Monday

16th Sep 2019

Axe murder complicates EU-Azerbaijan love affair

EU countries have criticised "strategic partner" Azerbaijan for making a national hero out of an axe-murderer.

On 19 February 2004 during a Nato seminar at a military school in Budapest, he walked into the bedroom of a sleeping Armenian soldier, hit him 16 times with an axe and partly decapitated his dead body.

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On 31 August this year, Hungary put Azerbaijani lieutenant Ramil Safarov on a plane to Baku where President Ilham Aliyev pardoned him, promoted him to the rank of major and gave him eight years of back pay.

Speaking in the context of a 20-year-long ethnic conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a senior Azerbaijani official the same day told state media that Safarov had "defended his country's honour and dignity" in butchering the 25-year-old victim.

The official added that Aliyev clinched the deal personally with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Baku in July, fuelling speculation - and denials - in Hungary that Orban extradited Safarov in return for a promise that Azerbaijan will buy Hungarian bonds.

The EU on Monday (3 September) joined Russia and the US in criticising Aliyev's behaviour.

Its foreign relations spokeswoman, Maja Kocjanic, told press in Brussels: "We are particularly concerned with the impact the developments might have on the wider region."

She later told EUobserver that the EU foreign service is drafting a written statement and that EU foreign ministers might discuss the subject at their next meeting, due in Cyprus on Friday.

Russia's foreign minister earlier on Monday said he is "deeply concerned" and that the actions "run counter" to peace efforts.

The White House back on 31 August said it had conveyed its "disappointment" to Aliyev.

Meanwhile, Hungary has been the most energetic in condemning the affair.

It summoned Azerbaijan's ambassador for an official telling-off in the Hungarian capital and it leaked a letter from the Azerbaijani ministry of justice promising that Safarov would stay in jail. Hungarian spin also includes saying that it is no worse than the UK, which sent Lockerbie plane bomber Abdelbaset Megrahi back to Libya in 2009.

Nobody in Armenia, at the least, believes Hungary, however.

Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan last week severed diplomatic ties with the EU country and said it had broken promises made "just a few days ago" that the axe-killer would stay in place. "There are no doubts they were well informed about what was going to happen [with Safarov's pardon]," an Armenian diplomat told this website.

The developments are unwelcome for all parties involved.

Hungary was already trying to improve its image as one of the sick men of Europe after Orban's recent attempt to gain political control of the central bank, courts and media.

The EU and Russia's mild rebukes come amid their competing efforts to get Azerbaijani gas flowing into EU-bound or Russia-bound pipelines in the next few years.

The US rebuke comes amid its aim to use Azerbaijan to help withdraw its soldiers from Afghanistan in 2014.

EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy went to Baku and shook hands with Aliyev in July. But Van Rompuy had nothing to say on the subject on Monday. EU energy commissioner Gunther Oettinger visited Baku this weekend, but also said nothing.

"This actually embarasses countries which are engaged with Azerbaijan and makes it harder for the West to look the other way. It's [glorification of Safarov] is so over the top, it actually reminds me of North Korea and Turkmenistan under [former leader] Turkmenbashi," Richard Giragosian, a Yerevan-based analyst who used to advise the Pentagon and the CIA, told this website.

"Even [Azerbaijan's main ally] Turkey is embarassed and put off," he added.

Opinion

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Shaken by its poor economy and angry at the EU's criticism of Viktor Orban's controversial reforms, Hungary has been chatting up non-democratic states that demonstrate an openness for investment and financial aid.

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Nagorno-Karabakh: on the knife's edge

The Safarov affair has made life harder for NGOs trying to promote toleration in South Caucasus, while a secretive and elite-driven peace process is doing little to help.

Azerbaijan dangles EU gas bonanza

Azerbaijan says it might sell up to 50 billion cubic metres of gas a year to the EU in future. But it wants more than just money in return.

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