19th Mar 2018


Nagorno-Karabakh: on the knife's edge

  • The Safarov case has dragged ordinary people on both sides into a fresh outpouring of racist hatred (Photo:

A mere two weeks ago the name Ramil Safarov was meaningless to most people.

Today he is the cause of a diplomatic storm between Azerbaijan, Armenia and Hungary which has sucked in the US, Russia and the EU and deepened regional hostility and bitterness in the South Caucasus.

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Safarov, an Azerbaijani soldier, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering an Armenian soldier, Gurgen Margaryan, during a Nato Partnership for Peace training programme in Budapest in 2004.

Hungary's decision to extradite Safarov to Azerbaijan, where he was immediately pardoned, has unleashed a widespread tirade of condemnation on both Baku and Budapest.

Hungary says that the extradition was approved in accordance with the terms of the 1983 European Convention of the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, to which Azerbaijan is party. It also claims Azerbaijan pledged to keep Safarov incarcerated for the remainder of his sentence.

Article 12 of the convention states: "Each party may grant pardon, amnesty or commutation of the sentence in accordance with its constitution or other laws."

Azerbaijan declared it was entitled to pardon him under Item 22 of article 109 of the Azerbaijani constitution, meaning that while it may have been a highly provocative decision, it was in accordance with all international norms and rules, something which Hungary must have been aware of.

This decision had an immediate negative effect on the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process and inter-ethnic relations with the Armenians.

While Armenia has now cut diplomatic ties with Hungary, Azerbaijan feels bitter about the way the international community has treated the case.

An open statement co-signed by various representatives of Azerbaijan's ruling and opposition parties considers last week's European Parliament resolution regarding the Safarov case as unconstructive and a clear reflection of the institution's policy of double standards.

A closed and elite-driven peace process

Celebrated by the majority of Azerbaijanis and condemned vehemently by Armenia, the Safarov event exposes again the significant level of smouldering acrimony that has grown, boiling in the pressure cooker of the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and in a closed and elite-driven peace process.

The loud local public reaction to this case came as no surprise for close observers of this process and should not be treated by international diplomacy as an episodic incident to be dismissed with quick and short-sighted measures.

Very sadly, this turn of events will almost certainly set back efforts to find a solution to the conflict and efforts to build up trust between the peoples of the region.

Political debates and statements have fired up emotions which were displayed in the public domain in a myriad of ways. During the past weeks, regular citizens on both sides - not just radicals and ultra-nationalists - have poured into local, international and social media an impressive compilation of poisonous insults, hollow statements and calls for violent action, all of which are rooted in a dangerously racist attitude towards each other. The few moderate and analytical articles were met with threatening tones.

This alone is sufficient to show that the 'frozen' polarisation and isolation on all sides has done nothing during the past 20 years but sharpen perceptions of the enemy and further alienate people regardless of their age, education or political orientation.

At this critical level of political cleavage, trying to stimulate and build change from within the societies affected by conflict appears to be most badly needed yet impossible endeavour.

In the current setting of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the possibilities of promoting peace from the outside are limited. International pressure and mediation have predictably and repeatedly hit a dead end.

The official peace process has maintained a self-centered approach and insisted for too long on a confidential and secretive structure for the talks, ignoring the need to work with the public, to include all the relevant actors and stimulate significant changes at the level of local people caught up in the conflict.

The radical reactions to the Safarov case are a reflection of public feeling which is not prepared for dialogue, let alone any compromise.

Youth deserving better

For several years now different local and international non-governmental organisations have tried to bridge the divide where direct cross-conflict activities were impossible to carry out. Despite the politically stagnant environment around the official negotiation process, efforts have continued to build trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, in particular among young people - a constituency which desires and deserves a brighter future beyond the bloody past it has inherited.

Some of these projects were supported by the EU in line with its declared commitment to provide support to civil society for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. For those people who have been painstakingly trying to improve dialogue across the divide, the aftershocks of the Safarov event will not only challenge the tentative results obtained so far but will also put on shaky ground all civil society initiatives in the future.

Local NGOs and respected insiders who work at multiple levels in society will now struggle to find their feet. The limited space they had to promote conflict transformation, propose alternative conflict resolution activities and broaden the options in the dominant discourse on the official peace process risks shrinking significantly in the wake of the Safarov case.

They will need all the support they can get from the EU and from other organisations.

Playing the blame game is not going to help this process and will do nothing in the long run but push the two sides into their own corners and make any sort of interaction and dialogue difficult if not impossible.

No one will be worse off than the people of the South Caucasus if the region, steeped in hatred and constantly teetering on the edge of armed escalation, is relegated to hopeless status by a disappointed international business and diplomatic community.

Amanda Paul is an analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC), Roxana Cristescu is an advisor at Crisis Management Initiative (CMI)

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