Guest Post: Hungarian-Azeri-Armenian Relations: The Axe Factor

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by Joshua Foust on 9/4/2012 · 24 comments

This is a guest post by Péter Marton.

The act

Ramil Safarov, a lieutenant in the Azerbaijani army, came to Budapest in 2004 to study English at a seminar organized by the Hungarian National Defense University in the framework of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. There were participants of various nationalities attending the course, including Armenians, and after some more cordial initial encounters, insults were traded between them and the Azeri officer.

Safarov’s Hungarian defense lawyer would later claim that he is an exceptionally intelligent young man, as evidenced by his IQ tests, but in this case his intelligence clearly did not translate into wisdom. On the night of February 19, 2004 he proceeded to hack to death one of the Armenian officers, army lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan, with an axe he had bought the previous day. He then tried to get into the room where the other Armenian officer was staying, at the same dorm, but stopped at calling out the officer’s name in front of the locked door to his room. An Uzbek student put an end to the madness by grabbing Safarov, calming him down. Together they lit a cigarette.

Safarov hails from the broader region of Nagorno-Karabakh. His family members had to flee to Baku, and people whom he referred to as his cousins were killed during the war which clearly traumatized him. In his own retelling he also added, however, that he did not kill anyone during the war with Armenia and that for this reason he felt it was his duty to act this time, feeling this would be a way to get even for atrocities that Azeris suffered during the conflict at the hands of Armenians. He also alleged that at one point his victim insulted the Azeri flag which he saw as particularly offensive – something that further convinced him to take action. What he then did shocked even his fellow Azeri student enrolled in the same program.

The murder caused enormous embarrassment for Hungary. A soldier, for whose security Hungarian authorities had taken responsibility, killed by another guest of the Hungarian state, indirectly under the auspices of NATO. In April 2006, Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the following year a Hungarian court of appeal upheld the ruling. As it turned out, however, this was not the last time Ramil Safarov would cause major problems for Hungary. Although at the second time when he was to do so, it would not really be by his doing.

Five and a half years later

On August 31, 2012, Hungary extradited Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan. Upon the Azeri request for extradition, the Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice reportedly sought formal assurance from its Azeri counterpart that Safarov would duly serve the remainder of his sentence in Azerbaijan, and received a fax reply, signed by the Deputy Minister of Justice, stating that as a matter of general practice sentenced persons who are transferred to Azerbaijan do serve the remainder of their sentences “without conversion or having to go through any new judicial procedure.”

According to the Hungarian government’s version of events, the Hungarian Ministry was at this point satisfied by the Azeri response. They claim that they had no reason to doubt the intentions of a country like Azerbaijan, elected as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council with strong support in the UN General Assembly (having competed against Hungary, incidentally, and Slovenia for the slot reserved for Eastern European countries).

With authorization from Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, Hungarian authorities went ahead with the transfer. Upon Safarov’s arrival, Azeri President Ilham Aliyev immediately pardoned him, and then promoted him to the rank of major in the Azerbaijani army. In no time the masses were celebrating his return home on the streets. The elated deputy chairman and executive secretary of the presidential New Azerbaijan Party, Ali Akhmedov declared that now that “Ramil was released, next is the liberation of Karabakh.”

What changed in-between

In a nutshell, Azerbaijan became very important, for Hungary as well as for others.  By the time Ramil Safarov decided to kill his Armenian schoolmate, plans for what is widely known now as the Nabucco pipeline were already being considered. Caucasian developments slowly paved the way for such a project to seem feasible, and this prompted a wave of engagements in the field energy diplomacy by hitherto passive players, including Eastern European countries facing the problem of one-sided dependence on Russian natural gas imports.

Safarov became very important, too. Zahid Oruj, a member of the Azerbaijani parliament’s national security committee now claims that the chief reason for the opening of an Azerbaijani embassy in Budapest was to defend Safarov’s interests and expedite his release. Azeri diplomats did indeed work hard on this. On numerous occasions they requested Safarov’s extradition, only to be turned down.

