Ax Killer’s Pardon Reignites War Fears in Oil-Rich Caucasus

Ramil Safarov
Ramil Safarov, seen here in 2006, who was serving a life sentence for slaying Gurgen Margaryan in Budapest in 2004, was pardoned by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and promoted after Hungary transferred him home Aug. 31. Photographer: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Azerbaijan’s pardon of a convicted murderer who killed an Armenian army officer with an ax risks reigniting a 20-year-old war between the two foes in the energy-rich South Caucasus.

Ramil Safarov, who was serving a life sentence for slaying Gurgen Margaryan in Budapest in 2004, was pardoned by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and promoted after Hungary transferred him home Aug. 31. Armenia’s parliament will hold an emergency session today, while Europe, the U.S. and Russia have expressed “deep concern” about regional stability.

Energy-exporter Azerbaijan fought Armenia over the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave after the 1991 Soviet breakup, leaving tens of thousands dead and more than 1 million displaced. While border skirmishes since a 1994 cease fire haven’t triggered renewed conflict, Safarov being honored threatens the status quo. The territory remains a potential flash point in a region that borders Iran and Turkey and endured a 2008 Russia-Georgia war.

Safarov’s pardon “is a serious blow to confidence building and trust between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” Sabine Freizer, director of the International Crisis Group’s Europe Program in Istanbul, said yesterday by e-mail. “Both in Baku and in Yerevan, there’s a growing public impression that the time to return to war to defeat the enemy permanently has come.”

Dram, Manat

The Armenian dram strengthened less than 0.1 percent against the dollar today to 410.5500 after falling yesterday to the weakest level since Aug. 21, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The Azeri manat was unchanged at 0.7845 per dollar.

Armenia has severed diplomatic ties with Hungary and lawmakers said today in a statement that Azerbaijan’s “cynical” actions in rewarding the perpetrator of a “xenophobic” crime undermine regional security.

President Serzh Sargsyan expressed anger at the decision to pardon Safarov.

“The Armenians must not be underestimated -- we don’t want a war, but if we have to, we will fight and win,” he said Sept. 2 in comments published on his website for Nagorno-Karabakh’s Independence Day. “We are not afraid of murderers, even of those who enjoy the highest patronage. And again our words fall on deaf ears. Well, they have been warned.”

Armenian terrorist organization ASALA, which has previously claimed responsibility for killing Turkish diplomats, sent a threatening letter to Azerbaijan’s embassy in Budapest, Azartac, the Azeri state-run news service, reported yesterday. Security at embassies has been stepped up, the Foreign Ministry said.

Security Services

Sargsyan has instructed his security services to kill Safarov, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry said. Tigran Balayan, a spokesman for the Armenia’s Foreign Ministry, and presidential spokesman Arman Arzumanyan declined to comment today.

Peace in the region “depends entirely on Armenia,” Elnur Aslanov, head of the political analysis and information-provision department at the Azeri president’s office, said yesterday by e-mail. He called Sargsyan’s comments provocative.

“It’s a bit odd to hear such bloodthirsty threats and calls for intolerance from a head of state in the 21st century,” Aslanov wrote.

Safarov, who was a lieutenant when he committed the murder, received a hero’s welcome in the Azeri capital of Baku last week and was promoted to the rank of major. He was also given eight years’ of back pay and an apartment, the APA news service reported, citing the Defense Ministry.

NATO Training

Safarov, 35, had been attending language classes with Margaryan in Budapest in February 2004 as part of training conducted by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The U.S., France and Russia, which are leading efforts to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, Sept. 3 urged Azerbaijan and Armenia to persist with negotiations.

“We are communicating to the Azerbaijani authorities our disappointment about the decision to pardon Safarov,” the White House said Aug. 31 in a statement. “This action is contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and his French and Russian counterparts called in June on the two former Soviet republics to accelerate a road map for resolving the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, respect the 1994 cease-fire agreement and abstain from hostile rhetoric.

Peace Talks

Talks brokered by Russia last year between Sargsyan and Aliyev failed to yield an accord on the so-called Basic Principles to allow a peace agreement to be reached. Azerbaijan’s and Hungary’s actions undermine international efforts to reduce tensions in the region, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Sept. 3.

The European Union said the same day that it was in contact with both sides in a bid to head off any potential hostilities.

“We are particularly concerned about the possible impact that these developments might have on the wider region,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for European Union foreign-affairs chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters in Brussels. “We call on Azerbaijan and Armenia to exercise restraint on the ground and in public statements in order to prevent any kind of escalation of this situation.”

Companies led by London-based BP Plc have invested more than $35 billion in Azerbaijan’s oil and natural-gas fields. Azerbaijan can pump as many as 1.2 million barrels of oil a day to Turkey through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which is part-funded by the West to allow supplies to bypass Russia.

Military Spending

The country may also be a source of natural gas for Azerbaijan’s EU-backed Trans-Anatolia pipeline across Turkey.

Azerbaijan, whose economy grew 0.1 percent last year, used surging oil prices to double military spending to more than $2 billion in 2010, emboldening Aliyev to threaten the use of military force to regain Nagorno-Karabakh. Regular border clashes continue to break out.

Military spending will reach $3.6 billion this year, about 60 percent more than Armenia’s state budget, Aliyev told a Cabinet meeting in June. Azerbaijan’s army numbers 56,840, according to The Military Balance 2012, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Armenia’s economy is set to expand 3.8 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund. Growth is helped by large amounts of investment from Iran, which has benefited as Armenia’s ties with Azerbaijan and Turkey have soured, Vadim Mukhanov, an analyst at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, said today by phone.

Russian Support

Armenia’s army totals 45,846, more than half of which are conscripts, while Russia’s air force provides national air defense, according to The Military Balance.

The fallout over Safarov’s release probably won’t spark a new armed conflict, according to Alexei Malashenko, a Middle East analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow.

“There have been more border skirmishes between the two countries this year, but this is far from a war,” he said yesterday by phone. The situation simply shows that the two countries “aren’t prioritizing reconciliation.”

June was the deadliest month “in a long time” for border clashes, with at least 10 people confirmed killed, the ICG’s Freizer said. An Azeri soldier died and another was wounded in clashes along the cease-fire line last week, according to Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry. Armenia denies Azeri claims that two of its soldiers were also killed.

The “glorification” of Margaryan’s murder by Azerbaijan closes any avenues for normalizing relations with Armenia and should concern the West and Russia, according to IHS Global Insight analyst Lilit Gevorgyan.

This “certainly increases the security risk for the region,” Gevorgyan said by e-mail. “A new war is the last thing that the EU, U.S. and Russia need right now in that region with the escalation of relations with Iran.”

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