Thursday, June 11, 2015

Armenians in Baku for European Games

Israeli wrestler Robert Avanesyan (left) was born in Baku in
1985 a few years before the pogroms and mass expulsion/exodus
of city's Armenians; he took part in Baku Games
The European Games are getting a bad rap because of all the tormenting of critics and media censorship by the Aliyev regime of Azerbaijan.

But one other thing these games mean is that there will be more than forty (40!) Armenians in Baku all at the same time. There haven't been so many since after the large-scale POW exchanges in the mid-1990s, following the Karabakh war.

The anti-Armenian quarantine 

In the years since the expulsion of Armenians from Azerbaijan and Azerbaijanis from Armenia was concluded in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan instituted an informal ban on all people with Armenian-sounding names from crossing Azerbaijan's border.

Every once in a while Azerbaijani officials claim that 'tens of thousands' of Armenians still live in Azerbaijan, but there is no evidence of this and those people, mostly women, who are of Armenian descent and still live in Azerbaijan have changed their names and otherwise hide their roots. Frequently, when a public figure falls from official grace or deemed a government's enemy, almost inevitably s/he is "found" to have some kind of "Armenian ties" or even "blood". This has been the case with the late chess master Vugar Gashimov, writer Akram Aylisli, filmmaker turned politician Rustam Ibrahimbekov, human rights activist Leyla Yunusova and journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Some opposition figures in turn see the same nefarious Armenian connections as the explanation behind the ruling regime's corruption.

In this climate the only people of Armenian descent actually attempting to go to or transit through Azerbaijan have been the ones detached from the conflict. In 2011, a Bloomberg correspondent with dual U.S. and Russian citizenship and Moscow-born Russian corporate executive were separately barred from entering Baku on business "for security reasons;" both had Armenian surnames. In 2014, Azerbaijan barred a Turkish citizen from entering because he had an Armenian-sounding name, even though he was not Armenian.

The Aliyev regime has also prosecuted and harassed Azerbaijanis who had visited Armenia. It also automatically blacklists all foreign visitors to Nagorno Karabakh and others deemed critical of Azerbaijan.

But whenever the Azerbaijani government hosts events blessed by international organizations it has to allow Armenian politicos or athletes to attend, as is now the case with the Baku Games that have been blessed by the European Olympic Committee.

Sports and politics

Armenia's squad in Baku includes 25 athletes competing in wrestling, boxing, judo, taekwondo, sambo and shooting. The decision to participate was quite controversial. The wrestlers and boxers who had gone to championships held in Baku in 2007 and 2011, respectively, didn't have terribly pleasant experiences, with round-the-clock security and hostile crowds throwing rocks.

But aside from politics and ethnic hatreds the competition is important as a European championship and to earn points for qualification for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. For top athletes these points aren't as important, so many have skipped the Baku Games, including Armenia's recent Olympic medalists in wrestling Artur Aleksanyan and Arsen Julfalakyan.

Another reason for Armenia's decision to participate is that amid PR wars spearheaded by Azerbaijan - of which these Games can also be construed a part - Armenia doesn't want to be excluded and miss an opportunity to raise its flag in Baku.

Incidentally, the Aliyev regime has for a moment turned its attention way from Karabakh. After bloody skirmishes that Azerbaijan initiated from January to March, since mid-April, when Armenia commemorated the genocide centenary, there have been no serious violations of the cease-fire reported. And this is likely to continue through the end of the Games. In a sense, there has so far been a real Olympic truce.

Other than Armenia's squad - which in addition to ethnic Armenians includes one Russian, one Dagestani and one Georgian - there are some Armenian names in other nations' squads as well. Three gymnasts, one water polo player and one wrestler of Armenian descent will represent Russia, one wrestler and one boxer - Ukraine and the same from Israel; there are also boxers from Georgia and Belarus, and wrestlers from France and Sweden. Together with the Armenia squad that's more than 30 athletes with names and/or affiliations that are sure to annoy officials in Baku.

Add to that coaches, other crew... and two Armenian military personnel - Arsen Baghdasarian and Andranik Grigoryan - currently being held captive in Baku... that's well over 40 Armenians.

UPDATE 1: Armenia's athletes did not march in the parade of nations during the opening ceremonies on June 12, with Armenia's flag carried by the country's Olympic Committee official Hrachya Rostomyan and accompanied by six other older-looking guys, likely also officials and/or coaches. They were met with boos and other disapproving noises from the audience.

