In recent years, Baku has doubled defense spending, from over $2 billion in 2009 to $4.4 billion for 2012. At the same time, senior officials have warned repeatedly that in the absence of a political settlement to the Karabakh conflict, a "military solution" is the only alternative. Whether massive cash injections alone can transform armed forces that were described in an International Crisis Group (ICG) report released three years ago as "fragmented, divided, accountable-to-no-one-but-the-president, un-transparent, corrupt, and internally feuding" is questionable, however.
Initial measures unveiled last week focus on modernizing conscription, one of several spheres within the armed forces where corruption is reportedly endemic. Military service is mandatory in Azerbaijan for men between the ages of 18 and 35. The ICG report noted that many conscripts' families pay bribes to military commissars in order to avoid front-line duty by being sent to serve in other units such as the Interior troops.
As a first step, Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has issued a decree abolishing the district military commissariats subordinate to the Defense Ministry and establishing in their place a civil State Service for Mobilization and Induction into Military Service, which held its first session on February 15.
Retired Colonel Ildyrym Mamedov, who now heads the civilian Center for Military Academic Research, described the military commissariats, a Soviet throwback dating to before World War II, as "a repressive and corrupt organ that is incapable of taking decisions, and poisons relations between the people and the state." He said the commissars were for the most part corrupt "daddy's boys" who had never seen active service and had no management experience; he branded them "a disgrace to the armed forces."
Cesur Sumerinli, who heads the Doktrina Center for Journalistic Military Research, told Kavkaz-uzel.ru that "dozens" of former military commissars were currently under arrest awaiting trial on bribery and corruption charges.
The new civil state service is headed by Arzu Ragimov, a former general who previously served as chairman of the State Migration Service. According to Colonel Mamedov, it is primarily thanks to Ragimov's professionalism that the State Migration Service is one of the country's most professional agencies. Sumerinli for his part noted that Ragimov has never been implicated in corruption.
Sumerinli also told Kavkaz-uzel.ru that creation of a civilian agency to oversee conscription was one of the requirements enshrined in the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) agreed with NATO in 2005. The law on mobilization was duly amended to replace regional call-up centers with a single one subordinate directly to the head of state, zerkalo.az reported on March 11, 2006, but that amendment apparently remained on paper.
The ICG report noted that those selective reforms that have been implemented within the Azerbaijani military have been undertaken in order to meets the demands of successive IPAPs. The most recent IPAP was finalized in December 2011.
Revamping conscription may, as Sumerinli noted, reduce the potential leeway for corruption in that sector. But many other areas have long been affected, including procurement and supply. The online daily "Ayna-Zerkalo" has reported fearlessly since the mid-to-late 1990s on such abuses as the falsification of documentation pertaining to the purchase of food supplies, some of which (canned pet food past its sell-by date) was not fit for human consumption.
In March 2006, zerkalo.az reported that President Aliyev planned to issue "soon" orders to create a special commission that was to review the spending by the Defense Ministry of budget funds. But three years later, the ICG concluded that corruption in procurement and supply was still a problem. "A lack of transparency and parliamentary oversight of tenders for military construction and food and other purchases for the army allows inflated prices and proxy companies to receive preferential treatment," the report reads. "Lethal accidents in the armed forces due to technical malfunctions have led to speculation that due to corruption in procurement, outdated hardware is being purchased as new."
As long as Azerbaijan's top brass refuse to take effective measures to eradicate not only corruption in its various manifestations, but also brutal hazing, reform of the call-up system alone will not yield armed forces that conform to NATO standards. According to Mamedov, that can be achieved only by switching to a professional army serving on a contract basis, backed by a pool of reservists who undergo annual training.