The Safarov Affair and the Karabagh National Soccer Team

The Safarov Affair was an opportunity to indicate why Artsakh’s freedom and independence could not be a subject for negotiation.
The Safarov Affair was an opportunity to indicate why Artsakh’s freedom and independence could not be a subject for negotiation.

When entering Artsakh for the first time you are overwhelmed by the grandeur of the countryside, with its steep mountains and deep narrow valleys. Knowing the history of the ancient Armenian land adds to the emotional attachment you feel for this small piece of paradise. By nightfall, having strolled the streets of Stepanakert by day, you can’t be but impressed by the indomitable spirit of its people.

It has been less than two decades since the ceasefire in 1994 brought some semblance of peace to this region. In that short span of time, our brothers and sisters have made great strides in rebuilding the infrastructure destroyed during the war for liberation against the Azeri military—developing democratic institutions of governance, and, most important, maintaining an enthusiasm and a “can-do” attitude that guarantees Artsakh’s continued development.

The recent announcement that Stepanakert has fielded a national soccer team was not headline news. However, its significance should not be overlooked. Although this is a fledgling effort made-up of inexperienced athletes in their late teens, the team will compete as a member of the Non-Recognized States Soccer Association. According to their coach, Sarkis Aghajanyan, it will be an opportunity for the Nagorno-Karabagh team (better it was named the Artsakh national soccer team) to play in the international arena under the republic’s flag and to the strains of its national anthem.

What great role models these young athletes can be to the young boys and girls of Artsakh. And what an important role the national soccer team will have in representing their country on the world stage, albeit a limited stage. While President Ilham Aliyev continues with his threats and posturing for domestic consumption, supported by his unprecedented military expansion, the Artsakh-Armenians remain undeterred and unimpressed. This collective self-assurance, evidenced by the creation of a national soccer team, must infuriate the Azeri leadership in its failure to undermine the vitality and esprit of its new neighbor.

All we need to do is juxtapose the announcement of the creation of a national soccer team to the Safarov Affair. The stark contrast is instructive: In Stepanakert, the government is pursuing peaceful activities, threatening no one, and behaving as civilized governmental leaders should. In Azerbaijan, its president has realized that a favorable solution to the Artsakh issue slipped through his grasp long ago. In an attempt to refurbish his battered image and bruised ego, President Aliyev attempted to achieve a diplomatic coup of sorts by having Hungary extradite Safarov to Azerbaijan. So far so good. However, when Aliyev not only pardoned the convicted murderer of Lt. Gurgen Margaryan and then rewarded him as a hero for his crime, his actions went below even the lowest threshold of acceptable behavior by a head of state. This bizarre political exhibition became a public relations embarrassment. Foreign governments were openly critical of his lack of judgment. Whether or not Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, was unaware or complicit in what Aliyev planned to do is unimportant. However, when Hungary was caught in the political crossfire by the Safarov Affair, it immediately proclaimed its innocence. Hungary’s foreign minister, Janos Martonyi, demanded that Armenia reestablish diplomatic relations—a demand that seldom if ever occurs in the diplomatic arena.

President Sarkisian responded quickly and comprehensively to this diplomatic affront, as he should have. However, the Safarov Affair could have served to reinforce Armenia’s position in support of sovereignty for Artsakh. Think about it. A few months have passed and the affair has been forgotten. It’s obvious that Yerevan did what had to be done, and no more. The Armenian Diaspora did no better. Here was an opportunity to question the shameful support provided the despot Aliyev by the United States. Although Washington professes friendship for Armenia and the Artsakh people, it continues to work against their collective interests. By overreaching, Aliyev had given Karabagh (although Margaryan was an officer in the Republic of Armenia Army, not the Karabagh Defense Force) an opportunity to reinforce its claim to independence.

This debacle has only increased the domestic pressures on Aliyev as he chafes under the restraints that reality has imposed on his determination to reclaim Artsakh. The Safarov Affair was an opportunity to indicate why Artsakh’s freedom and independence could not be a subject for negotiation. For Aliyev only two options remain: Either he accepts Artsakh by agreement or by default, or he seeks the military solution that he constantly threatens. Shorn of any and all third-party restraints that prevent such a foolhardy decision, the likelihood of success is far from assured should internal pressures or his oversized ego force him to accept military action.

