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Azerbaijani Army Purge

Is the defence ministry weeding out officers for financial misdemeanours, or because they are viewed as disloyal to the regime?
By Jasur Mamedov

About ten officers in Azerbaijan’s army have been arrested and dozens more demoted for bribery in recent weeks.

The defence ministry advertised the move as the beginning of a sweeping anti-corruption drive, stated as a response to a new anti-corruption bill which President Ilham Aliev signed into law by the president on January 1, 2005.

But some observers are asking whether the officers who have been targeted are really thought to be on the take, or whether they make convenient scapegoats because their support for the regime is viewed as suspect.

“The officers in question are accused of forging some papers in 2003 to let some draftees dodge conscription,” defence ministry spokesman Ramiz Melikov told IWPR.

Melikov declined to name the officers or reveal how many were involved, citing confidentiality restrictions surrounding the investigation.

Without saying that corruption is a problem in the military, Melikov said the arrests could be linked to the new anti-corruption law, which applies to all government agencies including the armed forces.

To comply with the law, the defence ministry is now obliged to run checks on its staff. “The defence ministry audits its ranks on a regular basis, and punishes offenders,” said Melikov said.

The new law against corruption was passed under pressure from international lending institutions, which set it as a precondition for advancing further credit to the Azerbaijani government.

Azerbaijan set up an anti-corruption commission in April 2004, headed by presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehtiev. Now that the new law has been enacted, the commission is gearing up for a series of audits targeting government bodies and the armed forces.

The incidents of bribery that led to the arrest of the army officers were exposed on January 13, when Mehtiev’s commission announced the findings of an audit of the Barda Corps conducted in December 2004. The corps is stationed 40 kilometres from the ceasefire line separating Azerbaijani from Armenian forces around Nagorny Karabakh.

Some details of the case were leaked to the press earlier via a retired army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Uzeir Jafarov, who named two officers who had been arrested. More recently, it transpired that two other men, who commanded military units belonging to the Barda Corps, were taken into custody around January 20. A criminal file has been opened on another officer in one of the units, and several more high-ranking officers have been demoted or sacked.

Retired army major Alekber Mamedov, who heads the non-government Centre for Civilian Supervision of the Armed Forces, agrees that corruption is widespread in the army.

However Lieutenant-Colonel Jafarov, who dismissed from the army in 2003, does not believe these arrests mean the defence ministry is genuinely committed to rooting out corruption. Instead, he thinks the officers concerned were removed for political reasons.

“The arrests at the Barda Corps were politically inspired,” he said. “I know for a fact that many officers in Barda voted for Isa Gambar in the last presidential elections.” Gambar is the leader of the opposition Musavat party who challenged the current president, Ilham Aliev, in 2003.

According to Jafarov, officials were so alarmed by the level of support for the opposition that Defence Minister Safar Abiev took steps to get rid of the dissidents. To back up this version of events, Jafarov says the Barda Corps commander-in-chief Talib Mamedov tried to protect his subordinates, and was immediately shunted off to a minor diplomatic post in Kazakstan.

A defence ministry staffer who did the same found himself similarly dispatched abroad, in his case to Azerbaijan’s embassy in Pakistan. “With these two out of the picture, they swooped on the other officers,” said Jafarov.

Alimamed Nuriev, who heads the Azerbaijani parliament’s commission for defence and national security, believes the anti-corruption drive is real.

“The events at Barda show that the ministry is getting serious about corruption,” he said. “I believe that in a month or two, we will see the results of this anti-corruption initiative across all government agencies, including the defence ministry.”

Whatever the truth about the accusations made against the Barda unit, many officers and soldiers in the corps told IWPR that bribery was rampant.

“In return for a monthly fee paid to their superiors, dozens of soldiers on the payroll were allowed to live in their homes while officially serving in the unit. This was common practice here,” a Barda Corps soldier, who declined to be named, told IWPR. “Hundreds of soldiers were never paid their wages. Most of our wages were deducted under various pretexts such as building a new mess hall or something.”

Major-General Tajeddin Mehtiev, a former defence minister who now works at the ministry’s Centre for Military Studies, prescribes reform rather than punishment.

“I don’t think punitive action alone can prevent offences in the army. The root of the problem is that military servicemen feel financially insecure,” he said. “We should give our soldiers a pay rise to at least 100 US dollars a month [current pay is between four to 10 dollars], and pay at least 500 dollars a month to our officers, who are now earning between 100 and 150 dollars. That would be a strong disincentive to corruption.”

Jasur Mamedov is a reporter for Zerkalo newspaper in Baku.

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