Jul 072016
 

For almost three decades, the most dangerous unresolved conflict in wider Europe has lain in the mountains of the South Caucasus, in a small territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh. In the late 1980s, the region confounded the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In the early 1990s, the conflict there created more than a million refugees and killed around 20,000 people. In 1994, after Armenia defeated Azerbaijan in a fight over the territory, the two countries signed a truce — but no peace agreement.

Nagorno-Karabakh erupted again last weekend. It seems one of the players — most likely Azerbaijan — decided to change the facts on the ground. Dozens of soldiers from both sides were killed before a cease-fire was proclaimed on Tuesday. It could fall apart at any moment. The situation is volatile, and there is a danger that the conflict could escalate further unless the international community stops it.

A new all-out Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the stuff of nightmares. Given the sophisticated weaponry both sides now possess, tens of thousands of young men would most likely lose their lives. Russia and Turkey, already at loggerheads and with military obligations to Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, could be sucked into a proxy war. Fighting in the area would also destabilize Georgia, Iran and the Russian North Caucasus. Oil and gas pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea could be threatened, too.

At the heart of the issue is the status of the Armenian-majority highland enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which was part of Soviet Azerbaijan. As the Soviet Union crumbled, ethnic Armenians in the territory campaigned to join Armenia. This became a full-scale war, and the Armenians have maintained control of the territory since.

Nagorno-Karabakh has been mostly quiet, save for occasional skirmishes. Most international diplomats pay little attention to this protracted conflict in the Caucasus, giving the impression that Nagorno-Karabakh is intractable but not especially dangerous, like Cyprus. The hope among the international community has been that the problem can be left alone.

That notion was shaken over the past week. More than 20 years on, nationalist hatreds have not abated. In fact, they’ve been fed over the years by official propaganda on both sides. Meanwhile, the very geography of the conflict makes it inherently dangerous.

The 1994 truce left the Armenian side in control not just of the disputed province, but also of a section of Azerbaijani territory around Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian side has no legal claim on these lands, regarding them as a protective buffer zone, but they were home to more than half a million Azerbaijanis, who were made refugees. That occupation is unsustainable and unjust, but the use of force will not deliver justice.

Azerbaijan has wasted years in denunciations of “Armenian aggression” without ever offering the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh credible guarantees that it respects their rights and does not merely wish to destroy them. A just solution of the conflict will require a serious commitment by both sides to make compromises and live together.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has blamed France, Russia and the United States, the countries charged with mediating the conflict by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, for failing to clean up the mess. This is wrong, too. Yes, more could have been done over the years to resolve the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, but mediators mediate — they cannot alone solve conflicts between intransigent parties.

The bitter truth is that leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan have become trapped by their own rhetoric, promising their publics total victory that can never be achieved. They have employed the status quo as a weapon to shirk hard questions about their own legitimacy or to divert people’s attention from socioeconomic problems.

A similar temptation is to identify Russia as the real villain. For sure, the Kremlin has played a role in manipulating the ethno-territorial conflicts that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union. And Russia continues to sell weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan. But Russia’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh is much weaker than it is in Georgia’s frozen conflict, let alone in Ukraine. Russia shares no border with the conflict zone, has no troops on the ground and, in different ways, supports both sides. Its ability to control what happens in Nagorno-Karabakh is limited.

If there is one ray of hope in this bleak landscape it is that there is a peace process — albeit a faltering one — in place already. A draft of a sophisticated peace plan, dating from 2005, promises both sides much of what they want: a return of Azerbaijani displaced persons and restoration of lost Azerbaijani lands in exchange for security for the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh and a promise of self-determination and perhaps, eventually, independence.

What is missing in the South Caucasus is the political will to engage with a plan that involves doing a deal with the enemy. What is missing internationally is the admission that there is no low-cost option to resolve the conflict. Over the past week, mediators helped to broker a new cease-fire. But Nagorno-Karabakh requires more than just shuttle diplomacy. A resolution requires a complex multination peacekeeping operation and coordination between the United States, Russia and France to be joint guarantors of a peace deal.

That is a big challenge, but one dwarfed by the prospect of a new catastrophic war in the Caucasus. The big powers could start by convening a peace conference in Minsk, Belarus, first called for in 1992, but never even attempted. That would send the message that the world finally takes this conflict seriously — before it is too late.


Source: The New York Times

Apr 262016
 

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh

The military commander of this breakaway Armenian republic predicted in an interview here Monday that a fragile cease-fire could collapse within days. By that night, Azerbaijani shelling had killed two Armenian soldiers in a northern border town, amid accusations by each side that the other had violated the truce.

The “frozen conflict” here, stalemated for 22 years, exploded on April 2, when Azerbaijani forces attacked across the 200-kilometer front line. The Azerbaijanis seized ground for the first time since the previous war ended in 1994. Russia negotiated a quick truce that began April 5, but as Monday’s fighting showed, another all-out conflict seems perilously close.

