17 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 10
IS AZERBAIJAN SERIOUS ABOUT TACKLING ARMY CORRUPTION? President Ilham Aliyev will "soon" issue orders to create a special commission that is to conduct a thorough inspection of armed forces units and the Defense Ministry apparatus to determine how budget funds earmarked for the defense sector are being spent, zerkalo.az reported on March 11. The online daily interpreted that announcement, together with other planned measures to eradicate corruption during the military draft, as an indication that the country's leadership has finally decided to tackle corruption within the armed forces. It further noted that the massive increase in defense spending over the past few years (from $175 million in 2004 to $300 million in 2005 and $600 million in 2006) renders stringent control over how those funds are spent even more vital. But the advance announcement of the planned inspections will provide ample opportunity to revise and amend records to remove any incriminating evidence of malpractice.
Allegations of corruption, embezzlement, and mismanagement within the upper echelons of the armed forces first became public knowledge during the mid- to late 1990s, primarily thanks to investigatory reporting by "Ayna/Zerkalo," the print predecessor of the online zerkalo.az. That paper reported, for example, on a press conference in December 1998 at which former naval officer Djanmirza Mirzoev detailed instances of corruption within the Defense Ministry, including a scam in which the ministry falsified documentation pertaining to the purchase of food supplies from the Ministry of Trade, skimming off the difference between the actual and the alleged price. Mirzoev also claimed that an unspecified number of servicemen had died of starvation, but that in some of those cases the cause of death was given as frostbite (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," August 26, 1999).
In January 2000, "Ayna/Zerkalo" published a second report on financial abuse within the Defense Ministry. That article listed cases in which the ministry purchased for inflated sums from front companies food supplies for the armed forces that were not fit for human consumption. It also described how a dubious company named Flamingo in 1996-1997 misappropriated millions of dollars earmarked to settle the Defense Ministry's debts for energy and electricity supplies (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 4, 2000). Investigations failed, however, to confirm those allegations, and Mirzoev was arrested, tried and sentenced to eight years' imprisonment on what were widely regarded as fabricated charges of involvement in the murder of a senior naval officer. Following protests from the United States and the Council of Europe, he was pardoned by President Aliyev in May 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17 and November 6, 2001).
One year ago, zerkalo.az returned to the theme of top-level embezzlement within the Defense Ministry, reporting in its April 30 issue on a press conference convened by the Social Union for Civilian and Democratic Control over the Armed Forces. At that press conference, Alekper Mamedov, the NGO's head, alleged that there has been no sign of a decline in the level of corruption within the armed forces, and he accused Defense Minister Colonel-General Safar Abiyev of violating the law over a period of 10 years. (Abiyev, who has held his post since 1995, is the longest-serving defense minister in the entire CIS.) Mamedov quoted former Finance Minister Fikret Yusifov, who instigated a financial investigation within the Defense Ministry, as having accused Abiyev of engaging in "commercial activity," rather than overseeing the country's defense.
By contrast, most press reports on army corruption over the past year have focused primarily on abuse by district garrison commanders, several of whom have been accused of having routinely solicited bribes in exchange for exempting young men from compulsory military service. In January 2005, zerkalo.az quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Major Ilgar Verdiyev as saying a number of senior officers from the Barda corps had been arrested on such charges. Some brother officers alleged, however, that those arrests were political, in retaliation for the officers in question having voted for opposition candidate Isa Qambar in the October 2003 presidential election.
Seventeen servicemen went on trial in Baku in July 2005 in one such bribery case, ITAR-TASS reported; 15 of them were sentenced in January 2006 to between seven and eight years' imprisonment, day.az reported on January 10. The trial of a second group of officers from the Azizbekov and Shemakha districts opened in late October; a military commissar from Imishly district was arrested on bribery charges in mid-November, according to day.az on November 17; and the trial of a further group of 18 officers accused of extracting a total of $82,200 in such bribes between 2001-2004 got under way in mid-January. In all, some 60 "senior" officers from local garrisons went on trial on such charges last year, day.az reported on March 14 quoting Afragim Tahmazov, head of the Military Prosecutor's press service.
