Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Judo Diplomacy” Eases Karabakh Tensions

Bid to improve Turkish-Armenian ties started with a football match, so could Judo tournament do same for Armenia and Azerbaijan?
By Gegham Vardanian
The Azerbaijan flag has been flown in Armenia for the first time since the Karabakh war, at a martial arts tournament tentatively welcomed by analysts as a start for “judo diplomacy”.

The welcome for the Azerbaijan team at the European Under 20 Championship, September 11-13, was warm, and police took careful steps to prevent any demonstration against the athletes, who represented a country with which Armenia has not signed a peace deal.

“We are on guard to prevent a flag being brought into the building which could be burnt,” said one policeman when asked why he was so carefully checking this correspondent’s bag.

It was the first trip to Armenia for Azeri sportsmen since the Karabakh conflict, in which Nagorny Karabakh declared independence from Baku, and Armenian forces seized control of much of what is internationally considered western Azerbaijan.

The Armenian government pledged to ensure the security of the Azerbaijan delegation’s 15 members – five sportsmen, three trainers, two doctors, two journalists, one referee and two organisers.

“This is sport, and every country is free to take part in sporting events. We received Azerbaijan’s application to take part in the championship with pleasure and created all the necessary conditions for them to take part and then return to their homes,” Armen Grigorian, minster for sports and youth affairs, told IWPR.

The visit attracted broad interest in Armenia, where observers wondered if it could mark the start of a thaw in relations between Baku and Yerevan. A bid to normalise relations between Turkey and Armenia started with a football match between the national sides last year so could, observers wondered, the judo tournament prove to be a similar turning point.

“It’s well-known that the process of regulating Armenian-Turkish relations is called ‘football diplomacy’. If you take a parallel with the participation of the Azerbaijan sportsman in the European Championship in Yerevan, then you can call this ‘judo diplomacy’,” Stepan Grigorian, a political analyst, said.

“Sport and culture are the best ways of creating dialogue between warring sides, and the European youth judo championship, held in Yerevan, is the best confirmation of this.”

The Armenian government was taking no chances with the safety of the Azerbaijan athletes, and special guards tailed them wherever they went. A man in a black suit stood near each member of the team whenever they were in the Yerevan stadium where the championship took place.

Gyunduz Abasszade, a journalist from Azerbaijan’s ANS television, said he had experienced a warm welcome.

“We feel free and secure. Of course, there are some limitations from our ‘protectors’, but this is natural. We are after all in an enemy country. But in general, everything is good and calm,” he said.

All five Azeri sportsmen won medals at the games, with one gold, one silver, and three bronze, meaning the Azerbaijan flag was raised five times.

When Elmar Gasimov won his gold medal in the 100 kilogramme category, the Azerbaijan national anthem boomed out over the hall, which held about 1,000 spectators and participants. Hrachuhi Barseghian, a spokesman for the championship organisers, said at least 70 per cent of those present stood for the anthem – an important mark of respect.

In response, when Armenian athlete Artyom Baghdasarian won a medal, the Azeri visitors also stood for the anthem.

“Judo is an ambassador for peace. We are the first Azerbaijan sportsmen to come to Yerevan. This is sport, and it should not be mixed up with politics,” said Aghayar Akhund-Zada, a trainer from the Azerbaijan team who took part in contests in Armenia in Soviet years and said he never considered missing out on the tournament.

“We have sportsmen who are appearing for the youth team for the last time. If they did not come to Yerevan to take part in the championship, it could well impact on their future careers.”

Sergey Soloveychik, the president of the European Judo Union, said judo was a sport distinguished by respect between opponents, who always bow to each other before and after each bout.

“I am proud that our sport is becoming a diplomatic bridge, linking different peoples. I hope that in future, politicians can follow our example and show greater respect for each other,” he said.

“We are not calling it judo diplomacy, but we are trying to work in that direction. Not long ago the European Championship was held in Georgia. As is well known, there are tense political relations between Georgia and Russia. However, despite this, the Russian delegation accepted their invitation, and the Georgians, for their part, did everything they could so the Russians felt at home.”

Gegham Vardanian is a correspondent from Internews, and a member of IWPR’s Cross Caucasus Journalism Network.

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