Karabakh is one of the world’s least-discussed and most intractable quarrels. The mostly Armenian population violently seceded from Azerbaijan in a two-year war. Since then, Russia, France and the United States have sponsored a mediation effort, but it has been fruitless: Azerbaijan demands that land once inside its borders be returned; the Armenians insist they aren’t leaving. Rather than softening over time, anger seems to be hardening on both sides.

Russia is opportunistically in the middle. Moscow says it wants to broker a lasting peace deal, but it has also been arming both sides. The United States also hopes to prevent a wider conflict but has little diplomatic leverage. The Azerbaijanis, judging by their strident social media, feel emboldened by their recent offensive; the Armenians feel isolated and increasingly reconciled to what one former peace activist here described to me as a state of “permanent war.”

I visited Karabakh with several other foreign journalists and a member of the European Parliament on a trip organized by the Armenian government. The 90-minute helicopter flight took us over stunning mountainous terrain to this lush, isolated enclave whose name means “black garden.” During my brief visit, the place seemed a bit like Switzerland in the Caucasus — not just the mountains but also the tidy streets, hillside farms and fiercely independent people.

Lt. Gen. Levon Mnatsakanyan, the defense minister of this self-declared republic, said his forces hadn’t expected the broad attack on April 2. But he said there had been warning signs: Since August, 21 Armenian soldiers had been killed and 113 wounded in attacks along the so-called “line of control.” And Azerbaijan had been restocking its arsenal with new Russian tanks, Israeli drones and Turkish missiles. The Armenian side, reassured by a supposed “strategic alliance” with Russia, didn’t expect a big Azerbaijani offensive.

“Tactically, maybe they have registered some successes,” Mnatsakanyan conceded. “But I would say that considering all the force they used, it’s rather a defeat for them.” He claims the Azerbaijanis had lost 24 tanks in the four-day battle in early April. The two sides have radically different casualty counts, and it’s impossible to independently verify the numbers. But Azerbaijani commentary has treated the campaign as a major victory after the smoldering defeat of the 1992-1994 war.

Mnatsakanyan insisted that Armenian troops could defend the enclave, without Russian help: “The result of the four-day war shows that the equipment we have and our combat readiness is okay for stopping any adversaries.” If the war resumes, he says, “we will not only repel them but advance ourselves.”

Talking to Armenian residents of Karabakh, I came away with a sense of growing militancy here, as in Azerbaijan.

Garen Ohanjanyan, the former peace activist, says this latest war has changed his view about the possibility for reconciliation. After the last war ended, he helped foster dialogue with Azerbaijanis. Now, he says, he has given up on peace and wants Armenian forces to destroy Azerbaijani economic targets. In the past month, he explains, “our nation lost its illusions.”

“Maybe my generation became too relaxed in these past years,” says Ashot Sarkissyan, a 27-year-old who works with a local nongovernmental organization and also serves in an antiaircraft defense unit. “Why didn’t we use this time to become strong enough to deter them from a war?”

Anahit Danielyan, who heads the Stepanakert Press Club, says she used to try to stay in touch online with Azerbaijani journalists. Now, she says, “I’m starting to feel this hatred from my colleagues in Azerbaijan. . . . This new war has somehow changed our perceptions of each other.”

On the road to the airport, a visitor can see the national monument, a huge stone statue of an old man and woman — heads only, the bodies seemingly buried in the hillside. The official name is “We Are Our Mountains.” The implicit message is: We aren’t moving. What seems ahead is a long, unyielding conflict.


Source: The Washington Post

Apr 092016
 

WITH so many conflicts in the world, Nagorno-Karabakh gets little attention. The bloody fighting between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces in the mountainous enclave this week was a reminder that it should. Tanks and artillery traded fire; at least 50 people were killed in four days. The spectre loomed of a wider war, one that could draw in Russia, Turkey and Iran. A ceasefire brokered in Moscow on April 5th appears to be holding for now. But it brought the two foes no closer to peace.

The fighting dates back to 1988, when Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenians attempted to secede from Azerbaijan. (At the time, both Armenia and Azerbaijan were republics of the Soviet Union.) As the Soviet Union broke apart in 1991, the conflict grew into a full-scale war. By 1994 some 30,000 people were dead and Nagorno-Karabakh was under Armenian control. Russia, America and France brokered a ceasefire, but sporadic shooting continued. Rather than time healing old wounds, it deepened them.

