By Emil Danielyan
Hundreds of people paid their last respects to Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian on Saturday as the Armenian military officer brutally murdered in Hungary on February 19 was buried with state honors in Yerevan.
Meanwhile, the arrested Azerbaijani officer who reportedly hacked him to death with an axe faced further shows of support and solidarity from prominent public figures at home. Some of them declared that Ramil Safarov should serve as a role model for fellow young Azerbaijanis.
Markarian’s body, perched on a gun-carriage hauled by an armored personnel vehicle, led the funeral procession from the city center to the Yerablur military cemetery on its outskirts. A military squad saluted him with three rounds fired in the air while he was laid to rest alongside hundreds of victims of the 1991-94 war with Azerbaijan.
The funeral was attended by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and the top brass of the Armenian Armed Forces. Sarkisian delivered a speech at Yerablur in which he again condemned Markarian’s “barbaric” killing as a manifestation of “anti-Armenian hysteria” reigning in Azerbaijan.
Ordinary people were given a chance to render homage to the slain officer in the Officer’s House on Yerevan’s main square where Markarian lay in state before the funeral. Hundreds walked past his open coffin.
The swollen and heavily made-up face they saw bore little resemblance to the picture of the 26-year-old man that has become familiar to many Armenians over the past ten days. A long scar around Markarian’s throat and barely visible plasters on his forehead and temples testified to the gruesome character of his killing.
According to Hungarian police, Markarian was attacked and axe-murdered by Safarov early in the morning, while he slept in his Budapest dormitory. One of the investigators said the victim's head was “practically severed from his body.” The motive for the crime is not yet known. Both officers were attending an English-language course at Hungary’s top military academy under NATO’s Partnership for Peace program.
Lithuania’s Defense Minister last week confirmed reports that Safarov attempted to attack a second Armenian officer attending the Budapest course but was stopped by his Lithuanian roommate. A ministry spokeswoman told a local news agency that Major Saulius Paliulis prevented the Azerbaijani from breaking into their room.
Markarian’s violent death has provoked shock and anger in Armenia, with the government in Yerevan describing it as “the logical consequence” of anti-Armenian sentiment fanned by the Azerbaijani authorities.
Saturday’s funeral coincided with the official commemoration of the 16 anniversary of anti-Armenian pogroms in the Azerbaijani town of Sumgait, one of the first bloody episodes of the Karabakh conflict. Armenian leaders drew parallels between the Budapest and Sumgait killings, saying that they have vindicated Karabakh Armenians’ 1988 decision to break away from Soviet Azerbaijan.
“It makes no sense to talk about some concessions [on Karabakh] without security guarantees,” a senior member of the Armenian parliament, Armen Rustamian, said at a remembrance gathering at the genocide memorial in Yerevan. “We don’t have guarantees that other Armenians will not be axe-murdered like Gurgen.”
In Baku, meanwhile, President Ilham Aliev dismissed the Armenian uproar. “As long as the investigation is continuing I cannot say anything on this issue but certainly this event should not be given political overtones,” he said. “All the indications suggest this was a common or garden crime.”
The Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry has expressed regret at the “incident,” offering its condolences to the victim’s family. It has at the same time claimed that the Armenian officer himself provoked the crime by making “insulting statements” to his Azerbaijani colleague. Baku is also keen to stress that Safarov and his family are themselves victims of “Armenian aggression,” having been forced to flee their home in the Jebrail district south of Karabakh. The area was occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces in 1993.
Some Azerbaijani officials have openly praised Safarov, pledging to fight for his repatriation. The Baku daily “Zerkalo” quoted on Saturday the country’s human rights ombudsman, Elmira Suleymanova, as saying that he “must serve as an example of patriotism for the Azerbaijani youth.”
“If the Azerbaijani public fails to snatch Ramil Safarov from the Armenian Diaspora’s hands, we will not be able to win the war for the liberation of the occupied Azerbaijani lands in the future,” agreed parliamentarian Gyulketin Hajieva.
Such statements strike a chord with local nationalist groups opposed to any concessions to the Armenians. “Zerkalo” reported that there are already four “committees to protect Safarov” formed in Azerbaijan. As one of their leaders, Zahid Oruj, put it: “If we don’t defend Ramil Safarov today, none of the Azerbaijanis will turn their gun against Armenians tomorrow.”