Then the Hungarian government changed, too, with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government coming to power in 2010. The new leadership inherited problems with state debt and was seeking to address this challenge through what it called “unorthodox” solutions. In order to remain loyal to its own, peculiar vision of economic policy, the government was now interested in seeking unorthodox sources of debt refinancing as well, as an alternative to the IMF and its conditionality-based lending. At the same time they were pushing on with Hungary’s already intense efforts in energy diplomacy. They also announced a policy of “global opening” and later a policy of “eastern opening,” turning, for favorable economic cooperation agreements and assistance, to countries like China, Saudi Arabia and even Azerbaijan. In the beginning of August this year, news emerged that Hungary was considering an issuance of sovereign bonds in Turkey, denominated in either Turkish lira or Azeri manat, or both. At around the same time, the Azeri oil firm, SOCARindicated they would eventually decide on whether they would prefer the Nabucco-West or the TAP (Trans-Adriatic) pipeline as the priority arm of the gas supply route carrying gas from the Caspian Shah Deniz field to Europe.

And then Safarov’s extradition took place.

Perceptions

The Hungarian government is left looking either hopelessly naïve or blatantly cynical in the wake of Safarov’s pardon in Azerbaijan. The contrast between the two different interpretations gets even starker when one considers that there may have been occasional talks about Safarov’s fate between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Azeri President Ilham Aliyev for over a year, as Novruz Mammadov, the foreign affairs secretary of the Azeri presidential cabinet now says.

The current Hungarian government version is in line with the former assumption. Armenian protesters in various capitals from Yerevan to Washington, for their part, were keen onrunning the point home that it is the second version – a case of cynicism – that they believe to be true. Péter Szijjártó, the foreign affairs secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of the implementation of Hungary’s “eastern opening,” engaged in damage control by saying: “a dull international legal issue and the two countries’ economic cooperation have no bearing on each other whatsoever.” Meanwhile, both the Hungarian Government Debt Management Agency and SOFAZ, the State Oil Fund of Azerbaijandenied the existence of plans for the issuance or the purchasing of Hungarian sovereign bonds, respectively.

Regardless of this and the Hungarian diplomatic note handed in protest of the presidential pardon to the Azeri ambassador in Budapest, Armenia broke off diplomatic ties with Hungary, rather embarrassingly for a country like Hungary, having, as it does, a stake in the European Union’s Eastern Partnership. This may be true even though the Hungarian Armenian National Minority Self-Government is now saying that the Armenian ambassador to Vienna, Austria, who would have been accredited to Budapest as well, could not present his letter of credence to the President of Hungary for over a year, and that diplomatic ties were thus not functioning really well anyway.

Hard realities

Whatever one thinks of the reasons for Hungary’s decision, there is no denying the fact that as long as natural gas imports remain important for the country, it will need to keep the Azeri option alive. And although calculations regarding this were not necessarily at the core of the move to extradite Safarov and thus please the Azeri people and leadership, it now transpires more clearly that popular Azeri attitudes about Hungary were in fact not very positive.

Ali Akhmedov, in the same speech, quoted above, in which he envisioned the liberation of Karabakh to follow Ramil Safarov’s release soon, remembered what happened eight years ago in Budapest in the following interesting terms: “Both Karabakh, and Ramil became victims of saboteurs.”

“Saboteur” is an interesting label to apply to a country for sentencing a murderer. The background to this may perhaps be illustrated by recent commentary from Azeri political analyist Ilgar Mammadov who concludes that as Hungary is widely seen in Azerbaijan as a country where Armenians are integrated into the elite since centuries, “the case of Safarov was also a strong slap in the face to all holders of the myth of the power of the Armenian diaspora.”

Ali Akhmedov is now sort-of generously giving credit to Hungary for “being able to assess” that “in world history no cases of Azerbaijan’s violence, injustice against any country have been recorded,” and that therefore “Azerbaijan has the right to expect from the other the same treatment.” He says he was happy to see that “when there is mind – no need to use force.”

That such attitudes may change vis-à-vis Hungary now is scarce consolation for the damage that has been done, not to mention the morals of the story.

