Emil Sanamyan's articles on Armenian-Americans, Armenia and its neighborhood.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Azerbaijani military: More money, more problems?


A look at the Azerbaijani military: More money, more problems?
By Emil Sanamyan

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a second article on this subject. The first column appeared in the Reporter’s February 14, 2007 issue and focused on the relationship between Azerbaijan’s growing oil production and military spending.

WASHINGTON, DC – Azerbaijan’s military spending grew from $146 million in 2004 to an estimated $1 billion in 2007. Most of this money has officially gone towards raises in officers’ salaries and improving soldiers’ conditions of service. (A future column will discuss Azerbaijan’s weapons acquisition.)

The purpose of spending over $2 billion in four years – other than Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s oft-stated desire to overtake Armenia’s total state spending – must be to improve the discipline, sense of purpose and fighting efficiency of the armed forces. Azerbaijani officials and sympathetic observers boast that such improvements have taken place.

President Aliyev and his lieutenants have for years claimed that the Azerbaijani armed forces are superior to the Armenian military. In an effort to illustrate this point, the Azeri government helicoptered a group of Westerners to the Azeri side of the Line of Contact (LoC) in 2005.

Glen Howard of the DC-based Jamestown Foundation came back impressed that the Azeri officers he spoke with were educated “in the West, speak English, and are very bright.” Speaking last October at Johns Hopkins University, Howard endorsed the Azeri official view that the widely held perception of Armenian military supremacy was a “myth.”

Like Howard, military journalist Scott Taylor of the Canadian Esprit d’Corps magazine never visited the Armenian side of the LoC. But he has been on the Azeri side twice – in July 2006 and again last month. He writes that both the Baku-based Western military attaches and former Azeri soldiers are critical of the Azeri army’s readiness.

In one example, a 22-year-old who just completed his tour of duty told Taylor that he had a “lack of respect for the [Azeri] government and lack of confidence in [Azeri] officers…. We had only 40 days of basic training and then we manned the front lines for 18 months." (Armenian conscripts are deployed to the LoC after six months of training.)

These flaws in training, as well as reports of widespread corruption, may explain in part why the Azeri press is inundated with negative coverage of developments in the military.

Collusion with the enemy

Young Azeris born in the 1980s, raised in the 1990s, and now being drafted into the military have experienced nauseating amounts of state propaganda about the “Armenian enemy.”

Unlike older generations, hardly any of these young men have ever met an Armenian, or even seen an Armenian on television. The Azeri government regularly censors out “Armenian themes” from TV programs broadcast by foreign channels into Azerbaijan. Russian and even Turkish performers with suspected Armenian roots are barred from the country.

So it takes a special kind of desperation for young Azerbaijanis in uniform to seek relief from the Armenians. Even so, five Azeri servicemen risked minefields and sentries to cross the Line of Contact in 2005 – and all were imprisoned on “treason” charges upon their repatriation to Azerbaijan.

Nevertheless, three more Azerbaijani servicemen crossed over in December 2006. Two of these have since been repatriated and are now facing “treason” charges. The third is refusing repatriation and is reportedly seeking asylum.

According to findings published in the Baku newspaper Zerkalo, the Azeri government reported or otherwise failed to cover up 35 peace-time deaths in 2004, 39 in 2005, and 48 in 2006 – the vast majority of these due to fratricide, suicide, or “accidents.”

In the first three weeks of 2007 there were eight additional fatalities. Many more young Azerbaijanis are avoiding military service or paying bribes to be placed in what are known as “elite” units in the capital, Baku.

Elite unit corruption

One such “elite” unit is the 112th Security Brigade of the Azeri Defense Ministry, based in Baku and used to guard government buildings and other installations. Servicemen from this brigade have also served in U.S.-led peacekeeping operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Many of the officers have received at least some training in Western military colleges.

But this unit too has been gripped by scandals. According to the Turan news agency, the Brigade first came under investigation over the case of one of its non-commissioned officers (NCOs) who served with the 150-person peacekeeping unit deployed as interior guards inside a perimeter secured by U.S. Marines at a hydro-electric plant in Iraq. After this NCO converted to Christianity, he was “recalled to Azerbaijan, accused of treason and fired from the army.”

Last September, one of the Brigade’s senior officers, a lieutenant colonel, talked to investigators looking into the NCO’s case, providing them with charges of widespread corruption. The officer was quickly demoted and shoved into a much less “elite” unit in one of the provinces.

Last month, this officer went to press. Apparently, Azeri commanders embezzle salaries of their soldiers serving in Iraq. These salaries are underwritten by U.S. taxpayers to encourage as many countries as possible into the U.S.-led “Coalition of the Willing.”

According to this and other Brigade officers, the Azeri “peacekeepers,” some of whom bribed their way to serve in Iraq, presumably to earn higher salaries, are engaged in looting of the Iraqis and even stealing from U.S. servicemen.

This is just one of the dozens of allegations made by senior officers, which have become public in the last two to three years alone – presumably the period of significant increases in these officers’ salaries.

Leadership problem?

Much of the Azeri media commentary targets Defense Minister General Safar Abiyev as being at the root of problems in the Azeri military. Abiyev has been in his position for 12 years – longer than any defense chief in the region, and possibly the world. While for years there have been rumors that Abiyev’s dismissal is imminent, he has remained in the post, most likely because of his total loyalty to the ruling Aliyev family, and possibly because there are few alternatives.

In these 12 years, the Azeri military has gone through a series of purges, wherein thousands of senior military and security officials have been accused of disloyalty and imprisoned since the 1990s. The latest purge has been underway since 2003.

Virtually none of the officers bearing military credentials earned during the Karabakh war have remained in the military or other security agencies.

Amid the current disarray, the Zerkalo newspaper claimed recently that the Azeri government would be inviting a senior Turkish military officer to straighten out the military. But Turkish generals have tried to fix the Azeri military since 1992, with little to show so far.

(To be continued in future issues…)

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