Armenia’s decision to take part in the first-ever European Games in Azerbaijan, which take place this month, was a victory of sorts for sport diplomacy.
The two countries have been feuding for 25 years over the fate of Nagorno-Karabakh, a breakaway and predominantly ethnic Armenian region within Azerbaijan. More than 30,000 people were killed there in a war in the early 1990s.
So there was cheering when Armenia’s National Olympic Committee (NOCA) announced in March that it planned to send athletes to the games. Among the most vocal supporters of the move was the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE), which has been involved in two decades of diplomacy to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
But not everyone in Armenia was pleased, and two high-profile athletes and a coach from the country have since announced that they will boycott the event, mainly for what they say are security concerns.
The two athletes staying away are both Greco-Roman wrestlers and both medal winners from the 2012 London Olympic Games: silver medalist Arsen Julfalakian and bronze medalist Artur Aleksanian, whose father and coach, Gevorg, is also joining the boycott.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Armenian Service, Julfalakian said his decision was based on the bad experience he had in Baku in 2007 when Azerbaijan hosted the Greco-Roman wrestling world championships.
Julfalakian said he and his teammates felt like “prisoners” and were shadowed constantly, he claims, by Azerbaijani security forces.
“Even going to the bathroom was done under a tight security watch,” the 28-year-old wrestler said. “A security guard checked it in advance and only after that could we use the bathroom. We were separated from the public; we couldn’t go into the city.”
Julfalakian said he’s convinced things will be the same at the European Games, despite Azerbaijani assurances that Armenian athletes will be treated like everyone else.
“No matter how much they say that there will be equal conditions, it is one thing to say it and another thing to do it,” Julfalakian said. “I say this not just because I think so — I’ve seen it.”
Julfalakian went on to explain that in 2007, when the Armenian athletes arrived to compete in the Greco-Roman championships, they were taken to their hotel on a bus with a Turkish flag on it and were told it was “to avoid any attack.”
“No vehicle could come close to our hotel. Only Armenians and ethnic Armenians from foreign countries lived in that hotel, with the exception of, I think, Switzerland,” he added. “The whole beach was cordoned off by police. There was one fully armed soldier every 15 meters.”
Some 6,000 athletes from 50 countries are due to compete in 20 sports at the athletic gala in the Azerbaijani capital, which starts on June 12 and ends on June 28. The games are a scaled down, European-only version of the Olympic Games.
Armenia is sending 25 athletes to compete in six disciplines ranging from tae kwon do and judo to boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling.
Boxer Hovhannes Bachkov told RFE/RL’s Armenian Service that he’s used to the hostile crowds in Azerbaijan, having performed there twice in the past.
“The whistles and screams used to bother me, but it shouldn’t bother me now since I experienced it there before,” Bachkov said in a recent interview.
Another boxer, Samvel Barseghian, sees the games as a chance to defend Armenia’s national honor, especially on Azerbaijani soil.
“We realize that it is going to be difficult there,” Barseghian said. “But in some sense it is also a great opportunity, a chance to have the flag of our country raised in Azerbaijan, a chance to uphold the honor of our nation.”
Many in the international community welcomed Armenia’s decision to go to the games, viewing any interaction between the two rivals as positive.
James Warlick, the U.S. diplomat who co-chairs the OSCE Minsk Group mediating talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, called the decision “good news” in a tweet back in March.
Such were the efforts to get Armenia onboard that the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, personally got involved, visiting Yerevan last year along with the head of the European Olympic Committee (EOC), Patrick Hickey, in a bid to convince Armenian sports officials.
Critics accuse Baku of using the event to try to whitewash the country’s poor human rights record.
“No one should be fooled by the glitz and glamor of the international show Azerbaijan is putting on to portray a squeaky-clean international reputation and attract foreign business,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia.
Some 100 political prisoners are believed to be held in Azerbaijan and many more activists and journalists face harassment and travel bans.
Azerbaijan is pulling out all the stops to ensure the games are a success. President Ilham Aliyev has spent a reported $10 billion on stadiums and infrastructure. His government has also promised to pay the travel and accommodation expenses for all 6,000 competing athletes.