An Axe to Grind: An Overview of Hungary's 'Axe Murder Case' and its Effects on the International Community

By Akos Erzse
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2015, Vol. 2014/2015 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Politics is the result of interaction of different groups and communities, aiming to ensure peaceful cohabitation of all actors. Due to this relationship between states, statements and actions by government officials, diplomatic officers or even civilians are capable of inadvertently offending societies and different peoples, provoking radical responses by administrations and the public alike. A good example was Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s remark about the lack of preparedness of British security prior to the 2012 Olympic Games, which resulted in heavy criticism and left a bitter aftertaste following his visit.1

This piece, therefore, will aim to present a more critical understanding of the chain of events that transpired in Hungary and the Caucasus region during September 2012. The extradition of Ramil Sahib Safarov - authorised by the Hungarian government - received exceptional media attention both on the international and domestic level. By offering a summary of the history of the Azerbaijani and Armenian conflict, the ‘axe murder’ case and the extradition, I aim to draw attention to the importance of a culture and region sensitive foreign policy making and the significance of international media in shaping politics.

I would like to begin by exploring the history behind the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and its connection to the murder, followed by a brief insight into contemporary Hungarian politics; spearheaded by the governing party, Fidesz (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége or Alliance of Young Democrats). Several theories emerged regarding the party’s general aims in the Caucasus region and its “unorthodox” economic policy, which is to some extent connected to the conflict.

I will go on to detail the prosecution and extradition of Ramil Sahib Safarov, the Azerbaijani military officer, who played a crucial part in the to-be presented dispute. I will also examine Hungary’s role in the conflict, and its initial response to the accusations in connection with the legal basis and legitimacy of the extradition. I also aim to present the broader international and domestic consequences of the extradition with the help of different sources from the mass media, including Hungarian, Azerbaijani, Armenian and other international news sources.

I will conclude this piece by arguing that while Hungary played a substantial role in sparking the debate regarding the legitimacy of the extradition and the treatment of Safarov, it acted according to the rules set forth by international law. However, multilateral diplomatic negotiations, with all the involved actors, could have improved the immediate reaction of the affected states. I will also emphasize the importance of the role the media had played in the aforementioned conflict.

The Conflict

During the 1980s, most of the European Soviet-bloc was facing dire economic and political problems as the authoritarian governments and their centralised economic systems began to fail.2 While the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 offered a chance for the creation of sovereign nation-states, it meant a significant challenge for the future leadership. After declaring independence, the new-born countries, in most cases, had to completely revolutionise their economic and political systems by moving away from centrally regulated production and market, and by reintroducing private ownership into the economy. However, the fact that the former Soviet Union encompassed an astounding number of ethnicities, the creation of purely national states was impossible. Several affected regions were densely populated with differing ethnic groups and nationalities, whose leaders aimed to secure the interest, security and sometimes their primacy of their own community over others. This struggle for regional influence predestined the goals of several of the former Soviet member states. The contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan was no different.

Nagorno-Karabakh has always been an area of volatile tension, due to the ethnic and religious variegation in the region. Its population has mainly consisted of Armenians, even though it was geographically located in Azerbaijani territory. As Soviet rule weakened, the citizens of Nagorno-Karabakh were among the firsts to demand drastic political changes, including the separation from Azerbaijan and the merging of Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia.

The demise of the Soviet rule in the region gave the Azerbaijani government the required impetus to pursue their independence from Moscow’s rule, while the Armenian population, supported by Armenia, aspired for their own and Nagorno-Karakbakh’s freedom from Azerbaijan. Naturally, this led to an increasingly violent disagreement between the Armenian population and the state of Azerbaijan. By 1990, the entire region and the Azerbaijani capital, Baku, have become engulfed in the ethnic conflict, as large scale protests were organized by the Azerbaijani Popular Front, the main force of opposition against the Armenian independence efforts. On the thirteenth of January the conflict escalated as anti-Armenian groups attacked independence supporters and claimed the lives of 48 Armenians. Even though the Azerbaijani government did not encourage the conduct of such pogroms, there was little effort to end the violence.

Despite the fact that a state of emergency had been declared on the fifteenth of January, the violence continued and the Azerbaijani Popular Front became increasingly aware of the possibility of a Russian intervention. On the nineteenth of January, Soviet forces entered Baku in order to crush the resistance of the heavily anti-Moscow Azerbaijani Popular Front, but mitigating the suffering of the Armenian population seemed not to be the intervention’s main goal. The Soviet central government’s desperate attempt to hold together its fragmenting power over the region failed, as most of the Armenian population had already fled from Baku. In the end, the Soviet intervention only escalated the conflict and led to more violence. This chain of events led to a four year struggle over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh and neighbouring Azerbaijani territories.3

The countries were finally able to end the violence, that resulted in the death of 30,000 people and the displacement of approximately one million, in 1994. Most part of this region is now under the control of the Armenian military forces and ethnic Armenian forces.4 Nonetheless, the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains. As any conflict with substantial ethnic issues at its heart, this one required extra caution from both states and the neighbouring countries as well. In the early days of September 2012, this volatile situation of relative peace has been indirectly disturbed by the action of a third country: Hungary.

