BUDAPEST (Reuters)—Hungary knew its decision to hand convicted killer Ramil Safarov over to his native Azerbaijan would spark a diplomatic backlash from Armenia, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Tuesday.
Budapest released Safarov, a soldier, to Azerbaijan last month where Azeri President Ilham Aliyev pardoned him on arrival. Safarov had served eight years of a life sentence for killing an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training session in Hungary in 2004.
Armenia immediately broke diplomatic ties with Hungary and said that releasing Safarov, who was given a hero’s welcome on his return, was a “grave mistake”.
Orban was asked at a news conference about a report by news portal origo.hu, which said the prime minister had taken the decision despite being warned about the risks of such a move.
“There was coordination within the entire government about this,” Orban said. “Each ministry presented its opinion, the justice ministry about the legal side and the foreign ministry about the diplomatic consequences.”
Orban said he had then announced the decision personally in line with general procedure.
“The foreign ministry had forecast precisely what types of consequences this or the other decision may have. Nothing happened after our decision that we would not have reckoned with in advance,” he added.
Hungary has said its actions were consistent with international law and that Azerbaijan had promised to uphold Safarov’s sentence.
While the two countries were in talks about developing closer economic ties, these were in no way linked to the release of the soldier, the Hungarian government has said.
Yet despite these calculations, the Hungarian Foreign Minister Hungary warned Armenia on Monday to restore diplomatic relations or face “serious ramifications.”
In a letter to his Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian revealed by Hungarian media on Monday, Hungarian Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi again defended his government’s decision to extradite Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan more than eight years after the brutal murder of Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian in Budapest. He said the extradition stemmed from a European convention and was not aimed at offending the Armenian people.
The Hungarian government also claims that it had received formal assurances from Azerbaijan that Safarov will serve the rest of a life sentence given to him by a Hungarian court in an Azerbaijani prison.
Armenian leaders have brushed aside such statements, saying that Budapest was well aware that Safarov will be set free if sent back home. They also say that Hungarian officials had repeatedly assured Yerevan, including in the days leading up to the extradition, that the Azerbaijani army officer will not be repatriated.
“The Armenian people will not forgive that,” President Serzh Sarkisian said as he suspended diplomatic relations with Hungary on August 31 just hours after Safarov returned to Baku to a hero’s welcome.
In his letter that was first reported by the Hungarian MTI news agency, Martonyi expressed regret at the dramatic move, citing “Christian values connecting the two peoples for a thousand years.”
The Hungarian minister also warned, “Suspending diplomatic relations could have serious ramifications that would not serve the interests of Armenia.” He apparently did not elaborate.
Fear of War
The Safarov release and subsequent pardon have thrown a monkey wrench in the already contentious peace talks. Some fear that this could escalate tensions to a point of war.
Diplomats and analysts say that if another war breaks out, it is likely to end in stalemate, according to Reuters.
“The Azeris can’t retake Karabakh now. They are militarily incapable of doing it. I don’t think they could dislodge the Armenian forces from the high ground. I think that’s extremely difficult.”
Yusif Agayev, an Azeri military expert and veteran of the war, said there was no mood for a protracted fight.
“I think it would be a month or two, that is the amount of time our armed forces could fight for. If it drags on longer then it will become a war that society will have to participate in, not just the army,” he said. “I don’t think the society of my country is ready for war.”