Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev was urged by his French counterpart Francois Hollande to seek a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict on Tuesday during a visit to Paris that sparked street protests by French Armenians.
Aliyev travelled to the French capital to attend the opening of an Islamic art exhibition at the Louvre museum which was partly funded by the Azerbaijani government.
In a written statement, the presidential Elysee Palace said the two leaders discussed the unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and other issues of mutual interest. It said Hollande “called on Azerbaijan to take the necessary measures to re-establish a climate of confidence with Armenia” in order to kick-start the stalled Karabakh peace process.
This was a clear reference to the fallout from Aliyev’s controversial decisions to pardon, promote and financially reward Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani army officer who hacked to death an Armenian colleague in Hungary in 2004. France has strongly criticized the move along with other world powers and international organizations. In a September 3 statement, the French Foreign Ministry said it “risks seriously damaging the negotiation efforts and the establishment of a climate of trust between the parties” to the Karabakh conflict.
Several hundred French people of Armenian descent gathered outside the Azerbaijani Embassy in Paris on Tuesday evening to denounce Aliyev’s visit and Safarov’s pardoning. According to the AFP news agency, they chanted “Aliyev the fascist, out of France!” and waved placards reading “France is hosting a criminal.”
“Aliyev's arrival in France 18 days after he pardoned the murderer Safarov is not acceptable,” Franck Papazian, co-chairman of the CCAF umbrella organization of French Armenian groups, said at the protest.
AFP said the protesters also denounced the French government's acceptance of money from Azerbaijan to help fund the new Islamic art wing at the Louvre, which brings together 18,000 treasures from an area spanning from Europe to India. The 100 million euro ($131 million) project was funded by the French government and supported by endowments from Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Kuwait and Oman.
“Azerbaijani money is dirty money, this is money from a terrorist and dictatorial state,” Hratch Varjabedian, the head of the French Bureau of the Armenian Cause, said at the protest.
Several pro-Armenian members of the French parliament also took part in the rally. The French-Armenian news portal Armenews.com quoted one of them, Rene Rouquet, as accusing Aliyev of committing a “violation of international justice.”
More than 100 Azerbaijanis and Turks, meanwhile, reportedly staged a counterdemonstration outside the Armenian Embassy in France. Armenews.com said they branded Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian an “assassin” and accused him of complicity in killings of Azerbaijanis during the 1991-1994 Karabakh war.
Aliyev’s press office made no mention of the Safarov case in a statement on the Azerbaijani leader’s talks with Hollande. It said the two presidents discussed the current state of the Karabakh negotiating process and “steps that should be taken” towards reviving it. They also agreed that French-Azerbaijani relations are “successfully developing in the political, economic and cultural spheres,” said the statement.
The Elysee Palace likewise said that Aliyev and Hollande “expressed their common desire to further develop economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries.”
Aliyev and other Azerbaijani have rejected international criticism of Safarov’s pardoning, saying that the axe-killer’s release from a Hungarian prison conformed to international and Azerbaijani laws. They also say that the “Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani lands” was the root cause of Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian’s brutal murder by Safarov committed during a NATO training course in Budapest.