Tag Archives: Ramil Safarov

The “Azerbaijan Laundromat” and Orbán’s Hungary

News of the “Azerbaijan Laundromat” scandal reached Hungary yesterday, thanks to the report of Átlátszó, a group of investigative journalists who participated in an investigation conducted by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). It was a truly international effort that included Danish, British, French, Swiss, Russian, Austrian, Slovene, Romanian, Bulgarian, Estonian, Czech, and American journalists. The first short description of this money laundering scheme appeared in The Guardian on September 2, from which we learned that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan operated a secret $2.8 billion scheme to pay prominent Europeans, buy luxury items, and launder money through a network of opaque British companies.

In The Guardian article there is no reference to Hungary, but Átlátszó reported that from this enormous amount of money $7.6 million landed in Budapest in 2012 and 2013. The first installment was deposited by Metastar Invest LLP, one of the four phony companies set up to expedite Azerbaijan’s money laundering operation, in July 2012. The recipient of this and subsequent deposits was Valesco International, a company that a couple of years later conveniently ceased to exist. Where the money actually ended up no one knows.

Let’s quickly recall Azeri-Hungarian relations in the first few years of the second Orbán government. Viktor Orbán was in Baku in September 2010, participating in an energy summit, but he had a separate meeting with President Ilham Aliyev. A year later President Pál Schmitt paid a visit to Baku, where he also conducted negotiations with the Azeri president. And on June 30, 2012, Viktor Orbán, while attending the Crans Montana Forum in Baku, again met Aliyev. A few days later, sometime in July 2012, the first installment of the Azeri millions arrived in Budapest.

What happened at this meeting? Most likely it was during this encounter that Viktor Orbán was persuaded to extradite Ramil Safarov, an officer of the Azerbaijani Army who had been convicted of the 2004 murder of an Armenian officer during a NATO-sponsored training seminar in Budapest. Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment. The Azeri government approached successive Hungarian governments several times, trying to persuade them to allow Safarov to return to Azerbaijan so he could serve the rest of his sentence in his own country. The Hungarians refused because they suspected, with good reason as it turned out, that Safarov would be pardoned as soon as his plane hit the ground in Baku.

It is hard not to suspect a connection between Orbán’s visit to Baku in June and the first installment of $7.6 million to a Hungarian bank account in July, especially since by the end of August Safarov was on his way to Azerbaijan, where he was welcomed as a national hero and set free.

Of course, this is just conjecture, but what is clear is that the Azeri government used bribes to achieve its political aims and that those who were ready to serve Azeri interests were generously rewarded. The extradition of Safarov was certainly something that merited recompense as far as Aliyev was concerned. Ever since then, Azeri-Hungarian relations have been close. Aliyev remained a grateful friend and Orbán a loyal ally. One of my posts from 2014 describes in some detail the close relationship that developed between the two countries, which at times became outright embarrassing. For example, when Viktor Orbán during his last visit to Baku in 2016 talked about “the leaders of the country who have made Azerbaijan one of the most respected and often envied countries in the world.”

The Azeri leadership also spent a considerable amount of money on European politicians who were ready to defend Ilham Aliyev’s dictatorship. I will concentrate here on one politician who also had extensive dealings with the Orbán government. He is Luca Volontè, who was one of the largest beneficiaries of Aliyev’s “generosity.” Volontè at the time was the chairman of the European People’s Party group in the Council of Europe. Italian prosecutors allege that Volontè was paid €2.4 million by Azerbaijani officials in exchange for “his support of political positions of the state” at the Council, which is supposed to promote democracy and the rule of law. The accusation is actually not new. Gerald Knaus, chairman of the European Stability Initiative, a think tank, claimed as early as 2012 that “the Council of Europe … in recent years has been captured by autocrats.”

János Martonyi, Luca Volontè, and Viktor Orbán, March 28, 2012 / Orbán’s Facebook page

It is about this time that Viktor Orbán put a photo of himself with János Martonyi and Luca Volontè on his Facebook page. By that time, Volontè had proved to be a great friend of Hungary. In January 2011 the Council of Europe held a debate on the functioning of democracy in the country. Hungary was fiercely defended by several members of the Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), among them Volontè, who criticized the proceedings against Hungary on the ground of “a lack of facts.” Any criticism of the government inside of Hungary, he argued, comes from “people who are unhappy that they were not reelected.” Otherwise, Hungary is a model democracy.

