Azerbaijani Adventures on eBay; or, the Equality of Corruption
It really is as bizarre as it sounds. Who would think I’d be navigating purchasing policies on eBay for some of my local Azeri colleagues? Well, that’s the situation.
A few weeks ago, one of the guys I work with at the bank called me over to ask if I could help him out. I was surprised and slightly amused to see that he was on an eBay page (To protect his embarrassment, I’ll keep him anonymous). This guy happens to drive a Subaru Forester, of which I have no idea how he obtained. That’s a few steps above the lovely Lada. Since there are probably two Subaru vehicles in this country, there aren’t many options for spare parts or maintenance. Our friend found that eBay could help him out in his search for parts such as a moonroof and floor mats and more. He had managed to find the parts he wanted, and also managed to click the Buy It Now button to purchase a few of these items. This is already farther than I would expect a lot of Azeris to get; this is working within a system that I bet 99% of Azeris cannot conceive of.
At this point, the two questions became: 1) How do I initiate payment? and 2) How do we figure out shipping? The first question was answered fairly easily. Our friend has a credit card and now a PayPal account! The second question was tougher. It was difficult to figure that out on the eBay site. Instead, we elected to call America. We called Dave at ‘quirkparts’ auto parts in Massachusetts. Dave provided a fantastic customer service experience (the kind I’ve been missing since I’ve arrived here) and we figured out that a Subaru Forester Moonroof can be shipped from Massachusetts to Lənkəran for about $40. Not bad.
Fast forward about two weeks. Our eBay-savvy friend calls me over and tells me that he’s been having some problems with his account. I look at the screen to see that his account has been suspended. What happened?! It turns out that our friend didn’t exercise much control over his clicking finger and had a bunch of repeat clicks on the moon roof and floor mats and a few other items. He couldn’t figure out how to get them to go away, and he didn’t want to pay for them, so he just ignored them. They turned into the feared Unpaid Item on eBay, something eBay users will be familiar with. If you build up a stash of unpaid items, eBay is going to notice and shut you down.
This is where the clash of worlds occurs.
eBay has rules. If you click to buy an item, you are essentially signing a contract saying you will buy the item. Not paying for the item, then, is a breach of that contract. For Americans, who grow up in a system where things like ‘contracts’ are honored and the words written therein mean something, this makes sense. For Azerbaijanis, where things like contracts are rare and the enforcement of anything depends much more on the pressure of having to save face in front of your neighbors and relatives, this sort of thing is a heretofore unencountered mystery. Our friend was understandably confused by this state of affairs. He thought there should just be a way we could remove the items from the unpaid items list and he could move on, clicking away at the Buy It Now button.
This was not so. Instead, I explained to him the appeals process, how you can’t just click willy-nilly on purchase buttons, and that he might be held back for a little bit on his eBay surfing. I helped him write the short appeals on the unpaid items. One of the best parts of this brief process was his pacing around the small office and then saying to me, “Couldn’t we just pay them 10 or 20 dollars and they can just remove it from the list and I will not be suspended anymore?” Great idea. Except that this moment brings into sharp relief a feature of Azerbaijan that doesn’t exist in America. We’ve talked about corruption here before. The reality that presented itself was that corruption in Azerbaijan is much more equal-opportunity than corruption in America. In the USA, you’ve got to have a pretty serious amount of cash to be able to really play the corruption game. In Azerbaijan, however, 5, 10 or 20 AZN will buy you a stack of chips to play with. Corruption is available at all levels of society.
I checked back with the situation this week, to see how the appeals process went. Our friend informed me that they didn’t do anything about his suspension. (My guess is that he probably could do something, but he won’t read the emails he’s got back from the eBay team.) Instead, he has decided to just create a new eBay account and continue the spending spree unhindered by Unpaid Items lists.