Armenian Spies in Azerbaijani Army? Allegations in Context

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Ilham Aliyev visits Terter military unit in Dec. 2016. Azertag image grab

Analysis by Emil Sanamyan

On May 7, the Azerbaijani government issued a statement claiming that a number of military personnel and civilians were arrested and charged with espionage in favor of Armenia. The statement said the group was operating in Azerbaijan’s Terter district, northeast of Nagorno Karabakh. No further details were provided, but multiple social media posters said there were between forty and sixty people arrested, most of them army servicemen.

If social media claims are true, the current crackdown in the Azerbaijani armed forces is the largest since the 1990s. But even then most of those targeted were charged with political disloyalty rather than foreign espionage.  The official claims seem doubtful for a number of reasons.

First, the Azerbaijani government keeps most military issues secret and an announcement about the arrests is intended to send a political message to the public, rather than serve to inform it. Azerbaijan’s track record when it comes to charges of espionage is highly politicized. In recent years, such charges were leveled against political opponents, critical writers and military personnel taken prisoner by Armenian forces. (See list below.)

Second, recruiting personnel in a foreign country is always challenging, let alone in a country as hostile to Armenia as is Azerbaijan. Some Azerbaijani commentators have hinted that the arrests are related to the Russian influence inside Azerbaijan’s defense ministry. It is notable that since 2004 Azerbaijan has not charged anyone accused of espionage of working for Russia. Prior to that, and especially in the 1990s, most of those arrested or accused of espionage were linked to Russia. This seems to reflect the Azerbaijani regime’s effort not to antagonize Moscow.

Finally, any such crackdown primarily reflects the domestic political calculus. It is notable that the statement about the arrests was issued not only by the State Security Service, which normally prosecutes foreign espionage, but also by the Interior Ministry (police), the civilian Prosecutor General’s office and the Defense Ministry itself. The signing arrangement seemed to reflect an effort to show a united front by agency heads that are known to have various degrees of loyalty to president Ilham Aliyev and the long-time head of presidential staff Ramiz Mekhdiyev.

An incomplete list of individuals accused of treason by the Azerbaijani government:

Compiled by Focus on Karabakh.

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