Europe Briefing N°50
29 October 2008
Azerbaijan wants to create a strong army to regain Nagorno-Karabakh and seven adjacent districts, either by improving its negotiating leverage with Armenia or going back to war. It has exponentially increased its military budget, though it has not so far gained clear superiority over Armenian forces. If the new military is to be not only stronger but also better governed, however, it needs deep reforms to make it less corrupt and personality driven, more transparent and better directed. So far there has been insufficient political will either to do the part that should involve increasing democratic and civilian control or to break the habit of treating the army as above all an instrument with which to protect elite interests.
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. A modern and efficient army, even if subject to democratic, civilian control, is not unproblematic while the Nagorno-Karabakh situation remains deeply resented in the polity. However, the ability to hold the leadership responsible for expenditures and policy priorities at least has the potential to make the system more responsible and predictable. NATO, which is helping with military reform, should enhance Azerbaijani knowledge of peacekeeping and laws of war, and when possible facilitate dialogue and contacts between the militaries of the two sides. The EU, U.S. and Russia should also reinvigorate efforts to push the parties to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The government’s pledge to significantly reform the military is part of a stated goal of national modernisation and democratisation. Though the presidential election on 15 October 2008 was technically improved, it offered no genuine alternative to the incumbent. As democratisation has stalled, so too have crucial parts of military reform. Thus, parliament has failed to oversee military expenditure and has no authority to summon power ministers, including the defence minister, to report on their activities, but it is itself the product of flawed elections and far from a truly democratic institution. Democratic improvements in the military can contribute to national democratisation, but they are unlikely to drive that process or advance in isolation. If Azerbaijan is committed to thorough reform of the military, it will need to change substantially in many other areas of government and society as well.
The defence reforms that have occurred have often been stimulated by cooperation with NATO. Azerbaijan was one of the first former Soviet countries to join the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program in 1994. Especially the 2005 and 2008 Individual Partnership Action Plans (IPAP) provide a blueprint for democratic control of the armed forces, defence planning and budgeting, interoperability with NATO and structural reorganisation according to NATO standards. Baku has often dragged its feet in implementing IPAP-recommended reforms, however, in part at least because it has no clear membership aspirations, due to a foreign policy which seeks to balance interests with the U.S., EU, Russia and Iran. Moscow’s August military intervention in Georgia has further convinced it of the advantages of an ambiguous policy and made it less ready to push forward with NATO integration.
Defence sector reform in Azerbaijan is an understudied subject, about which little comprehensive analysis has been attempted. The bulk of research has been carried out by a handful of journalists. The defence sector remains one of the most secretive and non-transparent segments of the government. Crisis Group was restricted in its own field work by limited access to government sources, military personnel and installations. By improving the dissemination of information, the government could do more to dispel the doubts that arise regarding the impact of its increased military spending.
If it indeed wishes to pursue a more efficient, NATO-standard military, subject to more democratic civilian control and greater transparency and accountability, the government should:
In the meantime, NATO should carefully review its strategic purpose in working with the militaries of Caucasus states, particularly with respect to unresolved conflicts. It should focus its military cooperation with Azerbaijan strictly on efforts to improve democratic, civilian control of the armed forces and not move beyond the IPAP while Nagorno-Karabakh remains unresolved. Especially the U.S. and the EU should at the same time move resolution of that simmering conflict much higher up their agendas and seek, in cooperation with Russia, to put pressure on both Azerbaijan and Armenia to compromise in line with the principles proposed by the Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).