 

Péter Marton is a lecturer in International Relations at Corvinus University in Budapest.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1849 posts on Registan.net.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 24 comments }

Robert September 4, 2012 at 10:58 am

This article seems like a joke. At points it seems to try to justify the murder. It also fails to mention that Safarov killed Margaryan while the latter was in his sleep. at 5AM. And they were both participating in the “Partnership For Peace” program…. Twisted.

It also fails to mention that during the karabakh war, safarov was in turkey, not karabakh and his claims that he was provoked were also found to be untrue during the trial.

Salo September 4, 2012 at 11:24 am

Azerbayjigan Republic is runned by a Dictator. Armenia it’s time to take back your land from these animals. I support a war to take back land.

Péter September 4, 2012 at 11:49 am

Robert,

Thank you for your comment.

No, I’m not justifying murder. I’m telling a story. Two different things.

That I didn’t mention this or that detail – please don’t see too much into this. Perhaps the reason for not mentioning that Gurgen Margaryan was asleep is that it is totally absolutely one-hundred-percently irrelevant to the fact that murder happened. Which is bad. Now there you have it, you see, I’m ready to say it.

By the way, a note on reading methodology: the links are there in the article so people can learn more details by themselves.

Yes, I also “fail” to mention Safarov didn’t fight in the war. I actually do if you read the article carefully, but go ahead. I thank you for sharing any further detail of the story with the audience.

Haroutoin September 4, 2012 at 5:21 pm

Peter – Robert was pointing out that Safarov LIVED in Turkey during the war, and thus his claims of emotional trauma resulting from the war are nonsense because he was nowhere near the war zone.

It is one of many fabrications that Safarov and the Azeris use to try to justify a brutal murder. (The others include Margaryan’s alleged insults directed at the Azeri flag, for which there are no witnesses, and also which does not explain why Safarov tried to murder the other Armenian soldier at the program before being stopped).

Péter September 4, 2012 at 11:09 pm

Haroutoin – I do realise the importance of these details to the point you and Robert are making.

By saying that Safarov may have been traumatised, I am not subscribing to the defense theory that was used by his lawyer – that he had PTSD as such. I was implying in a broader sense that what happened during the war left its scars on him. With war, this can happen even without somebody being there and doing it – when bad things happen to both family and the society one has to fit in. By not having been there in fact Safarov may have felt much more pressure to show his “worth” in this twisted way.

The point about the alleged insult Azeri flag – I was only quoting Safarov (saying “he alleged that…”) as I am quoting many other people in this article. Which of them is saying the truth, which isn’t – this could be a fair question in more than one case.

In this case, what Safarov mentioned about the flag supposedly took place in the company of many others. That no witness came forward and this could not be corroborated – no wonder the court did not take this into account in its ruling as a mitigating circumstance.

Davit Hovhannisyan September 4, 2012 at 12:25 pm

Dear Mr. Foust,

You’re never more than just blundered American researcher, as far as I’m concerned, you’re some sort of shady reporter. Get your facts straight about The Axe Factor.

Joshua Foust September 4, 2012 at 12:32 pm

Davit,

I appreciate your enthusiasm for research, but in that spirit please note that I did not actually write this post. Péter Marton did. You should direct your scorn — hopefully with evidence and argumentation so it’s not just trolling — to him.

Love,
Mr. Foust

Robert September 4, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Peter thanks for the reply.

Murders happen all the time. It’s important to mention the context, because that’s what makes this whole story so twisted.
They glorify a murderer that killed his “enemy” in his sleep during a “Partnership for Pleace” program.

cheers

Robert September 4, 2012 at 12:44 pm

I don’t want to turn this into one of those endless Internet comment debates. And this will be my last post. The point simply was if you bother to mention the axe factor instead of it being just another murder, then leaving out the other important factor can make readers misunderstand the circumstances of the murder. Someone could think it happened during the heat of the moment during a fight between the two.

P.s. It’s refreshing and appreciated to see the article written instead of it being a copy/pasteed version that most major western sources post on their sites.

Péter September 4, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Robert – thanks for your response. It is good that you bring up these issues, as they are important indeed.

As I said, that I did not put all of the context there is because it is not easy in the first place, and secondly because I tried to keep the diplomacy-related aspects and consequences of the story in the focus.

But what Safarov did was indeed brutal, pre-meditated murder. And in my own, analyst sort of way I think I left there enough hints as to what I think of this case in a moral sense. A detail I placed there that I specifically think merits attention is Safarov’s own admission that his Azeri colleague was totally freaked out by what he did.

Alan September 4, 2012 at 1:38 pm

If Hungary did not extradite Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan for the 3 Billion Euro Hungarian bond investment from Azerbaijan then it should have cut all its diplomatic relationships with Azerbaijan by now.
The Hungarian Sorry is not acceptable. They should act by cutting diplomatic relationship with Azerbaijan and recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh as they recognized Kosovo before. The people of Nagorno-Karabakh also have the right of self determination. No double standards please.

Ray September 4, 2012 at 4:31 pm

I have nothing against the author of this article/read, but I would say this “telling of a story” seems a bit one sided.

The author makes this murder seem so casual (like it happens all the time). How do you miss the fact that the Armenian gentleman was “SLEEPING” when this SOB tried to chop his head off? This clearly shows that this wasn’t an act that happened during a heated conversation(which is terrible, yet excusable in some cases), but a premeditated one. Adding a few important key words, changes the entire story.

It seems as if you were trying to victimize the HIGH IQ Azeri guy, as if it was accidental or it happens every other week.

I’m sorry but you are a terrible author. Maybe you should go work for the Azeri Propaganda news sites.

Péter September 4, 2012 at 11:19 pm

Ray – thank you for your comment. I am sorry that the tragic events of 2004 still, clearly, are burdening for you emotionally. And I can understand that.

What you need to understand is the difference between description and justification. In not omitting Safarov’s allegations about his motives I am trying to treat a subject in a fair way. In my view, you should not trust any analyst in a case like this who will say not trying to understand motives is a merit.

But as an example of narratives not mentioning that Gargaryan was asleep when Safarov attacked him, here is another article I can recommend you to read. I will include here the link and the way the murder itself is described:

“While attending the Nato Partnership for Peace programme in Budapest’s military academy, Safarov entered the bedroom of 25 year-old Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan, also attending the programme, and slaughtered him with an axe. ”
http://euobserver.com/opinion/117406

Now do you think Hrant Kostanyan, the author of this article should work for the Azeri side because of that? In that case he should be notified he is not supposed to recommend that the EU sanction Azerbaijan for the presidential pardon.

Ray September 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm

It’s really funny how you have a drop down on the top of your website that does not list Armenia under CAUCASUS. When I point the cursor to CAUCASUS, I only see Georgia and Azerbaijan. Why not Armenia? This is another Pro-Azeri Propaganda website. I’m no longer going to participate or consider this website a valid source for ANYTHING.

Pathetic.

Nathan Hamm September 5, 2012 at 1:09 pm

In the interest of transparency, Ray sent me several emails about my gross oversight.

The drop-downs are category-driven. He was quite upset that I don’t have anyone even to write about Armenia’s weather.

In the further interest of transparency, I’ll make clear we do not have an Armenia category because I have explicitly avoided dealing with Armenia at Registan. Way back in our early days, I found that uttering the word “Armenia,” no matter the context, resulted in a litany of insults, threats, and abuse from the diaspora. For context, I also occasionally received threats from Islamic extremists. To their credit, they were more polite and respectful.

Some people I know, like, and respect have encouraged me to make forays into dealing with Armenia. I’ve considered it. So, thank you Ray for snapping me back to reality.

Steve September 4, 2012 at 5:20 pm

Good, clear article. Not easy to write about this topic as things have been too emotional here so someone is likely to disagree.

A few points.

1. The murder was brutal and the murderer should be in jail. Everyone should agree. Even the Azeris.
2. Hungary made a mistake. But this is not so much about Hungary. Blaming Hungary is an excuse.
3. Azerbaijan made an even bigger mistake.
4. Armenia is absolutely hysterical (just read the comments here) and makes a big mistake by shutting all communication and understanding off. True Christians can forgive.

