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05 Dec

Why frozen conflicts should not become forgotten conflicts...

In 2004, at a Hungarian military academy based in Budapest, Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani Army Lieutenant, got into an argument with an Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan. Margaryan allegedly insulted Safarov by spitting on the flag of Azerbaijan. In the night, Safarov saw his chance, grabbed an axe and stabbed Margaryan over and over in his sleep until he bled to death – a cold killing realized by ethnic motivations. The irony being… they were attending a NATO Partnership for Peace training programme.

Safarov spent eight years in Hungarian prison before he was extradited to his home land. At the time the murder took place, there was a sense of shame from Azerbaijan. However, nearly a decade later, when Safarov returned to Baku, Azerbaijanis worshipped him, a hero he was called.

It was not only the peoples of the Turkic oil state near the Caspian Sea who were so proud of this victorious murderer, it was also the President of Azerbaijan himself, Ilham Alijev, who rewarded Safarov by not only given him the disputed presidential pardon but also by upgrading his army status to major, giving him a new apartment and a remuneration that should cover all the income that Safarov had lost during his years of imprisonment.

Azerbaijan has been working hard on its image in the last couple of years to prove to the Western world that it is a modern, trendy and dynamic country with lots of prospect. Sadly, the image of this new booming nation clashes a bit with welcoming a murderer with roses.

Disapproval was expressed by Russia and the US government and criticism came from different angles of the international community, demanding explanations. It goes without saying that Armenia felt mostly victimized by these events. The country cut its diplomatic ties with Hungary and Armenian President Sarkisian even said to press agency AFP:

“We do not want a war but if we have to we will fight. We are not afraid of killers, even if they enjoy the protection of the head of state”.

A decent man hacks one of his fellow soldiers as a lodge of wood during his sleep at a training programme and is received as a model citizen in his country. Quite shocking right? However, for most of the people of the South Caucasus this situation is not as black and white as it may seem to outsiders.

Its dealing with breakaway territories inhabited by strong cultural groups is a festering sore for the communities not only in the South but also the North of the Caucasian countries. More than six conflicts derived in this area after the collapse of the Soviet Union - one of these being on the Nagorno Karabakh area, a mountainous region of 4,400 km², once a cultural epicentre where Christians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side.

The act of Safarov triggered something in the long lasting Nagorno Karabakh conflict but unfortunately instead of giving it an impulse to move the conflict forward it only helped it moving more backwards, pushing the disputing countries even more away from each other – worsening the bitterness of Armenians and Azerbaijanis.

This gruesome murder was not merely an act of momentarily hate but something much deeper that came forth out of years and years of ethnic hatred. Hatred which was caused by the Armenian occupation of Nagorno Karabakh and several other areas which were allotted to Azerbaijan by Stalin, however historically inhabited by Armenians. A decision based on strategies in a chess game of power without paying any kind of attention to ethnicities, cultural heritage and historical events.

In 1988, tensions increased
between Armenians and Azerbaijanis living in Nagorno Karabakh.

Nationalism and the desire for independence grew amongst the Karabakh Armenians who had always felt deprived by rights which were enjoyed by Azerbaijanis but not by them. When Armenians were attacked in an Azerbaijani town, Karabkah Armenians backed up by Armenian forces, eventually forced out most of the Azerbaijanis which resulted in roughly 30.000 casualties and an enormous number of refugees and internally displaced people from both camp sides.

The ceasefire which was enforced in 1994 marked the beginning of a period of insecurity - an unsatisfactory status quo of no peace but also no war.

Revenge in combination with a destructive play the blame game pattern is nothing new in this twenty year long lasting conflict. It is an exhaustive tossing back and forth of attacks and counterattacks which has been affecting foremost the population for over twenty years.

This is a conflict like many others – without a true ending to it. For the Armenians, officer Margaryan was clearly the victim but for the Azerbaijanis it had been Safarov, who was just defending his land because he himself was forced out of his hometown as a younger boy. So maybe, we should not judge too quickly given the situation of this complex region, when looking more closely at the tragic history of the former Soviet republics. An area which is sometimes forgotten by the international community, perhaps due to its geographical position, landlocked between superpower nations like Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The Safarov case shows how deep-rooted conflicts get over a long period. The time that passed by only led to more polarisations and a stronger sense of the perceptive enemy. The conflict is, like many other intractable conflicts, rather challenging to solve as it does not offer a cut and clear solution which will satisfy both parties to a certain level. The conflict has become a multi-faceted conflict with, like in any good fight, involves more than one problem.

After years of conflict everything gets blurry, we are not sure anymore who to blame or who was really in the right or the wrong.

Although it is based on the fact that international law does not offer a written answer to the problem as it swings between two basic rights, - that of the right of self-determination of the Karabakh Armenians and the claim for territorial integrity of Azerbaijan.

However, at this months 67th session of the UN General Assembly at the Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Affairs, a heated discussion took place on the justification of ‘the right of peoples to self-determination’ where Azerbaijan accused Armenia of merely using this right to justify the ethnic cleansing done by the Armenians.

Despite efforts of various international organizations and a number of influential countries, the peacemaking efforts have led to a gridlock, leaving tension and frustration among the residents fairly high. As long as there will not be a solution, both parties will be pushed further away from one and other making any attempt of dialogue and concession extremely difficult.

The current situation in the South Caucasus poses a threat to international peace and security in the region, which is currently already deeply fragile with a civil war in Syria, tensions in Iran and a new up flaring of the Israel – Palestine dispute. Not to mention a silent force looming in the North of the Caucasus where ethnic conflicts of the same calibre are slowly making a comeback.

The international radar is focused on a selected number of conflicts but maybe it’s time to keep our eyes on all parts of the ‘Greater Middle East’ as the stalemates of the South Caucasus could very well escalate into a much broader conflict.



Last modified on Wednesday, 05 December 2012 11:24
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Aranya Naerebout

Aranya Naerebout is from the Netherlands currently based in Brussels, Belgium. She studied European Studies at the Hague University.

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