Following a relatively successful period of economic growth, Hungary was hit hard by the global recession in 2008, and has been struggling to recover ever since. During the 2010 elections, the coalition of Fidesz and the KDNP (Keresztény Demokrata Néppárt, or Christian Democratic People’s Party) managed to secure power and formed its government with MSZP (Magyar Szocialista Párt or Hungarian Socialist Party) in opposition.5

Doing its best to tackle the challenges of the economic recession, the right-wing government introduced several “unorthodox” economic and political measures. Such measures were the introduction of “crisis taxing” affecting banks, telecommunication, energy and the retail sectors. Crisis taxing was meant to be a temporary economic measure that would have allowed the government to increase its budget and combat the recession effectively.6 As a result, the government spent a large amount of its time and influence on waging a battle with the International Monetary Fund and looking for new economic partners.

During this process, the government’s attention had gradually shifted towards the East, as it saw more economic promise in those areas; especially the Caucasus region. One of the target countries was Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Péter Szíjjártó; chairman of eight economic committees tasked with boosting eastern trade relations; had rounds of negotiations with Sahin Mustafajev, the Minister of Economic Development in Azerbaijan, exploring different possible opportunities for economic cooperation, which eventually led to a more friendly and stronger relationship between the states. Péter Szíjjártó underscored the fact that there are tremendous opportunities for Hungarian companies in Azerbaijan, for example investment in infrastructure and wastewater treatment.7

The Murder and Prosecution

I believe it is crucial to present the ‘axe murder’ case at this point, which resulted in the prosecution and imprisonment of Ramil Safarov, a member of the Azerbaijani military. Ramil Sahib Safarov was born on the 25 August 1977, in Dzebrail, a city located in the previously mentioned Nagarno-Karabakh region. Safarov was charged with the first-degree murder of Gurgen Margaryan, an Armanian soldier, who, alongside Safarov, participated in a NATO Partnership for Peace program in Hungary, during the course of 2004. According to the defendant, the murder was premeditated, carefully planned and executed by him with an axe, while Margaryan was sleeping in his bed on the nineteenth of February in 2004.

Throughout his questioning and trial, Safarov remained cooperative and admitted to his crime without hesitation. He justified his action by claiming that Lieutenant Margaryan provoked him on numerous occasions by slandering his homeland and taunted him by insulting the Azerbaijani efforts and people in the region (budapest.sumgait.info, 2012).8 As a result of his crime, Safarov was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in a Hungarian prison.9 Azerbaijan had requested the extradition of the prisoner several times throughout the years, but Hungary was determined to keep Safarov within its borders. Then suddenly, on 31 August in 2012, Hungary changed its mind and consented to the immediate extradition of Ramil Safarov. This decision caused the eruption of a major diplomatic storm in Central-Europe.

The Extradition

According to the Hungarian government, the state allowed the transport of the prisoner with the understanding that Safarov would serve out the rest of his sentence in Azerbaijan. Nonetheless, upon his arrival to Baku he was almost immediately pardoned on the order of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev. Furthermore, Safarov was also given a new apartment and was reinstated to the Azerbaijani army by Defense Minister Safar Abiyev, but this time he was promoted to the rank of major.10 His image in Azerbaijan is now nothing less than heroic and he has been able to continue his life and career.

Naturally, the extradition provoked immediate, and in most cases, quite indignant responses on both a governmental and public level. As an answer to the extradition, authorised by the Hungarian government, the Armenian state decided to cut all diplomatic ties with Hungary on the same day the extradition took place. This immediate reaction from the government was followed by an even more fiery response form the Armenian public as some proceeded to throw tomatoes and eggs at the Hungarian embassy in Yerevan, while burning the Hungarian flag.11 Armenian communities in other countries reacted to the news as well, for example the Armenian National Committee of America, or ANCA, called for a civil, but firm protest against the extradition, by sending e-mails and placing phone calls to Ambassador György Szapáry, the Hungarian Ambassador to the United States. The ANCA also sent a letter to President Barack Obama, drawing his attention to the brewing conflict and asking him to publicly condemn the actions of the Hungarian government.12

