On February 19, 2004, Azerbaijani Army Lieutenant Ramil Safarov took an axe and bludgeoned to death Gurgen Margaryan, an officer in the Armenian army who was asleep at the Budapest military academy where they were attending English-language courses organised by NATO. After nearly decapitating Margaryan, Safarov stabbed his corpse repeatedly in the chest. Safarov was arrested and tried in Hungarian court. In 2006, he was sentenced to life in prison.
On August 31, 2012, Ramil Safarov was extradited to Azerbaijan, where he was greeted as a hero. As an adoring crowd cheered, Safarov walked the streets of the capital draped in an Azerbaijani flag, carrying a bouquet of roses. He was pardoned by President Ilham Aliyev, promoted to the rank of major and given a new apartment and money by the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry.
“I am glad to be back with the Azeri people,” Safarov said. “It’s as if I am born again. I never lost hope of returning to my motherland and believed that the time would come when the supreme commander would resolve this question.”
Warning to the West
The small petrostate of Azerbaijan has made headlines in 2012. In May, it hosted Eurovision, the annual singing competition watched by hundreds of millions around the world. As Azerbaijan’s government spent more than $700 million on promotion and infrastructure in an effort to put its best face forward, activists focused on alerting the world to Azerbaijan’s atrocious record on human rights.
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Eurovision was seen as an “opportunity to highlight Azerbaijan’s failings“, with the understanding that Azerbaijan’s international image was of great importance to the Aliyev administration.
The Safarov case makes clear that it is not. While during Eurovision the Azerbaijani government paid lip service to democracy – “Azerbaijan is not an authoritarian state – we want to prove this to the whole world” an Aliyev aide told the Guardian – they have since brazenly promoted a murderer as a national hero, despite Western condemnation and a possible violation of international law.
Azerbaijani officials portray Safarov’s murder of Margaryan as a capsule version of the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, a region which Azerbaijan and Armenia have fought over for decades. The conflict led to the deaths of thousands on each side, a massive refugee crisis for Azerbaijan, and the occupation of the territory by Armenia. Safarov versus Margaryan stems from Nagorno-Karabakh and serves as its representation. Only in this version, Azerbaijan won.
“Safarov’s moral superiority was apparent even when he was in prison. The Armenian’s insults towards our people, touching upon our national feelings, forced him to take this step,” said Mubariz Gurbanli, a leading member of the ruling New Azerbaijan party. Gurbanli refers to an alleged desecration of the Azerbaijani flag by Margaryan and presents Safarov’s response of hacking him to death as moral and justified.
The Safarov case serves as a warning to the West that they should never underestimate the insularity of dictatorships. Dictators struggle to shield citizens from foreign influence, with the result that foreigners come to believe that their influence matters. But the desire to block out the outside world stems from paranoia more than respect and that paranoia plays out in domestic politics – politics that strengthen pride by encouraging enmity.
Azerbaijan does not care what the rest of the world thinks. No action of a foreign power – be it international media or international law – has the resonance of revenge.
When Safarov was released, Azerbaijani officials immediately proclaimed it was for the benefit of the nation. “His release will raise the moral and psychological mood of the society,” parliament member Zahid Oruj predicted. He was right. Since August 31, Azerbaijanis have lauded Safarov as a hero, and one of the main ways they do so is through digital media.
Unlike most authoritarian states, Azerbaijan does not censor the internet. An open internet has proven valuable for Azerbaijani officials, as it allows them to monitor citizens and publicise the punishment of dissenters in the online forums they frequent, deterring sympathisers from further activism. The Safarov case shows that the open internet is also a useful venue for the spread of nationalism rooted in bigotry, vengeance and pain.
Popular on social media
Tens of thousands of Azerbaijanis have declared their support for Safarov online. His Facebook page has over 49,000 fans. Supporters praise him in poetry, thanking God and the Aliyev regime for his return.
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A picture of him in his regalia as major has over 2,000 “likes”. On the unofficial Facebook page of President Aliyev, which is followed by over 57,000 people, Safarov was made the cover photo, with a smiling Aliyev in the profile picture below.
On Twitter, jubilant Azerbaijanis tweeted their approval under the hashtag #Xo?G?ldinRamil – Welcome, Ramil.
These posts and tweets were not manufactured by the Aliyev regime. They are genuine expressions of gratitude to a man who murdered another man in his sleep.
In 2011, the government of Azerbaijan launched a propaganda campaign designed to deter citizens from using technologies that connect them with the outside world. The goal of this campaign was to strengthen nationalist sentiment while stigmatising the use of media that may further dissent.
Foreign television programmes were banned as an affront to the “national mentality”, while domestic television programmes showed “family tragedies” after young people joined Facebook and Twitter.
In March 2011, the country’s chief psychiatrist proclaimed that social media users suffer mental disorders. As a result, internet use in Azerbaijan has stagnated compared to its neighbours in the Caucasus.
The reaction to Safarov shows that such efforts may be misplaced. The government never needed to promote Safarov as a hero or denounce his detractors. Azerbaijani citizens are doing it on their own and social media is enabling their efforts, validating their veneration of a murderer through clicks and likes.
Not all Azerbaijanis agree with the adulation, but they are in the minority. With Safarov, Azerbaijan is having an online grassroots movement – a movement by Azerbaijanis and for Azerbaijanis, indifferent to international indignation.
Advocates of an open internet have long hoped that openness will augur democratic reform. But an open internet is of little benefit to activists living in a state that punishes them for using it. It is also of little consolation when the state is adept at capitalising on public agony.
The online embrace of Safarov reflects the heartache of Azerbaijan’s history as well as the ways digital media can strengthen dictatorship. The people spread the cause and the government reaps the glory.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.