Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev greets medical workers. (photo:

Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev greets medical workers. (photo:

Okategoriserade How the pandemic has helped officials to control, manipulate and enrich in Azerbaijan

The period of pandemic demonstrated the main problem which affected dynamic of statistics and overall situation in the country – a lack of trust of citizens in the state institutions, adding to their already undermined fabric by many years of exclusive policies of the self-interest driven elite. The pandemic situation could have served as an excuse for solidarity and mobilization of the society vis-a-vis common threat. Instead it was used by the government to strengthen its power.

Published on on June 17, 2020

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The pandemic in Azerbaijan appears to test the effectiveness and strength of the state institutions, as it illuminates the nature of the exclusive type of patronage in the oil rich state. It also confirms the ambiguous power of a quarantine which tests the depth and resilience of democratic institutions and shows particularly how the pandemic is profoundly utilized by the autocrats in their exercise of control. The extremely limited space of communication merely reduced to the Internet and social networks during the lockdown made this task easier for the autocrats. Through manipulation of the citizens, during the lockdown also in stress by unemployment, social uncertainty and isolation, the control of the regime was tightened. In the end, it is the people’s trust in the state institutions which define the behavior of the citizens as well as the outcome of the pandemic, more than the state measures to confront the pandemic.

Dealing with coronavirus

Official statistics on COVID-19  initially did not differ drastically from the neighboring countries. For instance, in Georgia the peak of number of infected was April 16, with 42 cases of infected and 5 recovered. In Azerbaijan the peak was earlier, April 8, with 104 cases and 19 recovered. The peak of infected in Armenia was April 30; 134 infected and 29 recovered.1 The president in Azerbaijan reported timely measures adopted to meet the country’s needs in connection with pandemic — including new hospital beds, domestic production of masks and other equipment. In his speech March 3, on the occasion of the opening of 130 extra bed places in the hospital in the region Goranboy covering 4 hectares territory (the construction of the hospital started 2 years ago), he addressed the health ministry of the country and urged him to prepare for coming needs of medical care during pandemics, such as building  70 new medical institutions ( hospitals, clinics, centers) in the coming 16 years in the regions of the country.2 It was argued that the number of newly built and repaired medical institutions in the country are 700, including the region of Baku. On February 27 the Operative Headquarters at the cabinet of Ministers were created  in order  “to prevent a possible threat of coronavirus infection on the territory of Azerbaijan, to implement in an operative manner prophylactic and  urgent measures  with this purpose”, along with opening of a few telephone numbers as a hotline for the citizens. 3 The other measures  taken in in early March included closing the schools and the educational institutions and also the closing of the borders for trucks entering the country from Iran. Starting from the mid -March the president has adopted a few decrees targeting the pandemics.  On March 23 the Operative Headquarters declared introduction of the regime of quarantine from March 24 to April 20 (extended later to May 4). 4 But the situation started to change  when the government eased the quarantine on May 4. Lifting of some restrictions of the lockdown was followed by surge of the statistics of infected both as compared with the previous data and even with the dynamic in some neighboring countries. 5 Within a month the number of infected rose exponentially after the opening up of the quarantine. By the June 5 the number of infected reached 338 and recovered only – 134. In fact, easing the quarantine from May 4 was already questioned by local experts, as the statistics showed unstable dynamic in correlation between the number of infected and recovered. In the eve of exit from lockdown – on the first of May number of infected was 50 and recovered 40. This hinted that the economic pressure was taken over considerations of health security and rather were motivating the exit from lockdown. In response to the increase of cases, the government declared a strict quarantine for the weekend on June 6-7 with the working day June 5 – finishing by 14.00.6 The citizens were prohibited to leave their houses, even if only for throwing the garbage or walking the dogs. The strict lockdown caused panic. 7 Friday June 5 one could witness crowded bakeries, where people were fighting for a loaf of bread. This strict lockdown was a hard test for the citizens in the summer heat, a real challenge to the health system’s  communication services, and it affected vulnerable people, such as those in need of dialysis.

