The Ramil Safarov Affair: The Straw that Broke the Peace-Builder’s Back?

by Anaïs Chagankerian

The August 2008 war over South Ossetia was a reminder that the so-called ‘frozen conflicts’ should perhaps be referred to as dormant volcanoes. Almost forgotten as a result of the status quo, it has been long since they last wreaked havoc. And yet, from one day to the next, they fiercely wake up and remind the world about the damage-causing potential they have always harboured. The August 2008 war over South Ossetia reminded the world that these dormant volcanoes only need one faux-pas from any of the leaders of the region to explode again and show that negative peace – absence of direct violence while underlying tensions persist – is as close to peace as it is to war.

Pardon of Ramil Safarov: did it ruin peace-building efforts?

Is the Ramil Safarov affair the kind of faux-pas that can ruin years of peace-building efforts through the negotiation table and return the resolution of the conflict to the military field? Many analysts already feared an imminent re-escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict due to the recurrent violations of the ceasefire from both sides, arms race favoured by Azerbaijan’s increased oil revenues, war rhetoric from both sides and the extremely nationalist and conflict-saturated climate in both societies. However, the Safarov affair can appear as the straw that can potentially break the peace-builder’s back. By pardoning the man who killed an Armenian by almost decapitating him and by receiving him as a hero, President Aliyev is sending a message to Armenia. He is showing Armenia that he is not afraid of a new armed conflict as he believes he can be better off by fighting than by making compromises at the negotiating table. Also, with the presidential elections coming in 2013, this can be a strategy to score points with the nationalist part of its electorate.

Fierce reactions from Armenians all over the world almost immediately followed President Aliyev’s decision. The government believed this was a sign that Azerbaijan wanted war. Sarafov’s release became a hotly contested issue in the Armenian media and the Diaspora demonstrated its anger from the American continent to Europe. Hate messages targeting Azerbaijanis received a new stimulation on social media. ‘I can only say [these] 2 disgusting, bad and envy words’, wrote an Armenian girl in the comment section of a YouTube video promoting peace, ‘RAMIL SAFAROV. This is the face of Azerbaijan. Hero of Azerbaijan. How can Armenians be friends with Ramil Safarov? All Azerbaijanis are like him and it means they all did and will do like him, will kill people and will call killers hero of Azerbaijan’. The absence of interethnic interaction throughout the years has resulted in an information gap that has been filled by hate media and propaganda education, perpetuating fierce nationalist rhetoric in both societies. The Safarov affair is a new reason for Armenians to hate Azerbaijanis and a new argument to throw at peace-builders’ faces who are, according to the general opinion, too naïve to believe that better relations with Azerbaijanis can be achieved.

A vicious circle

There is an already existing vicious circle in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Both governments through their control of the media and propaganda education have contributed to creating extreme conflict attitudes in both societies which, in return, negatively influenced the peace process by equating any step towards compromises to national treason. The Ramil Safarov affair is having a negative impact on both governmental and societal levels and is thus contributing to this vicious circle: the likeliness of a war is in all governmental speeches and people’s re-stimulated hatred makes peace less and less attractive. Since tensions were already very high in the region and since governments were already getting ready for a war even before the decision on Ramil Safarov’s case, the latter can appear as a new pretext to leave the negotiating table as none of the governments were really committed to the peace process in the first place.

The situation is at a critical stage. However, all hopes should not be shattered. People who have a background in peace and conflict studies in the region know that there is in both countries and Diasporas a significant number of progressive people who know war is not the solution. Their voices are not heard because they are in contradiction with the rest of their societies. The Internet has become a safe haven for these people from both ethnic groups who can now meet, share their thoughts online and strengthen their collaboration. It is of course very hard to change the opinions of the most radicals especially in a very short time frame but it is possible for the more progressive to stand up for their values and show they exist. The lack of visibility of this part of each society favours the dangerous generalisations according to which ‘All Azerbaijanis are Ramil Safarov’ or ‘All Armenians are against peace’.

Making the vicious circle virtuous

This is a critical time where these segments of both societies should increase their visibility towards their respective governments in order to show there is a large number of people who are not afraid to stand up for ideas that are generally rejected in their societies. Interethnic collaboration at the grassroots level between organisations and individuals from both countries has long been running and has strengthened a network of like-minded people, willing to work together to positively influence their peers. Though it is essential to build trust at the grassroots level, it is time to also have a more vertical approach to peace-building and try to reach decision-makers in order to benefit from these peace networks to have bottom-up effects, from the people to the highest spheres of government. Instead of having a negative impact – as it has long been the case since they were triggered by angry nationalists – these bottom-up effects could become positive, by pressuring decision-makers to take into account the ideas of peace activists, whose number is not as insignificant as they might believe. It is of course easier said than done but a few examples can illustrate these aspirations.

Armenians and Azerbaijanis could meet offline and start non-violent and pro-peace demonstrations in front of Armenian and Azeri Embassies all over the world or in the streets of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Activists could start petition campaigns as a way of increasing the pressure on decision-makers in Armenia and Azerbaijan. One way of making these campaigns gain more visibility and success would be to get the support of famous Armenians and Azerbaijanis all over the world that would be willing to use their image and convincing power for a good cause. Awareness could also be raised amongst non-Armenians and non-Azerbaijanis in order for the conflict to gain more visibility on the international stage and come under the scrutiny of the international community. This could increase the pressure on Armenia and Azerbaijan and reduce the abuses on both sides if they know their conflict is no longer invisible to the rest of the world.

Even if the number of supporters might not reach millions, their impact can be very strong. Remember, for example, the petitions signed by Turkish intellectuals in 2008 to apologise for the Great Catastrophe or the demonstrations in Turkey stating ‘We Are all Hrant Dink’. Imagine just a few seconds the impact of a ‘We are not Ramil Safarov’ demonstration in the streets of Baku! Imagine Armenian and Azeri friends in the diaspora taking to the streets together to ask for non-violence! In other words, let’s be creative, confident and ambitious. Let’s create a Caucasus spring for peace so the governments are not able to ignore the existence of pro-peace activists anymore. You might call me a dreamer or a utopist, but as long as hope remains, there is nothing that can break a peace-builder’s back.

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