Lawmakers from Armenia’s leading opposition forces harshly criticized the government for failing to prevent the repatriation of Azerbaijani army officer Ramil Safarov as the National Assembly debated the resulting diplomatic scandal at an emergency session on Wednesday.
Nevertheless, the opposition factions in the Armenian parliament signed up to a statement drafted by its pro-government majority condemning Hungary for extraditing the convicted axe-murderer of Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Markarian. The statement, passed almost unanimously, backed Yerevan’s decision to suspend diplomatic relations with Budapest and announced that Armenian-Hungarian inter-parliamentary ties will also be frozen.
The statement also accused Azerbaijan of torpedoing international efforts to peacefully resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by pardoning Safarov and declaring him a national hero. It said Baku’s actions “reaffirmed the reality that Karabakh cannot be part of Azerbaijan with any status.”
The document was adopted after several hours of heated discussions that exposed opposition anger with the Armenian government’s handling of the Safarov affair. Opposition deputies charged that the government is also responsible for Safarov’s release from a Hungarian prison.
Former Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian of the opposition-leaning Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), the second largest parliamentary force, was particularly scathing. “For me, it is incomprehensible and inexplicable that we first heard about all this from the Azerbaijani media, after Safarov set foot to his home soil,” he said in a speech. “Can anyone explain to me why is it that 15 days ago the Hungarian-Armenian community alerted our authorities about [Safarov’s impending extradition] and they did nothing?”
“I simply have no doubts that if we had threatened to do what we have just done, as a reaction, two weeks ago, Safarov would have been in his prison cell today,” said Oskanian, who was foreign minister when the Azerbaijani officer hacked Markarian to death in Budapest in 2004.
Levon Zurabian, the parliamentary leader of the opposition Armenian National Congress (HAK), made a similar point. “Armenia’s authorities too bear responsibility for what happened because they failed to take adequate preventive measures on the diplomatic and intelligence fronts,” he charged.
“They should have taken preventive steps by publicly raising the issue with the Hungarian authorities as well as the countries co-chairing the OSCE Minsk Group, the European Union and other authoritative international organizations … If even half of this uproar had been made then, I’m sure that Safarov would have still been in the Hungarian prison,” added Zurabian.
Responding to the criticism, Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian said Hungarian state officials repeatedly assured the Armenian side from August 22-24 that Safarov will not be repatriated to serve out his life sentence there.
“In order to have those assurances reaffirmed, on August 24 we submitted a written inquiry to the Hungarian authorities,” Nalbandian told deputies. “Because of a delay in getting a response to that inquiry, the Armenian side initiated meetings at the Hungarian Foreign Ministry and parliament on August 28, during which we were again told that there is no such thing.”
“It is natural that the Hungarian government is now unable to come up with any cohesive explanation of this drastic U-turn in its position and why it all of a sudden accepted Azerbaijani lies so easily,” he said.
Naira Zohrabian, another senior BHK lawmaker, dismissed such arguments. She cited a leader of Hungary’s ethnic Armenian community, Nikoghayos Hakobian, as saying the Hungarian parliament speaker, Laszlo Kover, told other community leaders earlier in August that Safarov will indeed be sent home soon. The Yerevan government was immediately informed about that, according to Zohrabian.
Hakobian confirmed this when contacted by RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am) by telephone. He said he promptly flew to Yerevan on August 20 to meet with officials at the Armenian ministries of foreign and Diaspora affairs and alert them about Kover’s revelation.
Firdus Zakarian, a senior official at the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, acknowledged meeting with the Hungarian-Armenian activist. “The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs could not accept that information at face value at that point,” Zakarian told RFE/RL’s Armenian service (Azatutyun.am). “Naturally, we had to tell relevant bodies to verify its credibility, which is what we did.”
“Questions were then asked to the Hungarian authorities and they assured [Armenian officials] that such a thing cannot happen,” he said. “We could not distrust the Hungarian authorities at that point because relations between the two states were good and Hungarian justice had acted properly by giving [Safarov] a life sentence. We had no reason to not believe them.”
Alexander Arzumanian, another former foreign minister representing the opposition Free Democrats party, also criticized the Armenian Foreign Ministry during the parliament debate. Arzumanian called for the formation of an ad hoc parliamentary commission that would investigate ministry actions.
Despite the strong criticism, the opposition minority decided to back the statement put forward by the parliamentary faction of President Serzh Sarkisian’s Republican Party of Armenia (HHK). As Zurabian explained, Armenia’s main political groups must now put aside their differences and “act in a united front.”