OLD FOES ARMENIA AND TURKEY PUT FAITH IN FOOTBALL DIPLOMACY
Friday September 5 2008
Presidents to hold talks before World Cup qualifier
Â· Neighbours at odds over first world war ