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Azerbaijan Boosts Military

Baku increases defence spending, though some question how effectively the money will be spent.
By Adalat Bargarar
Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliev has used National Army Day to announce a big increase in defence spending that he says will transform his country’s military capacity.

The president said the rise in spending was in response to Russia’s recent transfer of military hardware from neighbouring Georgia to Azerbaijan’s arch-rival Armenia. Moscow moved the tanks and other equipment as part of an agreement under which it is to close its two military bases in Georgia by 2008.

“True, this military technology is not being given to Armenia but remains under the control of the Russian base [located in Gyumri, Armenia],” said President Aliev on June 26. “But nevertheless it is being transferred to Armenian territory, and that requires active measures on our part, which we have taken by raising budgetary expenditures on defence.”

Aliev said that while the defence budget was 135 million US dollars in 2003 and 175 million last year, this year it reach 300 million dollars.

The increases have been made possible by a massive injection of revenues to the Azerbaijani budget from the new Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which will start exporting oil later this year.

“In past years, spending has been raised by 70 per cent. We are continuing that policy,” said the president.

The defence ministry says Azerbaijan’s army has 76,000 servicemen.

In recent months, there has been more talk in Azerbaijan of using the military option to resolve the frozen conflict with Armenia over the disputed enclave of Nagorny Karabakh. The two sides signed a ceasefire in 1994, but tensions remain high along the front line.

Azerbaijani defence minister Safar Abiev stated recently that “sufficient force and decisiveness by Azerbaijan will liberate the occupied territories”.

Most observers believe a resumption in hostilities is unlikely, at least for the moment.

Hikmet Hajizade, a political analyst close to the Azerbaijani opposition, says that fighting in Karabakh is “not realistic” right now. But he added that “in the future, if negotiations reach a dead end, then it can’t be ruled out that war will break out”.

“Azerbaijan will by that time have a lot of money, some of which will be directed to increasing military spending and developing the army,” Hajizade told IWPR. “And society will grow tired of the lack of results from the negotiations and demand a solution.”

Ramiz Melikov, the defence ministry's press secretary, says that in view of the continuing negotiations with Armenia, it would be “incorrect” to comment on the possibility of renewed fighting.

Hajizade believes that at the very least, boosting military spending will strengthen Baku’s hand in the ongoing negotiations over Karabakh.

“In principle, such significant growth, and a policy geared towards a further rise in military spending, can influence the peace negotiations,” he said. “This needs to be done, because Azerbaijani society is tired of waiting [for a resolution].

“The armies of Armenia and Russia are facing off against our armed forces. This is a way of levelling the playing field. It is necessary to follow this policy; it is correct.”

Ilgar Verdiev, another defence ministry spokesman, said the extra funds will be used to deepen cooperation with NATO, with which Azerbaijan is already working very closely. “[The money will be spent] on training personnel and improving our military-technical potential,” said Verdiev.

Azerbaijan signed an individual partnership plan with NATO in April 2005, which reqiures Baku to bring its army into compliance with the alliance's standards before future membership can be considered.

Lieutenant-Colonel Uzeir Jafarov, a reserve officer and military analyst, expects the defence ministry will spend the money mostly on improving soldiers’ living conditions, participating in international military exercises and repairing antiquated equipment from the Soviet era.

“I approve of the spending increase for military goals – but this is not enough,” Jafarov told IWPR. “Increased expenditures does not mean that tomorrow we will buy C-300 or C-400 rockets.”

“We have to do an awful lot to raise our army to NATO’s standards,” he continued. “Our military’s biggest problem is that there are no officers in our defence ministry who have received NATO instruction.”

Jafarov is doubtful that even 300 million dollars will be enough to allow the military to fulfill its new NATO obligations.

Not all commentators are in favour of a spending boost, and point to deep weaknesses in the military.

Alekper Mamedov, a reserve army major and director of an organisation promoting civilian control over the armed forces, fears that Azerbaijani taxpayers’ money is going straight “into the pockets of the defence ministry”.

“I think that despite the increase in expenditures, the funds are not being spent as they are meant to be,” said Mamedov. “The defence ministry is one of the most important components in the system of corruption in the country. As long as this system does not change, it will be impossible to speak of any significant growth in the armed forces and honest expenditure of these funds.”

In addition to corruption, Mamedov said the armed forces were plagued by violence against conscripts, disregard of decisions by civilian courts and theft of state property.

“The rights of soldiers, cadets and even officers are violated in our army,” said Mamedov. “Defence ministry officials fire officers without any legal basis or sense of responsibility.”

According to Mamedov, within the Baku region alone, defence officials are refusing to implement some 200 court decisions which were handed down against the ministry. Furthermore, every year the number of suicides and criminal acts rises – a sign of the poor living conditions within the army.

“Instead of rectifying these problems, our ministry creates a false illusion that they are carrying out reforms and that the army is following NATO standards,” he said. “Changing uniforms and the way soldiers march does not create NATO standards.”

Mamedov recommends a complete overhaul of the system along western lines, which would include civilian control over the armed forces and accountability to the courts, parliament and the public. “Only then might you speak of qualitative growth of the army,” he said.

One soldier, who wished to remain anonymous because he is currently serving, agrees with Mamedov’s assessment, “There are such horrifying incidents at our base.

“For example, young men from the city become thin, weak shadows of themselves, frequently falling ill. Our base is more or less OK. There are others that are much worse.”

Ilgar Verdiev of the defence ministry dismissed Mamedov’s criticisms. “I’m not interested in what that person says,” he told IWPR. “Everyone can see the army is growing. We have the strongest armed forces in the region and nothing anyone can say can gainsay that.”

Adalyat Bargarar is the pseudonym of an Azerbaijani journalist in Baku.

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