Pandemic as an excuse for control…

The quarantine types have as we now differed across the world. The severity of it (limitations on freedoms and punishments for violation of the regulations) also give a hint on the readiness of the leaders to impose control on the society and the limits of the citizens to accept.  It is not surprising then, that in countries like Russia and Azerbaijan, it was only respective authorities that could grant people to leave home by a sms. The severity of punishment for violation of these rules ranged from rather high fines (compared to the average salaries) to detention. Contrary to the considerations of  safety  recommendations of experts and NGO-activists the country’s prisons never stopped to be filled by the politically persecuted. The official number of the infected by coronavirus in prisons was 46 by Mid-May. 8 While the government  has issued the amnesty decree  on April  6 for those who are over 65 age old, “based on their request letters to the President , health condition, their behavior while in detention, and principles of humanism” (176 prisoners),  many of the key political prisoners were not among the released. 9 Moreover, new wave of arrests started after the official speeches of the president in which he referred to the opposition as traitors and called on the 5th column. 10 Tofig Yagublu was arrested during pandemic as well as human rights defender Elchin Mammadov. This next group of people arrested and detained was called by community “ the coronavirus prisoners”  for allegedly violating rules of a quarantine and included mainly  Popular Front Party activists. By the end of May the authorities put behind bars 15 members of Popular Front party, including people close to Ali Karimli- his driver, bodyguards and an assistant, particularly mercilessly treating Niyameddin Ahmedov and after serving the administrative term of 30 days  charging him with  financing terrorism.  The other way of silencing government critics reminded of the “old Soviet style” — Adil Humbatov was put in psychiatric clinic for his demand of state aid and criticism of the authorities in the  social networks. The “communication blockade” was imposed on the PFP leaders Ali Karimli , as he was cut off his mobile and internet service for more than fifty days, by the time of writing of this article.

The “ coronavirus” repressions and violence reached its’ peak during the strict quarantine on the weekend June 5-7.  As a protest and in solidarity with the brutally detained local dwellers, who went out to get fresh air in front of their house, the neighbors threw garbage from their windows  on the police car, which appeared to be  300 thousand  manat worth Jeep. The revenge took place the next early morning as a special police force detachment, who broke in people’s flats, in the brutal and humiliating way, taking them out of beds bare foot and half-naked to the police cars. All this happened before the eyes of the children and old people of the families, who were also mistreated by police. Khadija Ismayil, an investigative journalist, former political prisoner, who still lives under a travel ban, comments:” We have a failed state, police using their power for vendetta against citizens and no civic mechanisms to defend people from the state terror”. 11

Condition for manipulation….

