Azeri Defence Spending Under Fire

Big increase in defence expenditure allegedly failed to lift soldiers out of poverty.

For the past nine years, Azerbaijan army captain Elchin Safarov has served with the Baku military garrison. He has long dreamed of having a house of his own, but his salary is only enough to rent a flat in a small village north of Baku for himself, his wife and children.

Safarov gets some state family benefits on top of his army pay, as sole breadwinner, he has been unable to get a mortgage to buy a house. When Azerbaijan celebrates Armed Forces Day on July 26 every year, the whole family waits for news that army salaries have gone up.

Azerbaijan’s state budget for 2007, currently under discussion in parliament, envisages defence spending of 1.3 billion US dollars, an increase of 30 per cent on last year. President Ilham Aliev has said he wants to see his country’s defence budget grow to exceed the entire government budget of neighbouring Armenia, with which relations have been coldly hostile since the Karabakh war of the early Nineties.

Parliamentary deputy Siyavush Novruzov, who sits on the assembly’s defence and security commission, told IWPR that some of the new money would be go to support the army, some for the security forces, and the rest on defence research.

Novruzov said living conditions for army personnel were improving thanks to greater spending. “The increase in military funding has had an effect on both the food and the clothing of soldiers,” he said.

Yashar Jafarli, who chairs the Reserve and Retired Officers organisation, told IWPR that salaries doubled in the military last year.

However, there is concern that the influx of money has not had a noticeable effect on the welfare of officers and the other ranks, because rising prices have cancelled out increased pay levels.

Captain Safarov confirmed that there was no shortage of food or uniforms in his unit, and said the canteen fed the men better than it did five years ago. But he said officers were still inadequately provided for.

Eighty to ninety per cent of officers have no homes of their own and are obliged to live in rented premises.

Officers receive a benefit payment of 22.60 manats (just over 26 dollars) a month on top of their salaries, but the sum is only enough to buy a sack of flour. This benefit has remained unchanged since 1992. The government is promising to raise the sum to 80 manats in the 2008 budget, and to review it every year to keep pace with inflation.

Jafarli said that most new defence spending over the last two years had gone on weaponry and equipment, with large sums also spent on infrastructure.

“In recent years, many barracks and headquarters have been built and military colleges and medical facilities have been repaired,” said Jafarli. “A new building at the [military] central hospital has come into use. There’s no lack of uniforms for the military, though we still have unresolved problems with full-dress uniforms.”

In 2006, Azerbaijan bought five MiG-29 fighters from Ukraine. In its annual report to the United Nations Weapons Register, Kiev says it also sold around 60 military vehicles and 22,000 small arms to Azerbaijan last year. Azerbaijan is currently negotiating with Pakistan for the purchase of 24 Chinese-made JF-17 Thunder combat planes, worth between 16 and 18 million dollars each.

Some experts say that the defence money is being misspent, and complain that the budget is not open to scrutiny.

Alekper Mamedov, who heads Azerbaijan’s Centre for Democratic Civil Control of the Armed Forces, said fundamental problems in the army are not being resolved, and increases in salaries and benefit payments have little effect when the cost of living is going up so fast.

He said funds that should have gone on the wages of junior officers had been spent on repairing buildings.

“The changes in the army are cosmetic in nature.” said Mamedov. “Compared with previous years, military units in rear positions are somewhat better provided with food and clothing, but those that are stationed in outlying areas are still in lamentable condition.”

Mamedov said cases of food poisoning were frequent. “The public is well aware that the army receives poor-quality food,” he said. “And this is a result of defence spending not being transparent.”

The Reserve and Retired Officers group has produced which says that officers had found it impossible to get the financial compensation they were entitled to claim in lieu of food and leave allowances, while those serving on the front line close to Karabakh were not getting the extra pay they are due on time.

Major Ilgar Verdiev of the defence ministry’s press service said the defence budget could not be scrutinised in detail because Azerbaijan was still “at war” with Armenia.

He insisted there were no problems with nutritional and clothing supplies, and the food supply system was getting better every year.

Major Verdiev said the government was doing its best to solve outstanding problems. Two apartment blocks containing a total of 165 flats in Baku would soon be handed over to military families and blocks of flats were also being built in the towns of Shemkir, Ganja and Geitep, he said.

Captain Safarov does not expect to receive a flat in the near future. The army is still full of officers who cannot afford to own property, he said. In January, he will make another attempt to get a mortgage from the bank.

Rashad Suleimanov is head of Manoeuvre, a military think-tank, and a correspondent with the APA news agency in Baku.


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