By now we can more or less piece together the chronology of the Azeri-Hungarian negotiations about the transfer of Lieutenant Ramil Safarov of Azerbaijan from a Hungarian jail where he was serving a life sentence for the murder of an Armenian officer to Baku on August 31.
Azeri politicians keep emphasizing that the initiative for Safarov’s release came from Azerbaijan. They had never given up the idea of this national hero’s return to the homeland. This is also confirmed by Ferenc Gyurcsány, prime minister when Safarov was sentenced, who said that Azeri pressure on the Hungarian government was considerable. Gyurcsány claims, however, that the politicians serving in the prime minister’s office at the time came to the conclusion that the likelihood of the Azeri authorities letting Safarov loose once he arrived on Azeri soil was high. Therefore, as Azeri politicians repeatedly said in the last few days, the “Hungarians were stubborn and refused to negotiate.”
But as soon as Fidesz won the elections the negative Hungarian attitude to the Azeri request changed. Azeri politicians talk about negotiations lasting over a year that eventually ended in Safarov’s release. In 2010 Viktor Orbán visited Baku for a conference, but it is unlikely that the topic was discussed seriously then. Sometime in 2011, however, the Hungarians became willing to oblige.
It was in mid-November 2011 that Pál Schmitt spent time in Baku where the topic was definitely discussed. We know that from an interview with Zahid Oruj, a member of the Azeri parliamentary committee for defense and security, who claimed that “Azerbaijan during
Safarov’s stay in prison was twice able to negotiate with the Hungarian side to release him. However, the first time this arrangement was disrupted by the resignation of the President of Hungary.” I can deduce from this statement that Viktor Orbán sent Schmitt to Baku to begin tentative negotiations for a deal with the Azeri government in exchange for Safarov’s transfer to Azerbaijan. Shortly after Schmitt’s trip, in early January 2012, Schmitt’s plagiarism case was discovered and the negotiations came to a screeching halt.
Once the Schmitt affair was over in April, the Hungarian government must have indicated to the Azeris that Hungary was ready to resume conversations on the topic. Moreover, the offer must have been couched in language that offered hope for Azeri success because on May 29 Péter Szijjártó, in those days still the personal spokesman for the prime minister, announced that Viktor Orbán had accepted the Azeri president’s personal invitation to visit Baku. Although Orbán didn’t make the trip to Azerbaijan until the end of June, on June 8 a letter was dispatched from the Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration asking the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan to state what steps they would take in case Hungary releases Safarov. In this letter the Hungarians wanted to have assurances from Azerbaijan that the Azeri government would honor the stipulations of the Strasbourg Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons of 1983.
The Azeri Ministry of Justice took its sweet time answering this letter. It was only on August 15 that the following letter, written in rather fractured English, was sent to Tibor Navracsics’s ministry:
The Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Azerbaijan presents its compliments to the Ministry of Public Administration and Justice of Hungary and has the honor to inform the following.
As a response to your inquiry about Ramil Sahib Safarov, who is serving his sentence in Hungary, we inform you that the execution of the courts decisions of the foreign states regarding the transfer of sentenced persons to serve the remaining part of their prison sentences in the Republic of Azerbaijan is carried out in accordance with Article 9 paragraph 1 point a) of the European Convention without any conversion and without having to go through any new judicial procedure.
Please be also informed that in accordance with Article 57.3 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Azerbaijan the punishment of a convict who is serving a life sentence could only be replaced by court with an imprisonment for a certain period or he could be released on conditional parole, only after he has served at least twenty-five years of his sentence.
Vilayat Zahirov, Deputy Minister of Justice, Republic of Azerbaijan.
It is difficult to understand what prompted the long delay between the Hungarian inquiry of June 8 and the Azeri answer of August 15. Perhaps some details had to be ironed out. Péter Szijjártó’s visit to Baku on July 23 might have been part of this process. It is also possible that what the Azeris wanted to know was whether the assurance that was eventually sent on August 15 would satisfy the Hungarians. Given what followed next, the answer had to be positive.
On the basis of my reading of the reports from Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Hungary I am coming to the conclusion that János Martonyi’s foreign ministry was left out of the loop completely. That’s why the ministry was so sluggish responding to Safarov’s pardon by the Azeri president. When reporters asked its spokesman about the ministry’s reaction, the answer was that “they are still studying the matter.” Well, if they had been involved in the negotiations all along, they wouldn’t have needed to study the details after the fact.
It was only this afternoon that Zsolt Németh, undersecretary of the Hungarian foreign ministry, handed a memorandum to Vilayat Guliyev, Azeri ambassador in Budapest, to the effect that “Hungary finds the Azeri procedure in the extradition of Safarov unacceptable.”
Some Hungarian commentators think that since it was the ministry of administration and justice, together with Péter Szijjártó, who were involved in the negotiations it was a lack of diplomatic experience that caused the “misunderstanding.” I don’t believe this for a moment. It’s hard to picture Viktor Orbán as a babe in arms or “an aging teenager,” as Gáspár Miklós Tamás called him, who is so naive that he cannot read a legal document or who is totally unaware of the very precarious political and military situation in the region.
I think Orbán knew what he was doing. He desperately wants to avoid a loan from the IMF because that would limit his freedom of action. He tried to get China and later Saudi Arabia to purchase Hungarian government bonds, but he failed. Just this year Hungary will have to pay back 4.7 billion euros worth of loans. Azerbaijan promised to buy 2-3 billion euros worth of Hungarian government bonds. He was ready to strike a bargain. It seems even with the devil.
This time the churches raised their voices. Cardinal Péter Erdő, head of the Hungarian Catholic Church, expressed the solidarity of the Hungarian Conference of Bishops with the Armenian Christians and the Armenian people. The Calvinists and the Lutherans went even further, stating that “the church leaders don’t doubt the legality of the steps taken by the Hungarian authorities but they condemn their consequences.”
DK organized a small demonstration of diehards in front of the parliament building. I assume the demonstration that the Facebook group, Hey Armenia, Sorry about our Prime Minister, is planning for Tuesday will be more robust. Meanwhile the number of supporters of the initative is well over 8,000. Hungarians seem to be really disgusted with the Orbán government’s policies at home and abroad. One day the whole thing will boil over. I’m almost sure.