Volontè’s close friendship with the Hungarian government continued. By 2013 he was again defending the Orbán government against the monitoring committee of the Council of Europe in connection with the new Hungarian constitution. He called the criticism of the Hungarian government a witch hunt. He claimed that the critics are not even familiar with the text of the constitution. Volontè explained all this in an interview with the then pro-government Magyar Nemzet.

By that time, Volontè was most likely a paid agent of the Azerbaijani government, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he also offered his services to the Orbán government, which was in considerable trouble both in the European Parliament and in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

A year later I became even more suspicious when an ugly attack was launched in Hungary against Professor Charles Gati after the publication of his article “The Mask is Off,” which originally appeared in The American Interest and a day later in Hungarian Spectrum. It was written after Viktor Orbán’s infamous speech about building an “illiberal state” in Hungary. Orbán wasn’t expecting such a violent reaction to his honest admission of his plans, and the Fidesz media tried to distinguish between the American and the European understanding of the word “liberal.” It was at this point that Luca Volontè was called upon as a true “European voice.” He must have had considerable government help with his long article titled “Hands Off Hungary!” because he seemed to be too familiar with the Hungarian political scene at the time.

Volontè is no longer in politics. He is running the Novae Terrae Foundation, which “commits itself to defend human rights conceived according to natural law.” But he still has time to write long articles in praise of Viktor Orbán. The last such article appeared in Magyar Hírlap on March 18, 2016 with the title “Hungarian Spark: Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has the clear wisdom to outline the conditions of the epoch-making challenges ahead.” It is a propaganda piece which ends with this line: “I’m sure that I’m not the only one who can proudly say how good it is to meet true people and to know them as my friends, whom I hope to meet again in the country of St. Stephen soon.” Volontè’s wish was fulfilled because he visited Hungary in November 2016, giving a lecture on “The relativization of European values” at an international conference in Szeged organized by the Szeged-Csanád Bishopric and the Polish Consulate in Szeged. A few months later he was back in Hungary, this time for the World Family Summit held in May 2017, where he participated in a panel discussion on “Pro-family Activities in the World.”

This afternoon Magyar Idők published a surprisingly straightforward account of the Azeri bribery scheme with the title “Three-billion dollar fund for Baku’s plans: The threads reach the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.” The $7.6 million deposited in a Budapest bank was of course omitted from the summary, but the article to my great surprise included a mention of Volontè as one of the accused. My question is whether these revelations will have any bearing on the currently overfriendly Azeri-Hungarian relations.

September 6, 2017

Extradition of Yerzhan Kadesov to Kazakhstan, with Hungarian assistance

In order to understand the ins and outs of today’s post about the extradition of Yerzhan Kadesov, a Kazakh national, from Hungary to Kazakhstan, I’m afraid I have to start with Mukhtar Ablyazov, the founder of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), a political party which was supposed to be a counterforce against the regime of Nursultan Nazarbayev, the Kazakh dictator who has been in power ever since 1984. Soon enough Ablyazov was accused of embezzling $5 billion from Bank Turan Alem (BTA).  He fled the country and settled in France, where he was subsequently detained by French authorities. Russia sought his extradition, but the human rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch took up his case. Last December he was released on the grounds that Russia had a political motive in making the extradition request.

Yerzhan Kadesov / Source: Interfax.kz

It was not only Ablyazov who fled Kazakhstan but several of his colleagues, whose extraditions were also sought and denied for the same reason. One of the lesser associates of Ablyazov was Yerzhan Kadesov, who escaped from Kazakhstan in 2009, first settling in Ukraine. After a while, however, fearing that the pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych might extradite him, he moved to Hungary in 2012. Two years later Kazakhstan issued a warrant for his arrest, and in 2016 the Hungarian authorities detained Kadesov on the grounds that he was a national security risk. A Polish human rights group called Open Dialogue Foundation moved into action on Kadesov’s behalf. They released an urgent call to stop the extradition, pointing out that there is a good possibility that “Hungary is in the service of the Kazakhstani dictator” in handling the case.