On April 2nd the frustration spilled over. Azerbaijani forces seized settlements and strategic heights along the front. (Both sides accuse each other of starting the fighting.) The campaign to capture territory marked a departure from an earlier Azeri strategy of attacks aimed at “pressure and posturing”, says Richard Giragosian, head of the Regional Studies Centre, a think-tank in Yerevan. Armenian and Karabakhi officials say they retook the captured land, but their claims have not been independently verified. The outburst demonstrates that the 1994 ceasefire framework, with no peacekeepers and only a handful of unarmed monitors, “no longer fits”, says Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The fact that the assault began with both the Azeri and Armenian presidents in Washington for a security summit suggests that it was no accident. Discontent with the stalled diplomacy may have pushed Azerbaijan to try to change facts on the ground. “This is about bringing Armenia to the negotiating table,” says Zaur Shiriyev of Chatham House, a British think-tank.

At home, the political dividends were immediate. The brief war “created euphoria”, says Anar Valiyev, a Baku-based analyst. The government boasted of newfound military superiority, the result of the oil-rich state’s expansion of defence spending (from $177m in 2003 to $3 billion in 2015). Casualties were seen as justified. “The people are hungry for victories,” says Mr Valiyev.

That may help Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, cushion the pain of falling oil prices. Oil and gas accounted for 94% of the country’s exports in 2013. As prices dropped over the past two years, the Azeri central bank burned up more than two-thirds of its reserves supporting the currency before allowing it to devalue sharply. In January 2016 the government imposed a 20% tax on foreign-exchange transactions and sounded out the International Monetary Fund about a possible loan. Rising prices and unemployment prompted protests in several smaller towns earlier this year, a rarity under Mr Aliev’s tight watch.

Some on the Armenian side suggested that Turkey, a longtime ally of Azerbaijan and new foe of Russia, helped provoke the violence. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fueled the speculation by declaring that he would stand by Azerbaijan “to the end”. Yet the Turkish role is a red herring, says Laurence Broers of Chatham House: “The motives are local and not about great-power competition.”

Nonetheless, peacemaking will require a push from powers such as Russia. Moscow has closer ties with Armenia: it has a military base there and a treaty obligation to defend the country against attacks on its territory (excluding Nagorno-Karabakh). But Russia also sells large quantities of arms to Baku. Any peace plan depends on external pressure overcoming local resistance. The stakes of diplomatic failure have never been clearer: little is left to prevent a repeat, or worse, of last week’s clashes. “Now there is no excuse for the outside powers to say the situation can just be managed,” says Mr de Waal.


Source: The Economist

Sep 202012
 

By Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

WASHINGTON — The United States is “not satisfied” with explanations from Baku and Budapest concerning the case of an Azerbaijani officer who brutally murdered an Armenian soldier at a NATO seminar in Hungary eight years ago.

Philip Gordon, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, told RFE/RL at the Center for European Policy Analysis’ U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum on September 20 that Washington continues to express “dismay and disappointment” to Budapest about its decision to release Ramil Safarov to Baku.

He said Washington is sending the same message to Azerbaijan’s government, which pardoned Safarov and then promoted him after his August 31 return to the country.

“We were appalled by the glorification that we heard in some quarters of somebody who was convicted of murder,” Gordon said. He called the case “a real provocation in the region.”

The European Union, the OSCE’s Minsk Group, Russia, and Hungary also expressed concern about Safarov’s pardon and promotion.


Source: RFE/RL

Sep 102012
 

By PETER RUTLAND
Published: September 10, 2012

In recent days there have been two symbolic events that run the danger of igniting hostilities in an already tense neighborhood of the Caucasus.

On Aug. 31 a former Azerbaijan Army lieutenant, Ramil Safarov, flew back to Baku after serving eight years in a Budapest jail for killing Gurgen Margarian in 2004. The victim, an Armenian officer, had been a fellow participant in a NATO Partnership for Peace exercise. Safarov hacked him to death in his sleep with an ax.

The Hungarian government transferred the prisoner to Azerbaijan on the understanding that he would serve out the rest of his life sentence in his home country. But immediately upon his arrival in Baku, Lieutenant Safarov was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, restored to military duties, promoted to major, given an apartment and awarded back pay for his time in prison. These actions drew universal condemnation from Washington, Moscow and European governments.

Apart from the fact that such a step is an affront to basic notions of justice and the rule of law, even more troubling is the message that it sends to the rest of the world: that the Azerbaijani government thinks it is acceptable to kill Armenians. Apparently, the grievances they suffered in their defeat by Armenian forces in 1992-94 are so profound that even murder is excusable. It is hard, then, to ask the Armenians living in Karabakh to quietly accept the idea that the solution to their disputed territory is for them to return to living under Azerbaijani rule.

This one single act could undo the patient efforts of diplomats and activists over many years to try to rebuild connections and work toward mutual trust — without which any kind of peace settlement will be a pipe dream.

Compounding the problem was a less significant but still noteworthy gesture. On Sept. 3, Richard Morningstar, the new U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, paid his respects to Heidar Aliyev, the deceased former president (and father of the incumbent), by laying a wreath at his statue in central Baku. Apparently it is standard protocol for U.S. ambassadors to include this stop in their round of duties when arriving in Baku. Photographs also clearly showed the ambassador bowing his head before the monument, though a State Department spokesman later denied this.

