The Safarov Phenomenon within the Context of Azerbaijani Politics

Dr. Gayane Novikova

September 14, 2012

The extradition of Ramil Safarov from Hungary, his immediate pardon, and his definition as a national hero are all developments that fit neatly into the logic of Azerbaijan’s foreign and internal politics. The reaction in Armenia to these immoral actions by Azerbaijani authorities was also quite predictable: waves of protests and indignation, suspension of diplomatic relations with Hungary, toughening of the rhetoric emanating from Yerevan, and re-inclusion of the question of recognizing the Nagorno Karabakh Republic’s independence into the agenda of the Armenian Parliament. In addition, a flow of comments on the possibility of resumption of military action in the area of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict streamed from officials of a variety states and international organizations.

Parallels to the events of August 2008, in the area of the “Georgian conflicts” inevitably come to mind. Reciprocal provocations by all parties to the Abkhazian and South Ossetian conflicts, including Russia, and a misunderstanding or neglect by the Georgian leadership of messages from Washington, brought catastrophic consequences for Georgia itself: the de facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia became de jure independence.

A simple question has crystallized: what has motivated the Azerbaijani leadership to play the Safarov card? It must be emphasized at the outset that the motivations of the Hungarian leadership were secondary: it was driven by its own interests.

It should be recalled that the atrocious killing of an Armenian officer (and the prevention of the murder of a second Armenian, also a participant in the same NATO English-language course in Budapest) met with a variety of responses in 2004. Thousands of Azerbaijanis signed letters in support of the criminal, massive rallies occurred in Baku, and a special bank account was opened to donate money to support the “Safarov cause.” He also was named “man of the year” in 2005 (, and “a victim of the 16-year war of Armenia against Azerbaijan, a victim of Armenian terror, and of the indifference of international organizations to the destiny of the Azerbaijani people” ( ety/39956.html). Wherever deprecatory statements emerged, they were always introduced in a similar way: “Everyone needs to understand that this happened in Europe. It is unacceptable under any circumstances to kill a sleeping person with an axe in Europe… It is acceptable to kill an officer of the enemy’s army in the front line during a military operation, but not at a college in the center of peaceful Europe. Safarov took a step in the wrong direction” (The Echo” newspaper, No 19 (1500), Friday, Feb 2, 2007). Some well-known journalists, including Ilya Fainzilberg from, invited readers to think about the possible influence of this killing upon Azerbaijani society: “The condemnation of Safarov’s action already intensified the country’s social environment, and it can provoke further instability” ( Safarov was receiving birthday congratulations during his years of imprisonment even from some members of Parliament.

After his sentence, discussions on the Safarov cause and his extradition appeared periodically (once or twice every month) in the Azerbaijani on-line media as direct reminders of “a victim of Armenian aggression” and indirectly as confirmation of Azerbaijani authorities’ efforts on behalf of his rescue and return.


What happened after the extradition of Safarov to Azerbaijan is a clear political provocation of such magnitude that it may provoke a resumption of full-scale military actions in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict area. What is the purpose of the Azerbaijani leadership? What is the target of its activity? To answer these questions it is necessary briefly to analyze the processes directly influencing developments in the conflict area, as well as the reaction and motivations of the main external actors concerned.

The aggravation of the situation in the area of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict is now occurring against the background of the civil war in Syria, new waves of violence in Iraq, the hard-to-control situation in the North Caucasus and the activation of terrorist organizations, the increasingly overt Kurdish problem along the entire perimeter of the Middle East, and the unresolved Iranian nuclear crisis. Last but not least in this list of troubled spots is the growing contradiction within the Euro zone. In medias res, none of the external actors is interested in an escalation of tension in the South Caucasus, and all have actually condemned the actions of the Azerbaijani authorities.

The United States is coming closer to the conclusion of a very tense presidential race. National Security Council Spokesman T. Vietor was among the first to comment upon recent developments in Armenian-Azerbaijani relations. His comment on August 31, 2012, was focused upon the possibility of the resumption of war. Noting the negative influence of Azerbaijan’s pardon of the convicted murderer, the White House representative made the following statement: “President Obama is deeply concerned by today’s announcement that the President of Azerbaijan has pardoned Ramil Safarov following his return from Hungary. Safarov confessed to the murder of Armenian Army officer Gurgen Margaryan in Budapest in 2004, and was serving a life sentence in Hungary for this brutal crime. We are communicating to Azerbaijani authorities our disappointment about the decision to pardon Safarov. This action is contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation. The United States is also requesting an explanation from Hungary regarding its decision to transfer Safarov to Azerbaijan.” Furthermore, the US Department of State demanded on September 11 that Azerbaijan fulfill its obligations to Hungary as concern to the conditions of Safarov’s extradition.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated during his visit to Baku on September 7 that he was “deeply concerned by the Azerbaijani decision to pardon Ramil Safarov. The act he committed in 2004 was a crime which should not be glorified, as this damages trust and does not contribute to the peace process.” Other European institutions offered similar statements and the European Parliament discussed this issue at its September 10-13 session.

Russia and Turkey have found themselves in quite complicated situations. Currently Russia – taking into account the importance of its relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan – cannot allow itself to take a clear and unambiguous stand in regard to the resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict; as a whole, the status quo in the area of the conflict suits its interests. However, developments in the bilateral Armenian-Azerbaijani and Armenian-Hungarian relations allow Russia to criticize European states and structures for their inability to influence positively the resolution of the conflicts in the South Caucasus, and for their provoking of further escalation as a result of poorly thought-out steps and actions. In turn, it is possible that Russia will use the “Safarov factor” to push Armenia into the Eurasian Union.

