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Analysis: Armenia, Azerbaijan Confront The Return Of The Private Army

  • Liz Fuller

Troops outside Azerbaijan's presidential palace during the May 1992 crisis In the run-up to, and the years immediately following, the collapse of the USSR, private armies played a key role in political developments across the South Caucasus. Tengiz Kitovani's National Guard was instrumental in ousting Georgian President Zviad Gamsakhurdia in late 1991. Soon afterward, together with Djaba Ioseliani's Mkhedrioni, Kitovani's group triggered wars in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

An informal militia subordinate to the Azerbaijan Popular Front helped thwart a comeback attempt in May 1992 by President Ayaz Mutalibov. A second private army helped rebel Colonel Suret Huseinov topple Mutalibov's successor, Abulfaz Elchibey, in June 1993, paving the way for the return to Baku of former Communist Party of Azerbaijan First Secretary Heidar Aliyev. And in Armenia, the Yerkrapah detachments formed by Vazgen Sargsian to fight in the Karabakh war rose to political prominence, catapulting Sargsian to the post of defense minister and then prime minister.

Huseinov was effectively neutralized in early 1995, and Kitovani and Ioseliani by the end of that year. True, in Georgia guerrilla bands enjoying covert support from the Georgian government continued to target CIS peacekeepers and Abkhaz customs officials in Abkhazia -- but at least those detachments were firmly under the control of the regime. Elsewhere in the South Caucasus, however, they appeared to have disbanded.

A Reemergence?

In recent weeks, however, there have been reports of the reemergence of such forces in both Azerbaijan and Armenia. In Azerbaijan, the independent daily newspaper "Azadliq" reported on 1 February that the CIA warned President Ilham Aliyev one month previously that the head of a government agency had allegedly created his own private army numbering 150-200 fighters with "advanced military training." "Azadlig" did not name the Azerbaijani official in question. Aliyev has since assured Washington that the army in question has been disarmed, according to "Azadliq." The paper claimed that the CIA's primary concern was that the militia in question could sabotage "strategic installations," possibly meaning the unfinished Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline or the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline.

But such a private army could also be mobilized during the Azerbaijani parliamentary elections due in November. The daily "Vatandash Hamrayliyi" newspaper claimed on 9 February, citing governmental sources, that two powerful and wealthy government officials, State Customs Committee Chairman Kamaladdin Heydarov and Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev (no relation to the president), planned to create their personal blocs to participate in those elections.

Trouble In Armenia

In Yerevan, President Robert Kocharian's national security adviser, Garnik Isagulian, was quoted by "Hayots ashkhar" on 15 February as expressing concern over recent armed clashes between rival business clans and calling for immediate measures to put an end to such lawlessness. "Many of our wealthy persons have created bodyguard structures," Isagulian explained. "Some of them even have personal security services." One man died and two others were injured in the latest such shootout, on 4 February, apparently between armed supporters of rival "mafias" (see "Three Men Arrested After Deadly Shootout In Yerevan").

On 8 February, the same paper reported unconfirmed rumors that individuals close to Yerevan officials or to past of present parliament deputies were involved in the 4 February gun battle. "Iravunk" for its part suggested that the Armenian authorities are powerless to control even those criminal "clans" whose members support them, and have consequently become hostages of that "criminal conglomerate."
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