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Azerbaijan's Unsinkable General

Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, 2004

Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, 2004

Colonel General Safar Abiyev is the longest serving defense minister in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and one of the longest serving in the world.

Now just 60, he has headed the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry since February 1995. Over that time, Azerbaijan has raised defense spending from $97.2 million in 1999, to $175 million in 2004 to $1.5 billion last year.

Yet the spending of prodigious amounts of cash on state of the art military hardware has not resulted in the creation of an effective and battle ready army. On the contrary, the armed forces remain weak. Discipline is lax, morale low, and hazing endemic. The rank and file suffers from shortages of food, fuel, and such basic items as winter uniforms. The Defense Ministry is reputedly a hotbed of corruption. Why, then, is Abiyev seemingly viewed as indispensible?

Abiyev was born in Baku on January 27, 1950. He is a Lezgin. He graduated in 1971 from Baku's Higher Military College, and in 1982 from the Command Faculty of the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow, and has spent his entire professional life in the armed forces.

Abiyev served briefly as acting defense minister from June to August 1993, immediately after the coup that toppled the Azerbaijan Popular Front government and paved the way for the return to power in Baku of former Communist Party of Azerbaijan First Secretary Heidar Aliyev. He was named defense minister in February 1995, four months after the failed bid by Suret Huseinov and Rovshan Djavadov to overthrow Aliyev -- an undertaking in which the army reportedly sided with the leaders of the insurrection.

Azerbaijan has channeled into the defense budget a considerable amount of the proceeds from the export of its oil and gas. That trend intensified after Ilham Aliyev succeeded his father in late 2003. But much of the money has reportedly been embezzled. The independent daily "Ayna/Zerkalo" played a key role in the late 1990s and early 2000s in reporting on the efforts of former naval officer Djanmirza Mirzoev to publicize corruption within the armed forces. Mirzoev was arrested, tried, and sentenced in 2001 to eight years' imprisonment on fabricated charges of murder; Heidar Aliyev pardoned him in May 2004.

In addition to sporadic corruption scandals, hazing too has raised questions about discipline and professionalism in the armed forces. A scandal erupted in the fall of 2008 after two videos were posted on YouTube showing sergeants beating younger servicemen. The Defense Ministry reacted by denouncing them as a fake, but subsequently admitted that an investigation had confirmed that the mistreatment shown on the video clip had indeed taken place. Aydyn Mirzazade, who heads the parliament Committee for Defense and Security, nonetheless denied there have any been any incidents of hazing in the armed forces.

At least five fatal instances of hazing have been reported in the media since December 2006. In the most recent, in January 2010, two privates reportedly shot four officers and then killed each other. Yashar Djafarli, chairman of the Organization of Retired and Reserve Officers, claimed in November 2008 that of over 40 servicemen who died not in combat or of disease since 2003, the majority either died from ill-treatment or committed suicide.

During Abiyev's tenure as defense minister, Azerbaijan has signed military cooperation agreements with Turkey, the United States, and Pakistan, among others. It was one of the first former Soviet republics to join NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, but has for years remained equivocal over full membership of that alliance. In September 2004, NATO cancelled a conference in Baku after the Azerbaijani authorities refused to issue visas for Armenian officers who planned to participate.

This year, for the first time, the Defense Ministry budget does not allocate any funds for Azerbaijani participation in PfP activities or for Azerbaijan's Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP).

Baku's lack of real commitment to cooperation with NATO is paralleled by delays in formulating and making public a national defense strategy and in implementing radical reform of the defense sector. The International Crisis Group (ICG) noted those failings in a briefing in October 2008 that described the armed forces as "fragmented, divided, accountable-to-no-one-but- the-president, untransparent, corrupt and internally feuding." Among other measures, the ICG urged greater oversight powers for the parliament; increased civilian control in the Defense Ministry; amending relevant legislation in line with international human rights requirements; and improving personnel management and training.

In light of the multiple weaknesses that detract from Azerbaijan's defense capability, two interconnected factors may explain Abiyev's extended tenure.

The first is his absolute and unswerving loyalty to the Aliyev dynasty -- first father Heidar and then son Ilham, whose ascent to the presidency was more by selection than election. The second is his role in an ongoing double act with Ilham Aliyev intended to expedite a solution on Azerbaijan's terms to the Karabakh conflict.

Ilham Aliyev's legitimacy and political future hinge to a considerable degree on his continued ability to convince the population that Azerbaijan will at some point succeed in wresting back control of the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh republic. And in this exercise Abiyev's support is crucial, if not indispensible.

