1 Oct 2012
Pardoning Ramil Safarov: The Impact on Peacebuilding in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict
The dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijanis escalated to a new level after Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev pardoned Ramil Safarov, the soldier who had been sentenced to life in prison in Hungary for killing an Armenian officer Gurgen Markarian during a 2004 NATO-held training in Hungary. The extradition of Ramil Safarov and, in particular, his pardon by President Aliyev, has created an unprecedented situation, rife with uncertain consequences for the Armenian-Azerbaijani relations and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement process. The return of Safarov was presented as a diplomatic victory over Armenia in Azerbaijan. Against the backdrop of the stalemated Karabakh negotiations, this step was supposed to convince the Azerbaijani public at large that Baku is in a strong position and the government would not budge an inch from its declared principles. Aliyev showed that not only does he support a “national hero”, but that he is ready to do everything to safeguard his security. Predictably, Safarov’s release has incited outrage in Armenia, where many people attributed Markarian’s brutal murder to what they view as an example of hatred and anti-Armenian sentiments fanned by the Baku government. The pardoning as well as Safarov’s warm welcome as a “hero” in Azerbaijan  created strong concern in the Armenian society. The first concern is that this act can influence a generation of Azerbaijanis who will look up to Safarov as a hero, who became one not due to his service to the motherland carried out on a battlefield, but by killing an Armenian lieutenant at a “Partnership for Peace” seminar. The worry is that such an act will become acceptable and emulated as it has been welcomed as heroic and rewarded with material means such as a new apartment and 8 years of retroactive salary.
The second concern is more related to this act’s influence on the ceasefire and fragile negotiations as well as the influence grassroots level peacebuilding. This one single act seems to have been successful in starting to undo many years’ worth of patient efforts of peace activists trying to rebuild contacts among ordinary Azerbaijanis and Armenians and work toward mutual trust — without which any kind of peace settlement is a pipe-dream. Certainly, one might pose a question – if peace builders are seeking long-term peace, does this one act really undo everything? Somehow we can use the word undo, because now it becomes more difficult to recruit young people for participation in cross-border projects. Even if young people are not afraid of meeting participants from Azerbaijan, the memory of this experience with Safarov will worry their parents and relatives so much that it might prohibit their participation in any cross-border projects. If the peace building projects that are at the societal level and based on social activism were to stop or decrease even further, the hatred, prejudice and negative stereotypes in both societies would deepen and strengthen.
The Armenian government and OSCE Minsk group representatives’ reactions to this act show that it can also damage an already difficult negotiations process. Before Safarov’s case, the OSCE Minsk group representatives and negotiators from Armenia and Azerbaijan always reiterated that there re two things needed in order to have progress: first, the commitment from both sides that there is no military solution; and second, that the only way forward is through dialogue, compromise, and cooperation.  Calls made by the OSCE Minsk Group members, urging the negotiating sides to resolve the conflict only through peaceful means, seem more unrealistic now more than ever. The National Security Council (NSC) Spokesman Tommy Vietor made the following comment on the decision to pardon Ramil Safarov: “This action is contrary to ongoing efforts to reduce regional tensions and promote reconciliation.” Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that he is “deeply concerned and that the actions run counter to peace efforts.” At the same time, Maja Kocjanic, spokesperson for HRVP Catherine Ashton, told the press in Brussels: “We are particularly concerned with the impact the developments might have on the wider region.”  Peter Semneby, until recently the EU’s special envoy to the region: “The danger of an incident spiraling out of control is gradually increasing.”  Richard Giragosian, a political analyst, noted that the risk of an “accidental war” in which a minor incident would explode into a full-blown war is increasing. In the current setting of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the possibilities of promoting peace from the outside are limited. International pressure and mediation have predictably and repeatedly hit a dead end. The official peace process has maintained a self-centered approach and insisted for too long on a confidential and secretive structure for the talks, ignoring the need to work with the public, to include all the relevant actors and stimulate significant changes at the level of local people caught up in the conflict.
Despite the politically stagnant environment around the official negotiation process, there have been continued efforts to build trust between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, in particular among young people – a constituency that desires and deserves a brighter future beyond the bloody past it has inherited. There are some successful dialogue projects, which have had positive results of cooperation and collaboration even during very tense situations like bilateral ceasefire violations or Safarov’s “heroization”. Undeniably, Safarov’s pardon has its influence on peace builders and their activity. Yet they know that there must be no return to conflict and war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and truly believe that the tensions must be reduced, and concrete steps must be taken to promote the non-violent solution to the conflict and regional cooperation. For those people who have been painstakingly trying to improve dialogue across the divide, the aftershocks of the Safarov event will not only challenge the tentative results obtained so far but will also put on shaky ground all civil society initiatives in the future. Local NGOs and respected insiders who work at multiple levels will now struggle to find their foothold. They have to promote conflict transformation, propose alternative conflict resolution activities and broaden the options in the dominant discourse on the official peace process risks shrinking significantly in the wake of the Safarov case.
It is also worth noting that peace processes are strongly affected by worst-case scenarios and seldom survive the combination of nationalist posturing of all sides involved in the conflict. However, playing the “blame game” is not going to help the peace process and will do nothing but push the two sides into their own corners and make any sort of interaction and dialogue difficult if not impossible. No one will be worse off than the people of the South Caucasus if the region is steeped in hatred and constantly teetering on the edge of armed escalation.
 See Aljazeera, Hero’s welcome for Azerbaijan axe murderer, 02 Sep 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/video/europe/2012/09/201291215548920251.html
 See Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs issue statement on Nagorno-Karabakh, 22 July 2008, http://caucasusedition.net/analysis/who-is-from-nagorno-karabakh/#_ftn1
  See EU Observer.com, Axe murder complicates EU-Azerbaijan love affair, 03 September 2012, http://euobserver.com/foreign/117404
   See EU Observer.com, Accidental war’ waiting to happen on EU periphery, 14 May 2012, http://euobserver.com/defence/116244