the former president's son-in-law, Giorgi Djokhtaberidze -- have been arrested in a sweep that also includes many middle-ranking civil servants with no known political affiliations.

The scope of Saakashvili's anticorruption drive has raised concerns both at home and abroad. Georgian critics claim the new ruling team is primarily interested in eliminating political rivals, while rights activists blame Saakashvili for using heavy-handed methods.

Christoph Stefes is an expert on corruption in Georgia and Armenia who teaches political science at the University of Colorado. He told RFE/RL that he, too, has serious doubts about the new Georgian government's anticorruption measures.

"I haven't really seen anything coherent [so far]. I think they're still working on their anticorruption program. What Saakashvili is doing right now, in my opinion, is a political window-dressing [operation]. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin did the same when he went after [such oligarchs as Vladimir] Gusinsky or [Boris] Berezovsky. The Russians loved him for that. [Similarly,] the Georgians love Saakashvili for going after [Shevardnadze's] son-in-law, or former energy and transportation ministers," Stefes said.

Saakashvili has justified the recent sweep by saying corruption was so "rampant" under Shevardnadze that there are no other alternatives. Admitting that arrests are not enough to cope with corruption, the Georgian leader has also suggested raising salaries for policemen and other public officers in a bid to dissuade them from extorting bribes.

Parliament on 12 February gave first reading approval to new anticorruption legislation that simplifies criminal procedures in corruption cases, gives broader powers to law-enforcement agencies and sees reduced prison sentences for police informers. Also, Georgian lawmakers on 25 February toughened the existing law on money laundering and voted for the creation of a new police force that would be solely responsible for investigating economic crimes.

Transparency's Safaraliyeva warns that programs mainly aimed at castigating corrupt officials are likely to miss their targets. "I do not know whether steps that are being taken now in Georgia will ultimately prove efficient," she said. "But let's say that if our government were to emphasize punishment for corruption crimes, I would argue that this is not [the] best solution. Punishment cannot be the best solution if it is the only existing method. If a state official has committed a crime, he must be punished, and sentences [for corruption crimes] can be reasonably envisaged retroactively. But if one wants to prevent corruption, then punitive methods are by far not the best ones. The experience of other countries shows that the best way to prevent corruption is to reform public administration from top to bottom."

Stefes of the University of Colorado also believes overly punitive anticorruption tactics are likely to be counterproductive because what they do is "make corrupt networks look for mutual protection" against the government's efforts.

By contrast, authorities in Armenia and Azerbaijan have adopted lower-profile tactics.

The Armenian government on 16 January made public an anticorruption plan aimed at making state institutions more transparent and eliminating red-tape bureaucracy. The plan also includes recommendations to citizens not to yield to requests for bribes at state-run schools and hospitals, as well as rules of conduct for civil servants.

But most Armenians are skeptical of the whole scheme, arguing that it lacks any implementation mechanisms and fails to address corruption in many state institutions.

Stefes says the Armenian government ignored most anticorruption guidelines set by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, instead emphasizing the necessity of raising public awareness. "Some fundamental reforms that were suggested -- such as reforming the police for example -- were cut out by the government. Public awareness seems to be OK, but it is also the least touchy [issue]," he said. "You can raise public awareness under an authoritarian regime, but that does not really matter. So I think this is a half-hearted kind of reform. It is doing a little bit, but obviously [the government] is not interested in doing much more. For [President Robert] Kocharian, the corrupt system that exists in Armenia is perfect to [win] political support with all these little oligarchs now being in the ruling party and [standing] behind him. That works perfectly."

Stefes further argues that, contrary to Shevardnadze, who had virtually no power to implement his initiatives, Kocharian has enough leverage on the state apparatus to effectively combat corruption. The same goes for Azerbaijan, which has been ruled for more than a decade by the powerful Aliyev family clan.

On 13 January, the Azerbaijani parliament approved an anticorruption law, the first of its kind since the country regained independence in 1991. The new legislation, which will come into force only next year, bars state officials from receiving expensive gifts and entering into business activities "either personally or through proxies." It also forbids them from holding jobs other than teaching positions and from hiring close relatives. Finally, it obliges public officers to declare their incomes.

Safaraliyeva of Transparency said that, despite the law having many shortcomings, "the fact that it was voted is a positive step." "The greatest merit of this [document] is that, for the first time, the notion of corruption as a crime -- or, let's say, as a violation of the law -- appears in the legislation," she said. "Before that, there existed only the notion of bribery in the Criminal Code. But corruption includes a variety of violations of the law. Although it is the most widespread of these violations, bribery is by far not the only form of corruption and, [before parliament voted this text], other forms of corruption were not punishable by law."

Like in Armenia, the public in Azerbaijan views the new legislation with skepticism. Some critics argue President Ilham Aliyev is unlikely to curb corruption unless he changes the government apparatus he inherited from his late father. Others believe no anticorruption campaign can be effective unless the country has an independent judiciary.

Safaraliyeva says her group would also have welcomed the inclusion of civil society members on a new anticorruption commission included as part of the government's recent legislative initiative. Yet, the proposal says only the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of power will be represented on that commission. "From our viewpoint, this is a serious mistake," Safaraliyeva said.

Stefes agrees that civil society should be involved in the fight against corruption. He cites the modest results achieved by Shevardnadze's anticorruption council -- an advisory body made up of journalists, academics, parliamentarians, and rights campaigners, which was abolished just a few days ago. He says joint action taken by the international community and domestic nongovernmental actors is the best way to force governments to tackle corruption.