What do women’s football, JLo and an axe-murderer have in common? Lately they’ve all been welcomed to Baku.
Azerbaijan seeks the international spotlight. Jennifer Lopez this weekend headlined at the Women’s Under 17 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony in Baku. The capital proudly hosted the kitsch European Song Contest earlier this year – a colossal undertaking.
Yet the decision to welcome home a man who committed a calculated and horrific murder damaged the image of an ambitious nation with a rapidly-developing European capital.
Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani lieutenant sentenced in Budapest to life imprisonment after hacking an Armenian army officer to death at a NATO language course in 2004, was extradited to Baku on August 31. He was pardoned on arrival.
The authorities were nervous about permitting Al Jazeera to report from Baku on a decision that has proved deeply unpalatable to the international community. But senior officials were keen to tell their side of the story.
To understand this contradiction between a proud and outward-looking Azerbaijan on the surface, and a nation smarting from international criticism over the pardoning of a cold-blooded murderer, look for clues on the capital’s skyline.
One of the key justifications given in Azerbaijan today for absolving Safarov of his crime is that his victim. Gurgen Margaryan, allegedly insulted Azerbaijan’s flag.
The largest example of this national symbol ripples in slow-motion above Baku from one of the tallest flagpoles in the world. It says a lot about the leadership’s megalomanic pretensions, but many Azerbaijanis are proud of it.
The flip-side to healthy patriotism in Azerbaijan is a nationalism constructed in relation to injustices – perceived and real – perpetrated against the nation by neighbouring Armenia.
Academics like Katy Pearce have argued that the Azeribaijan’s state-controlled media has successfully framed Safarov’s murderous act back in 2004 into something it was not.
Questionable claims of provocation (including the suggestion that Safarov’s victim had taunted him with insults about his nation) are considered established fact in Azerbaijan.
One local friend told me Azerbaijan has a national psyche: It is the mentality of a nation that lost but considers itself still at war. Certainly the conflict does continue. Soldiers and occasionally civilians die in the border areas. The authorities ask why so little international coverage is given when its citizens die. Safarov’s freedom is considered by many to be a rare victory.
The billions of petrodollars that are transforming the Baku skyline have made the country exceedingly rich – even if the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a powerful few. Its capital buzzes with culture. But almost 20 years after losing Nagorno Karabakh and a sizeable proportion of Azerbaijani territory, all the JLos, Eurovisions and sporting tournaments cannot buy the thing so many desire – the return of Azerbaijani land and real peace – not a frozen conflict that risks warming up.