Australia remains shamefully silent as Europe’s axe-murderer is deemed a hero

A security guard in an Afghan National Army uniform approached unsuspecting Australian soldiers as they relaxed at the end of another long day with the international security assistance mission in Oruzgan Province on August 30. He opened fire at close range, killing three Australian soldiers before fleeing. On the same day, two Australian privates died when their helicopter crashed while landing in a northern province of Afghanistan.

The death of five Australian soldiers in what became Australia’s worst combat losses in a single day since the Vietnam War shocked the nation.

As a manhunt started across Afghanistan for the rogue Afghan soldier responsible for the killings, the murderer of another nation’s soldier in a different part of the world was freed from prison and granted the status of national hero. Azeri soldier Ramil Safarov’s journey to ‘heroism’ started when one February night in 2004, he hacked to death Armenian soldier Gurgen Margarian while the latter was asleep. Both soldiers were participating in a NATO-sponsored English language course at a military academy in Budapest.

The back-drop to this murder was the Armenian-Azerbaijani war fought over the Armenian enclave of Nagorno Karabakh in the waning years of the Soviet Union. A cease fire in 1994 ended the war, with Armenia achieving control over the majority of Nagorno Karabakh. One of the bloodiest wars of recent times, it is estimated to have claimed the lives of some 20,000-30,000 people. Peace talks mediated by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Minsk Group have failed to establish a permanent solution to the conflict.

In April 2006, Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment in Hungary after admitting to the murder of Margarian. Earlier this month, however, the Hungarian authorities extradited Safarov to Baku following assurances from the Azeri authorities that he would serve the rest of his sentence in Azerbaijan.

Not surprisingly, the axe murderer received a hero’s welcome upon his return to Azerbaijan. Within hours, he was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, promoted to the rank of Major, given an apartment and eight years’ worth of back salaries as compensation for the time he spent in jail.

The incident has shocked much of Europe. Armenia has officially severed ties with Hungary. Outraged crowds in both Armenia and Hungary have protested the actions of the Hungarian and Azeri governments. Similar protests have been carried out in front of Hungarian embassies in the United States, France, Belgium, Argentina, India and many other countries. In Australia, a protest was organised outside of the Hungarian embassy in Canberra on Friday, September 14.

In Hungary, Facebook groups condemning the government’s action and apologising to Armenia gained thousands of followers in just days. Local media speculated the deal was reached in return for an Azerbaijani promise to buy Hungarian state bonds – a claim both governments have denied.

The White House, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, NATO and the foreign ministries of a number of countries including Russia and France have all condemned the axe-murderer’s elevation to the status of national hero. Australia remains silent on the issue.

The dangerous message the Azerbaijani government conveyed by its glorification of Safarov becomes even more pronounced when viewed in the context of Aliyev’s policies towards the conflict with Armenia.

In recent years senior Azerbaijani officials have maintained a dangerous war rhetoric regarding the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. In February, Aliyev described Armenians worldwide as Azerbaijan’s main enemies. Armenia cited this speech as it justified its decision to withdraw from the 2012 Eurovision song contest in Baku in May.

Boosted by its increasing oil revenues, Azerbaijan’s military spending has increased twenty-fold during Aliyev’s presidency, according to the International Crisis Group. Standing at $4.4billion in 2012, it exceeds the entire state budget of Armenia.

With a peaceful solution nowhere in sight, tensions in the region remain high. Skirmishes on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border since early 2011 have claimed 63 lives so far. The latest of these were in June 2012. The world can’t afford another war.

No country should be permitted to lord with impunity a convicted murderer who committed a hate crime based on ethnicity. Silence and failure to condemn are often perceived as a sign of encouragement by aggressors who may feel empowered to take things further.

“Think about other pathological, maniacal, murdering patriots who now think the door has been officially opened to kill other innocent people to become national heroes. With a new house and some money,” wrote Scary Azeri, a Qatar-based blogger, while urging her readers to think about the meaning of Safarov’s glorification for peace.

As a country mourning its own tragic loss, Australia is better positioned than any other power today to condemn Safarov’s release and glorification in the name of human rights and in the name of peace.

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Nalbandian on a cruise in Sydney

I don’t like criticising. I really don’t. I much rather focus on the positive I see in people and situations – however little that positive may be – with the hope that it multiplies. Unfortunately, the visit to Sydney by the Foreign Affairs Minister of Armenia this Sunday, as I saw it, bore almost no positive elements to it.