Alan September 4, 2012 at 6:09 pm

Steve, Armenians also turned the other cheek to the Azeris as true Christians by trying to resolve the problem peacefully for all those years. Who are you to teach Armenians about Christianity? They have been the martyrs for Christianity for almost 1,700 years. Armenians have 1,000 year of friendship with the Hungarian people and respect them but cannot forgive the corrupt government they have because they opened the door to encourage every Turk and Azeri to think that killing an Armenian. You think it is hysterical when your neighboring oil rich government rewards butchers to kill you in your sleep?

Alan September 4, 2012 at 6:12 pm

The Armenian FM Mr. Nalbandian stated as follows today: Azerbaijan is refusing all proposals made by the Co-Chairs. You are well-aware about our reaction after the statements made in L’Aquila, Muskoka, Deauville and Los Cabos and you well know about Azerbaijan’s reaction after those statements.
You are well-aware about our reaction to the proposals made by the Co-chairs, the OSCE Chairmen-in-Office and the UN Secretary-General on the withdrawal of snipers, consolidation of cease-fire and creation of a mechanism to investigate cease-fire regime violations on the front line. Those proposals and others have been continuously rejected by Azerbaijan.
Over years this behavior of Azerbaijan finds its reflection in the bellicose statements, threats, recurring provocations in the line of contact, unprecedented increase of military budget. There is no other country in the world which so intensively increases its military budget. All those are directed at the failure of the negotiations.
Most importantly the international community should not tolerate and allow Azerbaijan the continuation of its provocative policy under the cover of negotiations, which is full of serious threats for the region and not only for the region, but also for the international security and stability.

vitriol September 5, 2012 at 1:52 am
David September 5, 2012 at 3:29 am

Thanks to the author for detailed description of the process.

I do support the author while expressing that justification and description differs. His approach to the problem is quite balanced in my view. The issue of the extradition of Azerbaijani soldier to Azerbaijan should not occupy the main agenda of Hungary. It was done according to the International Law. Hungary did nothing out of legality. There is convention and we acted according to this convention. Why now we should apologize Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are equally important for us, but in this case Hungary does not lose anything with having no relationship with Armenia. Economic situation in Hungary is not good and we should cooperate with the countries like Azerbaijan which can invest in our economy.

persian September 5, 2012 at 7:30 am

I suggest Armenia should consider withdrawing its forces from Azeri lands according to united nations, we all know armenia occupiyes 20 percent of azeri land

VTiger September 5, 2012 at 8:06 am

Sultan Aliyev with one action reduced the international standing of his aliyevistan for which he had spent hundreds of millions if not billions to below s–t level.Thank you Aliyev for defending our sacred cause of keeping Artsakh (Karabagh for those who do not know) free from your slavery & please keep up the good work with more such .guffs

jda September 5, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Why doesn’t Hungary seek return by extradition of the murderer, as it can claim fraud?

Why doesn’t Hungary demand an INTERPOL or Hague arrest warrant?

Mate September 6, 2012 at 1:34 am

Thank you for collecting the facts, Peter.

For all Hungary-bashers: you are mostly right, no matter how we try to understand or interpret it, this has been a huge mistake.
If it truly was a simple deal, it should have included an item of keeping it descreet and waiting with the actual releasing of this lunatic. If it was done as Hungary states, then they were immensely stupid, and yet again it shows that this government relies on a closed circle of geniouses, refusing to accept the recommendations of professionals, unless it justifies their unorthodox ideas…

However, allow me to be a little pragmatic and cynical here: while respecting the rule of thumb that murderers belong to jails and such, we can still see thousands of atrocities done under the comfy idea of righteousness by virtually every country in the world. Assassinations, genocide, military operations have been and will be launched just for the sheer financial outcome. Naturally, these are justified by WMDs, terrorism or by the joker card: a politican said so, and we choose to beleive… If this was a business deal, between two countries, hell, it has been one of the cleaner backdoor deals.

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