If you’ve never heard of Azerbaijan outside the Eurovision Song Contest or international football, it’s a small country of ten million people by the Caspian Sea, bordering Russia and Iran, it is a well-developed nation with an oil-rich economy with high rates of employment literacy and living standards.
It is also ruled over by the son of a Soviet-era strongman with a small number of elites to back him up and is, as various news outlets have reported recently, incredibly corrupt.
A recent expose revealed that the government of Azerbaijan funneled nearly $3 billion dollars into four British companies to launder money for Azerbaijani elites, obtain luxuries in exchange for influence aboard and even bribe European politicians, a revelation that has rocked many political establishments in the West. The most disturbing point is the fact that Russia’s government also followed the same scheme which raises fears that, once again, Vladimir Putin is interfering with Western democracies and undermining faith in political systems that have stood for centuries.
A closer look at Azerbaijan reveals a less-than-rosy picture including journalists being locked up and independent media outlets have been forced to shut down. Elections are seen as a sham with the elites denying their own people basic rights like quality health care while those same elites travel aboard to better health care.
The recent corruption scandal has provoked outrage in Britain where, four years ago, former British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to investigate the role of tax havens and lift the veil from tax secrecy. This pledge followed the explosive leak of the Panama Papers and yet, little has been done to sort the problem. The fact that British companies and Scottish legal entities were involved has been deeply embarrassing for the new government which has already backtracked on its promise to stem corporate greed and failed to support low-paid workers.
Corruption is a disease that changes people for the worse and exposes fatal flaws in financial, legal and even political systems. The biggest that might come to mind is the tragic tale of Enron. Once the fourth-largest company in America, its hasty demise, and tales of corruption and greed destroyed thousands of lives. The story is the same: the CEOs got away with the money while the loyal workers suffered, their pensions frozen and then lost forever. The checks and balances from the lawyers, the banks and the auditors that should have stopped it made the whole problem much worse.
Money truly is the root of all evil because once it is involved in any situation, it changes everything.
Whether they meant to or not, the Azerbaijani money laundering and bribery scheme might deepen the mistrust for democratic systems. It’s unlikely to affect Azerbaijan directly; its people are well aware of the corruption at the top. But, at a time when trust in democracy is slipping away and strong men are on the rise, stories such as this one are not welcome to those who value democracy. Democracy has many flaws but its biggest weakness is that it is inherently fragile, hence Benjamin Franklin’s warning that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
There will be much soul-searching in Europe over the possibility that this scheme might just be the tip of the iceberg or that similar schemes are in place from Russia. Britain will be more distressed than most since Azerbaijani elites laundering dirty money through British companies raises a disturbing question: Will this be a new role for Britain once it leaves the EU? Without EU oversight or regulations as checks against corruption, is Britain simply going to turn into a nation-wide tax haven?
For me, Azerbaijan is an interesting view of what America could become one day: a land of inequality where billionaire elites hold all the levers of power and lobbying efforts backed by cold, hard cash become the norm. It is a land where independent thought is discouraged, where honest journalism is derided as lies while falsehoods and hate-filled rhetoric are lauded.
Perhaps it already has.