Azerbaijan 25 Jun 2015 00:00
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PHOTOS: Jacob Balzani Lööv WORDS: Andrew Connelly
The inaugural European Games opened in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on the 12th June, 2015. A continent-wide sporting extravaganza costing an estimated $10bn featuring 6,000 athletes from over 50 different countries. As is so often said, sport is above politics. But for one national team competing in Baku, that could hardly be further than the truth.
In 1991, as the Soviet Union began to crumble, simmering tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted into full-scale war. The mountainous lands where Muslim Azeris and Christian Armenians used to live together in relative harmony, had become a source of dispute thanks in large part to divide and rule strategies by the Russian, and then Soviet, empires. When fighting finally subsided in 1994 following a Russian-brokered ceasefire, over 100,000 had been killed and Karabakh became de-facto state administered by Armenia but not officially recognised by any countries in the world. Azerbaijan lost 20% of its territory, including land outside of the Nagorno-Karabakh hotspot, which is internationally recognised as occupied Azeri territory.
Although Armenians and Azeris meet peacefully around the world, they are practically banned from each other’s countries and the level of mutual hostility is comparable to Israel-Palestine. The European Games in Baku is the biggest sporting event ever hosted in the South Caucasus and for both sides, there is huge pressure for their athletes to better the opposing team. For the Azeris, it means a victory over the ‘occupiers’ to whom they lost the war, for Armenians, the chance to raise their flag and sing their anthem in the enemy capital has incredible symbolic power. So much for the Olympic truce.
Meanwhile, despite a ceasefire in place, villagers living on both sides of the Armenia-Azerbaijan border live in the shadow of sniper positions, and endure regular exchanges of fire. Far away from the capitals of Yerevan and Baku, people here speak respectfully of their brothers on the other side and express their frustration that their governments prolong and provoke endless conflict.
In a little-known region, a forgotten conflict divides peoples that in living memory were neighbours and friends. With no direct dialogue between the warring states and no progress by international institutions, many people ominously warn of a renewed conflict which could devastate the region and catch the world by surprise.
As the athletes face each other in Baku, (ironically both sides excel in fighting sports such as boxing and wrestling), the mantra of sport as an apolitical tool for peace risks being overshadowed by raw geopolitics, and an opportunity for nationalism and chauvinism to be exhibited, in a region which can ill afford more.