According to Matthew Bryza, the former United States ambassador to Azerbaijan, as well as other diplomats and analysts, the consensus is that Azerbaijan is not capable of defeating Karabagh. Bryza states that he doesn’t “…think they could dislodge the Armenian forces from the high ground…that’s extremely difficult.” Wayne Merry, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, concurs that “a key factor is the topography, the extent to which Nagorno-Karabagh has created defenses in depth. Progress would come at a high cost.” Of greater significance is the opinion of Yusaf Agayev, an Azeri military expert who fought in the war that Azerbaijan lost. Agayev doesn’t believe “the society of my country is ready for war. 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 be a war that society will have to participate in, not just the army.” These analyses fully support my analysis, which has been carefully explained in several articles, the first appearing some five years ago in 2007 (see “Azerbaijan’s Military Option in Karabakh,” the Armenian Reporter, May 26, 2007; and “Assessing Azerbaijan’s Military Threat to Retake Karabagh, Part I,” the Armenian Weekly, March 27, 2010, and “Part II,” April 3, 2010).

The Safarov Affair should serve to remind the Minsk Group co-chairs (the United States, France, and Russia) of the intense hatred that members of the Azeri leadership have for Armenians and Armenian culture. This hatred has been encouraged to fester within segments of the Azeri population. Safarov’s motive for murdering Margaryan attests to that. During the 70 years that Artsakh was under Azerbaijani jurisdiction, the Armenians endured discrimination, harassment, and a government policy of cultural eradication. The most egregious example of this policy of cultural eradication of the many that can be cited was the wanton destruction of thousands of hand-carved khatchars (stone monuments) in the 1,300-year-old cemetery in Julfa, Nakhitchevan. These stone memorials, standing five- to six-feet tall, were smashed into rubble and trucked away. Once the cemetery was cleared, it was further profaned when this hallowed ground was used as a military firing range.

The Azeri minister of foreign affairs, Elmar Mammadyarov, was critical of his president’s action in the Safarov Affair, properly realizing that exalting a convicted murderer while the world looked on would yield a benefit for Armenia and, by extension, Artsakh. Yet, Armenian leaders failed to use this opportunity to cite examples of Azerbaijan’s 70 year anti-Armenian policy. The Shahumian district, an integral part of Karabagh, was geographically detached and its Armenian population decimated through pogroms and deportations by the Azerbaijani government. It remains under Azeri military occupation, as do the eastern border regions of Mardakert and Martuni. Our claim to these territories should not be compromised by any claim that Baku may raise. When the government detached the Kelbajar district from Karabagh, the Armenians of Karabagh no longer had a common boundary with Armenia. This geographically isolated the Karabagh-Armenians to become an enclave of Azerbaijan (an exclave of Armenia) where they endured cultural harassment, economic discrimination, and a policy of cultural eradication.

The Safarov Affair was an opportunity to show the stark difference between the democratic society that has developed in Artsakh with the authoritarian government that continues to rule Azerbaijan. A stable, democratic, functioning government is sine qua non for recognition as a sovereign state. Instead, reports detailing the Safarov Affair appeared ad nauseam in the Armenian press, to the exclusion of its political value in promoting Artsakh’s cause.

We still seem unconvinced of the important strategic location of Armenia-Artsakh. Russia may seem to favor Azerbaijan at different times, but the loss of Armenia would be a serious political blow, effectively throwing it back to the northern slopes of the Caucasus. South Ossetia and Abkhazia might not remain independent for long should that happen. If Turkey and Azerbaijan prevail, the dream of pan-Turkic economic and political expansion through the south Caucasus into Central Asia would become a reality, to the detriment of Russian and Iranian interests. Although both countries are competitors, it is to their benefit to prevent a resurgent Turkey, most likely supported by the United States and possibly Israel, to dominate this strategic region.

Armenian organzations should have used the Safarov Affair as the springboard to immediately announce convening a group of recognized experts to make the case for Artsakh’s legal and moral right to declare its independence, whether under the principle of self-determination or remedial secession. One of several starting points could have been the Report of the International Conference of Experts (Barcelona, November 21 to 27, 1998), entitled “The Implementation of the Right to Self-Determination as a Contribution to Conflict Resolution.”

With respect to the claim that its territorial integrity has been violated by Armenia, Azerbaijan has been allowed to improperly apply Principle 4, under Chapter 2, Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations that reads: “All members shall refrain…from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity…of any state.” Armenia has neither threatened nor has it used force against Azerbaijan. It is the Artsakh-Armenians (Principle 4 does not apply to Artsakh) that have declared and won their independence in a war that was forced upon them by Azerbaijan. It is the Artsakh-Armenians who occupy the liberated historic Armenian lands within Azerbaijan. Armenia has offered humanitarian aid and military assistance to the Artsakh-Armenians to prevent what would have been a bloodbath from the indiscriminate artillery fire and military operations of the Azeri military forces.

The Safarov Affair is another piece in the mosaic of injustices against our people perpetrated by Azerbaijan. Here was an opportunity for Yerevan to openly call for Artsakh’s recognition, but did not. And here was an opportunity for Armenian organizations to support, through competent and credible international experts, Artsakh’s right to be free and independent, but they did not.

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