Mr. Morningstar’s far from empty gesture sent two wrong signals.

First, it is disheartening to Azerbaijani democratic activists to see the United States so cravenly supporting dictatorship as a suitable form of rule, a pattern all too familiar from U.S. policy toward the entire Middle East.

Second, it signals to Armenia — and its principal ally, Russia — that the United States is an unqualified backer of the Azerbaijani government, warts and all. Strategic interests — Caspian oil, access to Central Asia, containment of Iran — count for more than the niceties of human rights and democratic procedure.

This makes it all but impossible for Armenia to expect the United States to act as an honest broker in the peace process. And if the United States cannot play that role, no one else will.

Diplomacy has long revolved around such symbolic acts. In 1793, the Earl Macartney, British ambassador to China, was thrown out of the country when he refused to kowtow before the emperor. More recently, visits by Japanese government ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, commemorating the souls of warriors, have triggered protests from China and South Korea.

By contrast, when Chancellor Willy Brandt fell to his knees before the monument to the Warsaw Ghetto in 1970 he turned a page in German atonement for its past atrocities. In the same spirit, Vladimir Putin sent a clear message of reconciliation when in 2010 he knelt at the monument to the Polish officers killed at Katyn on Stalin’s orders.

What we need in the Caucasus are leaders willing to follow the examples of Mr. Brandt and Mr. Putin, with the courage to show contrition and a willingness to meet with their former adversary and figure out a way to live together. We may be in for a long wait.

Peter Rutland is a professor of government at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on September 11, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune.


Source: New York Times

Sep 082012
 

Hungary’s recent extradition of a convicted axe murderer to Azerbaijan has caused a scandal. At home, the killer was pardoned and celebrated. It’s rumored that Hungary and Azerbaijan brokered a deal for the extradition.

The last time a diplomatic gesture made by Hungary had geopolitical consequences was in June 1989, when Hungary’s then-foreign minister, Gyula Horn, and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock cut through the border fence between the two countries. The gesture marked the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain between East and West.

Potentially grave consequences

This time around, 23 years on, a diplomatic gesture made by Hungary could have far less positive – some even say disastrous – geopolitical implications. Hungary has extradited a convicted murderer to Azerbaijan, where he was instantly pardoned. This brought tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan to a new climax and the Caucasus region to the verge of a new war.

The US, the EU and NATO have taken crisis diplomacy measures in an attempt to prevent the worst case scenario between Armenia and Azerbaijan from emerging.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s government is rumored to have agreed to a foul deal with Azerbaijan. In return for the extradition of murderer Ramil Safarov, Azerbaijan is said to have promised Hungary to buy some three billion euros ($3.84 billion) worth of its government bonds.

The Safarov case

During a NATO-sponsored training session held in Budapest in 2004, Azeri soldier Ramil Safarov murdered a fellow Armenian course participant in his sleep with an axe. Safarov said the killing stemmed from traumatic childhood experiences in which his family was driven out of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Disputes over the region have put the two former Soviet republics in a state of war with each other for almost 25 years now. Due to the intense brutality of his deed, Safarov was sentenced to life in prison; and pardoning him would only have been possible after a minimum of 30 years.

Safarov has since been celebrated as a national hero in Azerbaijan, and Azeri diplomats tried for years to convince the Hungarian authorities to extradite him. The Orban government finally agreed. On August 31, Safarov was flown out of Hungary in an Azeri special plane. Some say that Azerbaijan did make a promise to Hungary at the time that Safarov would have to continue serving his sentence in prison. But no sooner had the plane arrived at Baku airport than the 35-year-old was greeted as a hero. He was pardoned and even promoted to the rank of major by Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev.

The move caused Armenia to stop all diplomatic relations instantly with Hungary, and Armenians abroad took to the streets worldwide in protest against Hungary.

Fortunes to spend

Azerbaijan, which has accrued significant capital with crude oil, is said to be planning an investment of up to three billion euros worth in Hungarian state obligations. Hungary could use the money. The country is in a dire financial situation and has been in long negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a possible stand-by loan – without success so far.

Potential donors in China and Saudi Arabia denied Hungary loans not long ago. So could the country have turned to Azerbaijan for money? Both sides are denying that Baku promised to invest billions in Hungarian bonds in return for Safarov. However, in early August, Hungarian economic media outlets had already reported on a possible bond buying deal planned by Azerbaijan. Both countries are also in talks about intensifying economic cooperation.

Hungary’s leadership has since commented nonchalantly on the potential disaster stemming from Safarov’s release. Hungary doesn’t “consider the conflict to be of particular importance,” but rather was taking notice of it “in calmness and optimism,” said Prime Minister Viktor Orban on Monday (03.09.2012) in Budapest.

