Turkey & Armenia: From Secret Talks To Soccer Diplomacy?

Gareth Jenkins

Eurasia Daily Monitor
July 25 2008

On July 24, the presidents of Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan formally
inaugurated the Turkish section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad,
which will eventually provide the first ever rail link between the
three countries. Speaking at the groundbreaking ceremony, Turkish
President Abdullah Gul declared, in an unmistakable reference to
Armenia, that "this project is open to all countries in the region who
wish to contribute to good, neighborly relations, peace and prosperity"
(NTV, CNNTurk, July 24).

Armenia and Turkey do not have any official diplomatic relations
and the border between the two countries has been closed since 1993,
following the war in Nagorno Karabakh between ethnic Armenians and the
Azeri government in Baku. In recent years, hopes of an improvement
in relations between Turkey and Armenia have been frustrated by
continuing differences over the status of Nagorno Karabakh and–more
intractably–the treatment of ethnic Armenians during the final years
of the Ottoman Empire, culminating in 1915-16 in the massacre and
deportation of virtually the entire Armenian population of Anatolia.

As a result, Ankara has consistently excluded Armenia from its
plans to make Turkey into an energy and transportation hub. The
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline and the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum
(BTE) natural gas pipeline both pointedly circumvent Armenia. The 76
kilometer (48 mile) Turkish section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad
is currently expected to be completed in late 2010 or early 2011 at
a total cost of $241 million. The initial target is for the railroad
to carry 1.5 million passengers and 6.5 million tons of freight in
the first year after it comes into service (Today’s Zaman, July 25).

In addition to connecting Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan, Ankara
hopes that the railroad will form another link in a rail network
that will eventually connect, via Turkey, China and Central Asia to
western Europe. The Marmaray Project to bore a rail tunnel under the
Bosporus and connect the Asian and European shores of Istanbul is
currently scheduled for completion in 2011.

Armenia opposed the building of the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railroad,
pointing out that there is already a railway running from Tbilisi
to Kars via the Armenian town of Gyumri, although it has been out of
use since the closure of the Turkish-Armenian border in 1993.

It is currently unclear what concessions Gul envisaged when he
apparently made Armenian participation in the new rail project
conditional on Yerevan making a contribution to "good, neighborly
relations, peace and prosperity." For the moment at least, the
respective positions of Turkey and Armenia on issues such as Nagorno
Karabakh and the massacres and deportations of ethnic Armenians in the
late Ottoman Empire appear so far apart as to be irreconcilable. Even
if the two countries could reach some form of understanding over
the latter, a solution to the problem of Nagorno Karabakh is beyond
Turkey’s control as it depends on an agreement between Armenia and
Azerbaijan. There is currently no indication that one is imminent.

Nevertheless, there have recently been signs of a slight thaw between
Turkey and Armenia. Even though the border between the two countries
remains closed, there are now regular flights between Turkey and
Armenia by both the privately-owned Turkish Atlas Jet and the Armenian
state-owned carrier Armavia.

On July 18, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan appeared to confirm
rumors in the Turkish media that diplomats from Turkey and Armenia
had met in Switzerland for several days of informal talks about ways
of improving ties. "Such talks are held from time to time," said
Babacan. "We have problems about current issues and disagreements
about the events of 1915. It is essential that these problems are
handled through dialogue" (Today’s Zaman, July 19).

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also issued a statement
admitting that in recent years there had been occasional informal
contacts between Turkey and Armenia and noting that Turkey had been
one of the first countries to recognize Armenia when it declared its
independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. "Meetings between members
of the foreign ministries of the two countries are part of these
contacts. We believe that no different meaning should be attributed
to these meetings," said the MFA statement (Today’s Zaman, July 19).

A previous series of informal discussions in 2005 failed to produce
any result. In recent years, hopes of an improvement in relations
have been complicated by events such as the motion brought before the
U.S. Congress in fall 2007 calling on the United States to recognize
what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as a genocide and the racist
murder in Istanbul in January 2007 of Turkish-Armenian journalist
Hrant Dink.

But, even if diplomats from Turkey and Armenia remain reluctant to be
seen meeting with each other, the two countries will come together in
the most public of ways later this year. On September 6, the Turkish
and Armenian national soccer teams are due to meet in Yerevan in the
first ever match between the countries after they were both drawn in
the same group in the qualifying stages for the 2010 soccer World
Cup in South Africa. Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan has already
invited Gul to Yerevan to watch the match. Gul has yet to reply to
the invitation. Given the often extreme mutual antagonism between
nationalists in both countries, traveling to Yerevan would require
Gul to display both personal and political courage; as it would
for Sarksyan to attend the return match in Istanbul. But there is
also little doubt that, even if it did not produce any immediate
results, such "soccer diplomacy" could contribute to a further
easing of tensions and perhaps lay the foundations for an eventual

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