On September 13 experts from the Center for Military Analytical Research in Baku launched an unprecedented attack on the Azeri defense ministry, arguing that the country had stepped back from its cooperation with the United States and NATO. The controversy erupted over a semantic nuance, which was interpreted as representing a significant policy change. Azerbaijan’s defense ministry department for international relations and Euro-Atlantic integration was renamed as the "department for international military cooperation," while Major-General Ramiz Nacafov was appointed as its deputy director. Experts argued that dropping the term "Euro-Atlantic" from the name of the department responsible for cooperation with NATO demonstrated that Baku wanted to downplay its partnership with the Alliance. "Following the August 2008 events in Georgia, a new military and political situation emerged in the South Caucasus. This situation makes Azerbaijan pursue its cooperation with NATO in a more cautious manner," Casur Sumarinli, an expert at the center suggested (Azadliq, September 13).
The Azeri defense ministry was swift to rebut the allegation, which its spokesman Eldar Sabiroglu characterized as a "provocation." He noted that the name change simply denoted the growing number of countries involved in defense cooperation with Azerbaijan, and did not imply any change in policy towards NATO (Azadliq, September 15). Indeed, the name change by itself could not carry such negative connotations, since the "Euro-Atlantic" reference was only added to the department’s title in early 2007. However, while it is misleading to use this semantic issue as an indication that Baku has become more cautious in its NATO policy, reflecting concerns in Moscow, some Azeri analysts note the deepening level of energy cooperation between Russia and Azerbaijan as providing underlying reasons to conclude that a rethink might be underway vis-à-vis relations with NATO.
Indeed, in late August Azerbaijan’s foreign ministry spokesman Elxan Poluxov told the APA news agency that the country continues to successfully cooperate with NATO. "The growing size of Azerbaijan’s military contingent in Afghanistan is an example of such cooperation. This means Azerbaijan encounters no problems with NATO in the peacekeeping process carried out in Afghanistan," he observed (APA, August 27).
On September 5, the Azeri defense ministry described structural changes carried out within the armed forces since the intensification of cooperation with NATO in 2007, and throughout his comments he used the phrase "in line with NATO standards." The defense ministry had completed structural changes in its central apparatus, forming new departments and sections in an effort to streamline and enhance its managerial efficiency, as well as pursuing reforms throughout the armed forces as the country actively pursued the adoption of NATO standards. Noting that Azerbaijan’s armed forces are the strongest and most combat capable in the South Caucasus, defense ministry spokesman Sabiroglu also stressed the intensity of cooperation with NATO, and the diversification of foreign defense assistance: the country has defense relations with 52 states and military agreements were signed with 26 countries. Reform of the military education system has witnessed increased numbers of foreign servicemen studying at the Heydar Aliyev Supreme Military School, including the naval and military flying schools (Ayna, September 5).
Moreover, the first stage of a three week long inspection of the Azeri armed forces ended on September 11. The inspection was aimed at identifying and eliminating shortcomings within the army, and was more thoroughly implemented than a similar inspection three years ago. The next stage of the inspection will be conducted by members of staff from the presidential administration, the national security ministry, the military prosecutor’s office and the defense ministry -following advice provided by the U.S. department of defense and NATO. Its overall aim is to assist the military in its quest to achieve greater NATO interoperability in key formations, enhance defense planning, as well as playing a significant role in the re-writing of the military doctrine and the strategic defense review in 2010 (Azadliq, September 11).
According to an Azeri defense ministry source: "This will be an all-out inspection operation: all the military units in the army, logistics, the state of tactical and combat readiness of the troops, conditions within the barracks, including ammunition and military hardware will be the focus of the inspection." Retired Colonel Ildirim Mammadov, the Director of the Center for Military Analytical Research said that inspections are regularly conducted within the militaries of NATO members, including the United States and Germany, and consequently the authorities are better informed about the real condition and problems facing their own armed forces. "The military commands of these countries are interested in inspections. Because their military spending rises annually, the only way of persuading the political leadership of the military’s needs is through inspections," Mammadov said (Ayna, August 15).
Problems clearly remain within the Azeri military, ranging from bullying to corruption and criminality. A high profile incident on May 23 involved warrant officer Orxan Safarov, who killed four servicemen and wounded one at the Seyfali military testing ground in Samkir District. The supply of units with modern weapons and military hardware has improved as defense spending has grown in recent years. While the defense ministry has sought to crack down on such cases of criminality, with more individuals being prosecuted, it has also endeavored to enhance the image of the armed forces by increasing the frequency of visits to military units from parliamentarians, representatives of the public and NGO’s. Editors-in-chief and journalists have been invited to participate in such visits in October (Ayna, September 5).
Azerbaijan has steadily enhanced its level of cooperation with NATO through its membership of Partnership for Peace (PfP) and at a bilateral level with Alliance members. NATO would like to see a more concerted effort by Baku to strengthen civil control over the armed forces and make the security structures more accountable to parliament, as well as protecting the rights of servicemen. Nonetheless, altering the name of its department for international military cooperation has aroused speculation among Azeri experts that the government might be reassessing its relationship with the Alliance. The depth of its cooperation, ongoing contribution to the work of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the influence of U.S. and NATO on the country’s defense planning all indicate an enduring partnership. The implementation of the current round of intensive inspections of the armed forces, on the recommendation of Washington and Brussels confirms that western influence is growing within Azerbaijan’s armed forces.