Baku hosted the world wrestling championship September 17-23, reopening the long-standing dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia regarding the status of Karabakh. According to the rules of the tournament, all sportsmen from other countries, including Armenia, were to be provided with security and other arrangements for normal participation in the tournament. Specifically, 15 Armenian wrestlers, plus 16 coaches, doctors, and other support personnel, needed full access to the tournament.
Several Azerbaijani groups that oppose public diplomacy efforts between the two countries immediately protested the Armenian team’s arrival in Baku. The main point of contention was the issue of the Armenian national anthem, which would need to be played if an Armenian wrestler became the world champion. Novosti-Armenia quoted the president of the Armenian National Olympic Committee, Gagig Tsarukian, as saying, “All of Armenia will be waiting for the moment when the Armenian anthem is played in Baku” (Novosti-Armenia, September 13).
Azerbaijanis themselves were divided about the Armenian wrestlers’ presence in Baku. Farhad Badalbeyli, rector of the Azerbaijan Academy of Music, said, “I believe the arrival of Armenian wrestlers in Baku was the right decision on our part. This once again showed to the international community that we are able to live in peace with Armenians, and that it is the Armenian ruling elite that chooses the policy of confrontation and aggression towards us” (Day.az, September 18). Several months ago Badalbeyli, himself a native of Shusha, in Karabakh, and a strong supporter of public diplomacy, was part of a group of Azerbaijani intelligentsia that visited Armenia and Karabakh in an attempt to encourage public diplomacy between the two countries (see EDM, July 16).
Ilhama Guliyev, a prominent Azerbaijani singer, voiced another frequently heard public opinion regarding the case: “Let the Armenian people come to Baku and see our economic and social developments. Let them be jealous of our wealth and let them wish to come back again to the friendship of the Azerbaijani people” (ANS-TV, September 23).
Nevertheless, there were also people who fiercely protested the Armenian athletes’ participation in the world championship. As always, the Karabakh Liberation Organization and its chairman, Akif Nagi, were in the vanguard of the forces attempting to stage public protests. Nagi and several other members of the group were arrested by the police, then later released (Day.az, September 17).
There were also people who used the occasion to bash the government in Baku and accuse it of double standards. Specifically, the accusations drew attention to the fact that Azerbaijani authorities always criticize exchange visits by human rights and NGO activists, but often support visits by Armenian delegations when it benefits the government. Earlier this month, Armenia’s minister of internal affairs was in Baku to participate in the forum of Commonwealth of Independent States ministers of internal affairs.
The Azerbaijani government has calmly responded to the Armenian team’s visit. Vagif Sadigov, deputy minister of foreign affairs, said, “The more often Armenians will come to Baku, the better. They will see our level of life and this will serve our PR campaign better” (Ministry of Foreign Affairs briefing, September 5). Novruz Mammadov, head of the international relations department within the president’s office, pointed out that the participation of Armenian delegations in international events held in Baku is “unavoidable” (APA News Agency, September 4).
It seems likely that the decision to allow Armenian athletes to participate in the world championships in Baku was made a long time ago, and that the Azerbaijani authorities gave security guarantees to the World Wrestling Federation regarding the matter. Otherwise, Baku would not be allowed to host this high-profile event. Earlier this year the same issue was raised regarding a qualifying game between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the European football championship. In that case, the Union of European Football Associations decided to cancel the games. Azerbaijan refused to host Armenian team in Baku because of the rule that the anthem of both countries must be played before the game.
As for the wrestling championship, no Armenian wrestler won the tournament, and the issue of playing the anthem became moot. But the controversy has once again revealed how deep the animosities between the two societies and countries are, and how urgent it is to encourage public diplomacy efforts to prevent a further radicalization of the societies.