An unremorseful murderer was predictably pardoned and promoted last month after the Azerbaijani government secured military officer Ramil Safarov’s extradition from Hungary. Safarov had been serving a life sentence in that country for axing to death his sleeping Armenian colleague Gurgen Margaryan at a 2004 NATO Partnership for Peace course.
While swift to imprison domestic dissidents, the authoritarian regime of Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev spared no effort to release Safarov—a hero for many fellow Azeris—by reportedly offering Hungary a loan as large as $3.8 billion, enabled by the Caspian’s energy riches. Unrepentantly proud of his success, Aliyev set Safarov’s picture as his Facebook cover photo. Capitalizing on anti-Armenian sentiment, fueled by the 1990’s bloody war over Nagorno-Karabakh, is likely Aliyev’s sole opportunity to connect with a large number of Azerbaijani citizens, whose subtlest criticism of the regime can otherwise land them behind bars.
Aliyev’s policy of securing short-term populist support, however, is clearly poised—if not somewhat intended—to exacerbate the already heavily tense relations with Yerevan, which charges that anti-Armenian hatred is Baku’s official state policy. Armenia’s response that it is ready to fight, if attacked, has further demonstrated the serious repercussions of the situation, prompting strong reaction against Safarov’s release from the mediators of the Karabakh conflict, France, Russia, and the United States.
To demonstrate his deep concern, President Obama has “request[ed] an explanation” from Hungary, implying that his administration was surprised by the extradition. A leaked U.S. diplomatic dispatch summarizing reactions to Safarov’s April 2006 conviction, however, reports that the Azerbaijani “Prosecutor General’s office has already announced its intention to seek extradition,” attesting to Washington’s knowledge of the extradition effort from day one. Furthermore, a Reuters report published a week before Safarov’s release noted the possible Azerbaijani loan to Budapest, which should have also raised a flag.
Instead of readily reacting to this potential development with a press statement, Washington and its partners should and could have proactively prevented the extradition by sending Budapest, whose growing cooperation with Baku hasn’t been secret, a strong message that an extradition would further complicate Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations. This willful negligence resonates with Washington’s and other mediators’ failure to halt another anti-Armenian action when, on Dec. 15, 2005, they were alerted to the Azerbaijani military’s destruction of the world’s largest medieval Armenian cemetery in Djulfa. Instead of demanding that Azerbaijan stop their ongoing irreversible destruction of the world’s largest complex of medieval Armenian material heritage, the State Department kept silent until after the cemetery was reduced to dust. In the meantime, it expressed internal displeasure, according to a leaked cable, not with the heavy-duty destruction, but with Armenia’s written protest of it.
A State Department officer once summarized for me Washington’s interests in Azerbaijan: “Energy, security, and human rights.” The first two—which include oil pipelines and possible attack grounds against Iran—have undoubtedly overshadowed the latter, especially in the context of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, which has already killed tens of thousands and displaced many more, the majority of whom are Azerbaijanis.
As a mediator of the conflict, Washington is expected to be neutral. But tacitly or negligently allowing state-sponsored hate crimes does not qualify as evenhandedness; it merely reinforces the prime cause of the Karabakh conflict: the Armenian perception that Azerbaijan has been systematically intolerant of everything Armenian without any international repercussion.
Budapest’s ill-advised decision to extradite Safarov and subsequent hesitancy to strongly criticize the release, as well as Washington’s inability to proactively prevent the transfer, are seemingly byproducts of self-interests. But a government needn’t always sacrifice its principles to forge a partnership, even with authoritarian regimes. When the Armenian inscriptions on a church used by minority Udis and nearby tombstones in Nij, Azerbaijan, were polished out during a 2005 renovation supported by a Norwegian non-profit, then Oslo’s Ambassador Steinar Gil strongly expressed his outrage regarding the vandalism. Moreover, he actively publicized it, demanded accountability, and convinced all fellow ambassadors to join him in boycotting the reopening of the church. Azerbaijan, whose top Muslim cleric called the renovation and reopening “triumph of tolerance,” was expectedly unhappy.
“It is a question of principle,” Gil told me. Yet despite Gil’s persistent principled position on many human rights issues, Norway has continued to be one of the largest investors in Azerbaijan’s energy sector.
Washing away hate crimes with oil is not the only path to partnership with Baku.
This article was originally published in The Armenian Weekly.