Friday, August 26, 2016

Caucasus Report

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

Tags: abiyev,Nagorno-Karabakh,Armenia,Azerbaijan

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments page of 3
by: David Jonhson from: London
March 14, 2010 17:14
The article is one-sided and aims at elaborating the sheer weakness of the Azerbaijani armed forces without telling the readers about "the overwhelming superiority and defensive advantages of the Armenian side".
I can see why Richard Giragosian has penned such a one-sided piece, but to see Liz Fuller falling into that trap is regrettable.
The Azerbaijani armed forces suffer from inadequate discipline, corruption, low morale and hazing, but the Armenian military has been cut from the same cloth. So are the Georgian armed forces.
Armenia is weak, if not bankrupt, economically and in terms manpower is in a disadvantageous position. In the long-run, as you seem to acknowledge, the trajectory of military balance in the region favours Azerbaijan. This would materialize sooner if the Aliyev dynasty in Azerbaijan came to an end which is not unimaginable. A truly nationalist government with a proclivity towards Islamic values together with a better organized army will change the attitude of the Minsk Group, Russia and the United States towards the Karabakh issue for a host of strategic, economic and military reasons.
The notion that there is no military solution to the Karabakh issue and that Azerbaijan should learn a lesson from the Georgian war is false. You are mixing apples with oranges. In the Georgian war, Russia, a military superpower, was bashing a weak state. In a possible war over Karabakh, Azerbaijan and Armenia, which are more or less of the same weight, will be facing each other. No doubt, they will be backed by their friends and allies, and in this respect, Armenia does not have the upper hand. And, if Azerbaijan plays its cards right, it could muster the support of Iran too.
In short, your argument is flawed and a juxtaposition of the weaknesses and strengths of both countries in the military, political and economic domains would have given your piece the necessary weight.
In Response

by: Martin from: Los Angeles
March 14, 2010 20:39
The Armenian military is definitely weak when it comes to its budget and spending, but its soldiers are among the bravest and most disciplined in the world, which would defeat any army Azerbaijian puts together. The Azeri army remains demorilized from the clashes in the 90's.
In Response

by: Henrik Dumanian from: New York
March 15, 2010 02:03
Actually Mr. Johnson, Giragosian's observations are quite correct. As proof of the Armenian Army's undeniable advantage over the Azeri army, we can only look to their previous encounter. The Armenian armed forces (which were less organized or trained) defeated an army three times the size of their own, which had access to better funds. No significant developments have occurred since 1994 to suggest that the Azeri army is more capable than they were in 1994, and none to suggest that the Armenians haven't kept pace. They had both advantages you claim will give them victories the last time around -- and we all know what happened las time.

Second, I do agree that a nationalist government in Azerbaijan would certainly be advantageous (at least one not linked to petro dollars) for the Azeris. But that dynasty will come to an end when and if the oil runs out. And when and if the oil runs out, Azerbaijin will lose its commodities based economic foundation, and with it any serious geopolitical usefulness for the powers that be (or at least any significance that Armenia cannot provide).

Thirdly, I would like to counter your claim about the Armenian army being cut from the same cloth. On the contrary, the two armies have very different histories and personalities. The Armenian army, according to both Russia and NATO, remains the most capable and mobile army in the immediate region.

And lastly, I would like to bring your attention to the military argument countering yours. Azerbaijan's job is not only to have an army better trained, better funded, and bigger in size than Armenia's (in fact some of those are true). Instead, Azerbaijan has to be able to carry out an offensive. As anybody who is slightly versed in military tactics can tell you, carrying out an offensive can in no way shape or form be succesful unless one side can OVERWHELM the other. Essentially, the Azeri army has to have about 4-5 people run through mines, barbed wire, and a hail of bullets and snipers, so that the 6th person can reach the trenches of the enemy without getting killed. That is why the Soviet Union had so many casualties. They were caught off gaurd in the beginning of the war, and thus had to carry out extremely costly counter-offensives.

