Criminal investigations have been launched in both Armenia and Azerbaijan after an Azerbaijani flag was burnt on stage at the opening ceremony of the European Weightlifting Championship in Yerevan.
The Azerbaijani delegation withdrew from the competition following the incident on Friday, returning to Baku on Sunday.
Aram Nikolyan, a designer working with Armenia’s public broadcaster and the organising team of the championship, had stepped onstage during the championship’s opening ceremony and set the Azerbaijani flag on fire.
The act drew swift condemnation from both local and international bodies, as well as among both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials.
Azerbaijan’s Sports Ministry and National Olympic Committee issued a joint statement claiming that the incident demonstrated that Armenia was ‘not able to hold international sports competitions and ensure the safety of athletes’.
‘It is impossible for Azerbaijani athletes to participate normally in competitions due to psychological pressures in Armenia, where such an atmosphere of hatred prevails and safety is not ensured’, the statement declared, explaining the decision to withdraw the athletes from the competition.
‘Politicising sport is absolutely unacceptable’, the statement added, calling for the European Weightlifting Federation to impose sanctions on Armenia.
The European Weightlifting Federation also strongly condemned the incident, describing it as ‘extremely serious and regrettable’. It added that it had asked for additional guarantees of the safety of participants in the competition, and expressed ‘total solidarity’ with the Azerbaijani delegation.
Azerbaijan’s Prosecutor General launched a criminal investigation into the incident, under articles of inciting national hatred and enmity, and insulting the Azerbaijani flag.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Azerbaijan also condemned the burning of the country’s flag in Yerevan, and claimed that while Nikolyan had been initially detained, he was later ‘released to applause’.
‘It is disturbing that the organizers did not take any security measures against such hateful acts,’ said Aykhan Hajizadeh, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson.
Condemnation in Armenia
Armenian officials were quick to condemn the incident.
On 14 April, Armenian law enforcement initiated a criminal investigation against Aram Nikolyan, the designer working with Armenia’s Public Broadcaster who burnt the Azerbaijan flag.
Shortly after the incident, Armenia’s deputy minister for education, science, culture, and sports, Karen Giloyan, met with the representatives of the Azerbaijani delegation.
Giloyan described the incident as ‘ugly’ and said it had nothing to do with sports. Giloyan added that the members of the Azerbaijani delegation were not dissatisfied with any aspect of the event’s organisation, and that the decision to cancel their participation was made in Baku.
The ministry also issued a statement, saying that the incident had nothing to do with the safety of the Azerbaijani athletes and that Armenia was committed to ensuring their security.
In a second statement on Monday, the ministry said the incident did not ‘reflect the position of Armenia’s authorities’ and ‘deserves to be condemned in terms of sports values and universal principles of fair play’.
Arayik Harutyunyan, rhe chief of staff to Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, wrote on Facebook that the incident had disrupted ‘our effort to present Armenia in a new way, as an innovative, cultural […] centre, which is worth communicating, cooperating, and making friends with’.
Harutyunyan added that ‘every thoughtless, “heroic” act can backfire, mark a setback on the way to progress’.
MPs from Armenia’s ruling party also condemned the incident, with Hovik Aghazaryan apologising and describing it as ‘shameful’. MP Artur Hovhannisyan added that the desired outcome of a patriotic action should be ‘doing a favour to the motherland’, and that Nikolyan’s action had done the opposite.
Aram Nikolyan, however, has expressed no remorse for his action, praising it in a Facebook video published after his release from police detention.
‘I just wanted to prevent the Azerbaijani flag from being raised in the Armenian capital, Yerevan’, Nikolyan said. ‘If there are people who believe that I should not have done that, let them hang the Azerbaijani flag in their homes’.
Reactions in Armenian civil society were mixed, with some praising the action, while others argued it would negatively impact Armenia’s reputation and image.
Conflict in sports
Conflicts and scandals have frequently arisen when Armenian and Azerbaijani athletes have taken part in sporting events in the other country.
In 2019, Arsenal’s Henrikh Mkhitaryan — a prominent Armenian football player — did not take part in the final of the Europa League in Baku, reportedly due to 'fears over his safety'. Arsenal’s management said Mkhitaryan was ‘robbed’ of enjoying ‘one of the best moments of his career’.
At the time, UEFA prohibited players from wearing shirts with Mkhitaryan’s name in support, while local police reportedly banned fans wearing Mkhitaryan’s shirts from entering the stadium.
In 2011, Armenian boxers reportedly had stones thrown at them in Baku during the World Boxing Championship.
The European Weightlifting Championships would have marked the third time that Azerbaijan had participated in an international sports event in Armenia since the fall of the Soviet Union. In 2009, Azerbaijan won a youth judo championship in Yerevan, while in 2014, Azerbaijan’s archery team took part in an international competition in Armenia.
Armenian athletes have also three times participated in sports competitions held in Azerbaijan.