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The footballer caught up in Armenia’s conflict with Azerbaijan

A reminder that relations between the two countries are still tense

HENRIKH MKHITARYAN is no ordinary Armenian. At 30 years of age, he has won the “Armenian Footballer of the Year” award a record eight times. He captains his country’s national team, and has played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs.

Yet, despite such credentials, “Micki” (pictured above) finds himself caught up in Armenia’s ongoing conflict with Azerbaijan, its neighbour. He will not play in the Europa League final on May 29th, when his current team, Arsenal, play another London side, Chelsea, in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital. Both club and player made the decision, seemingly due to fears over his safety. Arsenal said the club had not received “acceptable guarantees” from UEFA, the governing body of European football, that it would be safe for Mr Mkhitaryan to travel, and they have now taken matters into their own hands.

That Arsenal seems to have felt it has no option but to pull its player out of the final has angered the club and its fans, who were already incensed with UEFA’s decision, after a bidding process by member states, to host the event in Azerbaijan. Baku is further east than Baghdad, and the club, like Chelsea, is being allocated just 6,000 tickets for a stadium that holds more than 68,000 people. But Mr Mkhitaryan’s situation is also a reminder that a little-known political rivalry is still tense. 

The conflict centres on control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which declared independence from Azerbaijan in 1988 as the Soviet Union started to break apart. After the Armenians sided with Nagorno-Karabakh, a full-scale war broke out—in which some 30,000 people had died by 1994. The region has been under Armenian control ever since, but this has failed to bring a lasting peace. There have been frequent skirmishes along the Azeri-Armenian border. Some 200 people were killed in a “four-day war” in April 2016. What started as a dispute over territory has become “an interstate rivalry”, says Thomas De Waal, a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, a think tank. 

Recently there have been a few encouraging signs. The so-called velvet revolution in Armenia last year saw Nikol Pashinyan become prime minister and set up a democratic government. Mr Pashinyan has since met Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, several times and made positive public statements, breathing some life into the peace process. However, Mr De Waal notes there has not been much indication of compromise on either side yet.

Elkhan Mammadov, the general secretary of Azerbaijan’s football association, points out that Armenians have competed in sporting events in Baku before. Four years ago 25 Armenian athletes competed in the European Games there, though they were booed by local fans. Mr Mammadov also says that the country’s government had issued guarantees for Mr Mkhitaryan’s “protection and safety”. 

But this public reminder of the conflict with Armenia could overshadow the final. On such a huge occasion, Azerbaijan would have hoped to present itself as a “welcoming” and “accommodating” country, says Simon Rofe of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Its hosting of other sporting events, such as an annual Formula 1 Grand Prix, has also been criticised as an attempt to deflect criticism from its poor human-rights record.

That an Armenian sportsman did not feel safe travelling to Azerbaijan reflects poorly on the two countries’ relations, but also on UEFA. The organisation said it had developed a “comprehensive security plan” in conjunction with authorities in Azerbaijan, and showed it to Arsenal. UEFA describes Mr Mkhitaryan’s absence as a “personal decision”. “Micki” has missed less important matches in Azerbaijan in the past, but this is different, he says. He wrote on Twitter: “It’s the kind of game that doesn’t come along very often for us players and I must admit, it hurts me a lot to miss it.”

https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/05/21/the-footballer-caught-up-in-armenias-conflict-with-azerbaijan

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