Case in point, Mr. Giragosian is right -- there is no military solution to the conflict that favors Azerbaijan (or army). It will at best preserve the status quo or change a few kilometers of position. If there was a military solution, the Azeri army would be attacking right now, not fluffing up its own feathers and trying to save face.

by: eddy
March 14, 2010 19:08
This article is just a summary of bellicose statements and war threats voice by the authorities in Baku! There is no mention that in the Republic of Azerbaijan, there is a well organized and by the state orchestrated Anti Armenian propaganda going on against Armenians. A hate campaign almost similar to the Nazi propaganda against the European Jews!

In case of war once again Azerbaijan will use Lezgins and other ethnic groups and foreign mercenaries as "cannon fodder“ and terrorist acts!

Vafa Guluzade the ultra nationlist ex advisor to Heidar Aliyev has voiced more than once (even in duty) that as long as an Armenia is living in Nagorno-Karabakh there can not be peace and so on..The same Azerbaijani administration, which Vafa Guluzade still unofficially belongs to, likes to give security guaranties to Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR) …. !!!

by: eddy
March 14, 2010 19:38
@David Jonhson
Every thing is possible. There is no secret that Azerbaijan is making real war preparation. Azerbaijan is even training “commandos” to enter Armenia to curry act of Terror and sabotage within Armenia in case of war . Alone in the last week Armenian has neutralized two Azeri commandos in Armenia!

If some countries/ or even UN regard Nagorno-Karabakh as part of Azerbaijan, nobody should be surprise or regard such a development against “international law” , if an Armenian form Nagorno-Karabakh becomes president in Baku, in case of war- as i said every thing is possible!!

by: eddy
March 14, 2010 19:53
Azerbaijan regards still NK as part of Republic Azerbaijan or people in NK as "Azerbaijani citizens” THEREFOR:
In case of war, defence army of Nagorno-Karabakh has every right to enter Baku or any other Azerbaijani city . We should not forget the way which Alive clan come to power - by a coup d'état !
In Response

by: alakbar
March 15, 2010 09:47
WOW! We are waiting for you. Come :)

by: RD
March 14, 2010 22:10
David, your puerile comments seem to focus on resolving the NKR conflict based on which country is militarily superior, now or in the long term (i.e. by the use of force). You seem to overlook the fact that the NKR conflict will not be resolved even if Azerbaijan re-claimed NKR again today. What does Azerbaijan think will happen? Azerbaijan will take over NKR with its expensive military hardward and the people of NKR will live happily ever after under Azeri rule? Azerbaijan should learn from the U.S. mistake in Iraq. The only solution to the conflict is a diplomatic one. Diplomacy may be difficult and frustrating but not as difficult and as costly as war. You and Azerbaijan will do well to remember Churchill's quote: "Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events".
In Response

by: serge
March 15, 2010 09:49
Who says that armenians will stay in NK if Azerbaijan liberates it?
In Response

by: RD
March 15, 2010 17:47
Serge, if you are referring to deporting Armenians out of NKR if Azerbaijan takes over, then you may want to think about the implications of such an action. Currently, Azerbaijan enjoys moderate levels of international support since internationally, NK is regarded as Azeri territory and it lost the war back in 1994. How much support will Azerbaijan have internationally if it is involved with ethnic cleansing in this day of age? It will lose all support from the world. You are talking about massive war and unrest in the region. Do you think the U.S. and E.U. who have energy interests in the region will sit back and risk their billions of dollars of investment? If this is what you have in mind, you are not only a war monger but not a realist either. The only method of resolving the NK conflict is diplomacy. Not war.

by: leon from: USA
March 14, 2010 23:36
To Mr. David Johnson from London or David wannabe who is defending Islamic values!! Please post your real name next time.
truth is one sided!!
Everything listed here happened, didn't it? There is constant war threat by Azerbaijan. Abiyev' is loyal to Aliyev. There is major corruption in the Azeri armed forces. At the present the Armenian forces being on the defensive position are still superior despite the Azei spending; however, the future trajectory of the military balance of power favors Azerbaijan.

by: Emin A from: Azerbajian
March 15, 2010 00:05

You obviously know nothing about the local politics.

