After eight years spent in a Hungarian prison, Azerbaijani army lieutenant Ramil Safarov has been extradited to Azerbaijan as part of the bilateral agreement between the Azerbaijani and Hungarian governments. But what triggered the infuriation of Armenians and the exultation of the majority of Azerbaijanis was the act which apparently was not a part of the agreement – the order by the President Ilham Aliyev to pardon Safarov immediately upon his arrival to Baku.

Safarov was sentenced to life-imprisonment in 2005 for the brutal murder of the Armenian army officer Gurgen Margaryan at the NATO organized English language courses in 2004.

Safarov’s extradition resulted in predictable and expected outcomes. Armenia immediately suspended its diplomatic relations with Hungary and was even urged to launch a process of recognition of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. President Sarkissian repeatedly underlined the readiness of his people and country to start a war with Azerbaijan and win; the White House, Kremlin, and even NATO expressed their concerns and worries, while the EU adopted a resolution calling for immediate respect of international norms. The recent events have unleashed debates among local and international pundits, some of whom see this act as a strong setback in the negotiation process and possibly leading to the recommencement of war.

The consequences drawn are as true as is the discouraging reality of the current situation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Two decades of peaceful negotiations over the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict have produced nothing but failed expectations. The elite-driven negotiation process is remembered at most by the biannual meetings of heads of conflicting states (Armenia and Azerbaijan), regular statements of the co-chairs of OSCE Minsk Group on another failed round of talks and frequent shootings at the Line of Contact with a growing number of casualties. Limited information delivered to the public has done nothing but strengthen the widespread hatred and misunderstanding among the people. Whether the pardoning of Safarov critically affected the image of Azerbaijanis in Armenian society, which was already negative, is a category of its own rhetoric questions.

Without delving deep into legal and procedural details of the extradition, it is worth analyzing the act that fueled the biggest controversy – the presidential pardoning of Ramil Safarov.  Granting a pardon is a president’s right and most commonly stipulated by a country’s constitution.  The history of presidential pardons in the world includes many controversial acts, driven either by a need to heal the national wounds and affect the nation’s psyche or have a pure political background.  Among the most memorable pardons issued were by the US presidents, from George Washington who pardoned the leaders of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion through Harry Truman who pardoned Japanese-Americans that resisted the draft during World War II and Jimmy Carter who issued pardons to Vietnam War draft dodgers, in all cases acts aimed to ensure reconciliation within the society and eliminate bad memories.

Ilham Aliyev’s pardoning of Safarov ignited such heated debate and controversy due to the nature of status quo in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.  The official negotiations for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict resolution are among the toughest and sensitive talks currently carried out by international mediators.  In addition, the public attitudes on both sides are hostile.  In such a sensitive environment, any word or careless action has the potential to significantly downgrade peace efforts. As pardons are often primarily targeted to ensure public reconciliation, Safarov’s pardon was issued right in the middle of a war for an act committed in a non-military place while tensions are quite high and both sides are far from any viable solution to the long lasting conflict.  Predictably the case reinvigorated public discussions revealing unhealed wounds and provoked a gush of mutual insults.

Azerbaijani officials’ reaction has been one of ‘hurt’ to the overwhelming international condemnation, as the government strongly defended its decision as being in line with the corresponding international and Azerbaijani legal norms. Moreover, at a press conference with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Baku on September 7, President Ilham Aliyev reminded the high-level welcome provided by Armenian officials to Varoujan Garabedian, member of the Armenian Secret Army for Liberation of Armenia (ASALA). Comparison with the case of Garabedian was mentioned not only by a number of high-level officials but also echoed in other commentary and analysis in the Azerbaijani media.

Varoujan was sentenced to life imprisonment for bombing a Turkish Airlines check-in desk at Orly airport, Paris in 1983, which killed 8 people and injured 55. After serving 17 years in French prison he was pardoned by the French government in 2001 under the condition that he be deported to Armenia where he was provided with employment and accommodation upon his return. Pointing to the similarities when a person serving for a crime was pardoned and then welcomed warmly by high-level government officials, Azerbaijani President and the officials pointed out double-standards employed when condemning Azerbaijani government for Safarov’s pardon. The fact that Garabedian was involved in a crime based on ethnic animosity (bombing of Turkish Airlines check-in counter) only supported this argument.

Despite the majority of Azerbaijanis welcoming Safarov’s return, some Azerbaijani journalists and political analysts condemned the festive welcome of Safarov. Zardusht-Alizade, the Baku-based political analyst says that state-supported anti-Armenian propaganda campaign resulted in categorization of a killer of an Armenian as a hero. This, he added, is making the pardoner a hero in the eyes of the public. As Azerbaijan is approaching the next presidential elections in 2013, President Aliyev’s decision might be viewed as the beginning of a pre-election campaign.

Armenia, in turn, considers itself completely cheated by the Hungarian counterparts as well as by the Azerbaijani authorities involved in the negotiation process.  It urged the international mediators about the vivid possibility of a full deadlock in the peace talks, as the trust in the negotiations process was damaged the most.

Over the decades, the mediators have been eager to bring a hint of trust in relations between Azerbaijan and Armenia. If the pardon is not a spontaneous single-moment decision but a thoroughly thought-out step by the Azerbaijani government to return Safarov to Azerbaijan and subsequently release him, then it sends a really bad signal within international diplomacy on the potential prospects of peace in the region which mediating countries have been brokering for so long.

Another consideration, less examined but very important, is that the case of Ramil Safarov might serve as an expected “status-quo changer” in the ongoing talks. Following the hardline statements delivered by officials on both sides, it is difficult to imagine whether the negotiation process can be resumed from the last point of agreement. This case can either prompt the development of new principles or process of negotiation or contribute to the final blockage of the peace talks.  In both cases, we can anticipate an emergence of a new reality that might be addressed completely differently.

One of the possible scenarios is the recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenia or another state, who might see the pardoning as a threat to the well-being of Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh. This would undoubtedly prompt military escalation in the region.

In the public domain, emotions can be heated to a degree which might result in future incidents between Armenians and Azerbaijanis across the world, including fatalities which further push back the peace process.

Given the current situation, the grave picture drawn above may turn into reality in a matter of hours as the controversial pardon of Safarov demonstrated that emotions strongly dominate the decision making in both conflicting countries. The recent events taught us that trust is still an unreachable goal in the ongoing peace talks and any impulsive order would have the potential to fuel a large-scale war in one of the world’s most strategic and turbulent regions. Those who are the most negatively impacted are the people themselves, whether they are in public peace-making initiatives or they are the ordinary citizens getting less patient over the years of unsubstantial talks. It is a critical job of international mediators, including the OSCE and the EU, to prevent further escalation, to support already existing people-to-people contacts, to secure the previous agreements and bring both sides back to the table. Common regional initiatives aimed to bring together academic circles, journalists and independent political analysts might play a positive role.

The ultimate question in the post-Safarov pardon environment is whether there is any leverage and political will to avoid the worst-case scenario and go forward with the peace talks.