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Review & Outlook - 03/17/2004

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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 asbed@bu.edu.

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