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.