Today’s Champions League group stage tie between Chelsea and Qarabag FK, of Azerbaijan, is unlikely to produce any surprises. The English champions’ experienced side of superstars, playing at home, is likely to prove too much for a team that few had heard of until August’s group stage draw. Off the field however, the match is loaded with political significance. Both of today’s sides, in very different ways, have had their fortunes defined by the collapse of the USSR 26 years ago. This game of football provides the canvas for a tale of greed, refugees and ruthlessness that followed in communism’s wake.

The ‘refugee club’

By 1991, following revolutions across Eastern Europe, the failure of the USSR had become apparent. It could not offer its citizens basic necessities; prices and food shortages were rising; the army had been humiliated in Afghanistan and many of its republics were being rocked by a tide of nationalism.

On December 26, 1991, the Soviet flag was lowered from above the Kremlin in Moscow, signalling the end of the Soviet Union and the birth of fifteen newly independent states, formed along the boundary lines drawn between the fifteen administrative republics of the USSR. This did not go smoothly. Seventy years of Soviet rule had encouraged, and in some cases forced, a great deal of ethnic mixing. Though this had caused little tension when everyone was governed from Moscow, many communities now found themselves as ethnic minorities in these newly formed nation states. Among them were the majority-Armenian community in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of independent Azerbaijan.

In 1991, following a referendum, the parliament of this region voted to declare Nagorno-Karabakh an independent republic, resulting in a bloody war between Azerbaijani troops and ethnic Armenian secessionists (backed militarily and financially by the Armenian government). By the time a truce was declared in 1994, an estimated 20,000 – 30,000 people had died and the ethnic Armenians were in control of around 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s territory. Despite sporadic outbreaks of fighting, the uneasy truce has largely held to this day.

map of nagorno-karabakh conflict ussr
A map of the Nagorno-Karabakh region within Azerbaijan Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

For Azerbaijani first division side Qarabag FK, this war had disastrous consequences. Their hometown of Agdam was utterly levelled by the Armenian invasion in an event referred to in Azerbaijan as the ‘Caucasian Hiroshima’. Over 6,000 residents lost their lives. The club found itself on the frontline, continuing to play matches despite the war.

In 1992 their training base was narrowly missed by a missile – no-one died and the club held their training session as usual after clearing debris from the pitch. They even won Azeri league and cup double in 1993. Nevertheless the war began to take its toll and thousands of residents were forced to flee the stadium and club was forced to find a new home in the Azeri capital of Baku. Agdam is now a ghost town.

There the club has been rebuilt, winning the last four Azeri league titles with money that largely derives from the rising oil price. As Jericho reported earlier this week, the trail of money in Azerbaijan is hard to follow but it is evident that the club is receiving tremendous backing from state-owned holding company Intersun, using them as a means of putting the international spotlight on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

While this ‘refugee club’ provides another footballing feel-good story in the same week that the Syrian national team have given themselves a good chance of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia, the success of Qarabag FK is another example of Azerbaijan’s strategic use of its oil wealth to influence international opinion.

agdam azerbaijan ussr ghost town
Today Agdam is a ghost town. Photo credit: Wikipedia commons.

The Sale of the Century

While the South Caucasus was convulsed by war, the newly formed Russian Federation, encouraged by the Western politicians and the IMF, had attempted to move from communism to capitalism at breakneck speed. This proved disastrous as market forces exerted themselves, with prices rocketing just as huge numbers of people working in now-useless industrial jobs found themselves unemployed. Government revenues from taxation plunged and the state, zealously loyal to the Western injunction to privatise everything, saw a route to renewed liquidity in selling off their most valuable assets. Oil fields, steel factories, gold mines and gasworks were all sold off, often to the factory owners, but sometimes to private individuals.

One of these individuals was a young Jewish orphan raised in the Arctic Circle. Roman Abramovich’s parents, Irina and Arkady, had both died before his fifth birthday, Irina during a backstreet abortion and Arkady in a construction accident. Young Roman was raised by his grandparents and spent a couple of years in the Red Army before moving to Moscow to start a career in business. After a failed venture selling plastic ducks, Abramovich moved into the oil trading business where he became acquainted with oligarch Boris Berezovsky. Abramovich and Berezovsky acquired control of Sibneft, a state oil company, through the latter’s connections with President Boris Yeltsin.

This company, already profiting from a booming world price for oil, also made money by buying oil for $10.5/barrel on the domestic Russian market and selling it for $17/barrel on the international market. Abramovich also moved into the aluminium industry, one which was notorious for gangsterism, with an average murder rate of one every three days. In a deal with Oleg Deripaska he agreed to end the ‘Aluminium Wars’ and they split the industry between them.

Roman Abramovich yacht ussr
Roman Abramovich’s Yacht, Pelorus, off the Croatian coast. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Whilst the oligarchs – collectively known as “The Family” – had ruled Russia between them under Yeltsin’s rule, the election of Vladimir Putin as president in 2000 saw the Russian state reassert its power. The Family was shocked by the imprisonment of Russia’s richest man, Mikhail Khordokovsky, and the forced nationalisation of his company, Yukos, in 2003. This encouraged many, including Abramovich, to diversify their wealth portfolios outside of Russia to prevent the state from seizing his assets. The acquisition of Chelsea Football Club in 2003 fitted the bill perfectly. Since then Abramovich has invested over £2 billion (USD $2.7 billion at todays market prices, but considerably more given the relatively strength of the pound until last summer) in the club in a period that has seen them win five English league titles and one Champions League. It is unlikely that any of these titles would have been possible without the bonanza that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Workers of the world unite

As the famous Champions League theme music rings out around West London tonight, with it will sound the echoes of the now long dead USSR, whose legacy continues to reverberate. One of the key figures in creating the USSR, Leon Trotsky, was well aware of the political power of football. He saw sport as an “artificial channel” used to redirect the revolutionary spirit of the working class so as not to threaten the political elites. Next month will mark 100 years to the day since the Russian Revolution, and if anything, this match proves the opposite to Trotsky’s dictum: sport and politics are now so intertwined that a fixture such as this cannot help but shine a light on political calamities of the past.

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