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Passions, History Run Deep In Safarov Case

  • Daisy Sindelar
  • Arifa Kazimova

Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov is now back in Baku after serving time in a Hungarian jail for murder.

Azerbaijani military officer Ramil Safarov is now back in Baku after serving time in a Hungarian jail for murder.

The details of the crime seem anything but heroic: a young lieutenant hacking a fellow soldier to death in his sleep, with an ax he had stealthily purchased hours before.

But for many people in the South Caucasus nation of Azerbaijan, the picture is not so simple.

Not when the assailant is an Azerbaijani whose hometown was brutally seized by Armenian forces while he was still a teenager.

Not when the victim is an Armenian who allegedly insulted the Azerbaijani flag.

And not when the circumstances that threw them together were conceived by Western officials who had failed to consider the depths of the two sides' regional animosity.

So when Ramil Safarov returned home on August 31 after eight years in a Hungarian jail for the 2004 murder of Gurgen Margarian at a NATO Partnership for Peace exercise, many Azerbaijanis were unstinting in their welcome:

"I think he was a hero, because he protected the honor and dignity of the Azerbaijani people," one woman told RFE/RL on the streets of Baku. Another resident of the Azerbaijani capital said Safarov "did the right thing" in killing Margarian.

On the other hand, Safarov's extradition from Hungary last week outraged Armenians and surprised many onlookers with the lavish gestures that followed.

The 35-year-old lieutenant was not only granted an immediate pardon from his life sentence, he was also promoted to the rank of major, promised back pay, and presented with a free apartment.

Azerbaijani Defense Minister Safar Abiyev offered no rationale for the promotion, simply congratulating Safarov on his return to Azerbaijan and wishing him success in his future activities in the military sector.

Anti-Armenian Invective

Local newspapers added to the fanfare, with headlines crowing that Safarov's release "will improve the psychological mood of society" and calling him "a hero for the entire Muslim world."

Safarov's conviction as a calculating ax murderer did little to temper most Azerbaijanis' enthusiasm. If anything, the gruesome nature of his crime only added to his appeal in a country where the public narrative has been shaped to portray Safarov as the victim and Margarian as the taunting aggressor.

Many Azerbaijanis repeat the theory that Margarian had urinated on the Azerbaijani flag or used it to polish his shoes. Others allege that the Armenian was not even asleep when the attack took place, and that he had provoked the attack.

No evidence from Safarov's 2006 trial in Budapest suggests either claim is true. But some Azerbaijani observers say the legacy of the Nagorno-Karabakh war and a steady diet of government anti-Yerevan invective have combined to cement an almost pathological hatred of Armenians in the minds of many Azerbaijanis.

"It's not only the Armenian soldiers and officers who are occupying our land that Azerbaijanis consider their enemy," says Baku-based political analyst Zardusht Alizadeh. "It's not only the 'Armenian terrorists' who were killed in the fighting. Because of a very skillfully constructed propaganda campaign, it's all Armenians who are considered the enemy. That's why a man who killed an Armenian in his sleep is automatically categorized as a hero."

WATCH: A vox pop from the streets of Baku on Ramil Safarov's release

The 1988-94 war over Nagorno-Karabakh -- an Armenian-majority region within Azerbaijani territory -- ended with the deaths of tens of thousands on each side and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more.

It also left the region and surrounding territories under Armenian control -- for Baku, an unacceptable territorial loss of some 20 percent.

Nearly two decades later, the unresolved dispute remains the focus of international negotiations whose partners, including the United States and Russia, have frowned at Azerbaijan's zealous embrace of Safarov.

But Azerbaijan -- whose dynastic leader, Ilham Aliyev, is seen as using his country's massive oil wealth to buy silence on his authoritarian practices -- has shrugged off such criticism as hypocritical meddling.

Many in the country argue that the international community remained silent when a case similar to Safarov's unfolded years earlier in Armenia.

In 2001, Yerevan welcomed home Varoujan Garabedian, a Syrian-born ethnic Armenian militant who killed eight people in a 1983 bomb attack on a Turkish Airlines check-in desk at France's Orly airport.

Following a massive lobbying campaign by the Armenian government and diaspora leaders, Garabedian was deported to Armenia after serving 17 years of a life sentence in France. Armenia's then prime minister, Andranik Markarian, expressed "joy" at Garabedian's release.*

'Radical Elements Are The Only Winners'

Erkin Gaderli, a lawyer and a member of the Republican Alternative opposition group, says he believes "no one" in Azerbaijan "seriously" thinks of Safarov as a hero.

But at the same time, he acknowledges that ordinary Azerbaijanis are confounded by the continued deadlock over Nagorno-Karabakh, and have fallen into a tit-for-tat relationship with Armenia, with each side looking to best the other on even insignificant issues.

"There is an emotion growing in society, and it's a reflection of a deep frustration with the conflict in the occupied territories," Gaderli says. "And there is a growing expectation that somehow, someday this must come to an end. Many people think that something needs to be done in response to Armenia. So whatever Armenia has done, for good or for bad, should somehow be retaliated."

There are suggestions that Armenia may already be prepared to raise the stakes, with the parliament in Yerevan now considering a hastily submitted bill on recognizing Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent country.

The outcome of such a provocation is worrisome to many who fear the countries will return to a war footing.

Even without a resumption of violence, some observers find the Safarov case a depressing development in a year when Azerbaijan has attempted to buff its Western credentials by playing Eurovision host and joining the UN Security Council.

In a piece published by the BBC's Russian Service, Thomas de Waal, a South Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote that the affair struck a blow to many activists and officials in Azerbaijan who have spent years quietly building a dialogue with Armenia.

With Safarov's hero-sized welcome such critical efforts may now be lost. "After the authorities in Baku met the killer with open arms, the country's image has suffered enormous damage," he wrote. "Unfortunately, the only winners are the radical elements on both sides."

* CORRECTION: The text has been amended to remove reference to Garabedian being pardoned upon his return to Armenia. He was released from a French prison after serving 17 years of a life sentence and deported to Armenia, but received no official pardon.

Written and reported by Daisy Sindelar in Prague with additional reporting from Baku by Arife Kazimova

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