Azerbaijan has its own land claims with Iran for starters and they are in dispute about rights to the Caspian oil reserves. Secondly they have historically sided with Armenia in the dispute, despite the religious link between them.

Thirdly the strength of the Armenian position is due to the mountainous terrain and the highly sophisticated S300 Air defence system and the training in which their servicemen received during soviet times.

And finally David you seem to ignore their social and military Alliance with Russia which has proven to be longstanding and they (Russia) have an established base in Armenian territory.

It seems to me you are also very one sided. I personally found the article very interesting.
In Response

by: Ilham from: Azerbaijan
March 28, 2010 17:27
Using Emin A name to advocate biased article will give Armenia nothing more than one more dishonest citizen. Actually your arguments are funny considering 30 million Azeri citizens of Iran. Secondly, Azerbaijan recognizes Iranian soverignity and has no territorial dispute with Iran.

by: Andrea Jackson from: USA
March 15, 2010 00:10
This article is a great article. And while Giragosian is an Armenian the truth speaks here. Look at the latest series of problems int he Azerbaijan's Army. On the other hand, reports come out that the 11 years old son of Azerbaijan's President buys 40 million dollar worth of property in Dubai while his father's salary is less than half a million a year. How does this happen?

The authors are true, is there a military solution to a political problem? Hardly. If there was one, USSR would have won the war in Afghanistan long time ago.
In Response

by: To Andrea
March 15, 2010 09:51
Andrea, are you speaking about the truth in the article? for some reason, it says nothing about the mass desertion of hungry armenian soldiers across the front line. So many cases! Perhaps, due to the "high" morale in the Armenian army... hahaha

by: eddy
March 15, 2010 12:21
This not a hidden fact no longer! There are people in Baku ready to committee suicide

Azerbaijan is even training terro commandos to curry out act of sabotage and terror within Armenian, and create panic in Armenian in case of war.

We should not forget last year a bombe was placed near Armenian atomic complex- Terror groups which Azerbaijan is training today to use against Armenian should alarm other countries . Tomorrow, well trained terror groups from Azerbaijan will use there knowledge and experience against other countries (one should not forget terrorist and killers and other criminals from Afghanistan and else where, which were haired and paid by Azerbaijan to massacre Armenians in NK in the begining of 90´s). As I mentioned already Azerbaijan is testing the security of Armenian borders by sending special terror commandos to cross the border (and more)

NKR is a legal party to the current cease fire signed with Republic of Azerbaijan. NKR has ever right to launch a preventive war/operation against the criminal rulers in Baku and free the rest of “Azerbaijan “from rule of bandits, IN case NKR is convince that bandits in Baku are going to start a war against NKR in near future!

by: Barbarian from: Yerevan
March 15, 2010 12:43
The article simplifies the real situation. While not speaking about the bankrupt Armenian economy and the Armenian Cabinet of Ministers begging any instance for additional money, it too much focuses on problems in Azerbaijani army while ignoring the sustained problems in Armenian army, if there such an army indeed. I would rather call the Armenian army the shadow of the Russian army.

In any case, the shadow Russian army, oh sorry, the Armenian army, suffers from the similar problems of the Azerb army, but in a greater scale. The fact Armenian army positions are located in the mountainous areas doesn't matter at all. Who told Armenians that the attack or the war will start from the front-line. Indeed Azerbaijani commandos are fully equipped and capable of starting the war and attack from the behind of the Armenian army. So guess, if your trenches will be of any help. They current front-line trenches strengthened by the armenian army will serve just as mass graves for unfortunate and hungry armenian soldiers.
The day when many armenian mothers will cry not so far. But the blame and full responsibility for the next battle fully lie on the armeinan nationalists and fundamentalists and those live and lived with the dream of big armenia.
Lis Fuller should not have fallen into the trap of the armenian journalist in developing this write-up.
Comments page of 3

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.