(Reuters, RFE/RL) - Almost 2,000 Hungarians protested in Budapest on Tuesday against the government's decision to allow an Azeri soldier who had killed an Armenian officer in 2004 to return home, leading to heightened tensions between the neighboring countries.
Last week Hungary released soldier Ramil Safarov to Baku, where Azeri President Ilham Aliyev pardoned him on arrival. Safarov had served eight years of his life sentence for killing an Armenian officer during a NATO training in Hungary.
Armenia immediately broke diplomatic ties with Hungary and said releasing Safarov, who was given a hero's welcome on his return, was a "grave mistake". Hungary said it acted in compliance 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, it said.
Hungarian protesters chanting "We are sorry, Armenia" said they doubted the government's motives, adding that whatever the reasons, the decision was unacceptable.
"Murderers should not be extradited to countries where it is clear that ethnic hate crimes are considered heroism," said protester Laszlo Muhari, 30. "In a democratic country this is not acceptable."
"[Prime Minister Viktor Orban should stop lying and start giving clear answers, because it is simply impossible that such a brutal killer is just released without a background deal."
Azerbaijan dismissed earlier in the day media reports that it planned to buy Hungarian bonds, which blogs and newspapers had speculated might have played a part in Safarov's release. Azerbaijan's ambassador to Budapest told a newspaper the reports were "nonsensical", while the country's oil fund denied it had any such investment plans. Budapest had also denied the speculation.
Hungary has been unable to tap international debt markets this year due to the high returns demanded by private investors concerned about the government's management of the economy. It is negotiating an aid package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Union. But the talks are dragging on, and Hungary's debt agency said last month it was looking at alternative markets for potential debt issuance.
In a related development, a spokeswoman for the European Union's foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Azerbaijan appears to have abandoned pledges it made to EU member Hungary ahead of Safarov’s handover and subsequent pardon. Maja Kocijancic, also told RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent that Baku's actions threaten "fragile" stability in the region.
She said the bloc was asking Baku to explain its freeing of Safarov. "According to what we know now, on the basis of the information gathered, it would appear that certain conditions and commitments that were agreed between Hungary and Azerbaijan on the transfer of Ramil Safarov have not been met," Kocijancic said, "and in that respect we will continue or we will try to be in touch with the Azeri side to hear the explanation why this has happened and why the behavior that is endangering the fragile situation the region is continuing."
EU President Herman van Rompuy was joined by European Parliament speaker Martin Schulz on Tuesday in condemning Baku's actions.