Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Azerbaijan's President Appoints New Minister of Defense

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By Mina Muradova (the 27/11/2013 issue of the CACI Analyst)

The appointment of a new Minister of Defense in Azerbaijan is considered to be a surprising decision of newly re-elected President Ilham Aliyev, causing speculations over his reasons for changing one of the veteran ministers in the cabinet. It has been suggested that the decision to replace Safar Abiyev with Zakir Hasanov, Deputy Interior Minister and Commander of Internal Troops for the last ten years, could signal that Baku is getting ready to move from military rhetoric to action in retaking the territories occupied during the conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Senior Azerbaijani officials have warned repeatedly that unless a political settlement is reached regarding Karabakh, a “military solution” is the only alternative.

Armenian analysts have also expressed concerns over what Abiyev’s replacement will mean for future negotiations over Nagorno-Karabakh. Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian stated that “… with the new Azerbaijani Defense Minister, the risk of war over Karabakh has just increased three-fold, as this move may signal the start of real defense reform and adoption of a serious offensive posture, as well as a possible end to corruption within the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense.”

Rasim Musabeyov, a member of Azerbaijan’s parliament, believes that no military action in Nagorno-Karabakh should be expected until at least 2015, as Azerbaijan is preparing to host the 2015 European Games. He said the replacement of the Defense Minister was no surprise, due to the problem of “non-combat deaths among soldiers in peace time,” and the public indignation caused by the growing government spending on the army. Musabeyov asserted that the President aims to “strengthen and improve this sector” by the new appointment, and described the new minister as an “experienced commander who could establish a strong discipline and keep non-combat losses in his internal troops on the lowest level.”

Former Defense Minister Abiyev held his post for 18 years and was frequently blamed for corruption in the armed forces. Regardless of the motivation behind the decision, the replacement was largely received positively by the Azerbaijani public. A series of rallies have been held this year in central Baku to raise awareness about the deaths of young army conscripts and demand that they be investigated.

According to Doktrina, a non-governmental research center specialized in defense affairs, of the 76 soldiers who have died this year only ten were killed by Armenian forces along the front lines, where a tenuous ceasefire has been in place since 1994. Most non-combat deaths are reported as suicides. The proportions were similar last year, with 20 combat deaths out of the total 97 fatalities in the military.

At the same time, defense expenses have over the last decade increased by a factor of 22. As President Aliyev noted “[if] in 2003 our military budget was US$163 million, last year this figure was US$ 3.6 billion and this year it has reached US$ 3.7 billion.” The parliament is currently considering the 2014 state budget and according to the bill, the government is going to spend AZN 48 million (US$ 60 million) more than in 2013. Military expenses are the largest post in the national budget.

Aliyev stated at a government meeting in October that “…The military costs are taking a special place in the state budget of this year…, this is natural, since we live in conditions of war and the Azerbaijani government is doing everything possible to accelerate and strengthen the army’s development … Currently, the Azerbaijani army is the strongest, most professional and battle worthy army in the South Caucasus.”

An International Crisis Group (ICG) report released five years ago noted that the lack of meaningful parliamentary oversight leads to a lack of transparency and accountability in the security sector, causing problems such as price inflation and preferential treatment of proxy companies, as well as lethal accidents due to inferior hardware. ICG described reforms in the Azerbaijani army as a reflection of “the ruling elite’s greater fear of internal challenges, rather than external ones,” due to the systematic upgrades of the internal troops and other law enforcement agencies, whose primary role is to protect the ruling elite. “A war in Nagorno-Karabakh is unlikely in the immediate term. But in the longer term fragmented, divided, accountable-to-no-one-but-the-president, un-transparent, corrupt and internally feuding armed forces could all too easily be sent off to fight to satisfy internal power struggles,” the report reads.

Newly appointed Defense Minister Hasanov has sacked the two deputy ministers and other senior officers he inherited from his predecessor. Oxford Analytica noted in a recent analysis that the replacement of Abiyev with the commander of the country's Internal Troops represents a significant shift in policy, suggesting the possible launch of serious defense reform and a new anti-corruption campaign within the Azerbaijani armed forces. “The move may also herald a more forceful use of the military to ensure internal domestic order and stability,” it notes.

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