EU must act to avert another Caucasus conflict

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Michael Kambeck argues that Azerbaijan should face EU sanctions over its decision to pardon a soldier convicted of killing an Armenian counterpart during a NATO-sponsored training exercise.

Michael Kambeck is secretary-general of European Friends of Armenia.

"In an unprecedented manner, European and other international institutions have declared their solidarity with Armenia and condemned the latest provocation of Azerbaijan, the pardoning and public glorification of the convicted murderer Ramil Safarov by President Ilham Aliyev.

A court in Hungary imposed a lifetime sentence on Safarov, after he was convicted of using an axe to kill sleeping Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan with 16 strikes to the head in 2004 while they were both on a NATO-sponsored English training exercise in Budapest.

On 31 August, Safarov was extradited to Baku, where the government already years ago awarded him the honour of a national hero for this barbaric act.

The crisis now erupted when Aliyev decided to pardon him immediately upon arrival, to pay him eight years of salary and offer him an apartment, to promote him to the rank of major and to present him to a crowd of cheering children as a hero on prime-time TV.

Why are emotions so high in this case and why should the EU care? First the murder and conviction happened in the EU member state Hungary, which until the last moment signalled to Armenia that no extradition was foreseen.

Now relations between Armenia and Hungary are suspended and right in the middle of concluding a new and very comprehensive EU Association Agreement, Armenia feels let down by an EU, which seems too weak to prevent such events from happening.

Secondly, because the valid conviction of an EU member state’s court was circumvented by a third country and de facto weakens the EU’s power to enforce its legal verdicts. Azerbaijan confirmed in writing to Hungary that Safarov would continue serving his life-time prison sentence in Azerbaijan.

Hungary published the respective Azerbaijani letters, while Fuad Alasgarov, a senior advisor in the Azerbaijani presidential administration, noted in that “the Hungarian court only prohibited the sentenced person's release on parole within 30 years from the date of pronouncement of the judgment. This restriction did not concern the possibility of pardon or amnesty for the sentenced person.”

As ridiculous as such arguments are, they reveal the nature of the regime with which the EU is making energy deals and with which Armenia ‘negotiates’ for a settlement of the precarious Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

This conflict is the third reason why Europe should care, because it is no longer a “frozen conflict”, despite the valid Bishkek ceasefire of 1994. Before that, the 85% majority of ethnically Armenian population of Karabakh took up left-over Soviet arms to stop large-scale ethnic cleansing and the harshly discriminatory governance exercised by Azerbaijan in this enclave.

If this conflict, by means of similar crises, re-erupts, Europe would have to pay the bill in many ways. Crude oil prices would skyrocket, tracks of refugees would move into Europe and everything built up in the South Caucasus over the last 20 years, both economically and politically, would be shattered.

The pardoning of Safarov by Azerbaijan in this provocative style raised calls among the Armenian opposition to demand a harsh response, like the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh as an independent republic.

With emotions understandably high, such steps can quickly deliver the excuse to Aliyev to overreact even more and stop the OSCE-Minsk-Group mediated negotiations, which he has been trying to replace for several years now.

The Minsk Group has always resisted to follow Baku’s maximalist demand whereby “first all Armenian-controlled territories must be given to Azerbaijan”.

The co-chairs know that such a step would be practically impossible and lead first to a security vacuum and then to war. Baku anyway constantly threatens to resort to war. But the Safarov case now demonstrates that after years of petro-dollar financed armament and economic growth, Baku does not feel the need to respect anyone or anything and even includes an EU member state in its provocation strategy.

To pardon such a brutal murderer and to glorify him publicly is nothing but a demonstration of disrespect for European values as much as for the EU and its member state Hungary.

After a long list of condemnations ranging from the UN Secretary General to the European Parliament and the Council of Europe, now the real work has to begin.

First, Safarov must appear on the Europol and Interpol lists, so that he cannot set foot upon any soil outside Azerbaijan, certainly not in Europe. Secondly, Armenia and Hungary must now work behind the scenes to re-establish their historically good relations. Both countries are old Christian countries and gateways between East and West.

Thirdly, the EU must rethink and reform its approach to Azerbaijan, treating it not less but more critically than Belarus, which is known to have the same internally repressive regime style, but neither the militarisation nor the state-promoted xenophobia of Azerbaijan.

We cannot explain to European voters that we implement EU-funded programmes with the oil-rich and notoriously anti-democratic government in Baku and conclude large-scale energy deals with them, while we apply sanctions against Belarus.

And finally, Armenia must now find clever answers, without stepping into the trap of a counter-provocation, which Aliyev is surely hoping for.

A new war on Europe’s eastern periphery would in no way be comparable to the Karabakh war of the early 1990s and have dramatic consequences for the region and for Europe. To avoid this, the state-promoted xenophobia against neighbouring Armenia and the increasing nationalism in Azerbaijan must be contained and met with the strongest possible response by Europe and the international community."

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