This is a guest post by Péter Marton.
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.
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.
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.