Hero or Hear? The society will have to make a choice


The news of Ramil Safarov’s extradition to Azerbaijan and immediate pardoning caught many Azerbaijanis by surprise.  Most of them rushed to switch on the TV to make sure it wasn’t some kind of a hoax.  The majority of average Azerbaijanis who got news went on to analyze how this all happened.  Azerbaijani society which is not used to sudden news of radical changes was not ready absorb what happened in one day and it took couple more to realize that the impossible had happened.

I remembered the time I first heard about the incident eight years ago.   I was an exchange student at the University of Minnesota, studying together with three Armenian students.  We were all friends hanging out together, discussing our similarities, differences and of course the conflict as much as we could.  One of them gave me the horrifying news that morning. Sitting behind the monitor, where he had just read about this, he tried to described to me what happened between the Azerbaijani and Armenian exchange fellows five thousand miles away, in a hotel in Budapest.  He was shattered by the news.  I was also in shock, thinking about us, as if it happened among ourselves.  As if one of us was the man with an ax, and another one with the beheaded body to be sent back in coffin…

Upon my return to Baku, I began seeing pictures of Ramil Safarov in the windows of the cars and buses I rode.  His picture often hung next to the photo of Mirmovsum Agha, a religious figure and traditional healer who lived in Baku in the mid-twentieth century and was post-mortem elevated to “sainthood”.

In August of 2012, the images of Ramil flooded the television screens once again.  The scenes from the mid-day news showed a group of people led by two MPs and a big, tall guy marching through the burial place of Heydar Aliyev (Alley of Honor), and Martyr’s Alley – the usual route for foreign visitors and local officials on special days.  Facebook and other social media outlets were flooded with messages of young people, expressing joy and pride.  The official news and TV, which comprise majority of news source in Azerbaijan, praised the President for his glorious work for the “motherland”.   It was also reported that Ramil had been promoted to the rank of Major, given a house, and paid his official salary for the eight years that accumulated while he was in jail.[1]

While the majority of state-controlled-media-influenced people, especially youth, welcomed the pardon and celebrated, there was a significant resistance by people who refused to agree with the official rhetoric. In the wake of the murder eight years ago, these sensible voices were rather muffled, as there was expected punishment for the crime. Now that this punishment had been cut “by more than a half”, those voices became more prominent.   For example, Akram Aylisli, an Azerbaijani writer now prominent in the light of his published book “Stone Dreams”, refused to join the campaign of joy, calling it an organized plot and claiming that “he has his own views about heroism”.[2] Independent politician and former presidential candidate Zardusht Alizadeh called the entire event a “dark-age” that “would not liberate a santi-meter of occupied lands and serves the purpose of scoring of public opinion for the President in the times of the fearful for him the Arab Spring”.[3]  Their followers on Facebook continued the interactive discussion with their friends, creating a small, but a significant intellectual counter-weight in the “debate”.

They were primarily concerned not as much about the act of pardoning as they were about the reaction of people who celebrated Ramil as  a hero.  That segment of the society viewed the entire thing as a show  to score points  at internal politics.  Among this “dissatisfied” group were young and prominent writers, some of whom are internally displaced persons from the Nagorno-Karabakh war and have lost their homes and relatives during the Nagorno-Karabakh war.   They believed that Ramil Safarov’s act was nothing but a crime and that axing a man in his sleep could not be equated to heroism. To them, elevating Ramil to a hero’s status was an insult to memories of tens of thousands of true heroes – soldiers and civilians killed in the war and buried in the same Martyr’s Alley.  One of the strong and open criticizers of the situation was Professor Rahman Badalov, a cultural critic who writes for the Kultura.az portal.  In his “My point of view” editorial he clearly called Ramil Safarov’s act a crime which did not suit an officer and said such idolization only serves to fuel hatred and racism[4].

The same group argued that the pardoning damaged the image of the country: because of this act, the Azerbaijani government played into the hands of Azerbaijan’s adversaries and eroded the sympathies of those neutral arbitraries involved in the solution of the conflict.  Indeed, the condemning reaction of the Minsk Group chair states and EU shortly followed.

The saddest part and probably the biggest harm to country’s overall image in the eyes of true democrats of Azerbaijan was that the opposition party leaders, who are believed to be the faces of the pro-democracy movement, graciously accepted the Government’s invitation to join the anti-EU petition it drafted in response to former’s condemnation.   It was equally sad to observe a new opposition group called Republican Alternative (REAL), which is composed of the younger generation of Western-educated professionals also praising the President’s act of pardon.

The peacebuilding community in Azerbaijan in their joint petition also found “a reasoning” in this act however “condemning it overall”.  They found similarities in this act and extradition and immediate the pardon by Armenian President Robert Kocharyan of Varoujan Garabedian, ASALA member in 2001 who in 1983 was charged in with bombing the Turkish Airlines check-in desk at Orly Airport that took the lives of eight and wounded 50.[5]  Originally Garabedian was also sentenced to life imprisonment in France[6].

What happened showed how vulnerable the Azerbaijani society is when it comes to the ultimate nationalistic issues, often named as “national-moral values”.  It seemed as if everyone started to think the same way and, in a euphoric state, backed and joined the crowd, choosing to be extremely careful in speaking their “other part of me”.   The pardoning and ensuing reactions was as much of a setback to peacebuilding as it was for democratic reform in Azerbaijan.

While the pardon may have set back whatever progress peace talks and initiativesachieved during past 20 years, the novel “Stone Dreams” by Akram Aylisli written 6 years ago, but published only recently may play a role in bringing back what was thought to be lost if of course, the orchestrated alienation of the writer stops.  The writer, known for his “internationalism” from the Soviet days, has tried to demonstrate through his novel that Azerbaijanis can think differently, that they are ready to understand and sympathize with their neighbors’ grievances, hoping that the opposite side will reciprocate.  Only time will show whether a single act of courage of publishing an unpopular book that depicts the “enemy” in a positive light can begin to undo the damage done by the pardoning of Ramil Safarov and whether it will encourage progressive and peace-oriented segments of the society to speak up when it matters most.

[1] Azeri killer Ramil Safarov: Concern over Armenian anger http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-19463968

[2] Akram Aylisli: “I have my own views about what is heroism” Interview to Radio Azadliq (RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service).  August 31, 2012. http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/24694335.html

[3] “Like” storm for Ramil Safarov in FB.  Radio Azadliq (RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service). September 9, 2012 http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/24700581.html

[4] Badalov Rahman, My Point of View. September 5, 2012.  http://kultura.az/articles.php?item_id=20120905080810770&sec_id=20

[5] Statement by Karabakh Council, September 26, 2012.

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varoujan_Garabedian

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