Wednesday, December 11

Updates from the land of fire[d] "reforms"

Wow, it has been a while. In fact, a year and two months since I shared my speech at the opening ceremony from Forum 2000 last year. 

But that is not why I am here again. 

I thought I vent out and what not a better place, then here, on my good old blog. 

So, what has been going on in Azerbaijan? 

A lot, actually. And I find it hard to keep up, especially as I work on the book about Azerbaijan, and things keep changing, so I keep going back to my earlier chapters and adding footnotes to names, institutions, or legislation that changed, was replaced or sacked [in no particular order that is]. 

So, first things first, the Azerbaijan parliament has been dismissed or dissolved, by itself (or by the president) - which is still against the constitution so the general understanding is that it was dismissed by the president. The new election set to take place on February 9, 2020. And plus, no one really gives a damn about the constitution or laws in Azerbaijan, especially when they are always in favor of the government. On December 4, two days after the parliament voted to dismiss itself, the Constitutional Court in Azerbaijan ruled in favor of the decision approving the call for an early election saying it was not really against the country's constitution.

The official reason (or based on what Bahar Muradova read from her statement on the day the parliament was dismissed) to assist the government in on-going reforms (note: read between the lines, please, there are NO reforms). You would be surprised (or not) to hear 99 members voted in favor - so all those members who have "tirelessly" said yes, to everything that president has told them to say yes to were kicked out. 

Remember one of my first posts here about "flock of sheep"? In case you don't, here is a reminder. 

The president has also sacked some of his high ranking officials. Including Ramiz Mehdiyev (81), the head of the Presidential Apparatus or as he is known in more candid circles - Don Corleone - and a man known for his allegiance to the former president Heydar Aliyev. 

The president has also reshuffled the cabinet of ministers as well as the Presidential Apparatus. But please observers, don't be fooled by what you are seeing. It is the same family, the same mindset, and the same interests running the country. If anything, the new government is going to be rougher than the previous one.

Early parliamentary election

Not everyone is happy (not that there was a time when everyone was happy in the country). In just two months, candidates have to register, prepare their campaign and run for the parliament. Well, if these are going to be free and fair elections that is.

The opposition thinks the time allocated is not enough. Former leader of opposition party Isa Gambar told Azadliq Radio that the decision is nothing but an attempt to set up a designated parliament.  

Others are considering boycotting elections. 

Meanwhile, government representative Ali Ahmadov [Deputy PM] said, "The truth is, the people have boycotted the radicals [this is how he refers to the opposition]. And as a result, no one wants to hear their [opposition] calls [for boycott]. 

FYI, on December 23, Azerbaijanis will vote in Municipal Elections. 

The Central Election Committee says there are no issues with having two elections in such close time.

In my humble opinion, we can expect a few possible outcomes:
1. all newly "elected" parliament members won't be ideologically much different the previous ones, although they may be a few decades younger than the recently dismissed MPs;
2. a few opposition representatives may be "allowed" to enter the parliament but have very little impact given the majority is still going to be represented by the members of the ruling party (note: read between the lines once again, likely to be split between Pashayev and Aliyev fronts);
3. some concession and negotiations may take place between the authorities and the opposition where the latter will be allowed to be present;

Retirement plans and wages

You may ask what happens to the members of the parliament (and other high ranking government officials) who don't get elected in the next election? They retire, but not like any average pensioner in Azerbaijan. They get to enjoy a cushy pension. Which according to some independent economists is unfair, and so to make things fair, retired teachers, doctors, for instance, should be getting the same amount of pension as retired parliament members. Especially when you factor in the time spent in "active employment". 

Here is how it works: the minimum pension in Azerbaijan has been raised to 200AZN as of October 2019. A parliament member's pension is 80% of their monthly income which is about 4 times higher than the current minimum pension wage. 

And, in addition, even if you have been in the parliament for ten years an MP can get at minimum 1000AZN - compared to 20-30-40 and more years of work that teachers, doctors put in before they retire. 

Example: with a work experience of 40 years a teacher gets paid 256AZN after retirement, while a parliament member, who has been at the parliament even for one term [thats just five years], gets around 1100AZN. 

Parliament member Fazil Mustafa, says it's a fair recommendation to make all pensions equal, or at least improve those of the teachers and others but ensuring equal pensions may strain the state budget. 

