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.