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Azerbaijan: President Turns To Private Donors To Help Support National Army

The South Caucasus state of Azerbaijan is once again soliciting private donations to finance its armed forces. An official decree published earlier this week in state-controlled media says anyone willing to donate money to the armed forces will be able to do so through a special fund placed under the direct authority of President Heidar Aliev. Although the rationale behind Aliev's decision remains obscure, the move is likely to revive controversy about the poor state of the Azerbaijani Army.

Prague, 23 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In a move reminiscent of the darkest days of the Nagorno-Karabakh war, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev on 17 August ordered the creation of a charity to collect funds from citizens and companies willing to contribute to the support of the national army.

A presidential decree published on 20 August in the "Azerbaycan" official newspaper says the fund will be placed under the direct responsibility of the head of state, who is also supreme commander of the armed forces.

Contributions will be collected on a voluntary basis and will help the Defense Ministry produce, purchase, test, and maintain both weapons and equipment for the Azerbaijani armed forces.

The presidential decree says that contributions channeled through the newly created fund will also "help the military high command solve the army's social problems."

Defense Ministry spokesman Ramiz Melikov told RFE/RL that in the view of Azerbaijani authorities, there is nothing unusual in raising private funds for the national armed forces. "Many countries resort to such assistance funds to ensure that the technical, material, and social needs of their armed forces are provided for. Such funds already exist in many countries and, considering these international practices, our leadership has decided that something similar should be done for our armed forces. This is the purpose of the fund," Melikov said.

Yet, Aliev's decision to set up a charity is likely to fuel already widespread speculation about the poor state of the Azerbaijani armed forces, despite assurances from Melikov that the charity is not meant to compensate for insufficient defense budgets. "We have enough money [to sustain our armed forces]. Where did you hear that we had none? It is not because we are lacking money [that the fund is being set up.] Every people, every government cares about its armed forces. We, too, consider that this is necessary. But it is not because we are short of money," Melikov said.

Information about the military is rather scarce in this South Caucasus country, which has an army with an estimated strength of 77,000 men, mostly recruited through conscription. The defense budget is some $120 million, roughly 10.5 percent of the state budget and 1.7 percent of the country's gross domestic product.

Azerbaijan is still formally at war with neighboring Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Despite a 1994 agreement to suspend hostilities, sporadic skirmishes continue to break out between Azerbaijani and ethnic Armenian soldiers along the cease-fire line. In addition, Armenian forces still occupy an estimated 20 percent of Azerbaijan's national territory, including the Karabakh secessionist enclave.

Two elements are largely held responsible for the successful advance of Armenian troops. One is the logistics and intelligence support granted Armenia at the time by the Russian military. The other is the shortcomings of Azerbaijan's top army brass and the destitution of its national armed forces.

Azad Isazade is a retired Azerbaijani Army officer who now works as an independent military expert. He told RFE/RL that to sustain the war effort, the Azerbaijani government in the past has had to resort to money raised through official or semi-official charity funds. "Such funds were set up on the Cabinet of Ministers, Defense Ministry, or Defense Council level. For example, such a fund existed under the aegis of the defense minister and people came to offer their savings. Under the Cabinet of Ministers was another fund into which state [companies] used to pay a certain percentage of their income to support the needs of the defense sector. These funds were complementary. Sometimes, they would replace each other, that is, when one fund ceased to exist, another one was set up. But, in my view, this is the first time such a fund is being set up under the president's authority and by presidential decree," Isazade said.

If one trusts reports about the poor state of the Azerbaijani Army, one has to conclude that these funds have failed to achieve their stated goal. Critics argue this kind of fundraising has instead largely served to enrich corrupt defense officials.

In comments printed on 20 August in the Baku-based "Ekho" daily, Azerbaijani political analyst Rasim Musabekov noted that "it is no secret that over the past eight [or] nine years, these funds, which had been set up supposedly to fight the Armenian aggression [in] Karabakh, have in fact helped accumulate a great deal of income generated by corruption."

Musabekov went on to say that, provided Aliev's aim in creating a new fund is to stem corrupt practices and ensure that private donations are effectively used to meet the needs of the national army, the presidential initiative should be welcomed as a step in the right direction.

Military expert Isazade believes the creation of a new charity fund for the army is "not a bad idea in itself." But he said he has reservations about its timeliness, arguing that national interests would perhaps be better served through the creation of a smaller, professional army.

But asked whether Aliev's decision to supervise military-related fundraising directly could help combat the alleged culture of corruption in the country's armed forces, Isazade said. "An instrument to fight corruption is a good thing. But it depends on who is handling this instrument. If this instrument is in the hands of an anticorruption fighter, it is a good thing. But if this instrument is in the hands of a man who is at the origin of an entire system of state corruption, it is very unlikely that it will be used to combat corruption. One can even suspect that it will, on the contrary, further corruption or serve as a pretext to launder money," Isazade said.

In an apparent bid to silence critics who denounce the lack of financial transparency in the military, Aliyev has ordered that the fund be audited once a year by an accounting official he said he would appoint at a later date.

But whatever his goal in creating the fund, the Azerbaijani president's initiative is likely to revive controversy about the appalling conditions under which the country's conscripts are compelled to serve.

Unofficial data show that more than 5,000 soldiers have died since the 1994 Karabakh cease-fire. Authorities have dismissed these claims, but have so far failed to provide their own figures.

Whenever defense officials admit to the existence of casualties, they blame Armenian snipers or land-mine explosions along the demarcation line. But human-rights groups believe infectious diseases, malnutrition, suicides, bullying, and neglect are responsible for most peacetime deaths.

Only last month, eight conscripts died of sunstroke while participating in a military exercise in the southern Beylaqan region, near the cease-fire line. Another 50 soldiers were reportedly hospitalized with the same ailment. In July last year, a similar incident claimed the lives of at least 15 soldiers in that same area.

In both instances, troopers were reportedly forced to drill for long hours in extreme heat.

Last winter, some 10 conscripts died of exposure and frostbite in the Murovdag Mountains, north of the Karabakh enclave.

Aliyev himself has admitted to shortcomings in the armed forces and has denounced the carelessness of certain unit commanders in leading their young conscripts.

Military expert Isazade said it would be misleading to believe the present destitution of the national army originates from the scarcity of public funds allocated to the defense sector. Rather, he said, the main reason is endemic corruption. "Money is here. The problem is that [it] is being stolen. When a soldier suffers from muscular degeneration, this means that he has not been fed enough. This, in turn, means that someone else has eaten his share of food -- or stolen, or sold [it], it does not matter. If a soldier is allocated some food and does not get it, this means that his food has been eaten or sold by someone else. The same can be said of [the lack of] drugs and all other [shortage] problems," Isazade said.

Former navy Captain Janmirza Mirzoev was among the first Azerbaijani officers to publicize corruption in the armed forces and mistreatment of conscripts, with a series of press reports published in the late 1990s.

After two years of being harassed by state authorities, Mirzoev was sentenced on 5 November 2001 to eight years in jail for his alleged role in the 1993 murder of a navy officer, Rear Admiral Eduard Huseynov. Rights groups, among them the Berlin-based Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization specializing in combating corruption, have denounced Mirzoev's trial as irregular and described his conviction as "politically motivated."

Despite repeated requests made by the Council of Europe -- the 44-member democracy and human-rights body Azerbaijan joined in January 2001 -- to release Mirzoev and 12 other political prisoners, the whistle-blower remains in jail.