Zakir Hasanov, Azerbaijan's new defense minister (photo: Azerbaijan Ministry of Internal Affairs)
Azerbaijan's newly re-elected president Ilham Aliyev has announced his new cabinet, and it contains one surprise: long-serving Defense Minister Safar Abiyev has been let go. Abiyev was a controversial figure, holding his post since 1995 and widely seen as the source of much corruption in the MoD. The conventional wisdom for some time has held that if Abiyev were replaced, that would be a signal that Azerbaijan was getting ready to move to try to take back the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh. So is that what's happening?
Yerevan-based analyst Richard Giragosian says so; he posted on his social media sites that "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 serious offensive posture, as well as a possible end to corruption within the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense."
But a source in Baku, who asked not to be named, said that internal considerations may be more at play in Abiyev's removal. For one, he was the target of recent protests over poor conditions for Azerbaijani soldiers. Secondly, he was at the center of a dispute this month between the U.S. embassy in Baku and the Azerbaijani government over criticism of the presidential vote. And Abiyev reportedly had a bad reputation among allies.
Abiyev's replacement is Zakir Hasanov, currently the head of Azerbaijan's "internal troops." Sergey Minasyan, another Yerevan-based analyst, asked whether Abiyev's departure meant an increased likelihood of war, told The Bug Pit: "I am convinced that this new appointment means completely the opposite. If the former commander of the police Internal forces has been appointed as a minister of defense that likely would mean that Aliyev is more interested in better control and predictability of his own armed forces than to start a new war." Furthermore, Hasanov doesn't seem to have any combat experience; even in his Soviet Army days he served in rear bases.
Abiyev's fate is still unclear. Vzglyad.az quotes him as responding to the news in an unedifying fashion: "I assess this as completely normal. There is no sort of problem here." The source in Baku suggests that learning where Abiyev ends up will give more indications of what this move might really mean.