BY ROBERT O’CONNOR
Special to Asbarez
The drive from Yerevan to Stepanakert is a deft allegory for the politics that divides these two cities. It’s hard to think there is another journey in Europe so riven with contradictions.
From the moment the Armenian capital begins to recede into the distance and the peak of Mount Ararat first pierces the overcast sky, the vistas are breathtaking; the snow that carpets the mountain-sides is undisturbed and crisp, and the rural townships that pepper the route seem un-spoilt by the world beyond these hills. Late in the afternoon, the cloud breaks and the sun washes over the border town of Goris near the Lachin corridor that links Armenia to her kin in Nagorno-Karabakh. The rocky surroundings seem to glow gold.
The drive should take six hours but today it has taken nine. For all the natural beauty on offer here there is no escaping the isolation that Karabakh, the rogue state that developed out of the mess of the Armenia-Azerbaijan war, is subject to, even from its close allies in Armenia. Though the fighting has largely stopped, there is no apparent end in sight to the frozen conflict that keeps Stepanakert and its surrounding provinces in diplomatic lockdown.
“All this war and conflict is temporary,” Samuel Karapetyan, the head of the Artsakh Soccer Association (AFA), tells me from his office at the Union of Artsakh Freedom Fighters. It may seem a strange place to house the administrative center of Karabakh soccer’s governing body, but war and conflict are the common denominators throughout Artsakh. Karapetyan holds the highest military decoration for his courage in defending these lands during the war with Azerbaijan, and today juggles his responsibility as head of the AFA with the post of deputy minister for defence. He is decked out in full military attire, and lights a cigarette as he speaks.
“One day soon, the Artsakh national team will compete in a World Cup or European Championship. We are hopeful. In fact we are convinced that recognition will come soon, because all the world is interested in establishing peace in this region. Sooner or later Azerbaijan will recognize Artsakh, then we will participate not just in soccer but in every aspect of international life.”
For Karabakh to become involved in international soccer will require the bending of a precedent. Europe’s governing body UEFA stipulates there must first be recognition of a state by the United Nations before membership can be considered. Nevertheless, the first conversations between Stepanakert and UEFA’s headquarters in Nyon regarding the AFA’s acceptance into the international soccer family began in November 2016, and though embryonic, Karapetyan remains optimistic they represent the beginning of a fruitful process.
UEFA’s regulations were tested in May 2016 when Kosovo were voted into the organization by a narrow majority, despite lacking the recognition of two-thirds of UN member states required by statute. For Artsakh though, recognised by only the separatist regimes of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this would represent an extreme test of Nyon’s resolve.
In Stepanakert, the day-to-day challenges of organizing soccer for the city’s 350 or so active participants are not easily overcome. In the early 00’s, the Association of Soccer Federations of Azerbaijan (AFFA) appealed to world governing body FIFA against the involvement of sides from Karabakh taking part in competitions organized by the soccer authorities in Yerevan. The result was a blanket ban on cross-border competition between sides from Armenia and Artsakh.
The only regular soccer the recently renovated City Stadium sees is the occasional friendly game between the youth ranks of FC Artsakh, the republic’s only formal soccer club, and visiting sides from neighboring Georgia and Armenia. The problem is that these are just friendly games; FIFA’s sanctions prohibit anything more.
Slava Gabrielyan is the coach of the nascent Nagorno-Karabakh national team. FIFA’s restrictions on its members playing matches against non-member teams means that his side are limited to playing other countries, territories and peoples which exist outside of the formal structures of international soccer, but in spite of this, work continues on building a side capable of competing.
“In Crimea, UEFA have recognised that the territory is neither part of Russia nor Ukraine” says Gabrielyan. “They have put measures in place to allow soccer there to prosper. We hope and expect that UEFA will do the same here in Artsakh.
“You don’t just put a national team together in two or three days. You have to be prepared for when we are accepted and get recognition. That’s why we work now with our players in Karabakh so we are ready.”
To that end, there are annual championships in each of Artsakh’s seven provinces, at the end of which a play-off tournament is held in Stepanakert to determine the regional champion. It is also the means by which Gabrielyan selects players for the national team squad. All soccer here, though, from the provincial tournaments through to the representative squad, is played on an amateur basis. Gabrielyan wonders whether, with just 350 regular participants in the capital, Karabakh is large enough to support professional or even regular soccer.
And here is where the administrative red tape between Stepanakert and Yerevan comes to be of urgent importance. In the past there has been much crossover between competitions in Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh, giving smaller clubs from Artsakh an outlet to compete and improve against better-resourced sides from across the border. Without it, soccer in the mountains has become isolationist quite against its will, with development stunted and little outlet for growth beyond the natural borders of the hills.
“The problem is that we don’t have the means to show the world that we can play,” says FC Artsakh coach Levon Mkrtchyan. “We only play here for ourselves, but our aim is to show outsiders what we can do. We want the world to know about Karabakh and Karabakh soccerers.”
Days earlier in Yerevan, I had met with Eduard Bagdasaryan at the headquarters of Armenian Premier League side FC Pyunik. Bagdasaryan had been the founder of FC Yerazank, a team of teenagers from Stepanakert which had competed in the regional Azerbaijani leagues in the late-Soviet era. Several of their number were killed in action when the region slid into war at the end of the 1980’s.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, those Yerazank players who had returned safely from the front line represented the club in the newly independent Armenian top flight, where they continued to compete until 2004.
“The club was run by Samvel Babayan, who was a commander in the Armenian military,” says Bagdasaryan. “After a few years of us playing in the Armenian leagues, where we did very well considering our players were still very young, Babayan decided they I should be removed as coach. After that, the club didn’t survive much longer.” Yerazank disappeared from the league in 2004. There has been no representative side from Karabakh in Armenian competition since.
The First Armenian Front, a grassroots organization in Yerevan who campaign for improvements to the domestic game, organized the Unity Cup in Stepanakert in 2016, with the aim of fostering stronger ties between the soccerers of Armenia and Karabakh. It represents a greater investment in Artsakh soccer than anything to have come from the Soccer Federation of Armenia.
“The problem,” says group spokesman Arsen Zaqaryan, “is that the soccer association here [in Armenia] doesn’t even pay attention to our own league. It is being ruined by corruption but the association does nothing. If they can’t look after their own league, how can they be expected to look after another?” The work done by the Front is richly appreciated in Stepanakert. But it has been insufficient to bring the territory out of isolation.
As Karabakh struggles for internal solutions, soccer over the border in Azerbaijan continues to go from strength to strength. FK Qarabag in the capital Baku, themselves a club in exile from the NKR’s now-derelict city of Aghdam, have performed well in Europe in recent seasons, and continue to push for a first appearance by an Azerbaijani club in the group stages of UEFA’s Champions League.
Qarabag are a political chess piece for the government in Baku. Lavished with funding from the energy-rich country’s recent oil boom via the state-backed holding company Azersun, figures both inside the club and out make no secret of Qarabag being a symbol of Azerbaijan’s rightful dominion over Nagorno-Karabakh.
Back in Stepanakert, the work of the AFA continues largely without recognition. It is up to soccer’s decision-makers now to decide to either bring Karabakh in from the cold, or to allow them to toil in silence, obscured behind the beauty of these lush mountain gardens.