The status quo in the South Caucasus suits Turkey as well; however, its reasons are different from those of Russia. Developments in the Middle East have significantly complicated Turkey’s attempts to play the role of a stabilizing regional power. The failure of its announced foreign policy – “zero problems with the neighbors” – is obvious. Thus, Turkey needs to improve its position in the area with the support of two regional states: Azerbaijan and Israel. Indeed, and in spite of existing tensions and contradictions among these three states, they have strong common strategic interests and specific links:

– Turkey and Israel are interested in Azerbaijani energy sources;

– Azerbaijan and Turkey are interested in Israeli armament supplies and maintenance contracts;

– Azerbaijan and Israel seek to utilize the geographical location of Turkey and its membership in NATO on behalf of their interests.

It is possible to judge Turkey’s role in the “Savarov cause” through information in the European and Azerbaijani press. In particular, on August 23, 2012, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed source close to Hungary’s Economy Ministry, that “Azerbaijan could lend Hungary 2-3 billion Euros by buying a specially-issued sovereign bond denominated in Turkish lira, as Hungary looks to tap potential new markets for debt financing.” (Link). It is worth mentioning that Safarov, immediately after arriving in Baku stated that he always felt Turkey’s support.


However, all of these considerations in respect to the regional actors constitute only the background playing field; the significant actors are Armenia and Azerbaijan. At the current stage of the game the Nagorno Karabakh Republic moves to a secondary plane.

Azerbaijani authorities are pursuing several goals, each of which must be perceived as implying several constituent aims. The major goal is to demonstrate to Azerbaijani society that the government, and Azerbaijan as a strong sovereign state, is capable of defending its interests and that the “father of the nation” is concerned about “his children” and keeps his word: the “hero” returned home after only eight years of imprisonment. Because this event must be acknowledged as the single achievement by Azerbaijani diplomacy in recent years, it of necessity had to be proclaimed as a great victory. Indeed, the triumphal return of Safarov forced the ever-diminishing Azerbaijani secular opposition to remain silent and visibly decreased its already low hope of achieving success in the forthcoming presidential election. According to widespread commentary on Azerbaijani Internet forums, Ilham Aliyev’s polling numbers will grow – and this is an important pre-election development, even for an authoritarian ruler.

The second component part is related to the slow-moving process of pre-recognition of the Nagorno Karabakh Republic: two American states, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, have adopted resolutions calling for President Obama and Congress to recognize the NKR. There are also discussions by experts at leading research centers in the US and Europe on the necessity to seek avenues of cooperation with NKR elected authorities. In the light of the absence of visible shifts and achievements within the frameworks of the OSCE Minsk Group, these trends constitute a threat to the Azerbaijani leadership.

The third component part is aimed against Armenia: Azerbaijan intends to demonstrate that it can – if necessary – ignore international opinion and defend its national interests to the end. It is obvious that the pardon of a murderer will not provoke a sharp negative reaction by the international community (such as one that would introduce sanctions against Azerbaijan or its exclusion from international programs). Any action aimed to condemn Azerbaijan will be framed by a declaration of “deep concern” in respect to possible negative developments in the area of the conflict. However, all of the recent developments possess a further seek to test Armenia’s reaction.

Démarche related to Safarov sought to provoke the Armenian side to engage in dangerous actions, such as a unilateral recognition by Armenia of NKR independence – an action, that would contribute to a further aggravation of tensions. (It is worth mentioning that calls to recognize the NKR, which echo throughout the Armenian Parliament after every escalation of tension in the area of the conflict, devalue recognition as constituting an important, deliberate, and serious step in the relationship between the two Armenian state entities: the Republic of Armenia and the Nagorno Karabakh Republic.) If this occurs, any negotiations on behalf of a peaceful resolution of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict will become meaningless; instead, war will become the only means to resolve the conflict. It should also be noted that Azerbaijan over the last several years has attempted to change the negotiation format, not least in order to ensure Turkey’s participation in it.

Several questions now come together. Does Azerbaijan need a war? The answer is more and more evident: the war will diminish tensions inside Azerbaijan and direct waves of social discontent externally – toward Armenia and the NKR. It will also neutralize temporarily a growing Islamist opposition that, against the background of the Arab awakening, begins gradually to threaten the Aliyev regime. Is the international environment favorable for a resumption of war by Azerbaijan? Yes, it is. Against the backdrop of developments throughout the Middle East and North Africa and serious internal difficulties in all of the three concerned world powers (the USA, Europe and Russia), the next “small” Caucasus war will become a focus of international attention for a few days only.

What, then, restrains Azerbaijan from a further escalation of the conflict? There are several factors: the established political-military balance in the region, comprehension by the Azerbaijani leaders that the level of losses will be very high, and the strong probability that Azerbaijani oil and gas pipelines will be destroyed by the Armenian side.

Nonetheless, for all of the reasons noted above, Azerbaijan’s major agenda has now become apparent: to provoke Armenia into dangerous actions, including a withdrawal from the negotiation process. Azerbaijan’s clear intentions have been revealed by the “Safarov phenomenon.”