Russian gold medalist Stepan Maryanyan
UPDATE 2: Asked if audience hostility was a factor in his performance, wrestler Stepan Maryanyan who won a gold medal for Russia said that he tuned it out:  "It was easier for me since I represent Russia. Our country is respected and feared."  The Krasnodar Kray-born 23-year-old added: "my coach [presumably Gogi Koguashvili] told me if I didn't win, they'd leave me in Baku, so I had to win." On his way to victory, Maryanyan beat wrestlers from both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Incidentally, Maryanyan's roots appear to be from Karachinar village of Karabakh's Shaumyan district captured by Azerbaijan in 1992. Meantime, Baku-born Robert Avanesyan, who represented Israel, lost in his first bout to Turkey's Cenk Ildem.

UPDATE 3: Armenia's Migran Arutyunyan claimed crowd hostility influenced judges in his gold medal wrestling bout with Russia's Artem Surkov. Arutyunyan ended up with silver after a final accompanied by Azerbaijani fans yelling "Rossia, Rossia!"  But this was after Arutyunyan came from behind to beat an Azerbaijani wrestler in a semi-final, as did his teammate Maksim Manukyan in another weight category. Their victories came after an already injured teammate Roman Amoyan (of Yezidi Kurdish descent) was jeered, bloodied and defeated in a bronze medal bout with an Azerbaijani wrestler. Karapet Chalyan was knocked out in the first round.

From left: Migran Arutyunyan of Echmiadzin, Maksim Manukyan of Gyumri and Roman Amoyan of Yerevan.

Those wrestling bouts make Azerbaijan v. Armenians head-to-head tally so far 1:3 (if you count Maryanyan's) in favor of the visitors.

Notably, Arutyunyan joined Armenia's squad only recently. Born in Echmiadzin in 1989, most of his athletic career has been in Moscow, where his family moved in 1993. Arutyunyan won the Russian national championship wrestling title in 2012, but after being left out of Russia's team in London Olympics, Arutyunyan switched his allegiance and began performing for Armenia.

UPDATE 4: On June 16, 16-year-old Seda Toutkhalyan won a gold medal with Russia's gymnastics team; she is a daughter of the Leninakan-born Gurgen Toutkhalyan, world champion sambist and currently coaching the Belarus national team in judo. And Armenia's 18-year-old sharpshooter Hrachik Babayan of Yerevan placed 5th in 10-meter pneumatic rifle competition.

UPDATE 5: On June 17 and 18, Armenia's six freestyle wrestlers Garik Barseghyan, Grigor Grigoryan, David Safaryan, Levan Berianidze, Musa Murtazaliyev and Volodya Frangulyan were knocked out of medal contention. Barseghyan and Frangulyan lost to Azerbaijani wrestlers, so that leaves the Azerbaijani-Armenian head-to-head tally tied at 3:3. Also knocked out of contention were Arman Yeremyan in taekwondo and Nikol Arutyunov in boxing.

UPDATE 6: On June 19, two more Armenia boxers got knocked out of contention: Aram Avagyan and Artem Aleksanyan, the latter lost to Israel's David Alaverdyan. On June 20, boxer Samvel Barseghyan followed suit and shooter Norayr Arakelyan failed to qualify for the final round. Meantime, Georgia's Otar Eranosyan lost a bout with an Azerbaijan boxer making the head-to-head go in favor of Azerbaijan 3-4. 16-year-old, Elena Kotanchyan, won a gold medal with Russia's women's water polo team and gymnast Tutkhalyan added a silver to Russia's medal total in individual vault exercise. The crowd tried to interfere with Tutkhalyan's performance; see video.

UPDATE 7: On June 22, Armenia's sambo wrestlers Tigran Kirakosyan, Ashot Danielyan and Sose Balasanyan (the last two from Stepanakert) lost their bronze medal bouts. Razmik Tonoyan, who represents Ukraine, won a bronze medal; but that was after he lost a semi-final to an Azerbaijani athlete, making the all important rivalry score 3-5. Boxers Hovaness Bachkov (Armenia) and David Alaverdian (Israel) also lost their fights. Meantime, Dukhik Dzhanazyan won a bronze medal for Russia in mixed pair aerobic gymnastics; Dukhik and her brother Garsevan came in fourth in agroup competition. Unlike Tutkhalyan the other day, Dzhanazyan was treated well by the crowd; see video.

FINAL UPDATE: Baku Games have concluded. In one of the last medal fights, boxer Gevorg Manukyan representing Ukraine lost to a Dagestani representing Azerbaijan, leaving Armenians vs Azerbaijan rivalry at 3-6, and if only Armenia team scores are counted 2-3. Armenia's team departed with just one medal, whereas Armenians on Russia team helped secure five medals and those on Ukraine's - two,

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