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Azerbaijan: Mass Desertion Is Final Humiliation For Failing Military

A mass desertion earlier this year at Azerbaijan's most prestigious officer-training academy has caused deep embarrassment at the Defense Ministry. Officers deserted because of poor conditions. As a possible way of easing the problem, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev has set up a charitable fund to encourage businesses and individuals to contribute to the military. But the fund probably cannot resolve what are seen as deep-rooted problems.

Baku, 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Families of some of the 3,000 military cadets who abandoned their barracks earlier this year, demanding better living conditions, are protesting.

One woman, who refused to give her name, said her son had left the barracks with the other cadets because he was fed up with his meager wages and the lack of water and heat -- even in winter. "They all left at about 12 o'clock last night. There hasn't been any joy here for a long time. In the old days, people were happy to go into the army -- not any more. They've changed the way they do things. They've changed everything."

The mass desertion was not from some remote base but from the country's top military-training facility, the Zikh Higher Military Academy.

The desertion came as a stinging blow to the Defense Ministry, which was still recovering from public outcry this summer when more than a dozen conscripts were revealed to have died from heatstroke. Human rights groups here said the soldiers collapsed and died after being forced to march without water in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius.

Taisiya Gordeeva is the deputy director of the Soldiers' Mothers Association of Azerbaijan. She said the situation in the military has reached critical proportions. "At the moment, we are witnessing a tragic situation in the army because of the indifference shown toward our children and their health. Every soldier needs to be fed, clothed, shod, and have access to proper sanitation. I have come across extreme sanitary deprivation in some of the military institutions I have visited, as a result of which soldiers fall prey to illnesses like scabies," Gordeeva said.

Azerbaijan's Army is made up mostly of conscripts, who are required to serve for two years after leaving school. In reality, though, Gordeeva said, many young men buy their way out of conscription, and it is usually only the poorest and least healthy who actually serve.

There are hundreds of cases of tuberculosis and malaria in the army. Malnutrition is commonplace, and in the winter many also contract hypothermia because they aren't given warm coats to wear.

But not everyone is sympathetic to the cadets' plight.

Eldar was an Azerbaijani officer in the Soviet Army in the 1980s. He said he didn't want to give his surname and that he had little sympathy for the 3,000 cadets who walked out in September. "They broke the law -- it's as simple as that. Military personnel don't have the right to hold mass demonstrations or protests or strikes or the like. They knew what they were getting into. In their regulations it's clearly spelled out that they must bear all the responsibilities of the military service. They swore an oath of allegiance; they gave their word. This should have been resolved inside the academy, not outside," Eldar said.

But he conceded that there were some serious flaws in Azerbaijan's military today. "In my day, this couldn't have happened. Because I think the management was different then, more prepared, and their relationship with trainee officers was different, too. There are many difficulties, both with the staff and with the low wages trainee officers receive. Because if a person is always thinking about how difficult his situation is, if every moment he is wondering how he is going to feed his children, what sort of an officer is he going to make? What sort of a commander?" Eldar said.

In an attempt to improve the military, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev recently created a charitable fund for donations to the army.

But newspapers report that public-sector workers are being bullied into giving a month's wages to the fund to boost the floundering armed forces.

Gordeeva said she is deeply dismayed by the fund. "The establishment of this charitable fund is the ultimate humiliation for this country. Funds like this are for refugees, for the needy, for pensioners. But for the army, it is completely unacceptable. I have discovered that the money from this fund will go toward those military requirements that are supposed to be covered by the state budget. It makes one wonder where the budget money is going," Gordeeva said.

Today's problems in the Azerbaijani military come on top of huge losses during the six-year war with neighboring Armenia at the beginning of the 1990s. About 30,000 people were killed and a million civilians were forced out of their homes during the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, which ended in a fragile cease-fire in 1994. Armenia now controls the mountainous territory.

Hard-liners in the government are keen to rekindle war with Armenia. But given the wretched state of the Azerbaijani Army and the mass desertions this year, many here say it simply won't be up to the job.