By Emil Danielyan
The unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) is hosting another international chess tournament which has brought together some of the world’s leading chess players and is touted by organizers as the first event of its kind in the South Caucasus.
The ten-day tournament, sponsored by the Karabakh government and the Chess Academy of Armenia, got underway at the weekend, with two dozen players from 11 countries, including the United States, Russia and China, vying for the top prizes in two separate competitions.
“This tournament is very significant for the chess world,” one of the organizers, Aram Hajian, told RFE/RL from Stepanakert on Tuesday.
“There has never been a tournament of this strength held anywhere in the Caucasus,” he said, pointing to the average rating of the participants. “It’s one of the top chess events happening this year anywhere in the world.”
The most prominent and highly rated of the contenders is Vassily Ivanchuk, Ukraine’s top grandmaster who has won European chess championships in the past. Among other renowned participants are the veteran Russian grandmaster Alexey Dreev, the reigning U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura and one of China’s top players, Bu Xiangzhi.
Armenia is represented at the tournament by its highest rated player, Levon Aronian, and four other grandmasters. All of them are members of its national chess team, one of the best in the world. The small South Caucasus nation boasts 19 grandmasters, the largest per-capita number of top-class chess players in the world.
Not all of the participants of the Stepanakert tournament are men. Kateryna Lahno, a 15-year-old Ukrainian and the current women’s champion of Europe, was deemed strong enough to compete with the male players.
It is the second international chess tournament held in the Armenian-controlled territory in less than two years. The first such event took place in Stepanakert in March 2004 and was dedicated to the 75th birth anniversary of the late Tigran Petrosian, the Armenian former world champion who dominated the game in the 1960s. It was opened by Boris Spassky, the Russian-born grandmaster who had defeated and replaced Petrosian as world champion in 1969.
The “honorary guest” at the current tournament is another former chess heavyweight, Lajos Portisch of Hungary.
The 2004 tournament drew protests from Azerbaijan which always denounces the presence of foreign dignitaries in Karabakh as an affront to its sovereignty over the disputed region. Reaction from Baku is expected to be the same this time as well.
Hajian, who is a member of the Yerevan-based Chess Academy’s governing board, believes that the ongoing tournament is a “very positive image-building event” for the Karabakh Armenians. “Karabakh has become well known to the world as the location for a war for self-determination for the Armenians living here,” he said. “Although the fighting ended eleven years ago, I think that many people have not grasped the fact that life here has gone on and that there is a whole generation of young people and a society in general which is moving on.”