The most vicious slow-boil conflict you've never heard of yields the most bizarre axe-related diplomatic incident in years.
In 2004, a military officer from the majority Shiite nation of Azerbaijan named Ramil Safarov hacked an Armenian counterpart to death with an axe while both were attending a NATO language-training course in Hungary. Murdering a guest of NATO and an officer from a foreign government will probably not go down as a great moment in diplomatic probity. And yet, Hungary last week extradited Safarov back to Azerbaijan, where the president pardoned him for his act of senseless and apparently unwarranted violence. The bizarre and bloody incident is a reminder of the tense relationship, which can itself be both bizarre and bloody at times, between these two former Soviet republics.
There are a few things to understand about this complicated corner of the world that might help inform the axe attack and its aftermath. First, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in some state of conflict since declaring independence from the Soviet Union. The war that broke out in 1988 officially ended six years later. But, with some of the most contested issues left unresolved, occasional cross-border violence has continued, including several times in just 2011. Second, perhaps the most important of those unresolved issues is the status of the Ngarno-Karbakh region of Azerbaijan, an Armenian-occupied "independent republic" that has been almost completely cleansed of its Azeri population. Safarov's family just happens to be from Ngaron-Karbakh. And, third, Armenian-Azeri tension over the disputed region seems to be getting worse.
On August 31, Hungary extradited Safarov, who was serving a life sentence for the Armenian officer's murder, to Azerbaijan, where Azeri president Ilham Aliyev immediately pardoned him. It's impossible to know for sure why Hungary would do this, although it's worth noting that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken plenty of Western criticism for his government's apparently backsliding democracy. Orban's political party has pushed a series of allegedly anti-democratic measures through Hungary's parliament and rules with an increasingly autocratic and nationalistic style. As Budapest-based Professor Peter Marton explained in a post at Registan.net, Orban has started looking away from Europe and toward autocratic states for economic opportunity and political support. One of his new friends just happens to be Azerbaijan.
[Orban's government] also announced a policy of "global opening" and later a policy of "eastern opening," turning, for favorable economic cooperation agreements and assistance, to countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and even Azerbaijan. In the beginning of August this year, news emerged that Hungary was considering an issuance of sovereign bonds in Turkey, denominated in either Turkish lira or Azeri manat, or both. At around the same time, the Azeri oil firm, SOCAR indicated they would eventually decide on whether they would prefer the Nabucco-West or the TAP (Trans-Adriatic) pipeline as the priority arm of the gas supply route carrying gas from the Caspian Shah Deniz field to Europe.
As Marton explains, Azerbaijan has spent the last eight years pressuring the Hungarian government to release Safarov back home, and it seems Orban has finally capitulated. That could risk further isolating Hungary within Europe, even if it raises the potential for Hungarian-Azeri cooperation. Armenia has already cut off diplomatic relations with Hungary over the incident, and the decision has sparked protests within Hungary itself, though the Hungarian government claims that Azerbaijan promised not to pardon Safarov.
The Ngarno-Karbakh conflict doesn't get a lot of press in the United States (you can find one of the few English-language books on the subject here). But it is still a potential powder keg, already the cause of a small-scale regional arms race and a significant impediment to normalizing relations between Armenia and its other big neighbor, Turkey. With the peace process stalled, George Mason University professor Phil Gemaghelyan recently offered this bleak assessment of where the conflict, which has already killed up to 30,000 people and displaced over a million more, seems to be heading:
Contemporary ethnic conflicts are rarely resolved through high-level negotiations alone. Yet, for almost 20 years now the so-called Nagorno-Karabakh peace process has been limited to just that - official negotiations -- with all the other dynamics in the region bringing the sides closer to war than to peace. The sides are engaged in an ever-escalating arm race; the education and media in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh are functioning as well-oiled propaganda machines dehumanizing the other, portraying the conflict as primordial, existential and insolvable, and raising generations of youth ready to kill. The speeches of politicians serve the same purpose. The two most outrageous yet typical cases include the widely referenced by Azerbaijani media quote of the former Armenian president Kocharyan about "ethnic incompatibility between Armenians and Azerbaijanis;" meanwhile the Armenian media quotes the current Azerbaijani president Aliyev as referring to the "Armenians of the world" as enemies of Azerbaijan. Any political debate within either society about the conflict and compromises necessary to resolve the conflict are non-existent and voicing anything but a maximalist position is a taboo.
The Safarov pardon won't help calm the region's tensions. The head of NATO has already expressed concern over the decision. But, within Azerbaijan, Safarov has been feted as a national hero, and the executive secretary of the country's ruling party has even ominously linked the officer's release with eventual victory over Armenia. "Ramil is released, next is the liberation of Karabakh," he said.
Azerbaijan's pardon, which comes in the context of an already nerve-racking geopolitical dynamic, is nationalist politics at its best, defiance epitomized.