The already limited space for debate in the country is during the pandemic limited to internet for majority of population. The internet is now the only source for information and it is only on virtual platforms exchange of ideas can be made. This has led to that the number of internet- and FB-users have increased exponentially. Forbes reported as early as the end of March 2020 up to 70 %  increase of internet hits worldwide. 12 In Azerbaijan during the April-May lockdown the volume of internet traffic increased 2 times, while during the strict quarantine  weekend in June 6-7 it increased 3 times. 13  In addition, the lockdown created highly tense psychological conditions, aggravated by loss of jobs and absence of usually  frequent and close interactions, typical occurring in the local culture of Azerbaijan. Those were the circumstances during the lockdown, with millions of the population focusing on the Internet, when  internal zoom meetings between the political parties were – as it appeared –recorded and also leaked to the social networks. While the identity of the culprit was debated – whether this was an internal leak or from a leak in the government – the outcome obviously benefitted the authorities. The meeting of the board of the opposition’s association National Council was not available on the internet all at once, but in parts, thus focusing “new topic” each time and as a consequence distracting community from problems linked to the government’s regime; such as problems ranging from corruption to miserable amount of state coronavirus aid and ineffective distribution of the aid. And it appeared to work. Frustrated by the problems caused by isolation, loss of jobs and income and continued persecution social networks users easily exaggerated perceived divisions into a hostility, blaming and discrediting of each other, thus getting distracted from the government and its dealing with the mounting problems. The population appeared to be more easily manipulated as an effect of the lockdown and this made it easier to spread those clichés, memes, and propaganda  aimed to direct people’s away from the grievances caused by the current poor governance to instead focus on the 27 years ago short-lived Popular Front Government,  and discrediting the current Popular Front Party and its’ leader Ali Karimli, whom has been active during the period of pandemic. The possible frictions in society were taken on and developed to sharpen any polarization – between the younger and older generation of opposition, between those who had a “dialogue” with the government  and those abstained from having it and so forth; all resulting in a sense of a hostile atmosphere between supposed allies in the struggle with the non-democratic regime. The strategy gave the impression of a fragmentized and unstable opposition. Criticism towards each other do exist and is not groundless to speak about weak alliances, the differences do have old roots, but the highly charged tone of the debates and “timely” appearance of “ discrediting” comments of conspirative nature by, as a rule, anonymous FB-users, point to the obvious benefactor of an infighting in the opposition camp. This not only disturb the unification of the opposition and the democratic forces but also increase the social dissatisfaction among the people, and shift their focus away from issues that the current regime feel uncomfortable such as the ownership of still functioning businesses, manipulation with statistics, malfunctioning health system, problems with the state aid, etc. The most recent incident meant to deepen frictions within the opposition camp was the leak on internet from the internal zoom meeting of the board of Popular Front Party , where the soundtrack was altered to incite conflict between the major opposition parties. The rising tension was stopped by the statement of the deputy chair of the party Seymur Hezi who denied authenticity of the video soundtrack. 14