Consternation and criticism

Politicians from the Hungarian opposition and a number of independent observers are appalled at the government’s conduct. The head of the Socialist Party (MSZP), Attila Mesterhazy, asked in parliament: For “just how much money has Viktor Orban sold Hungary?” A commentator of Hungarian daily “Nepszabadsag” wrote that Hungary hasn’t been left with much of an international reputation to start with. Now, the country would be regarded even more suspiciously, the commentator continued.

While both the US and Russia voiced open criticism of Hungary’s extradition, the EU in Brussels is holding back official comments of concern for now. Hungary had signed a bilateral agreement that was quite obviously broken by Azerbaijan, said a spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy coordinator, Catherine Ashton, to DW.

It’s likely, though, that there’s behind-the-scenes consternation in Brussels on Hungary’s course of action, which could have a direct impact on the overall stability in the Caucasus region. That’s what most observers in Hungary are concerned about, too. In an essay, philosopher Gaspar Miklos Tamas criticizes what he calls the “lack of responsibility and ignorance” demonstrated by Hungarian leaders.

“The fact that the Hungarian state is governed by some aging adolescents who are aggressive, irresponsible and incapable of finding their way in matters that concern the world at large is simply appalling,” he wrote.

Author Keno Verseck / nh
Editor Greg Wiser


Source: Deutsche Welle

Sep 062012
 

By Joe Sterling, CNN
September 6, 2012 — Updated 0930 GMT (1730 HKT)

(CNN) — An ax murder. Then, jail time. Sounds like a morbid crime story.

Yet this tale has taken a sudden and unexpected twist: The killer got a pardon and a hero’s welcome.

That has stirred fears of a war.

The parole has exacerbated long-standing tensions over disputed land between Armenia and Azerbaijan, former Soviet republics that are nestled in the Caucasus region near Turkey, Iran and Russia.

The nations fought a war two decades ago over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding Azerbaijani territories. Much of the area is now occupied by Armenia.

A return to warfare could suck in world powers, analysts warned Wednesday. Thomas de Waal, an expert on the Caucasus with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told CNN world energy markets would be disrupted in a conflict since an oil and a gas pipeline carrying Caspian oil curves around the conflict zone in Azerbaijan.

Mosque shooting, suicide bombing hit Russia’s Caucasus region

The ax killing happened in 2004 at a NATO center in Hungary, where troops from Armenia and Azerbaijan were getting training. Ramil Safarov, a soldier from Azerbaijan, killed Armenian officer Gurgen Margarian. Both men were studying English.

Safarov was sentenced to life in prison in Hungary, but that country recently extradited him to Azerbaijan with the understanding that he would serve at least 25 years of the sentence.
Not long after Safarov arrived in Azerbaijan, though, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev pardoned him.

Armenians recoiled at what happened next: The killer got an apartment and a promotion.

“Mr. Safarov has been glorified in Azerbaijan as a national hero at all levels — including the top level,” said Zohrab Mnatsakanian, Armenia’s deputy minister of Foreign Affairs. “This is a blow to the conscience of Europe, to the civilized world.”

Azerbaijan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said on Twitter that the “issue must be considered in the context of aggression and ethnic cleansing against Azerbaijan by Armenia.”

The United States, meanwhile, was among those nations objecting to the pardon. It expressed “deep concern” and asked Hungary for more information on why it extradited Safarov.

“We are communicating to Azerbaijani authorities our disappointment about the decision to pardon Safarov,” a spokesman for the National Security Council, Tommy Vietor, said in a statement the White House released. “This action is contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation.”

Sabine Freizer, director of the International Crisis Group’s Europe program, said world powers have taken note.

“There is an awareness among government officials, both in the United States, Russia, and among European officials, that this conflict is getting worse. There should be something done to stop it,” Freizer said.

“This takes us a whole step downward,” said the Carnegie Endowment’s de Waal.

The tensions over Nagorno-Karabakh reflect strong cultural attachments for both peoples, what Sergey Markedonov, visiting fellow of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, likens to a “Jerusalem for both societies.”

Animosities over the disputed territory have simmered since the end of World War I. The Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s triggered a war from 1992 to 1994 that killed 22,000 to 25,000 people and uprooted more than a million others.

The war ended “with a shaky truce,” the International Crisis Group said.

The disputes between the countries over Nagorno-Karabakh and other territories remain an “unresolved conflict of the Soviet period,” Freizer said. Amid the creation of newly independent countries after the Soviet collapse, she said, “no one was focused on the conflict.”

“The kind of support for Yugoslavia,” whose breakup led to major wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, was “never given to this region.”

Over the years, violence has flared. Both countries occasionally talk tough about each other. And Azerbaijan’s oil and gas wealth is making its way into the budget for a military preparing for war, Freizer said.

“Since 2011, we feel the situation has gotten worse,” Freizer said.