Over the past decade, Abiyev has sporadically conjured the specter of a new war in Karabakh. He reasons variously that as a result of either Armenia's refusal to compromise and withdraw unconditionally from occupied Azerbaijani teritory, or of the OSCE Minsk Group's inability to draft a settlement plan that will satisfy all conflict sides, Baku will have no choice but to resort to military force. And he claims that Azerbaijan's armed forces are fully capable of winning a new war.

A year and a half after the brief but devastating war in Georgia, the most recent belligerent statements by the Aliyev/Abiyev duo raise the specter of a new outbreak of hostilities in South Caucasus. Increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress towards resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and angered by Turkey's embrace of tentative rapprochement with Armenia, Azerbaijani officials are again threatening a new war to restore Azerbaijan's control over the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic.

Moscow's formal recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the wake of the August 2008 war left Nagorno-Karabakh the sole "frozen" conflict in the South Caucasus. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and G8 leaders have launched separate but complementary initiatives aimed at overcoming the remaining points of disagreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan and thus expediting the signing of a blueprint that could serve as the basis of a permanent settlement.

But Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev continues to alternate between reaffirming his commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement, and threatening a new war in light of Armenia's intransigent refusal to "compromise," by which he means to withdraw unconditionally from seven districts of Azerbaijan bordering Nagorno-Karabakh that are currently under Armenian control.

In most countries, the head of state's traditional New Year's address seeks to convey a message of cooperation, peace, and prosperity. But this year, President Aliyev's message was one of war. He warned that "Azerbaijan is strengthening its military potential," which he claimed is "increasing day by day" and is "being strengthened in terms of weapons and equipment." He then affirmed explicitly that Baku has the "military effectiveness" and will "use all the means at our disposal to solve the Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno-Karabakh conflict."

Abiyev expanded on that threat during a meeting on February 25 with the French ambassador to Baku, Gabriel Keller. He warned that a "great war" in the region is becoming "inevitable." He argued that since the 1994 cease-fire with Armenia that effectively "froze" the Karabakh conflict, "diplomacy has not achieved any concrete results." "Azerbaijan cannot wait another 15 years," Abiyev continued, adding that "now it's the military's turn, and the threat is growing every day.”

But there is a profound disparity between such militant rhetoric and the military reality. At one level, such words of war are no more than empty threats, as the exaggerated boasts of Azerbaijan's military strength ignore the weakness of its armed forces. Even so, despite the overwhelming superiority and defensive advantages of the Armenian side, the future trajectory of the military balance of power in the region favors Azerbaijan over the longer term.

But at another level, the bellicose warnings by the Azerbaijani leadership pose a very real threat to regional security and stability, insofar as they exacerbate latent tensions that have their own destructive dynamic. Specifically, they harden the defensive posture of the Armenian side, making any real resolution of the Karabakh conflict that much more difficult now, and making it even harder for Azerbaijan to adopt a more moderate position later.

In addition, such rhetoric steadily saps morale within the Azerbaijani military, which has yet to enjoy the benefits of increased defense spending.

Clearly, despite repeated injunctions from visiting U.S. and European diplomats, Azerbaijan has failed to learn the primary lesson from the Georgia war -- that there is no military solution to what are essentially political problems. And for Nagorno-Karabakh, still excluded from the formal negotiating process, Azerbaijan's bluff and bluster only serves to highlight the broad divide between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

In addition, such threats from Baku foster a perception that the Azerbaijani leadership is not ready for peace, and call into question the sincerity of its proclaimed commitment to international mediation efforts seeking a negotiated resolution of the Karabakh conflict.

Both Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian and Defense Minister Seyran Ohanian have responded to Baku's threats with warnings of their own that any Azerbaijani attack against Armenia and Karabakh will be met by "serious counterattacks" and rebuffed.

The recent verbal spat and its possible repercussions have not gone unnoticed. Senior U.S. intelligence official Dennis Blair recently testified to the U.S. Congress that the chances of another Armenian-Azerbaijani war are only increasing, fuelled in part by Azerbaijani frustration over the U.S.-backed normalization effort under way between Turkey and Armenia.

-- Liz Fuller and Richard Giragosian

About This Blog

This blog presents analyst Liz Fuller's personal take on events in the region, following on from her work in the "RFE/RL Caucasus Report." It also aims, to borrow a metaphor from Tom de Waal, to act as a smoke detector, focusing attention on potential conflict situations and crises throughout the region. The views are the author's own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.


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