Opportunity for enrichment

The coronavirus pandemic in Azerbaijan coincided with the fall of the oil price. This coincidence of two powerful factors, having created an effect of  a “perfect storm” formed double pressure on the economy,  so strongly dependent on natural resources. In 2019 oil and gas accounted for 75% of state revenues, and 35% of the GDP. 15 The budget 2020 was based on the oil price55 $ per barrel, however, in April 2020 year the price of Azeri Light dropped to 15.81 $. per barrel. 16  While closure of borders and quarantine due to pandemic hit first of all non-oil sector of economy- agriculture, tourism and services, leading to unemployment and reduction of export, the significant  fall of the oil price affecting all sides of economy, urging search for the sources to compensate damage to the budget. The international financial instiutions  and consulting firms have decreased  their initial growth predictions for the country for 2020. The Asian Development Bank  decreased its growth forecast to 0,5%  from the previous prediction of 2,4%. 17 IMF predicted Azerbaijan’s  economy negative growth 2,2% for 2020. 18 Rather contrary to expectations, that the state will render aid to the business and citizens, on 19 March the president decreed creation of a Fund for Support of Fight with Coronavirus, which collected donations from the very business and citizens reaching 110 million manats (65 million dollars). 19 The long list (near  670) of donors included not only enterprises of the oligarch officials, but SMEs, cultural and academic  institutions, such as State Opera and Ballet Theater or National Academy of Sciences, which are themselves financed from the budget. 20 The state aid revealed absence of reliable statistics of the labor force and economic and social indicators, mainly because of the large share of the “ grey economy”.  The other source of  finances were fines imposed for violation of the quarantine rules. Based on the decree of March 17, 2020, the individuals violating regime will be fined for 100-200 manats, (officials – from 1.500-5.000 manat) or an administrative arrest for a month. 21 Also, according to the amendments to the Criminal Code  based on to the same decree people who violated regime of quarantine and infected the others will be fined from 2.500 – 5.000 manat or will be imprisoned for  2 years, and if it results in death of the infected person; for 3-5 years. The independent experts introduced the sum of fines during the quarantine period, which  by early April was 1 million 867 thousand 800 manat. 22 On one occasion president Aliyev announced 3,5 billion worth aid for the business and population. 23 However, different number resulted from the Ministry of Finance  reports, totaling just 550 million manats. 24 Overall, compared to some other states even the official number  as a percentage of the GDP was not high – 3% (of 57 billion GDP in 2019)  In addition, the insignificant state compensation to the unemployed applicants the official number of whom grew from planned 200.000 to 600.000 by the end of April, 190 manats (110 dollars) paid twice 25 was limited by so many exceptions of eligibility  that it cut many citizens in need from getting it. The situation was aggravated by the closure of 4 banks in April. 26 President Aliyev at the meeting on the social-economic results of the first quarter 2020 requested bureaucrats to find “new sources of funding”. Against mounting pressure of the social issues resulting from the quarantine, closure of enterprises, banks and markets, the emerging beneficiaries of the situation attracted attention of the investigative journalists. The early sign was the increase of prices on masks and sanitizers in the beginning of the pandemic. By February 25 media already reported disappearence of masks from the majority of pahrmacies in Baku, with notable increase of prices (5 times) of those which were still sold. 27 The list of owners of the pharmacies published in social networks revealed that the pharmaceutical companies and the pharmacies belonged to the president and his family, bureaucrats and MPs. 28 OCCRP in its investigation of Azerbaijan laundromat mentioned the role of AvroMed, the largest pharmaceutical company which belonged to MP Javanshir Fevziyev, close associate of the country’s president. 29  Similarly the list of the owners of the supermarkets which were opened during quarantine included that of the president and his family, as well as people close to them. 30 The economic expert Gubad Ibadoglu explained on his FB-page how the business of the  president’s family benefitted from the closure of 4 banks. The agent-bank for the return of the deposits to the customers of the closed  Atabank and Amrahbank is the Kapital Bank, 99.87% of which belongs to Pasha Holding (the vice-president family). Kapital Bank thus monopolized  financial activities in the country in distributing the aid of 190 manats and  the state employees’  salaries, along with accepting the education fees and the communal payments.31


The period of pandemic  demonstrated the main problem which affected dynamic of statistics and overall situation  in the country  – a lack of trust of citizens in the state institutions, adding to their already undermined fabric by  many years of exclusive policies of the self-interest driven elite. The pandemic situation could have served as an excuse for solidarity and mobilization of the society vis-a-vis common threat. Instead it was used by the government to strengthen its power through repressing its major opponents and intimidation of the population, by manipulating public opinion and by “resolving” effects of pandemic at the expanse of the citizens, resulting in their self-enrichment. The pandemic showed the incapacity of the authoritarian state institutions and governance to adjust and demonstrate  any signs of its primary function of public service, rather it confirmed its being a tool of serving the official elite. The most recent videos of the inadequate force applied  to the dwellers of the high rise in Yasamal, dragging some of them out of bed, followed by beating and tortures of the detained shocked the viewers. The public’s angry reaction which circulated all over social networks  was the best illustration of how the authoritarian rule is destroying itself by violence and humiliation of its citizens under the disguise of “ protecting” them from virus. Under intensified pressure of the state and limited means of protest during the quarantine the most recent case of solidarity with the blogger and ex-political prisoner Mehman Huseynov emerged as another proof of that. As if in response to the state arbitrariness and brutality, the crowdfunding campaign in the internet for his medical treatment, overcoming polarization in the society, raised the required high sum under current conditions of unemployment and poverty in less than two days. The individual but spectacular protest action on the roof of the high rise by the former political prisoner Giyas Ibrahimov has been shared thousands of times, while  leading political parties and organizations produced strong statements condemning the police behavior and the regime’s violation of citizens’ rights and dignity, up to demanding application of international sanctions to the leadership of the country. In the end  the internet and social networks, which the government attempted to use to manipulate public opinion, helped the activists to quickly spread the word of human rights violations mobilizing significant support of the society, which resulted in government ‘s quick backing off – limiting Giyas Ibrahimov’s legal punishment by the relatively insignificant fine.