Minister Edward Nalbandian’s first official visit to Australia was initiated by an invitation by his Australian counterpart, Bob Carr. The visit was part of a four-country tour that also included Indonesia, New Zealand and will take him to the Philippines next. The official agenda for the visit included a meeting with Minister Carr in Canberra today. The Minister also set aside some of his free time on Sunday to meet with the Armenian community in Sydney.

The first encounter with the community was during lunch on a Sydney boat cruise, to which state and federal parliamentarians and ministers – long-time friends of the Armenian community – were invited along with community representatives. The second was a meeting open to all members of the community. Both events were organised by an individual from the community, whom the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had found appropriate to approach for this purpose, bypassing all community structures, including and foremost Archbishop Aghan Baliosian, Primate of the Diocese of the Armenian Church of Australia and New Zealand. The visit very much had the hallmarks of a private function than a proper community visit and the Foreign Affairs Minister could not have been further removed from the realities of the community.

As the cruise made its way through the choppy waters of Sydney harbour on this windy day, the Australian officials delivered welcoming addresses in honour of Nalbandian. All three speeches by Minister Victor Dominello, MP John Alexander and MP Jonathan O’Dea acknowledged the efforts of the Armenian Australian community aimed towards the recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Dominello expressed his hope that these efforts will culminate in the recognition of the Armenian Genocide at the federal level, while O’Dea confirmed that a delegation of NSW parliamentarians is planning to visit Armenia and Nagorno Karabakh next year. This generated quite a bit of excitement during the otherwise uneventful reception.

When Nalbandian took his turn, he spoke of Armenia’s plans to expand its presence in the region and emphasised the country’s commitment to establishing peaceful relations with all countries of the world – including two of its neighbours with which bilateral relations remain tense, Turkey and Azerbaijan. It was all very noble and I’m not being sarcastic. From thereon, however, everything went downhill.

With respect to Nagorno Karabakh, Nalbandian maintained that Armenia was committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict based on the principles offered by the OSCE Minsk Group Co-Chairs and accepted by the international community, while failing to even mention the right to self-determination as the main principle to which Armenia adheres for a resolution of the conflict. Listening to Nalbandian’s speech was the first Australian parliamentarian to visit Nagorno Karabakh, Walt Secord, who also lent his support for the right of the people of Karabakh to self-determination while in Stepanakert late last year…

Remarkably, Nalbandian also managed to go through his whole speech without once uttering the words Armenian Genocide even as he spoke about the Armenia-Turkey protocols and Turkey’s failure to ratify them without preconditions.

Nalbandian did affirm both of the above-mentioned positions in his speech during the meeting with the broader community later that day. The moment, however, had passed and while it was lost on some, many of us understood that the Minister chose to pass on a perfectly good opportunity to reiterate these positions in front of Australian parliamentarians and ministers who themselves have stood up in parliament to acknowledge the Armenian Genocide and support the right of the people of Nagorno Karabakh to self-determination.

Today, Minister Nalbandian was due to meet with Carr in Canberra. It was during Carr’s tenure as premier of NSW that the state parliament passed a motion recognising the Armenian Genocide. Whether Nalbandian used the occasion to press him on this issue today is not known (not yet at least) but perhaps what he chose to say and not say yesterday was an omen for what was to come.

There had been much speculation in the lead-up to the visit about the possible establishment of an Armenian Embassy in Australia. The Minister put our minds ‘at ease’ on this one too, announcing that the Republic of Armenia would be opening two embassies next year – one in Jakarta, one in Vietnam but not one in Canberra. Meanwhile, the 50,000 or so Armenians living in Australia – where in the absence of frequent and tangible links with Armenia, staying Armenian is a day-to-day struggle – were told to not feel neglected but also to not expect an embassy in 2013 or 2014 for that matter. The best the Minister could deliver was a pledge for an embassy at some point in the future, possibly 2015, and maybe an Honorary Consul at a sooner but yet unspecified date.

Having seen Nalbandian on TV, I had an impression of him as someone who was brought in to do the job few other people would do. In real life, my encounter with the man who signed the most important documents of the Republic of Armenia in its 20 years of independence, painted the picture of someone unable to persuade, impress or inspire. It saddens me to be so painfully honest about the person who occupies the position of Foreign Affairs Minister of our independent Republic, when I have enormous respect for the position itself and all that it represents.

No matter, the harsh reality remains that when all was said and done, Nalbandian’s visit delivered too little too late for this community.