It was partly in order to eradicate such malpractice that amendments have been enacted to the law on mobilization that abolish regional call-up centers and designate a single center to which all draftees must report, zerkalo.az reported on March 11. That center will not be subordinate to the Defense Ministry but directly to the head of state. Further, unspecified changes to the system of inducting young men into the armed forces are to take effect over the next few years. (Liz Fuller)
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT DEPUTIES PUT THEIR OWN NEEDS FIRST? During the debates last December on the draft budget for 2006, the Georgian parliament axed completely seven of the almost 60 social programs that received budget finding in 2005 and reduced the amount earmarked for 14 more programs, according to opposition parliament deputy Tina Khidasheli on December 27. At the same time, deputies voted themselves a handsome salary increase, from 750 laris ($411) to 2,000 laris ($1,095) per month, Caucasus Press reported on December 28. Parliament deputy speaker Mikheil Machavariani announced during that debate that the chairmen of parliament commissions would in future be paid 3,000 laris monthly, which is slightly more than government ministers receive (2,900 laris, according to Caucasus Press on November 2). The average monthly salary in Georgia last summer was $58.5, Caucasus Press reported on June 7. Russia had the highest average monthly wage ($237.2), followed by Kazakhstan ($207.8). In Azerbaijan and Armenia, the average was $98.7 and $78.7 respectively. Other expenditures the parliament endorsed during the December budget debate included 116,350 laris for a new SUV and 11,000 laris for "souvenirs."
Just two months later, on February 27, the parliament's Tender Commission declared a tender for the purchase of an additional 21 automobiles of foreign manufacture, either limousines or SUVs, Caucasus Press reported. Specifications included no less than four-cylinder motors, strengthened suspension, air conditioning, no fewer than two airbags, and power steering.
A second complaint voiced by parliament deputies during the budget debate in late December was that they are overworked and need assistants to help with their workloads. Opposition deputies and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze duly approved the allocation of 700,000 laris to pay those assistants' salaries, Caucasus Press reported on December 22. On March 7, deputies began sifting a short list of 700 out of 1,000 applications received for 170 assistants' positions, Caucasus Press reported. It is not clear whether the remaining 55 deputies already have assistants and so do not need to hire them, or whether some assistants will be detailed to work with more than one parliamentarian. (Liz Fuller)
NOGAIS DEMAND AUTONOMOUS DISTRICT. The Nogai community of the Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR), which numbers a little fewer than 15,000 people and accounts for just 3.4 percent of the republic's total population, has convened its fourth congress in Cherkessk, which focused on the problems that community faces, regnum.ru and 09biz.ru reported on March 14. Those problems include the lack of employment opportunities in the rural districts where most Nogais live, and which has resulted in the emigration of many young Nogai men to Russia's Far North in search of work. The Nogais agreed that the first step towards resolving those problems should be the creation of a Nogai autonomous district, an initiative which KChR President Mustafa Batdyev has termed expedient, according to caucasustimes.com. Addressing the congress, writer Isa Kapaev deplored the negative press coverage given to the Nogais in the wake of last month's clashes in Stavropol Krai between police and security forces and a so-called "Nogai battalion" aligned with the Chechen resistance (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 24, 2006). Kapaev claimed that no such battalion exists, and he protested the media's tendency "to equate Nogais with terrorists." The congress set up a National Council and elected as chairman of the social-political organization Birlik Valery Sanglibaev, who is a factory director and deputy to the KChR parliament. (Liz Fuller)
QUOTATION OF THE WEEK. "Experience shows that it is easy to invite foreign troops [on to your territory], but it is a lot more difficult to induce them to leave." -- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking in Moscow on March 14 at the 20th meeting of the working group on the Caspian Sea (quoted by RFE/RL).