For a list of updates to this story, see next post.
The Hungarian consulate in Yerevan was attacked with tomatoes yesterday and the Hungarian flag was torn off of the building in protest of the extradition of an Azerbaijani citizen convicted of killing an Armenian soldier in Hungary.
A short video of the protest outside the Hungarian consulate of Armenia has been posted on YouTube. On the same day, Armenia cut all diplomatic and official ties with Hungary and raised the level of preparedness for its armed forces. “The Armenian people are not going to forgive this,” stated the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan to diplomatic delegates in the country who were called together for the special announcement condemning Hungary’s release of the convicted criminal.
The victim of the crime, an Armenian soldier named Gurgen Margaryan was killed in 2004 during his sleep in a Budapest dormitory after the Azerbaijani Ramil Sahib Safarov had smashed his skull with an axe. The two stayed in Hungary for an English course sponsored by the NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Safarov claimed a national offense was committed by Margaryan before his death – no one else witnessed such an offense – but received 30 years in prison in Hungary regardless of this supposed attenuating circumstance.
In 2005, Safarov was awarded the “Man of the Year 2005” by the National Democratic Party of Azerbaijan for his deed. An English-language website dedicated to him is testimony to the pressure applied by the Azerbaijani propaganda machine to the effort of freeing him. Throughout his imprisonment in Hungary, the convict held in Hungary had remained in the national awareness of his home country.
Safarov’s extradition came as part of the Orbán government’s novel approach to foreign policy and to financing its economy. Upon being found pariahs in the Western political community, and having loudly protested against the constraints imposed by organizations like the European Union or the IMF on the political and economic decision-making of the government (“Brussels is like Moscow”), Viktor Orbán proudly declared a newly-crafted backup plan called “The Eastern Opening.”
Featuring high among the aims of this program was to bring in money for financing the debt of the Hungarian state. But some of the money appears to have come with strings attached. The Azerbaijani government ostensibly agreed to buy somewhere between 2 to 3 billion euros worth of Hungarian state-issued bonds. The deal coincided so closely with the extradition of the Azerbaijani axe murderer that, combined with the obvious naivite of the legal explanation of Safarov’s transfer, the Armenians claim that it was head-money paid to buy the freedom of the Azerbaijani criminal.
What is known with certainty is that Safarov’s release to the Azerbaijanis was approved at the highest levels: by no other than Viktor Orbán himself. This was stated by the head of Azerbaijani foreign relations, Novruz Mammadov, who told reporters that the agreement over the extradition deal was reached during a meeting held between President Aliyev and the Hungarian prime minister during the latter’s visit to Baku.
Armenians have since targeted the prime minister’s Facebook page, and reportedly a small group of protesters gathered outside of the Hungarian embassy last night in Washington. “Be careful about going to Hungary, you might get bludgeoned with an axe,” Armenians warn each other in mockery of the affair.
But it would not be proper to make light of the controversy: according to the latest reports (Sept 1, p.m.) by the Azerbaijani press, shots were being fired at the Azeri-Armenian border.
Officially, Safarov had been transferred to Baku on the basis of a 1983 Strasbourg treaty guaranteeing convicted prisoners the right to serve their punishment in their home country. Safarov was granted clemency on the day of his arrival, however, by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. Already on the same day, he was paraded around as a hero during celebrations hosted by the Azeri state. He was not only promoted to the rank of a major, the Azeri state also gave him a new apartment and 8 years’ worth of military salary to compensate for the years he spent in the Hungarian jail-cell.
Perhaps not unexpectedly: the younger Aliyev’s human rights record and his ability to remain firm in his dictatorial powers while fueling ethnic tensions are often cited as reasons not to cultivate friendly diplomatic relations with the Azeri regime.
The Armenian reaction, Friday’s declaration that they are cutting all ties with Hungary over the freeing of Safarov, came as a shock to many Hungarians. Most Hungarians are unaware of the surviving tensions in the Caucasus region. For the Hungarian press, Safarov was only known as the “axe murderer” – that he committed his murder out of ethnic hate failed to invite the same attention as the gruesome details of his deed. Of course, more and more in Hungary are becoming insensitive to the problem: it might not be an overstatement that some in Hungary, and not only those in the country’s ultra-right movements, would even endorse Safarov’s militant nationalism.
The lack of perspective on the significance of the quid pro quo is also highly salient when comparing the reactions of the US Department of State to that of the Hungarian government. The former emphasizes the destabilizing effect of the Hungarian government’s decision to transfer Mr. Safarov for the region and condemns any action that fuels regional tensions. As far as the Hungarian government is concerned, they have willfully contributed to regional tensions over and over again during the last few months in their own geographic region. Likely from their perspective it would be more important to see the ethos of the Safarov transfer: that a poor government shunned by the regular creditors of the world had figured out a way find money in a place where lesser opportunists would never think to look.
It is unlikely, in their zeal to find unorthodox solutions to the country’s problems, that the Orbán government had any idea about the scope of the international difficulties in which they were about to land due to their dealings with the Azerbaijanis.
Or, at the very least, I would advise them to spin this embarrassing matter in this way. Perhaps they might see one of two other explanations more redeeming in their domestic communications with the government’s supporters, but these would sink the country’s reputation even further.
It would be wise not to press the money-finding angle any further: there is nothing glorious about exchanging a common criminal for billions of euros. Rather, this would only expose the Hungarian government’s utter contempt for basic principles of justice, an accusation they have fought off with zeal ever since coming to power in 2010. As far as the second possible explanation of their cooperation with the Azeri government is concerned – that they willfully supported the cause of a brutal murderer driven by nationalism and ethnic hatred – one only hopes that I am completely mistaken: that there are no parallels whatsoever between the Armenian-Azeri conflict and the relationships the Hungarian government intends to cultivate with neighboring countries.
Updates to this story since publication of this post on September 1 can be found in a separate post dedicated to the international and domestic repercussions of the Safarov extradition here: