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Interview: MEP Frank Engel on Azerbaijan and Hungary’s decision to extradite Ramil Safarov

Photo: European Parliament

The Budapest Beacon recently sat down in Brussels for an interview with MEP Frank Engel of Luxembourg. Engel has served in the European Parliament since 2009 and is a member of the European People’s Party, of which Hungarian ruling party Fidesz is also a member. In our interview, we ask Engel about revelations that the Azerbaijani Laundromat has been used to bribe European politicians, Hungary’s connection to the laundromat, and Hungary’s controversial decision to extradite convicted axe-murderer Ramil Safarov back to his native Azerbaijan (Safarov was promptly pardoned for committing murder and is celebrated as a national hero).


You have obviously heard about the Azerbaijani laundromat. There have been several European politicians implicated in this scheme, including Eduard Lintner from Germany and Luca Volontè of Italy.

Apparently, a colleague of Lintner in Germany, Karin Strenz, has also popped up in the story. She and Lintner seem to have shared the proceeds, which wouldn’t be surprising because I do take it that the Azeri authorities try to spin this web as wide as possible.

Did this story make waves in the European Parliament?

It didn’t really, in the sense that no one from here was exposed. We have had stories like this before, but in totally different contexts. Whenever members of this body were personally hit, then of course some others might start looking behind their backs to find out whether someone is following them. But since no one has been named in this context yet, it’s all still pretty much the Council of Europe’s business.

How serious a story do you think this is for the European political establishment?

If anything, it proves again that apparently you can buy some politicians — and that’s never good news for the political establishment, European or otherwise. But it remains pretty limited, in the sense that you now have two or so exposed in the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE).

We’ll see, by the way, whether the internal inquiry that is now in the making within PACE, and which is due to be finished sometime before the end of this year, comes up with additional material. I mean, the President of the Parliament Assembly himself has been seriously incriminated, repeatedly. But so far, there has been no material proof.

In Luca Volontè’s case, at some point 2.4 million [euros] showed up. In the case of Mr Lintner, certain amounts of money showed up, with Pedro Agramunt, nothing like that has been proven even if suspicions have been expressed. And as so many times before, as with colleagues in the European Parliament as well, there’s only the indication elements: repeated trips to Azerbaijan, no doubt gifts received, or gifts that don’t leave any financial traces, no doubt largesses received while certain people visited Azerbaijan.

Looks like a duck, quacks like a duck…

But we do not have the fundamental proof that it is really a duck! So that’s where we are. Otherwise, I have a tendency to believe that this goes deeper and that this is more insidious. But, again, I can’t lay my hands on it.

In this city (Brussels), the Azerbaijanis have a relatively large mission, they have all sorts of pseudo-NGOs, which of course are government controlled because nothing is not government controlled in Azerbaijan.

I am relatively certain and afraid that there might be what we could call privileged connections, not only with Members of European Parliament but possibly also with people in the other European institutions, including those who are drafting the laws and are actively pursuing the utterly nonsensical association agreement that might be in the making with Azerbaijan.

What’s wrong with an association agreement with Azerbaijan?

Belarus, which, for all intents and purposes does not have the dismal governance record that Azerbaijan has, corruption included, is not even a member of the Council of Europe. But Azerbaijan, which is a member of the Council of Europe, and which is mightily afraid of membership reviews when they come up in the Council of Europe, might get an association agreement with the EU?

We would engage in a partnership or association agreement with a brutal dictatorship on our doorstep, which proves its governance deficiencies every chance they get in the Eastern partnership, just because we want their oil and gas? How far can you morally slump?

We know that they buy whoever they can buy. And I have to assume that there are many more people in this city that have been bought by them in one way or the other. I have to emphasize: bought in one way or the other… It may also just be that in the European Parliament so far, they have their friends, but no one has been stupid enough to just open a bank account to which the Azeri money is transferred. There must be other ways of doing this.

That’s the relatively forthcoming approach towards what is a kleptocratic dictatorship. I am under an arrest warrant in Azerbaijan for saying things like that. They even tried to have the warrant enforced by Interpol. Interpol did not go after me but the Azeri arrest warrant is still out as far as I know. But I maintain that it’s a kleptocratic dictatorship and you simply do not treat a state like that normally — unless you are paid to do so!

There’s a Hungarian angle to this Azerbaijani Laundromat story: the extradition of Safarov. Did you follow that story when it broke?

Oh, yes.

How did it strike you when first heard that Hungary was going to extradite Safarov?

Well, under normal circumstances I would have said I could not believe it. Under normal circumstances… But since I knew what kind of Hungarian government had come into office in 2010, I wasn’t that surprised. And my first thought, of course, knowing Azerbaijan, was that they (the Hungarian government) had been bought!

Former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány didn’t hand the man over when he was in power. And when I spoke to Gyurcsány, he told me they didn’t do it because they had all the reasons to believe he would be instantly set free by Azerbaijan.

This man, Safarov, had committed a heinous crime on Hungarian soil. He was convicted by a Hungarian court to serve a criminal sentence in a Hungarian prison for a long time. The Hungarians were not just going to hand him over to the Azerbaijanis — before the return to power of Fidesz. [Former prime minister] Gordon Bajnai will tell you the same thing.

Did you hear this directly from Bajnai and Gyurcsány that they were approached by the Azeris?

Of course. I heard it from both of them. From the moment Safarov was sentenced in Budapest, there were repeated demarches by the Azerbaijani government to convince the Hungarian authorities to hand the man over, first orally, then in the written promise that he would serve out the sentence that was pronounced by the Hungarian court. The difference, of course, is that neither Gyurcsány nor Bajnai believed these obviously false promises.

But then Orbán comes back into power.

Then comes Orbán and – miraculously – after an official state visit to Azerbaijan, Safarov is back home a few weeks later. Nobody can tell me this had nothing to do with money. There would be no reason why the champion of Christianity in Europe, Viktor Orbán, would forsake his nation’s friendship with the first Christian nation on Earth, which is Armenia, if he and his government were not paid for doing it, if they were not paid for risking the Armenian element in order for some other elements to arrive [Safarov murdered an Armenian in Budapest].

I have seen the documents sent over by a deputy minister of justice of the government of Azerbaijan, on which the Hungarian government based their decision to transfer him to the judicial authorities of Azerbaijan. If you believe that piece of paper, you either don’t have your wits together, or you have good reasons for accepting something which in, by, or for itself would otherwise be totally unacceptable.

That was my first reaction.

Then we discussed it here in the European Parliament. There was a resolution as well if I remember correctly, and the Hungarian colleagues told us that they were very sorry and they had been misled.

That’s it? They just chalked it up to being duped?

That was it! Well, we were shown the letter by the Azerbaijani deputy minister, not someone very high up in the regime, and that was reason enough for the Fidesz colleagues to say, [with mocking gestures] “They lied to us! They betrayed us! They betrayed our trust! We were certain he was going to serve out his sentence in prison!”

And then there were the rumors, wild rumors. The wildest figure that I heard at the time was 3 billion Euros or dollars or whatever. That sort of currency. Not Forints. 3 billion that would somehow be invested in Hungary by Azerbaijan.

I also remember that there was talk at the time, when Orbán came back from Baku, of a major Azeri investment in Hungary. But I would never have noted that that took shape and, if so, what it would have been. I have no idea if that was serious or not. But there was always the smack of money being around.

Obviously, now, when we suddenly discover interesting flows of Azeri money to a Hungarian bank account at precisely the relevant time back in 2012 between – in the wider sense – Azerbaijan and Hungary, I must say that even if the amounts are nowhere near the 3 billion that I heard about at the time, but are the 8 or 9 million Euros that we are talking about now, and which are difficult to contest for the Hungarian authorities, it pretty much looks like pocket money received in return for a favor. But who received it is of course something we do not know.

At the time of Safarov’s extradition, when this issue came up in circles where it mattered, it seemed to me that everybody was on the same page regarding what had just happened. What they did not quite agree on was the amount of money involved in this. There was a lot of speculation. Did you have the same sense of this in Brussels?

As I said, nobody could reasonably believe that shortly after an official visit by Orbán to Baku, that the handover ceremony would take place and that it did not contain more than what was visible to the naked eye. Nobody believed that, but nobody had any proof of something else having happened.

Recently, I stumbled across the official pronouncements from Azerbaijan from that time, which are interesting to read because the Azerbaijanis say – at the highest level of state – that the President had tried to get back Safarov for years and years, and those must have included the years after Orbán returned to government, because Safarov was sentenced in 2006, so there were four years before Fidesz came back to power.

And from the moment he was sentenced, the Azerbaijanis tried to get him out of Hungary. The Azerbaijanis made it relatively clear in 2012, after it had happened, that this was the accomplishment of the President’s absolutely brilliant diplomacy, that the agreement had very secretly been reached, which had culminated in the visit of Orbán to Baku, and that it was clear to them that from that moment on that Safarov was as good as back home.

Again, they did not say they paid, and nobody in Hungary would have admitted to being paid. But it does not take too much fantasy to surmise that that was so.

So, it walks like a duck, it quacks like a duck, but we just don’t see its beak. If evidence were to surface that clearly implicated someone in the government approving such a nefarious transaction – and this is all speculation, there are no accusations being made here – what would that say about the Fidesz government?

I’ll start by saying something which is actually almost friendly to the Fidesz government, but it’s possibly something that is worth keeping in mind.

The Azeris are absolutely capable of betraying you. Absolutely. And I do not even exclude that while in Baku, Orbán was indeed promised substantial Azerbaijani investments in Hungary. I’m not talking about bribes, I’m talking about substantial investments in the country — because those were the years when Hungary was not exactly in the best financial condition and it really needed the money.

Imagine such a conversation: “Look, you have this citizen of ours sitting in a jail in Budapest. It’s really important for us to get him back. We promise that he’ll serve out his sentence, or we’ll maybe pardon him at some point, but anyway for now you’re safe because we’ll play this by the rules. It is so important to us. We would value your cooperation so much that we would be willing to make a major contribution to the restart of the Hungarian economy.”

A conversation like that for Orbán would have meant a boon at a time when he didn’t really know where to look for economic or financial help. Also, considering that at the time, Fidesz was more busy destroying the constitutional order of the country than relaunching the economy. They have never struck me as the kind of band particularly farsighted in economic matters.

So, knowing how the regime in Azerbaijan works, it is conceivable that they deceived Orbán as well, and that they calculated that Orbán would never admit that because he would have to then have to admit that he was tricked into an abominable act on the promise of some finance flowing not necessarily to him, but to his country. And then we are in biblical circumstances: you betrayed for thirty pieces of silver…

But supposing that it was not so, supposing that it was, therefore, different…

If I look at the revelations that seem to be out there now, if I look at the web of offshore funds and accounts, including those in Hungary, which were set up before Viktor Orbán went to Baku, I get this. Orban comes back from Baku, and from that moment onwards we see a constant inflow of money from Azerbaijani sources to the pre-existent network of companies, the men or women behind which are of course unknown. The transfers stop a year or so afterwards, the companies are dismantled, and interestingly, the Hungarian dimension of this seems to have taken place within a bank which – as far as I gather – belongs to a very close associate of the Prime Minister of Hungary. I have to say that this looks like a well-staged thing.

The perfect crime?

The perfect crime, if you prefer. The main crime was Safarov’s, but the second one – which doesn’t have a criminal or legal qualification, but certainly a moral one – was the handover of the man.

And I do not believe for a second, I really cannot believe for a second, that it is pure coincidence, or chance, or whatever, that just after Orbán’s visit to Baku we witnessed the initiation of a yearlong cycle of payments from Azerbaijan, Safarov is safely brought back, Sarafov walks free, receives a promotion, is given an apartment and a wife, suddenly it all stops and suddenly the funds are no longer there and suddenly nobody knows anything about it any longer.

This, to me, is a pretty clear indication that the Safarov handover was not what we were officially told, at least here in the European Parliament at the time, namely an event in which the honest Hungarian brokers had merely been badly deceived by Azerbaijan.

Let’s talk about Safarov’s crime. The victim, Gurgen Margaryan, a lieutenant in the Armenian army, was butchered with an axe…

Yes, in his sleep. Very brave of the attacker, by the way…

This wasn’t about a personal gripe between two men. There is so much more to this unconscionable act. There are hostilities between Azerbaijan and Armenia.  What did it mean for Azerbaijan that a soldier of theirs had murdered an Armenian soldier?

They were proud of him… They were very proud of him. That’s what the whole Azerbaijani education system and propaganda logic brings to citizens to believe. Now, I’m not saying that everyone in Azerbaijan was proud of Safarov, but what I am saying – and you can see this for yourself in the pronouncements made by the Azerbaijani authorities at the time – these people thought that here is a brave son of the nation who does what is required of him: kill Armenians. That’s what people like this are out to do. And that’s what they want to perform until this day.

That is why it is so utterly deplorable that the international community, the European Union, that all of us are not capable of taking a different sort of stand in the Karabakh conflict. The people of Karabakh are under daily threat by the likes of Safarov and their commanders, and are in urgent need of protection.

The pronouncements coming out of Azerbaijan at the time was that a hero has returned, this proud son of the nation who has done what needs doing – namely to kill Armenians – is finally amidst his family and nation again.

What more do you need? It’s officially on record. I’m not making this up.

Safarov is still at large, rambling about how important it is to kill the rest of the Armenians. That’s what he now makes his living doing. He’s a propaganda agent for the Azerbaijani government now. He probably doesn’t leave the country a lot because he isn’t welcome anywhere else. So, that’s where we are. And the associations between Hungary and Azerbaijan continue.

It’s probably not by chance that a successful low-cost Hungarian company flies to Baku, and has been doing that for a couple years, not immediately after the transfer of Safarov, but relatively shortly after. It’s probably also not by chance that the wifi network in Budapest for the swimming world championships was awarded to an Azerbaijani/Russian conglomerate.

There was something that was sealed in 2012 between Hungary and Azerbaijan, something that included Safarov, but it went of course far beyond Safarov. And it would no doubt be interesting to see how much more Azerbaijan has given for that to happen.

If a kleptocratic dictatorship outside the EU can bribe European politicians, couldn’t an emerging kleptocratic dictatorship in the EU do the same?

A hypothetical kleptocratic dictatorship in the EU would in all likelihood not be sitting on the amount of oil and gas that Azerbaijan has had at its disposal for a while. That’s where I draw the kleptocratic from because, theoretically, all these would be riches of the nation.

Now, there around 9 or 10 million Azerbaijanis living in the country. And Azerbaijan’s regime would have had over the last 20 years the opportunity to make everyone in the country rich, or at least considerably well off. But they chose not to. They chose to siphon off the bulk of what could be extracted from the energy sources for itself for a relatively restricted circle of cronies of the regime. They obviously pay to the outside world. They invest a lot in shiny projects because that’s what they believe is good for them. They’re paying massive networks of consultants and lawyers because that’s the stuff that polishes their image 24 hours a day.

When you have 150 or so political prisoners vegetating around in not-so-well air-conditioned cells, then you have something to be worried about in terms of image. There’s a whole army of people polishing that image every day.

And that’s the other thing that differentiates Azerbaijan from everyone else.

Azerbaijan has been making up a history for itself ever since the 1950s. This started while it was in the Soviet Union, and I could never figure out how Moscow could let that pass. But ever since the 1950s, there has been this drive in Azerbaijani communicating, including school curriculum, that the Azeris had been around the Caucasus forever, that the Armenians have no place there, that the Armenians came later and are immigrants who overstayed their welcome, that the Armenians are essentially crap that took their land from the valiant Azeris. All of it historically false, but taught until this day.

Such a cultivation of hatred needs to be entertained because you don’t manage to keep 10 million citizens enraged about their neighbor for decades unless you channel these negative feelings and nurture them. And one of the tactics they have employed is to keep the refugees of the Karabakh War – and there are refugees, in the hundreds of thousands, I’m not denying that – in absolutely dire material circumstances. They could have them all in relative comfort. They chose not to. They kept them poor. They kept them in precarious circumstances and they do so in order to keep the anger and hatred alive. And a substantial part of the population suffers the same fate, not only the refugee population.

They don’t get access to the glitzy buildings in Baku. They are simply second-rate citizens, with no freedoms whatsoever, with the propaganda all around them. And part of that propaganda is, “Look, we cannot make you rich because we have to maintain the war effort and we have to protect ourselves, otherwise the Armenians are going to attack again.”

I can’t think of an occurrence, certainly not in Europe, but also elsewhere, where a state would essentially derive its raison d’être from hating and wanting to destroy their neighbor. Can’t think of any other instance where that would be so.

So, in order to become like Azerbaijan, you’d need the riches, and you’d need the depravity of the governance that they have. I don’t see this anywhere else.

For the sake of this thought experiment, let’s assume that the main source of riches for an emerging kleptocratic dictatorship in EU are not its own oil and gas, but instead the spoils of EU structural and cohesion funds, income from Russian gas distribution contracts, and Russian, Chinese, even Azeri money obtained in a nefarious manner. Do you think such a country would be able to buy influence or protection in the upper echelons of the European Union?

Honestly, I don’t. Because it wouldn’t be able to act in the same way. And, above all: no matter how much the EU seems to have tolerated over the years in terms of governance deficiencies, there are limits that a member state should not and would not overstep. In Azerbaijan, there is neither internal nor external oversight as far as the acquisition and the use of funds is concerned. Within the EU, there would probably be both, but at least one. Also, as a rule, within the Union, you have to do your lobbying yourself, it’s not “friends” who do it for you. So I don’t really see any phenomenon comparable to Azerbaijan’s diplomacy of corruption materializing within the EU.

Benjamin Novak :