Release and pardon of killer jeopardises Armenia-Azerbaijan ceasefire

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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Photo-collage from the '88—'94 Nagorno-Karabakh War
Image: Nicholas Babaian, Oleg Litvin, Jalpeyrie, Marshall Bagramyan.

Following Hungary's release and repatriation of convicted Azeri axe-murderer Ramil Safarov, who Azerbaijan subsequently pardoned, Armenia announced it is "ready for war".

The declaration is in-response to Safarov's pardon and promotion, despite the Azeri officer having been given a life sentence — with a minimum jail term of 30 years, by Hungarian authorities in 2006. Safarov was found guilty of the 2004 murder of Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan in Budapest, when both Safarov and Margaryan were attending a NATO Partnership for Peace programme. Safarov killed Margaryan in his sleep with an axe; the attack allegedly stemming from a desire to avenge Azeris killed during the Nagorno-Karabakh War and being mocked by Margaryan and another Armenian.

On his return home, Safarov was met with a hero's welcome, given a pardon by president Ilham Aliyev, promoted to the rank of major, awarded eight-years of back-pay and given a house. Armenia sees these acts, when it was expected that Safarov would serve out his prison term in Azerbaijan, as highly provocative.

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian declared: "We don't want a war, but if we have to, we will fight and win. We are not afraid of killers, even if they enjoy the protection of the head of state" .

Historically both Armenia and Azerbaijan lay claim to some of the same territories, an issue complicated by the intermingling of ethnic populations so some areas have no clearly demarcated Azeri and Armenian border; these potential sources of conflict remained quiescent whilst both nations were subsumed by greater powers. However, the collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires in the wake of the First World War led to the Armenian–Azerbaijani War. With the demise of the short-lived Armenian-Azerbaijan-Georgia Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic, fighting broke out which only ended when the two nations were annexed by the expanding Soviet Union.

With the USSR's collapse, Armenia and Azerbaijan re-emerged as independent states — as-did old rivalries over territory. Between 1988 and 1994 over thirty thousand people died, and a million were displaced in bitter ethnic fighting between Armenians and Azeris over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh; despite an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe brokered ceasefire, no final armistice has been signed and intermittent violence between them the two states continues. Nagorno-Karabakh remains legally part of Azerbaijan, but under effective Armenian control. On multiple occasions president Ilham Aliyev has stated his willingness to resort to force in order to assert Azeri rule, with oil wealth tipping any local arms race in favour of Azerbaijan.

On Friday, The National Security Council of Armenia decided to break ties with Hungary during an emergency summit, describing the Hungarian actions as a "grave mistake". In turn, the Azeri ambassador was summoned by Hungary on Monday regarding the breach of Azeri assurances that Safarov would serve out the remainder of his sentence in Azerbaijan.