BY HAIG KAYSERIAN
The lead-up to this year’s final of the Europa League, which is UEFA’s penultimate continental club competition, has been stained because European football’s governing body has chosen the capital of the corrupt oil dictatorship of Azerbaijan as its host.
English Premier League heavyweights Chelsea and Arsenal have made it to the final that has lost all its prestige and credibility because the latter club’s star midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been forced to withdraw because he is Armenian.
The history goes something like this. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin reconfigured the borders of the Caucasus during his bloody reign, which was legendary because of his divide-and-conquer strategy. He handed the historically Armenian territory of Nagorno Karabakh (now the Republic of Artsakh) – together with its Christian Armenian inhabitants – to an iron fisted Islamic dictatorship in Azerbaijan.
In 1991, under the threat of Stalin’s decision forcing this still-ethnically Armenian territory going under the oppressive rule of what would become an independent Azerbaijan, the Armenians of the region exercised their right to self-determination, and voted 99.98% in favor of independence in a region-wide referendum.
This independence is still not internationally recognized, and Azerbaijan continues to shell civilians and soldiers across the border, despite an internationally brokered ceasefire.
Therefore, Armenia, as the sponsor of peace in the Republic of Artsakh, remains technically at war with Azerbaijan.
30-year-old Mkhitaryan, of Armenia international, has been forced to miss several matches in Baku during his distinguished career as there is no way Azerbaijan can be trusted assuring his security.
This time, under increased scrutiny because the match is the final of the Europa League, Azerbaijan had apparently “given assurances” to Arsenal football club—through UEFA–about Mkhitaryan’s safety if he travelled to Baku for the showdown against Chelsea.
However, like any Armenian, Mkhitaryan remembers when Armenian serviceman Gurgen Markaryan expected similar assurances in 2004, when he was participating in a joint NATO course in Hungary, along with soldiers from many other countries, including Azerbaijan.
One morning, he was suddenly woken up by an axe-wielding Azerbaijani officer Ramil Safarov, who hacked him to death simply for being Armenian.
Hungary later sensationally extradited Safarov back to Azerbaijan, where he was greeted as a hero and promoted for his deeds.
You see in Azerbaijan, racism in the shape of Armenophobia is real. And it is state-sanctioned.
Children’s textbooks in Azerbaijan erase Armenia from world maps. Government officials describe Armenians as enemies of the state. The president declares his intention to rid the region of Armenians and march on Armenia’s capital. Anyone with an Armenian surname is unable to enter the country.
This racism and Armenophobia is also the reason that Arsenal and Chelsea season ticket-holders with Armenian last names (ending in ‘ian’ or ‘yan’) were rejected visas to travel and watch their teams in what should be a historic final.
This alone should be reason enough for UEFA—an organization apparently committed to ending racism—to choose against granting the Europa League final to Baku.
However, they have even more reasons.
Freedom House ranked Azerbaijan 11/100 on its freedom index in 2019, stating:
“In Azerbaijan’s authoritarian government, power remains heavily concentrated in the hands of Ilham Aliyev, who has served as president since 2003. Corruption is rampant, and following years of persecution, formal political opposition is weak. The regime has overseen an extensive crackdown on civil liberties in recent years, leaving little room for independent expression or activism.”
While true that Ilham Aliyev has been in power since 2003, it must be noted that he took over from the only other president who has led the country since independence, his father Heydar Aliyev.
Further, he recently extended his powers via a much-criticized referendum, that has him able to serve unlimited seven-year terms in office. After achieving this new milestone, Aliyev—in true Frank Underwood fashion—went on to appoint his wife as the country’s first vice-president.
The Washington Post reported earlier this year, that “Azerbaijan under President Ilham Aliyev holds 128 political prisoners, according to a survey by a watchdog, the Working Group for a Unified List of Political Prisoners. The list includes 68 religious activists, 17 political and social activists, 14 people arrested for participating in protests, 10 religious believers, 9 journalists and bloggers, 3 “political hostages” who are relatives of politicians, 3 people with excessive life sentences, 2 former state officials, 1 rights defender and 1 poet.”
Desperate to clean up its public image, Azerbaijan has sought to use its considerable oil wealth to buy favor in the West.
One recent example has come to be known as the “Azerbaijani Laundromat” – a money laundering scheme uncovered by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project involving over US$2.9 billion between 2012 – 2014 alone, which saw blood money funneled into the pockets of European politicians, bureaucrats and journalists in exchange for their silence towards the innumerable human rights abuses committed by the Azeri regime.
And UEFA, in all its infinite wisdom, has ignored all these facts and rewarded Baku with the right to host one of the most significant matches in the sporting calendar, effectively robbing it of its gravitas, honor, prestige and glory.
British broadcaster and Arsenal fan, Piers Morgan recently tweeted: “Seriously, Arsenal fans? We’re going to leave our man behind because he’s Armenian? This is a total disgrace. We must all boycott the game until @UEFA move it.”
Absolutely spot on.
Morgan added: “You have many Armenian fans, @ChelseaFC—are you going to stand by & do nothing about this @HenrikhMkh situation?????? If both teams refuse to play in Baku, @UEFA will have to move the game.”
Again, spot on.
Morgan, once again: “So everyone in football wants to stamp out racism in the game—but stands by doing nothing as @HenrikhMkh is unable to play in the Europa League Final because he’s Armenian? Disgraceful.”
I don’t think many have agreed with three Piers Morgan tweets, as they have with the ones above.
Because the question of “Baku or Not Baku?” should only ever have one answer. And that is “Not Baku”.
Haig Kayserian is the Executive Director of the Armenian National Committee of Australia, with a Bachelors in Media & Cultural Studies (Macquarie University) and is currently completing his Masters in Politics & Policy (Deakin University).