The killer’s pardon prompted a certain outrage factor, she said.

“People were shocked by this.”

Hungary defended its extradition and said it received assurances the killer would carry out his term. But the country criticized the “sudden and unexpected release” and called it “unacceptable.” Armenia suspended its relations with Hungary.

The disputes are unfolding in a tough neighborhood.

Turkey has been mired down in fighting with Kurdish rebels. Russia fought a brief war with Georgia four years ago and has battled Islamic insurgents in its northern Caucasus region in recent years. Iran supports Syria’s government in its civil war.

“Russia is a military ally of Armenia. Azerbaijan has strong military links with Turkey and they (Armenia and Azerbaijan) are both on the border with Iran,” de Waal said.

Also, he said, the Armenian-American community “will beat the drum” and push for U.S. action.

Markedonov said a deteriorating conflict could spawn an arms race.

The incident reflects a lack of willingness among many citizens to compromise and get back to peacemaking, Markedonov said. This could play into upcoming elections, with both Aliyev and Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan seeking to look strong for the voters.

De Waal also wrote in a column that the BBC published Tuesday that Hungary negotiated the extradition “for reasons that have yet to be fully explained.”

He called the events a “black week” for a peaceful resolution to the conflict and said it’s “now a full-blown state-to-state row, with as yet knowable consequences.” He cites worries that “a fanatical Armenian will try to commit a revenge attack.”

“From the political perspective, to call the Azerbaijani government’s actions a mistake is an understatement. It is a worrying indication of the quality of advice that President Ilham Aliyev is receiving from his inner circle.”
De Waal said diplomats must work harder now. When there is no peace process, he told CNN, “the vacuum is filled by war talk.”

“If there is any silver lining to this dark episode it could be that the international community pays more attention to the dangers of a new Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh,” de Waal wrote in his column.

“The reception given Safarov suggests that the situation is moving closer to war than peace.”

Black Sea city aims to be ‘Las Vegas of the Caucasus’

Jo Shelley and Stephanie Halasz contributed to this report


Source: CNN

Sep 042012
 

Viewpoint: Setback for peace in the Caucasus

By Thomas de Waal

This is a black week for those who are seeking a peaceful settlement of the long-running Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

On 31 August, in a deeply provocative move, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliev pardoned convicted murderer Ramil Safarov on his return to Baku from a Hungarian prison.

Safarov had been attending a Nato training-course in 2004 when he killed Armenian fellow officer Gurgen Markarian with an axe while he slept.

Back in 2004, the brutal killing on ethnic grounds caused an inevitable upsurge of emotion in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have been waging a conflict in various forms over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh since 1988.

There was an upsurge in the war of words in the media, which generally goes further than what officials allow themselves to say.

Markarian was given a state funeral. In Azerbaijan a few members of parliament dared to call Safarov a “hero,” but many Azerbaijanis felt ashamed at how his action reflected on their country and, mercifully, government officials mostly kept silent.

Eight years on, that has all turned round.

This is now a full-blown state-to-state row, with as yet unknowable consequences. For reasons that have yet to be fully explained, the Hungarian government negotiated the extradition of Safarov to Baku having secured an agreement, they maintained, that he would only be eligible for parole after having served the remainder of a 25-year prison term in an Azerbaijani jail.

Hero’s welcome
Instead, Safarov was pardoned. Leaving him a free man without public comment would have been bad enough. The Azerbaijani government went much further than that, treating Safarov as a hero. He was given an apartment in Baku and personally promoted to the rank of major by the defence minister.

Every action has a reaction. Unsurprisingly, the US government and the Russian foreign ministry reacted to the news with strong disapproval.

The spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton also expressed alarm but stopped short of directly criticising its own member state, Hungary. The EU already has enough problems with controversial Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

As for Armenia, it appears to be close to boiling over. It has suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary and observers of the Karabakh negotiating process – already on the verge of failure – are watching apprehensively for what it will do next.

The Armenian government was already telling all foreign interlocutors how unhappy it was with the state of the peace process. There were tough questions to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in June as to why there was not a sharper US response to violations of the Armenian-Azerbaijani ceasefire, which are widely perceived to come more from the Azerbaijani side.

Yerevan could now be tempted to suspend its participation in the peace talks.

Some Armenian commentators are calling for more extreme steps such as recognising breakaway Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent state. There will also be the inevitable worry that a fanatical Armenian will try to commit a revenge attack.

From the political perspective, to call the Azerbaijani government’s actions a mistake is an understatement. It is a worrying indication of the quality of advice that President Ilham Aliev is receiving from his inner circle.

Over the past few years, the government in Baku has spent tens of millions of dollars of its new oil revenues promoting the image of Azerbaijan as a new, modernising, dynamic country. The effect has been quite successful, with results ranging from Azerbaijan joining the UN Security Council to Baku hosting feel-good events such as the Eurovision Song Contest.

