In Armenia and Azerbaijan, it's par for the course that sports competitions against the other side are treated as proxy battles. Boxers, wrestlers, and even chess players are enlisted into the war that the two neighbors continue to wage against one another over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
But when one of the competitors may be the sister of an Azerbaijani soldier who axe-murdered an Armenian counterpart in his sleep, the rivalry reaches a new level.
The saga of Azerbaijani axe murderer Ramil Safarov, who became a hero at home after he decapitated an Armenian soldier during a NATO event in Hungary, took a surreal turn last week when a fighter thought to have been his sister was beaten by an Armenian woman in a mixed martial arts match.
A recent mixed martial arts championship in Tbilisi was a relatively minor competition, until one match turned it into a stand-in for the South Caucasus’ most unrelenting feud. In the cage were Armenian fighter Karine Karapetyan and her Azerbaijani rival Rena Safarova.
Karapetyan said she found out that she would be fighting Safarova about two months before the match, and believed her to be Ramil Safarov's sister. “The nationality of my opponent in the ring doesn’t usually mean anything for me,” Karapetian told Aravot, an Armenian news service. “But this time, I felt a little different.”
The murder and the events that followed strained to a breaking point the long-running hostility between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In 2004, Safarov, then a lieutenant in Azerbaijani army attending a NATO training program in Budapest, snuck into the dorm room of another participant, Armenian Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan, and attacked him with an axe, nearly severing his head. Safarov then tried to attack another Armenian trainee, Hayk Makuchyan.
Margaryan’s Hungarian roommate woke up during the attack and begged Safarov to stop. “I told him this is not your business: this is business of Armenians and Azerbaijanis,” Safarov said in his testimony.
Safarov justified his act by saying that it was his personal vengeance on Armenians, who in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh occupied his home region of Jebrayil, displacing him and an estimated 600,000 other Azerbaijanis from their homes. The conflict remains unresolved to this day.
A Hungarian court sentenced Sarafov to life in prison, but after serving eight years he was extradited to Azerbaijan in 2012. There, he received a hero’s welcome, a presidential pardon and even a promotion. Government officials took turns praising Safarov for avenging Azerbaijan. The few voices of decency who objected to making an axe murderer into a hero were drowned out by more bloodthirsty voices in the government-controlled media.
The pardon touched off protests in Armenia and harsh criticism from abroad. Some Armenians even called for assassinating Safarov in a Mossad-style takeout.
In the years since, Safarov has been little heard from, but he still is on active duty in the army and in December he got a promotion; he is now a lieutenant colonel.
After a roughly seven-minute match, Karapetian was declared the winner, and raised the Armenian flag over her head. On Facebook, she wrote: “I dedicate my victory to the memory of Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan.”
“By defeating Safarov’s sister, I showed that this is how you defeat someone, not by hacking them to death in their sleep,” Karapetian told Aravot.
The victory was widely covered in Armenian media. But it turns out to have been misguided, as Safarova herself said she is not Ramil Safarov's sister. "We just have the same last name," she told the Azerbaijani news website Vzglyad.az. Safarov himself told another website, Armiya.az: "Not only do I not have any sisters, but no relatives named Rena, much less any athletes." It will not be the first time facts got twisted in the Armenian-Azerbaijan information war.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been updated to include Safarova's and Safarov's statements that they are not related.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi, and author of Tamada Tales.