Across Continents

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Holidaying in Azerbaijan

July 2nd, 2011

Unintentional I’m sure. Maybe. But, unless you’re very canny, holidaying in Azerbaijan is now a criminal offence. For Brits at least. Courtesy of the Bribery Act 2010. Coming into force a few days ago. True. No one will ever force you to pay a bribe. Depends whether or not you ever want to leave.

Bit of a delve into the Act suggests having "adequate procedures" to prevent bribery is a defence. Wondering if "Don’t get caught" counts? In truth, the trick for individual travellers is to stick doggedly to making small gifts. In recognition of services rendered. That sort of thing. Take them out to dinner. Buy them a coffee. Hospitality falling outside the Act.

Admittedly Azerbaijan is a bit of special case. Endemic corruption. But you don’t have to wander far from the First World and France to encounter dodgy practices. National sport in Greece. And, the Ministry of Justice advises, small sums shouldn’t result in prosecution. But that’s discretionary. Happy travels.

[And before you do wander off and follow any of the suggestions above, read this website’s Terms & Conditions of Use]

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Moral compass

November 28th, 2010

The moral high ground has deceptively lofty peaks. Treacherous to the unwise. Those with moments of madness. Even if wielding the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play. As one former Conservative MP can no doubt attest to. But a moral compass. No matter where you stand, it helps you follow the right path.

Which is handy when, in all probability, you’ve inadvertently spent the night in a brothel. Alone. Well, apart from Emma. My trusty steed. Or talked late into the night with a fellow foreigner who’d an encyclopedic knowledge of prostitution in China. And not the slightest hesitate to share it. Keeping your bearings. A passive observer, wishing to record, to share. Offering insight into less obvious aspects of society.

And then there’s corruption. Back in Azerbaijan. Ethically more troubling. Because, if you want to get things done, you have to participate. The compass waivers a little. Steadied only by the recognition that bribery and back-handers are endemic. Part of the very fabric of society. Theirs. Just how it is.

So, did I pay the odd bribe back there? Of course I did. Of necessity to get things done. Might have referred to them as "fees", "donations to the coffee fund", a "warm handshake". But unmistakably illicit payments to unduly influence the conduct of others. Bit of local magnetic variation. Just like the Black Cullins on the Isle of Skye. Sort of.

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Cash for Karzai

November 19th, 2010

Back in Xi’an I’d met Jesse, originally from Delaware in the US. We’d chatted about various things on the tour bus, and whilst wandering around the many souvenir shops we’d been taken to. Much to the irritation of our guide. Inevitably, visas came up in conversation. As did Iran.

Explained I’d chosen not to attempt to pass through the Islamic Republic, preferring instead to head for Central Asia. Nothing against the people themselves I added, just the idea of handing over around two hundred US dollars to apply for a visa, only to have my request denied. Just didn’t appeal.

Jesse seemed to share the same reluctance to visit. We imagined the scene at the Iranian Consulate if he’d sought to apply for entry. “This is the Iranian Consulate – surely you want the Israeli one?” a bemused official might ask. “No, this one. I’d like to apply for a visa”. Struggling to regain his composure, to hide his consternation, the chap would eventually dust down an old box file and produce an application form.

The paperwork complete, they’d be just one question left. “And the application fee, where do I pay that?”. A smile from the official. “Just drop it in the bag by the door. The one marked “Cash for Karzai“. Crisp notes only please”.

[The author hopes to visit Iran one day. Waiting first until Israel have established direct flights into the country. Rumour is that’ll be to Bushehr]

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Reflections on Azerbaijan

May 25th, 2010

“…one does not have to believe everything is true, one only has to believe it is necessary…” Franz Kafka (’The Trial’)

Corruption distorts, undermines any sense of fair play, the Rule of Law. And in a society where it’s part of the very fabric of everyday life, the consequences can be quite perverse. Embezzlement for example. You’d be forgiven for thinking going to the Police, placing your trust in the Judiciary, would be pointless. The perpetrators could simply pay off the right people, the case against them petering out. But, I learnt, you’d be wrong. Threatening to call in the Police is a powerful lever. Not because they’d be likely to arrest anyone, let alone charge them. No, because they’d demand a significant cut of the stolen funds. Justice of sorts?