All that PR work now has to contend with a contrary image, of the government welcoming home an axe-murderer.
Sadly, the events of this week are a big boost for radicals on both sides.

They strengthen the hands of those Armenian hardliners who say that this proves that Azerbaijanis are barbarians who cannot be trusted.

In Azerbaijan, I know a substantial number of non-governmental activists and middle-level officials who have been working quietly on dialogue projects with Armenians. It is hard to see those going forward in the current environment.

If there is any silver lining to this dark episode it could be that the international community pays more attention to the dangers of a new Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The conflict is not “frozen,” as it is frequently described.

The current format of quiet mediation by France, Russia and the US is not strong enough to move the two sides from their intransigent positions. The reception given Safarov suggests that the situation is moving closer to war than peace. This slide can be halted, but the time to start working harder on diplomacy is now.

Thomas de Waal is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC.


Source: BBC News

Sep 042012
 

Ramil Safarov, center, was returned to his native Azerbaijan last week from a Hungarian prison.
By ELLEN BARRY
Published: September 4, 2012

MOSCOW — Ramil Safarov stepped uncertainly off the plane in his native Azerbaijan last Friday, returning home after spending eight years in a Hungarian prison for a gruesome murder. But it took only a few minutes for the celebrations to begin. There was a pardon, a new apartment, eight years of back pay, a promotion to the rank of major and the status of a national hero.

Mr. Safarov, 35, was already famous because of his crime. Eight years ago, carrying an ax, he crept into a dormitory room in Hungary where an Armenian serviceman, a fellow student in a NATO-sponsored English class, slept, and nearly decapitated him.

But now Mr. Safarov will almost certainly go down in history for the way he was freed, an episode people have started to call “The Safarov Affair.”

The backlash has embarrassed Hungary, which agreed to extradite Mr. Safarov on the assumption that he would serve at least 25 years of a life sentence. It has set off protests in Budapest and enraged Armenia, where activists pelted the Hungarian Embassy with eggs and burned Hungarian flags.

And it threatens to end the lengthy peace process that has kept Azerbaijan and Armenia from sliding back into bloody conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr. Safarov, who was a boy during the war with Armenia, embodies the hatred that has pooled deeply in the public as leaders have sat through rounds of faltering negotiations.

“If we have no process, what’s left is a vacuum, which gets filled with an escalation toward war; we’ll see how the Armenian side reacts, but that’s my fear,” said Thomas de Waal, a Caucasus specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “It’s suddenly more dangerous.”

Mr. Safarov, then a lieutenant, and his victim, Lt. Gurgen Markarian, got to know each other in Budapest as members of an English-language course organized by NATO’s Partnership for Peace, which was developed to build ties with former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Safarov told the police that his Armenian classmates had insulted him and that he had grown increasingly angry, finally buying an ax and waiting until before dawn one day to carry out his plan. He passed those hours by finishing his English homework and taking a bath, according to a transcript of the interview published by Armenian activists.

After Mr. Safarov was arrested, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry released a statement describing his family’s losses during the war with Armenia, and suggesting that Lieutenant Markarian had goaded him.

“There are indications that the Armenian servicemen repeatedly insulted the honor and dignity of the Azerbaijani officer and citizen,” the statement said. “All this would have inevitably influenced the suspect’s emotional state.”

Oil-rich Azerbaijan carried out a sustained lobbying effort to extradite Mr. Safarov from Hungary, over the protests of Armenian officials. The Hungarian government, under pressure to explain its decision to turn over Mr. Safarov, has said it received written assurance from Azerbaijan that he would not be paroled until he had served 25 years in Lieutenant Markarian’s murder.

On Friday, though, he was pardoned by Azerbaijan’s president, Illham H. Aliyev. Mr. Safarov’s presence so electrified citizens that all day strangers congratulated one another on the streets of Baku.

It is not clear how the Armenian government will respond to Mr. Safarov’s release. “The Armenians must not be underestimated,” President Serzh Sargsyan warned on Sunday. “We don’t want a war, but if we have to, we will fight and win,” he said. “We are not afraid of murderers, even those who enjoy the highest patronage.”

Richard Giragosian, an analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia, said that he doubted that either side was seeking a war, but that unfolding events risked “a war by accident.”

An Armenian opposition party on Tuesday proposed formally recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as independent — a step that would signal the final collapse of peace talks that have long been encouraged by Russia and the West. Armenia could ratchet up the confrontation by opening an airport in Stepanakert, the capital of the disputed territory, or by responding overwhelmingly to cease-fire violations.

“Each side is escalating,” Mr. Giragosian said. “It’s almost like a matter of physics. For every action there is a reaction.”

