Armenia severed all diplomatic relations with Hungary last Friday following the extradition of the Azerbaijani army officer Ramil Sahib Safarov, who was convicted of murder in Hungary. Safarov killed an Armenian roommate in 2004 during a course of studies organised by NATO in Budapest and was given a life sentence in Hungary. Back in his homeland Safarov was immediately pardoned by the country’s president and has been celebrated as a national hero.
The Hungarian government has since been at pains to explain itself and limit the damage. According to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the extradition was in line with the European Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons signed in Strasbourg. The state secretary for foreign affairs and foreign trade at the prime minister’ office Péter Szijjártó said that on Sunday the foreign ministry had given the Azerbaijani ambassador in Budapest a diplomatic note, describing the events following the extradition of the murderer as “unacceptable” and “condemning” them. The Hungarian government was dismayed to learn that Safarov had been pardoned, Szijjártó said.
The state secretary also described the events leading up to the extradition: Safarov’s legal representative had appealed to the Hungarian justice minister to allow Safarov to serve his sentence in Azerbaijan. The Hungarian justice ministry subsequently made contact with the Azerbaijani authorities, which had pledged that the crime for which Safarov was sentenced would also quality as a crime in accordance with the Azerbaijani criminal code and be subject to a life sentence, Szijjártó said. The Azerbaijani authorities had also assured Hungary that Safarov would serve the remaining part of the sentence that he had begun in Hungary in his homeland. The diplomatic note also refers to a promise made in a letter by the deputy justice minister of Azerbaijan dated 15 August 2012, according to which the convicted murder could hope to be released on conditional parole no earlier than 25 years after commencing his prison sentence, Szijjártó said.
The reality was very different: on day of his extradition, Safarov, described in Hungary as an “axe murderer”, was pardoned by Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, promoted as a soldier and given a rapturous welcome by the people. What is more, he was granted a new flat and the assurance that he would receive his pay retroactively. That did not go unnoticed in the neighbouring country Armenia. The same day Armenian president Serzh Sargsyan announced that his country was severing relations with Hungary. Irate Armenians protested outside the Hungarian consulate in Yerevan and burnt a Hungarian flag.
There were also protests in Hungary itself. By Sunday evening the Facebook group “Hey Armenia, sorry about our Prime Minister” had already amassed almost 9,000 members. The organisation “One million for Hungarian press freedom” also announced a demonstration of solidarity with Armenia on Kossuth tér, and called for an explanation from Viktor Orbán.
The largest opposition party, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) said that it was also waiting for an explanation of the events. At a Socialist party event on Sunday in Siófok Socialist MP Zsolt Molnár called for foreign minister János Martonyi to resign. Molnár, who is chairman of the parliamentary committee for national security, also demanded that Martonyi give answers at the next meeting of the committee as to why and how the extradition came about and whether consideration had been given to the safety of Hungarians living in Armenia.
Former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány’s party, the Democratic Coalition (DK), went one step further and took to the streets. It swiftly repurposed a demonstration taking place in any case against the government’s education policy and marched from the state secretariat for education to the justice ministry. DK party chairman Gyurcsány adroitly linked the two topics: “A government that is willing to hawk the honour of the country for 30 pieces of silver and release a murderer from deserved execution of a prison sentence, is hardly in a position to introduce ethics teaching in schools”, Gyurcsány said. His remark was an allusion to reports in the weekly news magazine HVG that Azerbaijan had pledged to buy Hungarian government bonds with a value of as much as EUR 3 billion in exchange for handing over Safarov.
Gyurcsány told journalists that the Azerbaijani authorities had also appealed to his government to hand over Safarov. However, since it had been clear that Safarov would immediately be released in his homeland and celebrated as a hero, his government had refused the request, Gyurcsány said. He noted that Orbán must have been aware of the likely consequences in the absence of guarantees that the convicted murderer would continue to serve his sentence in his homeland, such as a promise from the Azerbaijani president.
Democratic Coalition deputy chairman Csaba Molnár accused the government of having “turned the honour of the Hungarians into goods for sale” and “brought shame on the country”. He accused Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of “preferring to beg money from the devil” than to reach an agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Candles were lit at the end of the demonstration in memory of the Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan, who was axe murdered in his bed in 2004.
Far-right party Jobbik took a more laid-back view of events. Deputy parliamentary party group leader and deputy chairman of the parliamentary commission for foreign affairs Márton Gyöngyösi said that the extradition was fully in line with international law. He told state news agency MTI that the Armenian reaction was “over the top and hysterical”. Gyöngyösi also commented that his party had announced a policy of opening up to the East, in which Azerbaijan was identified as a strategic partner, ahead of the last general elections. Regardless of the current case, Azerbaijan would continue to be regarded as a such a partner, he said.