Sat, 21 Sep 2019

Following star Armenian soccer player Henrikh Mkhitaryan's announcement that he will not travel to a championship match in Baku, Armenians are debating the merits of his decision.

Mkhitaryan, a midfielder for Arsenal, announced on May 21 that he was skipping the May 29 UEFA Europa League final against Chelsea. While he didn't explain his decision, he was reportedly concerned for his safety in a country that has been at war with Armenia for more than 25 years.

The issue drew worldwide attention to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict and also was a hot topic on Armenian Facebook, where users argued about his decision not to go. And despite the fact that Mkhitaryan is a hero in the country for putting Armenia on the map, many prominent voices disagreed with the player's decision.

"The criticism directed to Azerbaijan and UEFA is incomprehensible," wrote Ervand Hakobyan, the press secretary for the Boxing Federation of Armenia, on his Facebook page. "Mkhitaryan made the decision to not go by himself, they provided all the security guarantees." Commenters on the post took both sides on the argument; one called Mkhitaryan a "coward" and pointed to Armenian wrestlers who went to Baku for tournaments, including the World Wrestling Championships in 2007 and the European Games in 2015.

But Hakobyan told Eurasianet he personally doesn't blame Mkhitaryan: "It's his choice and we have to respect it."

Araks Marutyan, a lecturer at the Armenian State Institute of Physical Culture (of which Mkhitaryan is an alumnus), compared the soccer player's case to other Armenian athletes who have chosen to compete in Baku. "As a sports fan, I'd say Armenian boxers, for example, or any other Armenian athletes that went to Baku for various championships were taking a bigger risk compared with Mkhitaryan," Marutyan told Eurasianet. "He is an internationally famous player for Arsenal and he is much more protected."

She said she might have supported him if he had boycotted to protest the fact that ethnic Armenians, even from other countries, generally are barred from entering Azerbaijan. "If he was going to refuse going to Baku he could have put the emphasis on racism, on fans not being able to attend the match, and not on himself," she said. (Some ethnic Armenian fans have reportedly been denied visas for the match, according to Arsenal fan groups.)

Arsen Julfalakyan, an Olympic medal-winning and former world championship wrestler who competed in the championships in Baku in 2007, described the tight security around that event as "feeling like you're in prison." Now a member of parliament for the ruling My Step alliance, he said he supported Mkhitaryan's decision. "The guarantee that he would return alive is laughable and disrespectful - if a country discriminates against a nationality it means you have to boycott that country, it's racism," he told Eurasianet.

Karen Rafaelyan, the editor-in-chief of the sports news website Vivaro News, also said he supported the decision to skip the match. "In any country where there is hate speech, black lists, and a hero that killed an Armenian with an ax there shouldn't be any international events," he wrote on his Facebook page. (The ax murderer is Ramil Safarov, an Azerbaijani army officer who killed an Armenian counterpart in Hungary in 2004 and was later welcomed back to Azerbaijan as a hero; his case has been much cited by Armenians in the Mkhitaryan affair.)

The issue also became a political football in Armenia. Shortly after Mkhitaryan announced his decision on May 21, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Anna Naghdalyan, said the government would have supported him if he had chosen to go to the match.

"We have mentioned that if the guarantees were given by the Azerbaijani side, which would have satisfied both Henrikh Mkhitaryan and his team, then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs would have no objection to Henrikh Mkhitaryan's upcoming match in Baku," she told reporters at a press briefing.

She went on to blame Azerbaijan for failing to create a secure environment. "Azerbaijan had the opportunity to show how well it worked to prepare people for peace, but we did not see any contribution of Azerbaijan in this direction, and also witnessed new manifestations of racism," she said. "This issue will be raised to our international partners, but the fact itself is painful."

To some in the opposition, however, that wasn't a strong enough statement. "It is ridiculous that the Armenian diplomacy has not responded to this issue, while the global media has made strong criticisms of UEFA and Baku," wrote Edmon Marukyan, the leader of the Bright Armenia party, on his Facebook page on May 24.

Meanwhile, perhaps the only Armenian more famous than Mkhitaryan was criticized for staying on the sidelines of the controversy. A fan tweeting under the handle "Walid Arsenal" addressed the Armenian-American celebrity Kim Kardashian: "Armenian when it's convenient, yet silent on the issue of Mkhitaryan playing in the Europa League final? You're a disgrace to your federation." The post had more than 21,000 likes as of the time this piece was posted.

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