Last week, Armenia’s Karine Karapetyan defeated Azerbaijan’s Rena Safarova in a mixed martial arts fight in Tbilisi, Georgia. The moment has been hailed by Armenian press and connected to the long history of animosity between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as one of those nations’ most controversial and shocking incidents.
Armenia and Azerbaijan border each other within the South Caucus region of Eurasia. Azerbaijan sits on the western edge of the Caspian Sea with Russia and Georgia to its north and Iran to its south. Armenia, which is landlocked, is also sandwiched between Georgia and Iran. That nation also borders Turkey.
Some of the first armed clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis began in 1905. The clashes grew from ethnic and religious divisions between the UK-backed Christians of Armenia and the Ottoman, and sometimes Soviet, supported Muslims of Azerbaijan. All out war occurred between 1918 and 1920 which ended with the USSR taking control of the entire region.
When the Iron Curtain fell in 1991 both Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent nations. Before that happened there had already been skirmishes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis along a disputed border through the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict continues to this day and has claimed between 30,000 and 40,000 lives since 1988. A ceasefire was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 1994. Hostilities between the nations reignited in 2016 with a four day war the resulted in hundreds of military deaths.
In 2004 the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan manifested in a murder in Hungary that made international headlines and further fortified the bad blood between the nations.
In January of that year, Budapest began hosting to a three-month English language course that was part of NATO’s Partnership of Peace program; a scheme designed to create trust and solidarity between former Soviet Union states. The Budapest course included military attendants from both Armenia and Azerbaijan.
At 5 AM local time on February 19th, Lieutenant Gurgen Margaryan, of the Armenian Ministry of Defense, was hacked to death in his sleep by Lieutenant Ramil Safarov of Azerbaijan. A postmortem determined that Safarov delivered sixteen blows to Margaryan’s face with a long handled axe. Safarov also stabbed Margaryan in the chest several times.
Safarov was arrested at the scene of the crime by Hungarian military police. He confessed to the killing soon after. During his trial lawyers argued that Safarov had an unstable mind, due to post-traumatic stress suffered as a result of his experiences in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. However, Safarov was studying in Turkey and Baku (Azerbaijan’s capital, which was far from the front lines) during the most intense years of the conflict.
In 2006, Safarov was sentenced to life imprisonment. In 2012, Hungarian officials agreed to extradite Safarov to Azerbaijan to serve the remainder of his sentence. However, when Safarov arrived home he was immediately issued a pardon by President Ilham Aliyev. Safarov was then promoted to Major and has been celebrated as a national hero ever since, much to the horror of Hungary, the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and of course Armenia (which severed diplomatic ties with Azerbaijan as a result).
Rena Safarova is Safarov’s sister. You can see her fight against Karine Karapetyan in the YouTube video below via Asekose TV. The two round fight is contested in what look to be MMA rules. Karapetyan wears black and Safarova wears red. The fight ends with a decision win for Karapetyan.
After the fight Karapetyan wrote on Facebook that she was dedicating her victory, “to the memory of Armenian officer Gurgen Margaryan.” She also spoke to aravot-en.am. She told that outlet that, “I told Azerbaijan with this victory that axing someone to death while they’re asleep is evil and obscene. No civilized country makes a reprobate into a hero. If you have a fight with someone, then have courage, go face them in person, look them in the eyes, and win.”