17th Mar 2018


Azerbaijan tests EU credibility

  • The oil- and gas-rich country has been at war with its neighbour, Armenia, for some 20 years (Photo: Sonke Henning)

Eight days after the EU pledged €19.5 million to reform Azerbaijan's justice and migration systems, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has signed a decree pardoning Ramil Safarov, sentenced in 2006 by the court of an EU member state for the murder of an Armenian officer on EU soil.

The brutal murder, committed by lieutenant Safarov of the Azerbaijani army, took place in 2004, in Budapest. While attending the Nato Partnership for Peace programme in Budapest's military academy, Safarov entered the bedroom of 25 year-old Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan, also attending the programme, and slaughtered him with an axe.

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The Hungarian court hearing the case convicted Safarov "to life imprisonment on charges of premeditated murder with extreme cruelty." However, on 31 August 2012, Hungary handed Safarov over to Azerbaijan, where he was given a hero's welcome and an immediate pardon by the Azerbaijani leader.

A number of serious questions about this case remain unanswered. Given the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, why would Hungary extradite a convicted murderer to Azerbaijan when there was little doubt that he would be pardoned?

If a person can commit a serious crime in an EU member state and then be pardoned and treated as a national hero in a third country, does this not set a worrying precedent?

Although the extradition took place on a bilateral basis between Hungary and Azerbaijan, it has wider implications for the liberal democratic justice model that the EU upholds at home and promotes in its neighbourhood and beyond.

It is common knowledge that Azerbaijan is governed by an authoritarian leader. The country has a poor democratic record; human rights are regularly violated, the media is not free and the courts have no independence of action.

This case reveals that the Azerbaijani President is also allowed to ridicule the judgment of an EU member state court. And this is at a time when the EU is pumping millions of euros into oil- and gas-rich Azerbaijan for the purpose of reforming the latter's judiciary.

With so much at stake, the high representative and the neighbourhood commissioner should issue a joint statement condemning the extradition and the pardoning of the murderer.

President Obama and the US state department have already expressed deep concern about this case.

A White House press release states: "We are communicating to Azerbaijani authorities our disappointment about the decision to pardon Safarov. This action is contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation. The United States is also requesting an explanation from Hungary regarding its decision to transfer Safarov to Azerbaijan."

EU leaders should not be seen to be dragging their feet on yet another issue. The Council's Political and Security Committee (PSC) must convene an extraordinary meeting to request clarification on the basis of this extradition.

The high representative, Catherine Ashton, now has the responsibility to set the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), so she could use this opportunity to bring up the issue at the forthcoming FAC with a view to seeking answers from Hungary's foreign minister about whether all the repercussions of this action had been considered before handing Safarov over to Azerbaijan.

For their part, individual EU member states should not wait for the unanimous consent of the Council of the EU before condemning this transfer and pardon. Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt has already expressed his concerns. Other EU foreign ministers should follow suit.

With the backing of member states and the other institutions, the European External Action Service (EEAS) must ensure that EU's "more for more" principle, which is the basis of the reviewed European Neighbourhood Policy, is not applied to Eastern neighbours selectively.

Punishing Belarus for numerous human rights violations but not Azerbaijan shows that the Treaty of Lisbon objective of achieving consistency in EU external action (Art. 18 (4) TEU) remains 'paper diplomacy,' and is a long way from the spirit of coherence, visibility and effectiveness to which it aspires.

Under EEAS leadership, this discrepancy must be addressed in the upcoming country and regional strategic papers, national and regional indicative programmes and in annual progress reports.

The EEAS, in co-operation with the Council's Working Party on Eastern Europe and Central Asia (Coest), should address this double standard when drafting the country allocations of the next multiannual financial framework.

The past decade has shown that a policy of engagement does not work with Azerbaijan. When publically ridiculed, the EU should be willing to put its money where its mouth is and place its energy co-operation with Azerbaijan on hold.

The commissioner for Energy, who paid a visit to Azerbaijan last weekend, should abandon the BP script for the time being and take a lead on this matter.

Azerbaijan receives EU financial assistance mainly through the European Neighbourhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI).

The ENPI regulation, however, provides the basis for the suspension of the EU's assistance in cases when a partner country does not respect "liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law [OJEU 2006 L310, art. 1, 28]."

Quite apart from highlighting the question of the EU's duty towards its taxpayers, who are the contributors to the budget through which the EU's external action instruments operate, this case shows that the Azerbaijani government has no intention of adopting European norms and values and is hardly a worthy recipient of EU funds at this time of financial crisis.

The European Commission should therefore begin consultations with the Council's ENPI management committee with a view to revising the annual action plan for Azerbaijan.

Members of the European Parliament of course have a particular role as the only elected representatives of the Union with a direct responsibility towards EU citizens.

This issue is primarily a political one and the Treaty of Lisbon grants the European Parliament "functions of political control and consultation [Art. 36 TEU]."

The European Parliament has systematically expressed its opinion on matters of human rights; it must also do so in this case. The parliament's committee on foreign affairs (Afet) should discuss this extradition and pardon and prepare a resolution for a plenary sitting.

Under no circumstances should the Azerbaijani government be allowed to toy with the European Parliament as it did with the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly.

And since a number of the US congressmen have individually condemned Hungary for allowing the "axe murderer" to be freed and pardoned by his president, individual MEPs could do the same, in addition to a joint reaction on the part of the European Parliament.

So as the murderer of a young officer who travelled to Budapest for a Nato peace programme walks free, is promoted from the rank of lieutenant to major, rewarded with eight years' salary, an apartment and national celebrity as a hero willing to 'serve' his country, the question that comes to mind is: if the EU's liberal democratic justice model does not count for much in its immediate neighbourhood, where does it matter?

The writer is an analyst at Ceps, a Brussels-based think-tank

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