Full Contact: Armenia hosting young judokas from Azerbaijan

For the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a bloody war between the two neighbors, Armenia is hosting a sporting delegation from Azerbaijan, its regional archrival and “enemy party” in the continuing dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh.

For several days the junior national judo team of Azerbaijan have been in Yerevan to participate in the European championships September 11-13.

The 15-member delegation, including five athletes, arrived from Tbilisi late on Tuesday and were accommodated at Congress Hotel in downtown Yerevan with strict security measures provided by their Armenian hosts.

ArmeniaNow learned from the Armenian Judo Federation that the security of the delegation is being provided by the National Security Service of Armenia and that the Azerbaijani delegation is “satisfied with everything.”

Still on Wednesday the Azeri team’s coach Agayar Akhundzade told media in his country that there was no need to worry about their security in Yerevan which he described as “up to a high standard.”

The Armenian federation, however, denied the report by Azerbaijan’s ANS Press agency that the minibus on which the Azeris were being taken to the sport facilities in Yerevan for training had the flags of Georgia, Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh on it and that the flags were removed only after the head of the Azerbaijani delegation Elshad Alekperli’s demand.

“No such incident occurred, all this is a provocation,” representative of the Armenian Judo Federation Haykuhi Aghasinyan told ArmeniaNow without elaborating.

Nor did she give details of the schedule of the Azeri delegation’s stay in Yerevan or say whether they would be offered a chance to communicate with local media.

“We do not know such details, the members of the Azerbaijani delegation have interpreters and I think if they want to go around the city they can do so with their assistance,” said Aghasinyan.

On September 2, the sports ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan signed a memorandum whereby the Armenian side pledged to provide security guarantees to the athletes and members of the Azerbaijani delegation during their visit to Armenia.

The Armenian side also pledged to provide normal conditions to the Azeri athletes for training and Azeri media for covering the event that will be held at the Karen Demirchyan Sport and Concert Complex.

Several hundred athletes from 40 countries will participate in the Yerevan championships. As agreed, Azerbaijan’s flag will be hoisted alongside the flags of these European nations. It is also understood that the organizing party will play Azerbaijan’s national anthem in the event of an Azeri judoka’s victory.

A 15-member team of Armenian wrestlers participated in the world championships in Azerbaijani capital Baku in 2007. The flag of Armenia was hoisted in Baku then. And it was also raised at the awarding ceremony after an Armenian wrestler managed to win a bronze medal in the competition.

The Azeri delegation in Yerevan consists of five sportsmen, three coaches, two doctors, two journalists, one referee and two delegation heads. All five Azerbaijani athletes had reportedly vowed to win gold medals at the Yerevan championships and get their national anthem played and national flag raised.

Meanwhile, many residents of Yerevan, like student Sona Khachaturyan approached by ArmeniaNow, have not even heard about their city hosting 15 Azeris. But those who had heard the news, when asked, gave quite positive responses about the visit.

Levon Manvelyan, a veteran of the 1991-1994 war with Azerbaijan, for example, said the visit could mark the beginning of a real rapprochement between the two nations that de-facto are still at war despite the 1994 ceasefire agreement and succession of hostilities in Karabakh.

“Sport knows no borders,” says Manvelyan. “Even in militant Sparta wars stopped when sporting events began. This visit by the Azeris proves that we can have areas for contact.”