To Armenia, Azerbaijan's recent pardoning of Lieutenant Ramil Safarov, convicted of the 2004 axe murder of an Armenian army officer during a training in Budapest, was a slap in the face. Now, Armenia is contemplating a response that could take the two countries' angry dispute over Safarov into an entirely new dimension.
A bill was presented to the Armenian parliament on September 4 to recognize as an independent country the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh, the territory that was the cause of the 1988-1994 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. No date has yet been scheduled for the vote.
Arguably, Armenia has long interacted with the de-facto government of Karabakh as if with an independent country -- if not an additional Armenian province -- but has refrained from making that position official.
Coming on the heels of warnings of war from Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, a Karabakh native, the measure might well give outside observers pause.
The bill, though, is far from the enraged response of an isolated few. Armenia has severed diplomatic relations with Hungary, where Safarov had been serving life for the 2004 murder, for permitting Safarov's return to Azerbaijan, with demonstrations staged in Budapest and Yerevan, to boot.
Frustration over the international community's inability to take Azerbaijan down to size for the exoneration also appears to feed into the measure. In comments widely echoed by others, analyst Richard Giragosian on September 3 argued that "If this crisis continues with Azerbaijan acting so irresponsible, the Armenian government should consider recognizing the independence of Nagorno Karabakh or demanding others to do so."
Washington, Brussels, and Moscow, seen as the key outside actors for peace over the Karabakh conflict, have all condemned the pardoning. Budapest, for its part, denying reports that it was looking to Baku for a debt bailout, claims to be in a state of eye-batting shock at Safarov's exoneration.
But the words of censure do not appear to have had the intended effect on Baku.
Calling the US position on the case "baffling," Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov got on the phone with US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns to seek an explanation for Washington’s harsh criticism.
Azerbaijani officials, as well as many ordinary people, say that the atrocities committed by ethnic Armenians against ethnic Azeris in Karabakh and otherwise during the Karabakh war, fully justify the exoneration.
As one Azerbaijani wrote in a blog post about the dangers of the Azerbaijani government’s both stoking and pandering to nationalist extremism, the state’s embrace of Safarov could turn him into a frightening role model for other “patriots.”
The Armenian parliament's vote on Karabakh could well prove an opportunity to test that theory.