It was only in October this year that minimum wages were raised [likely fearing more social unrest amid growing tension between the general public and the authorities]. As a result, monthly wages were raised from 180AZN to 250AZN [approximately 150USD]. While a monthly pension was raised from 160 to 200AZN.    

Meanwhile, parliamentarian's wages have been on a steady increase. As of May 1, 2018 MPs in Azerbaijan receive 1,732AZN [approximately 1,000USD]. 

The cost of living in Azerbaijan was set at 180AZN in 2018. Also, it is worth noting that the cost of living between 2014 and 2018 increased by 48AZN.

It is not only the pension that sets officials apart from the commoners. Ramiz Mehdiyev was appointed the president of Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences (may I remind you that he is 81). Or, Novruz Mammadov who until he was "dismissed" served as the Prime Minister was appointed as the Vice-rector of Azerbaijan University of Languages. Or Heydar Asadov, former minister of agriculture was appointed the new rector of Azerbaijan State Maritime Academy.

In other news

*The Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, published today the report on her visit to Azerbaijan, with recommendations on how to ensure freedom of expression, increase the number of lawyers and the quality of legal assistance in the country, and empower internally displaced persons (IDPs). 

 *PACE’s Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights has found that, on the basis of factual findings of the European Court of Human Rights, a number of individuals are “political prisoners” according to the Assembly's definition. Recalling the Court’s finding of a “troubling pattern” of politically motivated misuse of the criminal justice system, and the significant number of similar cases pending before the Court, the committee said that “fundamental reforms are necessary if Azerbaijan is to fulfill its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights”.

So in case, with all your good intentions and hope, you have been thinking there is a sudden wind of change in Azerbaijan, forget it, and I mean it. The only kind of wind you will see (or feel)- is the same iffy kind of wind that's been blowing away our future (and present). 

Monday, October 8

What do I wish for my country (my speech from the opening ceremony at Forum 2000 in Prague)


These have been tough times for democracy advocates and proponents. 

We are living in liquid times, trying to stand on moving sands in a world that is full of unprecedented challenges. 

One of my favorite writers, Elif Safak, sums it well in a story she shared in one of her recent talks. Safak mentions this club called “Worried, and depressed, international writers club”. 

Each time its members who come from countries like Egypt, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela, Nigeria would come together at international conferences and events, recalls Safak, they would smile at each other in sympathy as comradery of the doomed. 

But more recently explains Safak, the club has welcomed new members from places like Poland, Hungary, Greece, Austria, France, UK, the Netherlands and the United States. 

“Suddenly there were more of us worried about our nations, and the future of our world”, explained Safak in her talk. 

I might not be a member of this club, but I am too worried about the future of my country and the world. 

So here I am, standing in front of you, tonight, tasked with a very tough question - of what is it that I wish for my own country, Azerbaijan in these challenging times. 

I love my motherland but a place I call home has never been mine. 

It has been in the hands of illiberal politicians exploiting it. These so-called leaders have looted its resources, gained power at the expense of others, and who have turned my motherland, into a fiefdom. 

As a result, Azerbaijan is known for its devastating press freedom record, grave human rights abuses, abducting its journalists and smuggling them back into the country, for money laundering, secret slush funds, and Panama Paper leaks. 

So what can someone like me, who has never had a chance to have a say in the present and the future of my country wish for it? a chance for free and fair election, a plurality of opinions and voices, ensuring equality, and fostering transparency. 

To me, these are some of the most important pillars of democracy. 

Now how to achieve these, that's the hardest part. I think a good place to start would be by getting some inspiration from Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century fresco on the allegory of good and bad government. 

For the sake of time, and context, I will focus on the good, because we know all too well how the bad one looks like. 

In the fresco on good government, you see the commune who tells the people that they should be the ones who rule themselves and not their kings or queens. Surrounding commune are his advisors - justice enthroned looking up at the figure of wisdom who supports the scales of justice; harmony binding justice to the citizens; and peace. And watching over the republic is Security with a banner that reads: everyone shall go forth freely and without fear. 

This is how I imagine Azerbaijan. A nation freed of a tyrant, guided by justice, who at present sits in shackles at the feet of our leadership; where civic ideals and a plurality of opinions are celebrated; rather than perish in prisons; where civil society is vibrant and where a nation isn’t governed by fear but by solidarity and freedom. 

Thank you!