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Ozil v Mkhitaryan: Footballers wade into Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Former Arsenal teammates take opposing public stances on recent Nagorno-Karabakh flare up
Former Arsenal teammates Henrikh Mkhitaryan (left) and Mesut Ozil (right) have both spoken out about the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict (AFP)

German-Turkish footballer Mesut Ozil has voiced his support for Azerbaijan in the recent flare up over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region, just days after his former Arsenal teammate Henrikh Mkhitaryan urged world leaders to defend Armenia. 

On Tuesday Ozil posted on Twitter, “Azerbaijan's trouble is our trouble, its joy is our joy”, attributing the remark to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president. 

“One nation, two states,” the footballer wrote, posting emojis of Turkey's and Azerbaijan’s flags. 

Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave inside Azerbaijan and home to 150,000 people, is run by separatist Armenians supported by Yerevan. The separatists have sought unsuccessfully for decades to split from Azerbaijan and become part of Armenia. 

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Though the region has seen clashes for decades, the fighting in recent weeks has been particularly intense and involved foreign actors. 

Ankara has openly backed Baku, and Middle East Eye reported last week that Turkey deliberately kept F-16 warplanes in Azerbaijan as a "deterrent against Armenian attacks".  

Meanwhile, Russia has a defence pact with Armenia, and last week Moscow negotiated a ceasefire in the region. However, both sides accused each other of violating the agreement just minutes after it it came into effect.

Explained: Armenia and Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
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Ozil's tweet was accompanied by a longer statement. 

“For me it’s important that everyone in the world should know the fact that the Nagorno-Karabakh region is legally and internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, yet it is currently occupied illegally,” Ozil said.

“In March 2008, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution reaffirming territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and demanding withdrawal of Armenia forces. I am therefore simply urging that the decisions of the United Nations General Assembly are upheld and recognised by everyone.”

He said that he shared the UN’s concerns about the armed conflict endangering international peace and security.

“Let’s achieve peace and let’s work towards a fair future, and one without violence. Every death on either side is a loss for everyone,” the Arsenal star concluded. 

Ozil’s public support for Azerbaijan was not his first intervention in political and humanitarian issues; the Arsenal footballer publicly condemned China’s crackdown on Uighur Muslims earlier this year. 

He also quit the German national football team after the last World Cup, citing “racism and disrespect” following a meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

In June last year, Erdogan had been the best man at Ozil’s wedding with former Miss Turkey Amine Gulse. 

Mkhitaryan calls out Azerbaijan and Turkey

In contrast to Ozil, Armenian footballer Mkhitaryan, who left Arsenal for AS Roma over the summer, wrote a letter to world leaders last week calling for action against Azerbaijani “aggressors” and “international terrorism”. 

“My native Armenia and Artsakh [Nagorno-Karabakh] are defending themselves against the aggressors for our primary right to be a nation, to exist on our historic lands and to preserve our world known Christian heritage and values.” 

Mkhitaryan accused the Azerbaijan military of targeting civilians and committing war crimes, and said the situation was on the verge of a humanitarian crisis. 

“These tragic events are happening with the direct interference of external forces and foreign fighters in the proximity of [Russia] and the European Union, which constitutes a direct security threat also for your countries,” he said. “Armenia and Artsakh are alone in their fight against international terrorism.” 

In a previous tweet, Mkhitaryan singled out Ankara, stating: “Turkey must halt all support and enabling of this offensive, including the recruitment of foreign terrorist fighters to attack Armenians.” 

Last week, Mkhitaryan’s team AS Roma sent 117 care packages to Yerevan’s embassy in Rome, to be distributed to Armenian football fans in the wake of the conflict. 

Azerbaijan’s national team captain Maksim Medvedev accused Mkhitaryan of making “false” and “baseless” claims in his letter. 

“The latest military escalation started after Armenia shelled civil and military positions of Azerbaijan on 27 September. Using mercenaries from Syria, Lebanon, and other Middle East countries, Armenia continues to target Azerbaijani civilians,” Medvedev wrote in a lengthy Facebook post.

“You claim to be worried about the Christian heritage and values in the conflict zone. Let me tell you that as a multiethnic and multicultural country, Azerbaijan preserves the entire cultural and historical heritage on its soil,” the 31-year-old Azerbaijan captain said.

In 2018, Arsenal left Mkhitaryan out of their squad in a Europa League match against Qarabag, an Azerbaijani team that originates from the Nagorno-Karabakh region but has played its games in Baku since 1993 due to the dispute. 

The Armenian footballer would have needed a special visa to travel to Azerbaijan, which Arsenal decided not to apply for. 

Mkhitaryan also missed Arsenal's Europa League final against Chelsea in Baku last year, over fears for his safety. Azerbaijan’s football association called the decision “unwarranted”, and said that authorities had provided “all the necessary guarantees”. 

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