Stealing Billions Without Hiding It: Explaining Corruption in Azerbaijan & Central Asia
12 June, 2017

This year's MezhyhiryaFest, an investigative journalism conference located on former Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych's estate, featured journalists from around the world. Miranda Patrucic, regional editor for the Organized Crime and Reporting Project (OCCRP) works in a region low on the radar of Western audiences – Azerbaijan and Central Asia.

Hromadske spoke to Patrucic about the state of journalism in this region and recent developments to follow.

According to Patrucic, in Azerbaijan and Central Asia, “The authorities are operating with complete impunity. People are stealing billions. And they do it so bluntly, not even trying to hide.” Recent crackdowns on journalists in Azerbaijan show that “the authorities are working hard to shut down any kind of independent voice.”

Nevertheless, Patrucic emphasized that it is important for journalists to “show how regular people live” because this has consequences in the region. “We did a story about the gold mine that was owned by the first family [of Azerbaijan–ed.] and it became publicly known that they were behind the gold mines. They couldn’t sell the gold anymore.”

While much of Central Asia is closed to Western journalists, it is a region where Patrucic believes journalists can have a real impact. “Central Asian countries are big markets with a lot of money to be made, every Western company has put their fingers on it.” Furthermore, Western companies can be held to the rule of law at home. “If our company goes and bribes some official in Tajikistan or in Uzbekistan, the authorities here will react.”

“Part of the problem is that from the European perspective, what you see is a very rich family," Patrucic told Hromadske. However, international attention has been effective for bringing change to the region. Patrucic pointed to the case of Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani journalist who was jailed for seven years and released due to intyrnational pressure. "It is opening eyes in Europe," she said. "People are more sceptical at least about Azerbaijan and the first family of Azerbaijan."

Miranda, you are the regional editor for OCCRP, Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and you are dealing with Azerbaijan and Central Asia. It is no secret, these are authoritarian regimes. In general, we know that there is corruption there. There is really no democratic process and corruption influences society. But what are the stories we are working with now? What are the developments? We are following the very tragic cases of the persecution of Azerbaijani reporters. We hear less about Central Asia, but we know that people are pushed away from the region, especially those who are investigating.

Miranda Patrucic: In terms of Central Asia, any journalist that did any stories that the authorities didn’t agree with have already left the country. And this is something that has been going on for five, ten years. So it is not new. So I think what is happening in Azerbaijan now is a real crackdown that took place many years ago in Central Asia. These countries are operating with complete impunity. What you know here is that the judiciary, the police, independence do not exist there. You will be framed with illegal drugs. You will be just accused as a journalist for attacking a policeman, and that will take you for a month in jail. Then you can be charged with corruption or with illegal work, and that could be years long sentences. I think what is also going on is the authorities are cracking down on access to information. So even where you had ability to report and obtain documents, it is now becoming increasingly difficult. The media is being closed down. In Azerbaijan, the most recent thing is, for example, RFE/RL Azeri service is not allowed. Basically, their website blocked. So they can’t even reach the audience inside the country. So the authorities are really working very hard to shut down any kind of independent voice, or any kind of criticism of their actions.

In particular with Azerbaijan, in the case of Aliyev, there was so much evidence, international evidence, and we are speaking about really really big money, because this is an oil-rich country. What can we tell from the evidence? What are the ways to do something with that? Maybe there is sometimes the involvement of Western companies which are more transparent, sometimes you can find something? And do you see the reaction of the international law reinforcement which might somehow find something that would be at least, I won’t say punishment? Any result? Any procedure? Any investigation?

Miranda Patrucic: Well, Azerbaijan is very good at bribing its way into the US and the EU. When President Trump was inaugurated, one of the first clients in his hotel was actually the Azerbaijani Embassy who paid for a lavish party on the day of the inauguration. They have bribing EU officials, there is a well-known case of MP Volonte from Italy who has received money to basically support Azerbaijan. You know, for a long time Azerbaijan was putting on a fake face with the European Union, saying “we want to be close to you”, “we want to cherish European values.” While on the other side, they have slowly cracking down on journalists and activists, and so on.

The other problem is, yes, it is a very oil-rich country. European and US companies have a massive interest in Azerbaijan. There is a lot of money to go around. I think that part of the problem is that from the European perspective, what you see is a very rich family. Buying properties in London, opening exhibitions, they ran a massive foundation which has been building statues all over Europe, paying a lot of money. So what they see is richness and influence, and they don’t really care about and don’t know about corruption and how regular people live.

Is there any involvement from Western governments? We at Hromadske, as Ukrainian investigative journalists, who had be interested in the corruption in the region which is so connected, started to rise the issue. We are following the commands of foreign governments and bank officials who say that there should be transparency. Do you feel that there is any kind of movement?

