In 2017, Mkhitaryan won the Europa League trophy with Manchester United. UEFA photo

On May 29 Azerbaijan will host the Europa League final with two London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea competing for the continent’s second most important annual club trophy. The Aliyev regime secured the rights for the final, the latest in the list of prestige projects hosted by Azerbaijan, years in advance. It just so happened that Arsenal, whose roster includes the star Armenian midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, made in into the final.

Mkhitaryan’s decision to sit out of the match over safety concerns and Azerbaijan’s refusal to grant visas to fans with Armenian-sounding names has resulted in much controversy. A Labour MP Tom Watson called these developments “scandalous.”

Even though Azerbaijan’s policy ban on Armenians has been in place since shortly after the Baku pogrom of 1990, few outside Azerbaijan and Armenia are aware of the policy and its severity. In the decades since, there have been dozens of cases reported of ethnic Armenians from various countries or individuals with Armenian-sounding names barred from entering Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani government is also known to ban Armenian films, or films featuring Armenian themes, as well as Armenian music. And when it comes to Mkhitaryan specifically, Azerbaijani commentators do not mention his last name when covering matches in which he plays.

In some cases, those ethnic Armenians who managed to enter Azerbaijan have been arrested. In 2016, a Russian citizen Marat Ueldanov who worked as a food and beverage manager at another Azerbaijan-hosted prestige event, the Formula One race, was arrested on suspicion of spying after it was revealed that he was of Armenian descent. He was sentenced to a lengthy prison term before being transferred to Russia earlier this month.

Foreign governments have recently began to take notice, with the Russian foreign ministry repeatedly criticizing the policy and issuing a special travel advisory last March. The State Department has also updated its human rights report to reflect Azerbaijan’s treatment of Armenians.

As in previous international events that Azerbaijan hosted and in which Armenians were due to participate, the Azerbaijani government has made assurances that it would provide security for Mkhitaryan. But even that appeared conditional on the Armenian athlete’s not “play(ing) the issue.”

UPDATE: According to an Armenian football federation official, Mkhitaryan was told that the security guarantees were conditional on him not displaying the Armenian flag, as he did after winning the Europa League final with Manchester United in 2017.

UPDATE 2. After some criticism inside Armenia of Mkhitaryan’s decision to sit out the match, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan phoned the footballer to express his support and condemn “Baku’s racial discrimination policy.”