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Azeri Army Death-wish

No-one in Azerbaijan is prepared to take responsibility for the increasingly parlous state of the armed forces
By Kjamal Ali

The growing number of Azeri soldiers dying as a result of poor conditions and morale in the armed forces underlines the dilapidated state of the military and casts doubts over the country's bid to join NATO in the near future.


No one wants to take the blame for deaths or the well-publicised problems of corruption in the military, but everyone, it seems, has a theory who should shoulder responsibility.


Many say defence minister Safir Abiev is the biggest culprit. Ever since his appointment in 1995, there have been literally thousands of non-combat fatalities. Seventeen soldiers died last month alone (12 suicides, two heat stroke victims and three cases of dehydration).


Others say it's unfair to hold him responsible, pointing out that the military has been riven by problems ever since the country became independent over a decade ago. For much of this period, inexperienced political appointees have run the armed forces, and have selected commanding officers for their loyalties rather than their professionalism.


Indeed, Abiev has President Heidar Aliev to thank for his job. The two have long been close. And without the head of state's support, it's doubtful whether the defence minister would survive the growing calls for his resignation.


Former defence minister Isa Sadikhov, who heads up a group of army reservists, has blamed August's deaths on Abiev, accusing him of contributing to the deterioration of the army by dismissing qualified officers, tolerating corruption and letting discipline fall apart.


The deaths would have hardly surprised critics of the military who have been warning of its sorry state of affairs for years, but now, at least, the issue has been forced out into the open.


"Everyone knows about ill-treatment in the army," said former defence ministry aide Major Alekper Mamedov, ousted a couple of years back after alleging that the armed forces had seen around 5000 non-combat casualties between 1995 and 2000. He said he had been fired for, as he put it, "talking too much".


However, Mamedov does not believe things were any better prior to Abiev's appointment, saying that officers in charge during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the early Nineties were no better than a bunch of thieves and bullies. At the time, the defence minister Ragim Gaziev was recruiting officers loyal to the then ruling Public Front, choosing directors of collective farms over qualified officers.


"There will be no order in our army," said Mamedov, "until it is staffed by graduates of officer schools in Azerbaijan and Turkey."


Mamedov claims that over two thousand soldiers died in the second half of the Nineties from malnutrition, tuberculosis, diptheria and other diseases associated with appalling conditions; and another three thousand or so perished as a result of severe injuries from accidents and "ill-treatment". He said the army had described the casualties "nothing out of the ordinary".


Earlier this year, the Baku-based daily Femida questioned the army's battle readiness, and pointing the finger of blame for alleged graft, embezzlement and poor organisation in the military on Abiev. He headed up a team, said the paper, of "foppish generals".


The press accusation came despite attempts to muzzle media coverage of the sad state of the military. Two journalists who conducted investigations into stories of Abiev's alleged embezzlement landed themselves in court in 1999. They were fined 5000 US dollars between them.


Another reservist officer, Adil Kengerli, commented that the defence minister bore direct responsibility for the quality of officers in the army. "Abiev is oversensitive towards officers who disagree with his decisions. They are usually dismissed without any explanation."


Abiev, however, insists the command structure and overall discipline in the army has improved since the years of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. His supporters argue that reservists were bound to criticize him, as they were opposed to him negotiating a peace settlement there.


David Djabbarov, a former finance officer within the defence ministry, believes there were far more non-combat deaths between 1992 and 1995. "These bogus patriots didn't worry about the army then," said Djabbarov, accusing Abiev's critics of "creating an illusion of a crisis" in the army.


But even Djabbarov agrees that the military needs an overhaul - especially if it is going to meet the standards required for any sort of partnership programme with NATO.


Clearly, the army needs to be a step removed from the political leadership so that effective reforms be put in place to stop needless deaths, never mind improvement in its battle readiness.


What is needed is a cogent debate over the state and future of the army. At present, it is felt that people criticise the army because they are opponents of Aliev's government and Abiev is beholden to him.


For some, like Mamedov, the issue is simple, "People shouldn't die in an army that isn't fighting."


Kjamal Ali is a staff writer with the Baku based daily Zerkalo


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