Miranda Patrucic: I think all the reporting about, especially the case of Khadija Ismayilova who was jailed for seven years and released after huge international pressure, basically is opening eyes in Europe. And people are more sceptical at least about Azerbaijan and the first family of Azerbaijan. I think what we ought to do, very often in countries like Azerbaijan and Central Asia, average people in our country don’t know how bad these countries are. What they see is the postcard perfect images of, you know, huge glass buildings, richness and wealth, but they don’t see the real life of Azeri people. And I think that we as journalists, we need to speak about it and show the true picture. I think there are actual consequences. We did a story about the gold mine that was owned by the first family. It turned out the family could sell their gold because it became publicly known that they were behind the gold mines. So they were forced to pass on that business. I think that shows that there are consequences. And I think the more reporting we do, the more of an effect it’ll have.

If we speak about Central Asia, because they are not really trying to reach the West, they are not so well-known. There is not that much international interest. Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries globally. Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan. They are really different things there. But what really are the stories to follow? Kyrgyzstan is semi-democratic. In Tajikistan, things are getting worse, what do we know about the family; the son, who might become the president in a couple of years, is currently the mayor of the capital. We also have the story of Uzbekistan, where we had Karimov as the dictator of the region, who passed away last year. That might be confusing for a lot of people. I think that it is important that these stories are becoming prominent. Would you let us know some of the stories to follow in this region?

Miranda Patrucic: Well, I think Central Asia is where we can have an effect. We have done a lot of stories in the past couple of years basically proving Western countries paying massive bribes in order to enter the market in Uzbekistan, enter the market in Tajikistan. Because these are big markets with a lot of money to be made, every Western company, basically, put their fingers on it and they want to make money. And I think the good thing about our part of the world is that there is the rule of law. And if our company goes and bribes some official in Tajikistan, in Uzbekistan, the authorities here will react. They might fine the company or there might even be persecution.

In the case of Gulnara Karimova [the daughter of the former president–ed.], she is now under house-arrest. People who worked with her, who were laundering money for all are all jailed in Uzbekistan. The US authorities are looking to recover more than a billion dollars. TeliaSonera will be fined probably about 800 million dollars, over a billion dollars for bribing the regime. Vimpelcom has already been fined hundreds of millions of dollars. I think there are consequences and I think that what we can do is, somebody in Uzbekistan doesn’t care about keeping money in Uzbekistan. You know, they are not stealing to own massive palaces there. What they are stealing for is in order to have palaces in France, in the UK, in Hong Kong. And these are also places where they’d keep their money. As long as we watch out for this, report about corruption, report about the bribe. There is a chance that the money will be recovered for the people.

Can you give me more details on developments in Tajikistan? Because this is probably the least covered country. It is the poorest. There are some speculations. You know, Kyrgyzstan, journalists still can travel there. Uzbekistan is also very rich in term of resources. Kazakhstan is trying to get foreign investment with their gas companies. But Tajikistan, which for a long time has really been ignored because it is poor, it doesn’t have much oil reserve. But we really notice now, when there is more and more journalists kicked out and there is some type of war situation.

Miranda Patrucic: Well, Tajikistan. The president has many daughter [nine] and those daughters have husbands. The president is very sensitive about his daughters, but even more about the son-in-laws who are basically running the business. One son-in-law will own literally his own empire. And his empire would control a huge percentage of the economy, and it’ll range from the mines to even issuing car licence plates in the country. So basically you have one family that is trying to control the whole country.

Being Ukrainian, we know how difficult it is sometimes to raise international attention when it is needed. Because it is not just about them, but the fact that the money is launder elsewhere, but you expect the Western standard. If you speak about values, and the rule of law. And then you really see Central Asia, where we don’t even pay enough attention to what is happening.

Miranda Patrucic: As a journalist, it is a fascinating region for me. In my part of the world, if somebody steals a million, you think it is a big deal. In that part of the world, people are stealing billions. And they do it so bluntly, not even trying to hide. They act as if there is nobody that’ll ever do anything to them.

I do think it is also an interesting thing that the area is still a sphere of influence for Russia. So Western companies are trying to come, but the region is not under the scrutiny of foreign reporters as some regions where there is a long history of Western companies working.

Miranda Patrucic: That is true. Foreign reporters are mainly not allowed in. And if you are allowed in the country, you will be followed. I think we do more damage than good by basically, for example, working with the local reporters who get harassed, lose [their] jobs, are suffering in other ways. I think those are the countries where secret services are conducting massive surveillance, monitoring all the communications. Your hotel might be bugged, you might have a camera in your hotel. As a Western reporter, you must be extremely careful with what you do and how you act.

Read more: Azerbaijan Is Accused of Building a Monarchy

/Interview by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/Written by Chen Ou Yang