That represents a 70-percent increase. It also means that Azerbaijan’s defense spending would have more than doubled in just two years.
Azerbaijan’s military budget totaled $135 million in 2003.
Aliyev’s announcement followed the inauguration on 25 May of a major export oil pipeline linking Baku to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan conduit is expected to bring Azerbaijan hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues, which Aliyev’s critics fear may be primarily dedicated to the defense sector instead of being used to meet the country’s most urgent social needs.
Aliyev on 25 June said defense spending would continue to grow in the future.
“Azerbaijan will solve all its problems as its economic potential grows. Most importantly, the Azerbaijani Army must be strong enough to solve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, the Azerbaijani Army is the strongest in the South Caucasus region,” Aliyev said.
Whether Aliyev’s boasting is primarily meant for domestic consumption ahead of the November 2005 legislative polls is unclear. In an interview with CNN-Turk yesterday, the Azerbaijani president said he wanted the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute to be solved without bloodshed.
But Aliyev’s motivations in announcing an increase in military spending do not matter much to Armenia’s Army chief of staff. Speaking by phone from Yerevan, General Mikayel Harutiunian tells RFE/RL the Azerbaijani leader’s recent remarks can only add to existing tensions in the Southern Caucasus region.
“If the Azerbaijanis want to increase their military budget, this is their business. [But] that will create a certain tension in the region because we, Armenians, of course cannot just sit and let Azerbaijan sharply boost its military power, its military potential. It is all the more worrying that many voices [in Azerbaijan] are calling for a forceful solution to the Karabakh issue. But, [again,] this is their business. Our business is to defend our homeland and Karabakh, and not let what Aliyev apparently wishes to happen,” Harutiunian said.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has been going on since 1988, when this predominantly ethnic Armenian enclave seceded from Soviet Azerbaijan. The six-year full-scale military hostilities that followed claimed tens of thousands of lives and drove nearly 1 million civilians from their homes.
Plagued with corruption and mismanagement, Azerbaijan’s depleted army suffered a series of setbacks in the early 1990s. In addition to Nagorno-Karabakh itself, it had to abandon during the final month of the war seven administrative districts that remain today under Armenian occupation.
Baku demands that ethnic Armenian troops to withdraw from the occupied lands prior to any discussion on the political status of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Russia Moving Bases
Aliyev on 25 June cited the planned closure of Russia’s military facilities in Georgia and the possible transfer of military equipment onto Armenian territory among other reasons that prompted him to ask parliament to vote an increase in defense spending.
“[This increase] is linked to the fact that Russia is relocating its bases from Georgia to Armenia. True, the military hardware will not be handed over to Armenia and will be kept at the Russian military bases. But we also know that they are being relocated onto Armenian territory. So we had to take appropriate steps,” Aliyev said.
Moscow a month ago agreed to close the two military bases it has been maintaining in Georgia since Soviet times. By doing so, it met a long-time demand of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to comply with the 1990 conventional armed forces in Europe (CFE) treaty that sets quotas for each of it signatories.
Under the terms of a draft agreement, the two Russian facilities -- located in the Black Sea port of Batumi and in the predominantly ethnic Armenian town of Akhalkalaki, in Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti region -- should be vacated by the end of 2008.
Russia has already started withdrawing nonessential equipment from Batumi. As for hardware stored at Akhalkalaki, talks are under way to transfer all, or part of it to Russia’s Gyumri military base, on the other side of the Armenian border.
Unlike Azerbaijan and Georgia, Armenia is a military ally of Russia. Both countries belong to the Collective Security Treaty Organization that also includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
Yet, Harutiunian says Armenia has not made any request as to what type of equipment Russian should relocate at Gyumri and that, in any case, Yerevan will not benefit from the possible transfer.
“The presence of the 102nd Russian military base [in Gyumri] on Armenia’s territory is covered by a [bilateral] agreement. What type of weapons should be stored at this base, it is up to Russia to decide. As for a possible transfer of materiel or equipment to Armenia, there is no agreement and there will not be any. Armenia can equip its armed forces on its own within the limits of the [CFE treaty] quotas,” Harutiunian said.
The draft Russia-Georgian accord does not specify where equipment from the Batumi and Akhalkalaki bases will be relocated. Tbilisi has indicated that, provided the Russian military hardware will not be transferred to its separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it will not interfere in Moscow’s choice.
Russia has cited both financial and time constraints to justify plans to relocate part of its military equipment to Armenia. At the same time, it insists the planned transfer will not violate the 1990 CFE treaty.
Harutiunian backs the Russian claims:
"[The Russians] will not violate any quotas. Simply, they will either replace some of the weapons and equipments stored at [Gyumri], or bring in additional ones to reach their full complement. We're not talking about a quantitative increase. Russia is simply re-quipping its 102nd military base and is not violating any agreement with Armenia. [Also,] no transfer of military personnel [from Georgia] is scheduled. At least Russia has not sent us any request to that effect," Harutiunian says.
Azerbaijani defense officials have said that most of the extra funds earmarked for this year will serve to buy new equipment.
But Armenia's Army chief of staff claims Baku has already 2.5 times more tanks and three times more heavy artillery and armored cars that permitted by the CFE treaty.
"If Azerbaijan continues to increase the size of its armed forces, there are appropriate control bodies that should verify whether it meets its international obligations," Harutiunian says.
No Azerbaijani defense official was immediately available for comment.
(Ilqar Rasul of RFE/RL’s Azerbaijani Service contributed to this report from Baku)