Azerbaijan, it is widely acknowledged, is a very corrupt nation. And with little incentive to change. No lack of foreign investment. You might wonder why anyone would wish to invest in a country where much of your profit is likely to be skimmed off? Unless of course earnings are vast, illicit payments lost amongst them. As might be the case, say, if you had huge oil revenues. Which Azerbaijan does. The price of doing business? Not that I believe that respectable foreign companies are actually complicit in dubious or illegal practices – no one wants to loose profits, it’s just unavoidable.

What helps perpetuate corruption is, for all the mobile phones and Mercedes, the almost feudal structure of sections of society. Payments are often collected not for the pockets of those extorting them, but for their masters. If they wish to keep their job. You sense ordinary people just accept that this is how it is, shoulders shrugged, resigned to it. Most have food on the table. And they want to keep it that way. Of course, not everyone is corrupt, far from it. Problem is working out who to trust.

Family ties are an important part of life here. Nepotism? Not unique to Azeri society, I’d venture even in the UK connections can play a part in getting a job, or at least a foot in the door. But merit still counts for a lot. Not so sure here. Want a decent job? Try hard cash as well. For the employer. Not you. I’d met a graduate still doing bar work after five years, unable to buy into a job, lacking the family connections. Should you be concerned? If you live here, certainly. Imagine the unfortunate situation of, say, ending up in hospital, having to go under the knife. Picture yourself on the trolley, on your way to the operating theatre. Pondering just how the surgeon got the job. You’d be hoping it was on merit.

I’ve also sensed a lethargy amongst the older Soviet generation. Familiar with a time when the State gave you somewhere to live, a job for life. Whether you actually did anything or not really made little or no difference. Not corruption, more a bar to progress. I’d learnt of an architect who spent twenty years knitting. Mind you, quite understand not wanting to put your name to any of the hideous concrete structures that sprang up under Communism.

But what are my own experiences of corruption here? Lots of anecdotal evidence, reliable sources, but directly? A little. Surprised? No. I’m not in business here, a foreigner, a visitor to the country, passing through. The odd unexpected fee to pay. Volunteered of course, so I suppose that makes it just semi-consensual theft. Oh yes, and I haven’t driven here. Standards on the road pretty reasonable, for the most part. But seems ex-pats not so good. Get stopped an awful lot by the traffic police.

For the most part, I’ve just had to put up with incessant efforts at over-charging or vastly inflated prices. Admittedly largely confined to the centre of the Capital, Baku. I’ve seen filter coffee for about ten pounds. Corruption? No, more a distortion, people eager to exploit those they perceive to be wealthy – Western Europeans amongst others – encouraged by a good many willing to pay far over the odds for things. Some would say it’s just good business.

But for all the societal problems, ordinary people, especially in the towns and villages, in roadside cafes, have been incredibly friendly, at times with an almost a child-like innocence, inquisitive. Many individual acts of generosity, the extent unimaginable in supposedly more developed nations. Much of it against the backdrop of the Greater Caucasus Range, its snow capped peaks contrasting with the sun baked wide valley flood plains below. Would I return? Of course. A fascinating country, warm and welcoming, albeit with a society so markedly different to my own. Intriguing.

[Author’s note: This post is dedicated to Carol, fellow traveller in Tbilisi, Georgia, regrettably unable to visit Azerbaijan herself. Various independent sources rate Azerbaijan as a very corrupt nation, but they’re far from the top spot. Presumably to secure that they’d need to pay a small fee…. But, most of all, thanks to those individuals, understandably wishing to remain anonymous, who’ve been very candid about their experiences of life here]

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