Kadesov’s case is closely tied to that of Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov, Kadesov’s supervisor at BTA, who in January 2017 was kidnapped by Kazakhstani security forces in Turkey, where he enjoyed refugee status. Soon enough Zharimbetov began “to reveal Ablyazov’s crimes.” Based on his testimony, the Kazakh court sentenced Ablyazov to a 20-year jail term in absentia.

The Kazakh authorities seem to be using Zharimbetov to convince other fugitives to return to Kazakhstan. This is what happened in Kadesov’s case. It seems that the Hungarians helped the Kazakhs in their endeavor by allowing telephone calls from Zharimbetov to Kadesov while Kadesov was in jail in Hungary. Moreover, Kazakh diplomats in Budapest were free to visit him. But ODF claims that Hungarian human rights organizations were prevented from providing legal assistance to the incarcerated Kadesov. The Kazakh fugitive steadfastly denied his guilt for about six months, but in the middle of June he confessed and asked to be extradited to Kazakhstan. ODF claims that Kadesov was pressured via threats to his relatives in Kazakhstan “with the knowledge and assistance” of the Hungarian authorities.

Index also got hold of the story, though fairly late in the game. Index’s source, I assume, was the Polish ODF. In the middle of June Index sent inquiries to the ministry of interior concerning the Kadesov case but got no answer whatsoever. This surprised the journalists because in the past they always got answers, even if they were fairly meaningless.

The first thought that came to my mind when reading this story was the Hungarian decision to extradite Lieutenant Ramil Safarov to Azerbaijan. During the summer of 2004 NATO’s Partnership for Peace organized a two-month program for officers from the member states in Budapest. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan joined the Partnership when it was established in 1994. The young officers were supposed to study English in the Hungarian capital. Ramil Safarov, an Aziri national, purchased an ax locally, and one night when the Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan was asleep, he brutally hacked him into pieces. He practically severed the Armenian officer’s head. During his trial Safarov freely admitted that his only reason for killing Margaryan was that he was an Armenian. He showed no remorse for his crime. In addition, while in jail he attacked the guards, for which he received two and a half years in a separate trial. In 2006 the verdict was announced: he received a life sentence for premeditated murder.

Between 2006 and 2012 the Azeris tried to convince the Hungarian government to let Safarov serve his sentence in Azerbaijan, but the Gyurcsány and Bajnai governments steadfastly refused the request, knowing full well that he would immediately be released since the Azeri government and people considered Safarov a national hero. However, after Péter Szijjártó’s visit to Azerbaijan in June 2012, a deal was struck between the Orbán government and the government of Ilham Aliyev for Safarov’s release from Hungarian custody. And indeed, just as predicted, Safarov was greeted at home as a national hero and immediately received clemency from the president. The minister of defense bestowed on him the rank of major.

A Kazakh fugitive who is extradited today won’t be as fortunate as Safarov. Other countries where Kazakh fugitives sought shelter–Great Britain, Spain, the Czech Republic–have all refused to extradite them to Kazakhstan and/or Russia. Hungary is the odd man out. I assume that by now Kadesov is already in a Kazakh jail, where apparently he can’t expect a fair trial. Of course, this case will not create such an outcry as the Safarov case did. After all, it was a murder case. Safarov’s release by the Hungarian government also had serious diplomatic consequences. After the incident the Armenian government broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary, adding that “the Armenian nation will never forgive” Hungary for what happened. Diplomatic relations between the two countries haven’t been restored since.

On the other hand, Hungarian relations with Kazakhstan have been close ever since 2012. Who can forget Viktor Orbán’s speech during his visit to Kazakhstan: “We believe that we are equal partners within the European Union but originally we were strangers there. When we go to Brussels, we have no relatives there. But when we come to you in Kazakhstan we are at home. This is a strange feeling that people have to go to the East in order to feel at home. Therefore, it is always with great pleasure that the Hungarian delegation comes here.” Surely, one cannot say ‘no’ to such a good friend. Denying extradition might spoil their wonderful friendship.

August 10, 2017