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ARMENIAN SOLDIERS NOT SAFE: NEITHER AT HOME NOR ABROAD Armenian News Network / Groong March 17, 2004 By Asbed Kotchikian The brutal murder of the Armenian army Lieutenant Gurgen Margarian in Budapest in the hands of his Azerbaijani colleague Lieutenant Ramil Safarov on February 19, 2004 raised many questions and eyebrows. The nature and context of the killing itself were both horrendous and indicative of the continued hatred and mistrust between the two nations. The killing also occurred while the Armenian-Azerbaijani negotiations on Karabakh have been in stalemate and it symbolizes the difficult path that both countries face to reach a peaceful resolution of the conflict. PARTNERSHIP FOR PEACE OR FOR MURDER? The setting of the murder forces one to think about the future of the Caucasus in general - and Armenia and Azerbaijan in specific - within Western institutions such as NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP). It has been an open knowledge that after the fall of the Soviet Union NATO tried to expand into the former Soviet space by redefining the role of NATO and including almost all of the former Soviet satellite states. For the less `fortunate' countries of the South Caucasus, NATO's PfP was meant to include those countries under their wing without risking a confrontation with Russia - which considers the South Caucasus to be its own backyard - or in the words of Russian policy makers `the near abroad'. Of the three South Caucasus countries, perhaps Georgia has been the keenest to become an active member in PfP programs since it considers the West to be the only balancing force against Russia. On the other hand, Armenia seems to be the least interested because of its overdependence on Russia and the fears that an over-involvement with NATO might make the Russian wary. For its part, Azerbaijan has shown the most balanced approach by working closely with NATO but at the same time developing cordial relations with Russia. From the perspectives of Western policy makers, overtures, such as the PfP, are meant to bring regions in conflict under a single umbrella and by making them cooperate in other spheres the hope is that the various sides of the conflict would eventually create enough cooperative mechanisms to resolve their bilateral conflicts. Both Lieutenants Margarian and Safarov were in Budapest learning English as part of NATO's program to help communication among the members of PfP. Not so surprisingly Western and NATO media kept this incident low profile perhaps concerned about the failure that might be referred to the PfP program in general. However this incident reconfirms the extent and depth of the hatred between the Armenians and Azerbaijani over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region and the inability of the West to understands that no matter how many cooperative programs they impose on the region, the roots of the conflict are so deep that no partnership - and definitely not a partnership for peace - could alleviate the mistrust and hatred existing between the two people. >From an Armenian perspective, the shy attempts that the country has been taking to move closer to the West might be halted or at best slowed down, while in the general Armenian psyche, Russia would be reconfirmed as the sole `protector' and reliable partner that the country has, pushing the country further into the arms of the `northern bear.' Azerbaijan on the other hand, also stands to lose from this incident on several fronts. First of all the upcoming NATO exercises planned to be held in Azerbaijan (after taking place respectively in Georgia and Armenia) could be moved because of security and safety concerns for the lives of the Armenian participants. This could be a blow to Azerbaijan's image as a reliable Western ally and partner, and hence the country could lose its prestige. Furthermore if well-played, the Armenian government might be able to obtain parity in US military aid slated to the two countries - having in mind that the 2004 earmark in this sphere to Azerbaijan is nearly four times that of Armenia's. This murder also brings to fore the fact that the hatred between the two nations now has moved on to the next generation of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. It could be argued that both the victim and the murderer have lived through the hatred when they were teenagers but the sad truth is that such events perpetuate the cycle of violence and make it almost impossible for the normalization of relations between the two people even if there is a peaceful resolution of the Karabakh conflict. THE DOMESTIC IMPLICATIONS OF THE MURDER The murder has been utilized for various purposes in both Armenia and Azerbaijan. Without a doubt such an incident was difficult not to capitalize on, in order to propagate the victim mentality in one country and the heroic nature of the killer in another. While talking about the domestic implications of the murder it should be noted that both governments lack certain legitimacy in the eyes of their public and an incident like this is the perfect opportunity to raise the nationalist sentiments and rally the population around the only existing authority - even if its legitimacy is contested by a portion of that society. The glorification of Lieutenant Safarov in Azerbaijan as a hero - who has avenged for his nation's victims during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh - shows the extent to which society in Azerbaijan has been militarized and that over the past 10 years, anti-Armenian sentiments have not withered away as many thought. Moreover the reaction of the Azerbaijani media - mostly controlled by the government - might be utilizing this event to provide legitimacy to the Aliyev administration and to silence the opposition. The murder of the Armenian Lieutenant, and the coincident commemorations taking place in the memory of the victims of Sumgait, have both been used by the Armenian government to reconfirm its role as an authority which would demand accountability from the necessary sources and hence project an image of a protector of the nation. Moreover the Armenian government - through a statement by the ministry of foreign affairs - has blamed the Azerbaijani government of propagating and nurturing anti-Armenian sentiments, hence the Armenian government might have been trying to show to the international community that Armenia is yet again a victim of Azerbaijani `aggression'. WELL TRAINED BUT ILL TREATED The murder of Lieutenant Markarian raises some questions about the issue of safety for Armenian military personnel. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in many military reports the Armenian army has been recognized to be the best trained army of the former Soviet Republics - thanks largely to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, despite this acknowledgment, the Armenian army has serious issues concerning the safety of its draftees. Thus, the issue that the Armenian soldiers face today is not solely about the security of Armenian officers serving alongside Azerbaijanis in international organizations but one that is nearer to home, actually it IS at home. Over the past several years many reports have been published - and ignored - about he sorry state of Armenian draftees in the army. There have been numerous articles published in the independent Armenian media about stories of new draftees being excessively beaten up and murder in the hands of their own colleagues with the knowledge and tacit approval of their commanding officers. Since 2002, both Armenia Week (www.armeniaweek.com) and later ArmeniaNow (www.armenianow.com) have published several articles about the killing of young draftees in the Armenia army. According to the figures given by one article (`Women in Black' Armenianow, November 22, 2002) - quoting a report by the United Nations office in Armenia and the Helsinki Committee's Armenian office - between 1996-2000, at least 763 young men died in the Armenian Army. Also according to the article quoting an NGO set up by the parents of the murdered soldiers, in 2001 56 soldiers lost their lives in conspicuous circumstances. Numbers could be quoted indefinitely but the truth of the matter is that Armenian soldiers in their own army barracks, surrounded by their own countrymen are not as safe as one would hope and the number of draftees killed while on service in Armenia remains alarmingly high. The overall political assessment of the murder of Lieutenant Margarian - apart from it human aspect - does not seem to be critical at the moment. Both Armenians and Azerbaijanis have been mobilized: Armenians to make sure that Lieutenant Safarov receives the ultimate punishment within the full extent of Hungarian law; while Azerbaijanis have been adamantly gathering donations to send a lawyer to help the defense of Safarov. According to estimates, the trial is not set to begin for another two months. Without a doubt once the trial starts the Hungarian authorities will try to conclude it as quickly as possible and also as far from the spotlights as possible. Whatever the outcome of the trial, the Budapest incident has created a hero in one nation and a martyr in the other, both of whom might be used by their respective governments to achieve their respective political goals. Those goals are very much dependent on the status of the Karabakh negotiations as well as the general mood of the public in both countries. Thus it seems that from an Armenian perspective the projection and propagation of a victim image might be a manifestation of the pressure that Armenia is under in its negotiations with Azerbaijan to concede more than it wants. By representing itself as a victim, Armenia could have the justification it needs on the negotiating table to not concede as much as it is forced to. The hero image projected by Azerbaijan could be explained by the defeatist mentality that exists in the country. After all Azerbaijan did lose the war and is in search of ways to compensate for that image. What Lieutenant Safarov did in Budapest is widely viewed as an act of vengeance for the Azerbaijanis who died in the Karabakh war and thus gives a sense of retribution for a wide section of the Azerbaijani society. As far as the Karabakh negotiations are concerned, the Budapest incident could also be used by Azerbaijan to intimidate the Armenian side that time is not on their side and that the Azerbaijani army - personified by Safarov - will have the upper hand eventually and it would be better for Armenia to willingly return occupied lands rather than risk a losing war. Because of the nature of the animosity between the two nations as well as the domestic opposition that each government faces, what is considered to be a murder by the international community, is manipulated as a political wild card by the Armenian and Azerbaijani governments, to serve their own political purposes domestically - against their opposition - or regionally - in the Karabakh negotiations. -- Asbed Kotchikian is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston University and a visiting fellow at Cambridge University. He spent two years (2000-02) in Armenia and Georgia conducting research and teaching at local universities. Comments to the author may be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.