By Shahin Abbasov
Azerbaijan may boast a billion-dollar-plus annual defense budget and a professed commitment to military reforms, but the deaths of soldiers in non-combat-related incidents are raising questions about the government’s commitment to remaking the country’s armed forces.
The issue of non-combat deaths gained notoriety over the course of recent, three-day span. On November 1, 19-year-old Private Azer Abbaszade, died at a base in Barda, close to the Nagorno-Karabakh frontline, with pneumonia listed as the official cause of death. Abbaszade’s death was preceded by the deaths of 18-year-old Private Ruslan Kerimov, also allegedly from pneumonia, and 19-year-old Private Raul Agayev, “from a disease,” in Ganja on October 30 and 31, respectively. Privately, observers don’t fully trust the official explanations, and suspect other factors, specifically bullying, may have been a factor in the tragedies.
The Ministry of Defense seems less than eager to discuss non-combat-related deaths. Ministry spokesperson Eldar Sabiroglu told EurasiaNet.org that an investigation is ongoing. The Office of the Military Prosecutor announced on November 10 that four officers working in Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry have been dismissed in connection with the three deaths and four officers demoted; another 11 officers were given reprimands. Prosecutors did not release the names of those punished.
Amid heightened tensions with Armenia over the ongoing struggle to control Karabakh, any issue in Azerbaijan that touches the military is sensitive. In April, Sabiroglu called on Azerbaijani media “to be attentive with publications concerning the army,” adding that “[i]t is wrong to make generalizations . . . based on some incidents.”
“Indeed, even one loss is hard for us,” Sabiroglu claimed. “We fully understand the responsibility” for the soldiers’ deaths falls on the Ministry of Defense, he continued.
A coalition of several Azerbaijani human rights groups has been tracking non-combat deaths and notes a disturbing upward trend. Based on Defense Ministry information not released to the public, the Group of Monitoring Compliance with Human Rights in the Army (GMCHRA) has recorded the deaths of 76 soldiers to date in non-combat incidents for 2011, and the injury of 91 others. That compares with 62 non-combat deaths and 71 cases of injury in 2010. Possible reasons for the increase were not identified.
“Civil society cannot stand aside from these problems,” commented Arzu Abdullayeva, one of GMCHRA’s founders and the head of Azerbaijan’s National Committee of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly.
In general, the Azerbaijani public has remained passive on this issue. In 2009, several anonymously posted videos on social networking websites depicted soldiers beating, as well as the humiliation of fresh draftees – a practice known as dedovshchina during the Soviet era. The videos prompted prosecutions and prison terms for the accused. But this case has proven the exception, rather than the rule.
Politicians have proven similarly cautious about tackling the problem head-on. MP Zahid Oruc, a member of the parliamentary Committee for Defense and Security for the Motherland Party, expressed concern about the deaths, but noted that “such things happen in all armies.”
Non-combat-related deaths constitute an even more contentious issue in Armenia. A string of non-combat deaths there produced a public outcry – particularly via social networks — against Armenia’s military leadership, one of the country’s most respected institutions. Some critics have gone so far as to call for the resignations of Defense Minister Seyhran Ohanyan and President Serzh Sargsyan.
Officials in Baku have no desire to travel down a similar road; hence, authorities have warned Azerbaijani media outlets about “exaggerations.” President Ilham Aliyev’s administration prefers to emphasize Azerbaijan’s slotted $1.76-billion (over 1.38 billion manats) 2012 military budget and its interest in reform.
For at least one military analyst, the spate of non-combat deaths raises questions about reform progress. While Baku since 2007 has claimed that it has made the switchover to NATO standards, the assertion “is not logical,” said Jasur Sumarinly, who heads a non-governmental group called the Doktrina Military Correspondent Investigative Center. “Harassment among servicemen was typical for the Soviet military, but not NATO armies.”
Based on Defense Ministry information not released to the public, Sumarinly notes that between 2007 and 2010, the frequency of army deaths from harassment and suicide actually increased (68 deaths from abuse, 35 suicides), compared with the preceding four years (2003-2006: 33 deaths from abuse, 23 suicides). That suggests, he argues, that no real attempt has been made to correct hazing-related abuse in the ranks.
Yashar Jafarly, an army colonel-in-reserve and director of the Public Union of Officers in Reserve, adds that, since the 1994 cease-fire with Armenia covering Karabakh, only about 15 to 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s 3,500 army deaths have been related to combat causes.
Jafarly blames the lack of civil society oversight for such abuses. “Civil society activists and human rights defenders do not have access to the armed forces and it creates problems,” he said. Even troops stationed on the front lines do not appear to be better disciplined, he added.
Widespread problems with corruption complicate the matter further, he continued. Officers routinely demand bribes from soldiers and their parents for army leave, better accommodation or other amenities. Those who do not pay may be subject to physical abuse or other forms of harassment.
Recently discharged soldiers interviewed by EurasiaNet.org appear to have varying recollections of their experiences at the frontline. While one former serviceman, stationed in Barda, reported that both soldiers and officers had renovated housing and adequate food, supposedly in keeping with NATO standards, another ex-serviceman, who served in Geranboy, reported a lack of drinking water and inadequate housing and sanitation.
As with non-combat-related deaths, the government admits a problem exists, but has been less than enthusiastic about making the Azerbaijani public part of the discussion about any solution. Some 58 criminal cases related to corruption were launched in the army in 2011, according to the latest information available.
Shain Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. He is also a board member of the Open Society Foundation – Azerbaijan.