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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A War With Armenia? Not This Azeri Army

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BAKU, Azerbaijan -- If you judge a country by the state of its army, Azerbaijan is heading for the rocks.

All 3,000 cadets at the Higher Military Academy in Baku deserted their barracks last Tuesday to protest their meager wages and atrocious living conditions.

Relatives of the deserters gathered outside the gates of the academy early Wednesday morning, anxious for news of their return. One told me her son had jumped ship because he had had enough.

"It's little better than a prison in there," she said. "They get just one hour of running water a day, and there's no electricity or gas, even in winter."

An embarrassed Safar Abiyev, the country's interior minister, hurried to the academy Tuesday night to try to sort things out. By Wednesday morning, a lot of the trainee officers had returned to their barracks, and a full investigation is now under way.

The mass desertion comes at an unfortunate time for the Interior Ministry, which is still reeling from criticism for the deaths of at least a dozen conscripts from heat stroke this year.

Human rights groups here say soldiers are forced to march for hours in the fierce midday sun, often without any water to drink, despite a ban on drills being held during the hottest part of the day.

A former officer in the Soviet army who didn't want to be named said Azerbaijan's military is in a sorry state.

"If a person is always thinking about how difficult his situation is, if he's always wondering how he's going to feed his children and whether there will be any running water or if he'll have to go and steal it from somewhere, what sort of an officer is he going to make?" he said.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, its former republics have had to patch together armies on a shoestring. Azerbaijan relies on conscripts to pad out its military forces, but anyone with a bit of nous and a couple of hundred dollars to spare can buy their way out. The ones who can't are often in poor health and unfit to serve.

On top of this, the Azeri army suffered huge losses during the six-year war with neighboring Armenia, which ended in a fragile cease-fire in 1994.

Dire straits call for dire measures, and so the president, Haidar Aliyev, has set up a charitable fund to boost his wretched military. So far donations have been few.

Hard-liners in the government are keen to finish off the war with Armenia. But given the events of last week, it looks as though the country's armed forces may not be up to the job.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.