  1. Coronavirus Statistics
  2. President Aliyev at the Opening of the Central Hospital of the Goranboy Region
  3. Cabinet of Ministers of Azerbaijan Republic official website
  5. Coronavirus Statistics
  6. The information of the Operative Headquarters under the Cabinet of Ministers, June 4, 2020
  7. People are massively buying bread in the eve of lockdown 1staz agency, June 5, 2020
  8. The number of infected in Azerbaijani prisons reported- official by Ilhame Abulfat,, May 15, 2020.
  9. The president Aliyev amnestied some prisoners over 65 years old- there are well known people in the list. Sputnik, April 6, 2020
  10. The congratulations speech by the President Aoiyev to the people on occasion of Novruz Bayram, March 19, 2020
  11. Khadija Ismayil, FB June 9, 2020
  12. COVID-19 pushes up internet use 70% and streaming more than 12%, first figures reveal, by Mark Beech, March 25, 2020
  13. Association of Cable Operators: An increase of the consumed volume of internet traffic is observed in Azerbaijan,, June 13, 2020
  14. Seymur Hezi, FB, June, 11, 2020
  15. Azerbaijan’s GDP seen up 2,4%  in 2020, oil price 55$ per barrel-budget draft Reuters (by Nailia Baghirova, Margarita Atidze, Mathew Lewis)
  16. Azeri Light oil price drops sharply on world markets, AzerTac, April 4, 2020,
  17. ADB cuts 2020 growth forecast for the South Caucasus countries, by Margarita Antidze, Reuters, April 3, 2020
  18. IMF: Azerbaijan’s daily oil production to reach 0,67 million barrels in 2020, Azernews, April 27, 2020
  19. Official Site of the President of Azerbaijan Republic,
  20. The full list of companies and organizations donated to the Coronavirus Fund, amounts, az, March 25, 2020
  21. The violators of the quarantine regime in Azerbaijan will be fined, Trend News Agency, March 16, 2020
  22. Gubad Ibadoglu, FBdigest@VOXpopuli, April 6, 2020
  23. Videoconference of the President Aliyev with the president of EBRD, April 28, 2020:
  24. The calculation was made by an economist Gubad Ibadoglu, May 28, 2020, FBdigest@VoxPopuli:
  25. The meeting of the President Aliyev with the heads of the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection and Ministry of Economy, April 17, 2020.
  26. The banks are getting closed, business is collapsing- there is a need in state aid by Seymur Yunusov, May 4, 2020
  27. The Bakuvians all fully equipped- the masks are all bought, in spite of their little benefits, Sputnik news agency, February 25, 2020
  28. Who are the pharmaceutical monopolists in Azerbaijan? Meydan TV 11, April 2015,
  29. AvroMED May Have Received Millions Through Laundromat by Miranda Patrucic, Madina Mammadova and Ilgar Agha, September 20, 2017,
  30. Habib Muntazir, FB, June 6, 2020:
  31. Gubad Ibadoglu , FB, May 9, 2020, .
  • by Leila Alieva

    Affiliate of REES, Oxford School for Global and Area Studies (OSGA), previously Senior Common Room Member and Academic Visitor at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, with a PhD from Moscow University. Originally from Azerbaijan, she founded and directed two ”think-tanks” in Baku, and held fellowships at Harvard University, UC Berkeley, Kennan Institute (Washington, DC) the NATO Defence College (Rome), IFK (Institut Für Kulturwissenschaften) Vienna. Her research and publications cover Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, Russia, the broader Former Soviet Union; and range thematically from energy security and conflicts, to democracy in the oil rich states, as well as issues around integration into the EU (ENP and EaP) and NATO.

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