Armenia was not the only country who felt outraged by the sudden decision of the Hungarian government. A part of the Hungarian public opinion was fiercely contesting the lack of transparency regarding the extradition, fueled by the sometimes unpopular, above mentioned economic decisions of Fidesz. After the news of the extradition had spread across the media, Hungarian users created numerous Facebook pages in order to ensure the Armenian public that the government’s decision is certainly not supported by the public at large. One page was even devoted to apologising for the actions of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.13 Another one was aiming to spread the news and to demonstrate public opinion connected to the case.14 According to Armenian News, a group of Hungarian intellectuals visited the tomb of Gurgen Margaryan. Professor Gabor Derek, pastor Gabor Ivanyi, political analyst Zoltan Biro and engineer Rudolf Ungvari expressed their deepest regrets regarding the actions of their government and the murder that has taken place in Budapest, underscoring the fact that the act of pure aggression happened during a program aiming to strengthen peace.15

The reaction of the international community was also rather condemning and negative. According to a press statement made by Patrick Ventell, Acting Deputy Spokesperson for the Office of Press Relation in the Department of State, the United States was deeply disturbed by the pardon of Ramil Safarov and requested further details from Hungary regarding the conditions of the extradition.16 One day after the extradition, on 1 September, the Hungarian government published a statement in which they expressed their deepest regret regarding the troubling outcome of Safarov’s transport and the cutting of the diplomatic ties with Armenia. Nonetheless, according to the government, the process of the extradition was fully transparent and complying with international law on every level.17 Even though Hungary stated that the process of the extradition was legal, Zsolt Németh, Parliamentary State Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned the pardoning of Safarov and labelled it as ‘contrary to the relevant rules of international law’.18

Despite the fact that Hungary refused to issue an official apology directly to Armenia at first, following the speech of Armenian MP Heghine Bisharyan at the 127th Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly, the Hungarian delegation approached the Armenian delegation and expressed their regret in connection to the extradition. The Hungarian delegation also suggested the restoration of diplomatic relations on a Parliamentary level.19 On 24 September, Hungary formally ‘expressed its interest to end the unilateral suspension of diplomatic ties with Armenia’ in the form of a diplomatic note.20 Shortly after Hungary, Azerbaijan also confirmed the legitimacy of the extradition and the government’s action following the transport of Safarov. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry Spokesman Elman Abdullayev stated that the process of the extradition was fully legal and labelled Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan’s response to the issue as ‘hysterical’ and ‘populist’.21

The European Union’s High Representative Catherine Ashton and Commissioner Stefan Füle also expressed deep concern regarding the extradition, and called on the governments and public alike to ‘exercise restraint, on the ground as well as in public statements, in order to prevent an escalation of the situation’. The statement also mentioned that the extradition was carried out accordingly to the Convention of Strasbourg on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons of 21 March 1983.22

International actors also expressed fear of a wider conflict in the region as both Armenia and Azerbaijan has powerful allies.

Turkey maintains strong economic and cultural ties with Azerbaijan, which is demonstrated by the fact that Turkey allowed Azerbaijan to build a pipeline across Turkish territory in order to deliver natural gases and have a ‘firmer grasp on its exports’.23 In August 2010, Azerbaijan and Turkey signed a strategic cooperation agreement, a mutual defensive pact, with the promise of mutual assistance in the event of an attack against either side. The agreement also directs cooperation regarding military affairs, humanitarian issues and economic relations and was planned to come into full force after the ratification, which occurred on 10 December 2010.24 Furthermore, former Turkish Minister of Defence, Vecdi Gönül stated that the Turkish military support of Azerbaijan exceeded 200 million USD in 2010.25 The large-scale Turkish financial investment in Azerbaijan and the willingness to co-operate on a military level clearly shows that Turkey would be willing to assist Azerbaijan in an international conflict.

On the other hand, ever since its intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia has been dedicated to upholding the fragile peace mediated by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe Minsk Group. Shortly after the pardoning of Safarov, the Group expressed dire concern regarding the stability of the region, and labelled the actions of Azerbaijan ‘damaging’ and condemned the glorification of the crime Safarov committed. The OSCE Minsk Group also stated that it will remain committed to the goal of achieving a strong and stable peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan.26

We can see that both Azerbaijan and Armenia acquired substantially powerful allies in the region through economic and political co-operation. Should the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan turn even more hazardous, the actions of the neighbouring and partner countries could play a decisive role in deciding the immediate future of the region. However, it seems that neither state desires a full-frontal conflict. As the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan stated, it is not in Armenia’s interest to provoke a fight, but they are prepared to use full force if they have to.27

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