Several hundred Armenians gathered at a Moscow square on Friday to protest against Azerbaijan’s pardon of an army officer who killed an Armenian soldier in Hungary.
“We condemn in the strongest terms this provocative act, which was designed to disturb the balance in the region,” activist Yury Navoyan told protesters at a central Moscow site commemorating Russia’s failed 1905 revolution against tsarist-rule.
The demonstration came just two weeks after Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev provoked an international outcry by pardoning Ramil Safarov after the army officer was repatriated from Hungary on the understanding that he would serve out his life sentence in his homeland.
Safarov had been jailed for hacking Armenian soldier Gurgen Margaryan to death with an ax during a NATO training event in Budapest in 2004.
The 35-year-old was treated to a hero’s welcome upon his return to Baku last month, promoted and given a flat and back pay for the years he had spent in prison.
The move has exacerbated already high political tensions between the two former Soviet republics, which have been at odds since fighting a bitter war over the mainly Armenian-populated Nagorno-Karabakh region in the early 1990s.
Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan said Hungary had made a “grave mistake” in sending Safarov back to Baku and announced that Yerevan was severing its ties with Budapest.
“With their joint actions, Azerbaijan and Hungary opened the door to the recurrence of such crimes,” Sargsyan said in televised comments earlier this month. “I cannot put up with this. The republic of Armenia cannot put up with this.”
But Azerbaijani President Aliyev has defended his decision to pardon Safarov, saying it was “in accordance with Azerbaijan’s constitution.”
At the rally on Friday, Navoyan, head of the Russian-Armenian Commonwealth group, hit out at a “cynical” Hungary for concluding the “bloody” deal to return Safarov to Azerbaijan, but was careful to highlight Russia’s efforts to resolve the crisis.
Armenia’s economy has been in decline since the collapse of Communism in 1991, and the small South Caucasus nation is heavily dependent on Russia for commodity supplies.
Russia, which has been seeking firmer trade relations with Azerbaijan in recent years, was one of the last world powers to denounce Safarov’s pardoning.
President Vladimir Putin has yet to comment on the controversy - a fact picked upon by a lone banner reading, “Why is the Russian president keeping quiet?”
Friday’s rally was also attended by the leader of the Kremlin-friendly nationalist Liberal Democratic party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who used the stage to launch an attack on what he described as a “corrupt” Europe.
“Some money changed hands, and a Hungarian court made its decision,” Zhirinovsky said, as he waved a fist in the air.
Both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials have said they are ready to return to war, but NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen appealed for calm during a visit to Azerbaijan last week.
“There is no military solution,” he told students at a diplomatic academy in Baku.