[The Economist] Blunder in Budapest. Hungary, Armenia and the axe-murderer
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”.