Mr. Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s president, has invested vast sums in his country’s international standing, most recently serving as host of the Eurovision Song Contest, but waves of condemnation have emerged since Friday — most swiftly from the United States, which issued statements saying officials in Washington were “extremely troubled” and “deeply concerned.” On Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry expressed “deep concern, noting the case’s “extreme atrocity.”

Zerdusht Alizadeh, an opposition politician and analyst at the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, said Mr. Aliyev was looking ahead to elections next year, and had little to show for the drawn-out efforts to mediate the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr. Safarov’s homecoming, he said, was a far simpler way to declare victory.

“Giving so much support to a hero — a person who killed an Armenian — makes the president a hero, too,” he said.

By Tuesday, though, the backlash was dominating the day’s news coverage, and Mr. Safarov had made no further public appearances.

The episode, Mr. Giragosian said, was a reminder of the depth and force of the ethnic grievances left behind as the Soviet empire receded across Europe.

“It’s almost like the Balkans was — we had no idea of the barbarity of these people,” he said. “Holding a grudge for 100 years is nothing. It’s like a blood vendetta. At the same time, there are wider implications; it increases an already worrisome trend toward possible renewed conflict here.”

Shahla Sultanova contributed reporting from Baku, Azerbaijan.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: September 6, 2012

Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about a hero’s welcome for a convicted killer, Ramil Safarov, in his homeland of Azerbaijan, where he was extradited on Friday from Hungary after serving only eight years of a life sentence in the killing of an Armenian serviceman in Budapest, described incorrectly the role that President Ilham H. Aliyev of Azerbaijan played in the case. He pardoned Mr. Safarov; he did not meet him at the airport when he returned home. The article also referred incorrectly to an opposition politician who commented on Mr. Aliyev’s actions. The politician, Zerdusht Alizadeh, is a man.


Source: New York Times

Sep 042012
 

THE return to home and freedom of Ramil Safarov, an Azeri military officer and convicted murderer, has prompted one of central Europe’s biggest diplomatic storms. It has pulled in Russia, America and the European Union, and led to a new war of words in one of the world’s most volatile regions.

Safarov used an axe to murder a sleeping fellow student, an Armenian officer called Gurgen Margarjan, while both men were at a NATO English-language course in Budapest in 2004. Safarov justified himself by referring to Armenian atrocities against Azerbaijan in the conflict of 1988-94. He told the court that Lieutenant Margarjan, an Armenian, had taunted him about the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh from where he was a refugee.

Hungary sent Safarov home, it says, on the understanding that he would serve the rest of his sentence in prison there. But on arrival in Baku, he was immediately pardoned, hailed as a national hero and promoted to major.

Armenia has reacted with fury and has severed diplomatic relations with Budapest. Angry protestors burnt the Hungarian flag in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, and pelted the consulate with tomatoes. Serzh Sarkisian, the president of Armenia, said the country was ready to fight if need be. “We don’t want a war, but if we  have to, we will fight and win. We are not afraid of killers, even if they enjoy the protection of the head of state.”

Patrick Ventrell, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said that the United States was “extremely troubled” by the pardon of Safarov and would be seeking an explanation from both Budapest and Baku.

Russia, which has been deeply involved in efforts to ease relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, said that the actions of the Hungarian and Azerbaijani governments “contradict internationally brokered efforts” to bring peace to the region.

Hungary condemned the decision to release Safarov and said it had been misled by the Azerbaijan government. Hungarian officials said they had received assurances from Azerbaijan that Safarov would be released on parole only after serving at least 25 years.

The Hungarian media has reported that Azerbaijan has been pressing Hungary to release Safarov since his conviction. Many scent a dirty deal behind the scenes, as this post on Hungarian Spectrum, a liberal blog, outlines. The main theory is that  Azerbaijan had promised to buy state bonds from Hungary  in exchange for Safarov’s release.

Hungary needs the money. It has been in protracted and so far fruitless negotiations with the IMF and the European Union for a stand-by credit arrangement. The Hungarian government is actively seeking other potential investment partners in Asia and the Middle East. Mr Orbán visited Azerbaijan in June.

Hungarian and Azeri officials dismissed such claims.

On one level, the diplomatic crisis is surprising. Hungary’s diplomats are usually smart, supple and well-informed. During the Libyan crisis, while most diplomats fled, the Hungarian embassy in Tripoli stayed open. By the end of the seven-month conflict Budapest was representing some fifty absent governments. Hungary brokered the release of four western journalists and even managed to get Talitha von Zam, a Dutch model and former girlfriend of one of Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, out of the war-zone.

But it seems that the Safarov affair was masterminded by Viktor Orbán, the prime minister, and Péter Szijjártó, the minister for external economic relations, rather than the foreign ministry.

The extradition also raises questions about the EU’s credibility. It has just pledged €19.5 million ($25m) to reform oil-rich Azerbaijan’s justice and migration systems. So far, Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative, has expressed only a tepid statement of “concern”.


Source: The Economist