The controversy generated by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s pardon of an army officer convicted of killing an Armenian counterpart has sent official relations between Yerevan and Baku into a tailspin. Yet amid continuing inter-governmental sniping, civil society activists in both countries report that they are trying to keep events in perspective and are continuing efforts to find common ground.
Aliyev’s late August pardon of Ramil Safarov – a military officer who murdered an Armenian army lieutenant, Gurgen Margaryan, in 2004 in Budapest – stoked rage in Armenia. Underscoring the anger in Yerevan, a bill was submitted in the Armenian parliament for the country officially to recognize the independence of Nagorno-Karabak.
In addition, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan treated the pardon like an armed provocation. “We don’t want a war, but if we have to, we will fight and prevail; we are not afraid of murderers -- even of those who enjoy the highest patronage,” Sargsyan said in an early September statement distributed by the presidential press service in response to the Safarov pardon.
Aliyev has been dismissive of the Armenian criticism, saying at a September 7 news conference that his decision to issue a pardon was “correct from the legal viewpoint.”
Despite the uptick in official hostility, dialogue between Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society advocates, political experts and media representatives should continue, many activists believe. Arzu Abdullayeva, the chairperson of Azerbaijan’s National Committee of Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly, a human rights group, was attending a joint meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani civil society activists, convened in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, on the day news of Safarov’s pardon emerged. “Everyone was shocked … and it caused hot debates,” Abdullayeva recounted. “But, generally, the meeting went on as usual in a normal atmosphere.”
Azerbaijani and Armenian civil society activists who have been acquainted for years will not be affected by the hostility over Safarov, she said. “We all believe that our peace-building efforts are more important than the present negative realities,” Abdullayeva said.
In Yerevan, Gayane Mkrtchyan, program manager for community and youth programs at the Eurasia Partnership Foundation, one of the most active international NGOs in arranging such dialogues, echoed Abdullayeva’s sentiments.
“Recent developments or ceasefire violations ... are not a novelty and they don't reduce the significance or likelihood of communication on the level of civil society,” Mkrtchyan said. To ensure that an upcoming meeting of Armenian and Azerbaijani journalists in Tbilisi proceeds as planned, she continued, the agenda will be reviewed, and prior discussions held with members of both delegations ahead of time.
Shahin Rzayev, the Azerbaijan director for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, recollects a similar situation at a training held shortly after Margaryan’s 2004 murder. [Both Safarov and Magaryan were officers participating in a NATO-sponsored training course, held in the Hungarian capitale time].
Citing security reasons, the Armenian journalists asked to be moved to a separate hotel from the Azerbaijanis. “[T]he meeting went on in a tense atmosphere, but a few months later, these issues were not raised,” Rzayev said.
Explanations for why Armenians and Azerbaijanis can often get along well in person, despite the mutual, official hostility, boils down to a matter of perspective, commented Armenian sociologist Aharon Adibekyan. For many Armenians, “not the Azerbaijani people, but their leaders are regarded as enemies,” Adibekyan said. When informal groups are brought together, “people easily socialize and understand each other.”
Not all of those involved in such exchanges are confident that the Safarov controversy can be easily put to rest. Armenian reporter Christine Khanumyan, a Nagorno-Karabakh native who has worked on joint articles with Azerbaijani journalists in the past, expects future encounters with Azerbaijani colleagues to be more awkward than ever. “Honestly, I have no idea how I can meet these people face to face,” she said. And referring to the upcoming Tbilisi meeting, she voiced doubts that “it will take place in a peaceful and friendly atmosphere, like before.”
Meanwhile, Farid Gahramanov, a correspondent for the Turan news agency, suggested that exchanges of opinion don’t necessarily lead to changes in attitudes. While discussions with Armenian journalists are useful “for the exchange of information” or “to create contacts,” Gahramanov added, “any discussion of the Karabakh conflict” often results in “an even worse attitude toward each other” than before.
Internews-Azerbaijan Director Ilham Safarov, who is involved in producing a joint documentary with Armenian filmmakers, said joint meetings in the near future should keep a tight focus on the acquisition of professional skills. His project’s first meeting, scheduled for December, is still expected to go ahead as planned, he said.
International organizations could respond to the Safarov episode by increasing funding to promote bilateral contacts, sensing that “more ice-breaking efforts are needed,” said a Baku representative of one European fund active in Azerbaijani-Armenian dialogue measures.
Ultimately, said Adibekyan, the sociologist, anger should dissipate. “These attitudes … come and go, and things will resume their natural course just like before,” he said.
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku. Marianna Grigoryan is a freelance reporter in Yerevan and the editor of MediaLab.am.