The Azerbaijani parliament asked to be dissolved on the initiative of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) – for the first time of our country’s history. Consequently, the Azerbaijan’s Constitutional Court ruled in favour of the dissolution and the Azerbaijani president, Ilham Aliyev signed a decree to hold snap elections on 9 February in accordance with the Article 98 of our constitution.
Although this came as a surprise for many, others see this development as the parliament’s response to the reform agenda led by President Aliyev. In fact, early elections could be regarded as a positive step for our country’s democratic evolution, having great potential to accelerate the pace of reforms whilst modernising our legislative organ.
After playing a significant role in the oil map of Europe for more than a decade, Azerbaijan opens a new chapter in EU gas consumption. We successfully completed the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) this month, which will transfer Azerbaijani gas to Europe. However, the need for reform is obvious. Our economy can no longer rely on our vast energy resources and, like our European partners, we have to put a greater focus on economic diversification and green transition.
In order to achieve this transformation, our institutions will have to change and better adapt themselves to the basic needs of our population, such as clean air, clean water and clean energy. This will only be possible with a new political mind-set and with a greater role for younger generations as opposed to the septuagenarians and octogenarians who have dominated our political system so far.
With the finalisation of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, we are now an integral part of the main logistics and transport projects between China and Europe. In this new era, where the Caucasus and Central Asia regions are marked by socio-economic and political dynamism, Soviet-type bureaucracies and deep-rooted power structures can no longer be sustained. This was acknowledged by President Aliyev following his re-election in 2018, who has increasingly concentrated his efforts on reforming state structures and policies - a divergence from his earlier years in office, where he mainly focused on major geopolitical challenges as well as maintaining economic growth.
In order to increase the transparency and accountability of our political system, creating a favourable business environment and to ensure the sustainable development of our country, the promotion of a younger generation to ministerial and administrative positions has been made a priority from 2018 onwards. Hence, a new generation of young politicians, being alumni of prestigious universities - such as Harvard, Oxford and the Sorbonne - and having no ties to old Soviet Union structures, began climbing up the echelons of power.
Stating that politicians who blackmail or denigrate others cast a shadow over the reform process, President Aliyev appointed Ali Asadov, a visionary, reformist and experienced economist, as the new prime minister during a major government shuffle last October. Several government and presidential staff have been also replaced, including the appointment of the former Vice-President’s aid Anar Alakbarov – renowned for his professional managerial skills, green views and wisdom – and former SOFAZ executive and Harvard alumnus, Shahmar Movsumov as assistants to president. Meantime, the 44-year-old Duke University alumnus, Samir Nuriyev was nominated as Chief of the Presidential Administration.
Serious efforts have been made during the past few years to combat corruption in the Ministry of Taxes, Ministry of Transportation and the State Customs Committee, which resulted in the dismissal of ministers who were involved in various scandals, alluding to systemic and unfair competition.
The reform process is also strongly supported by the First Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva, who has been coordinating reform policy, for example, in the economic, social and judicial sphere since 2017. In this framework, the customs system was rendered more modern and transparent through digitalisation, where the intervention of the Customs Committee for duty collection is no longer needed. These changes were aimed at levelling the playing field for import-export companies while breaking up entrenched monopolies.
Similarly, successful reforms have been achieved in the field of taxation, especially when it comes to increasing transparency, decreasing the size of the informal economy, improving tax administration and granting tax benefits (i.e. tax exemptions for employees in the non-oil sector). A graduate of the McGeorge School of Law, the Tax Minister, Mikayil Cabbarov has been promoted to the position of Economy Minister. He will be also responsible for taxation and the privatisation of state enterprises. Moreover, industrial parks in Sumgayit and the Free Trade Zone in Alat were created, giving tax incentives to foreign investors. For example, foreign companies based in Alat can benefit from an exemption of all taxes and customs duties while operating under common law.
Our e-government model ASAN received praise from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN), in addition to the UN Public Service Award for the best public service delivery worldwide. Our innovative one-stop shops serve as an example for other countries.
These achievements have been recently recognised by the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, where Azerbaijan ranked 34th among 190 countries and appeared in the top 20 reformers in the areas of registering property, obtaining credit, protecting minority investors and enforcing contracts. These economic reforms are being accompanied by judicial reforms focusing on tackling corruption in the legal system while increasing the transparency and consistency of judicial proceedings. Overall, they are expected to accelerate the privatisation of state enterprises while attracting increasing foreign investments in the upcoming years.
Strategically situated between Europe and Asia, our country is willing to keep up with the spirit of the times. Both the ruling party and main opposition parties announced their readiness for the elections, which will involve the pro-European opposition party ReAL, the opposition Musavat, Umid, Party for Democratic Reforms, the Great Order Party, Whole Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the Motherland Party and others. Several independent candidates, including media and civil society representatives, as well as social media activists, such as Bakhtiyar Hajiyev, showed enthusiasm to represent themselves in the elections. For the first time in our democratic history, a new environmental movement sharing the values of the Global Greens – the Azerbaijan Green Movement – is aiming to take part in election rallies. This renewed dynamism will be surely reflected in the upcoming election process, which will likely launch a new democratic era in Azerbaijan, giving the voters a further possibility to advance the reform process.
Dr. Ceyhun Osmanli is a former Member of Parliament, Researcher and Analyst on International Relations and Political Economy, and Co-Founder of the Azerbaijan Green Movement.
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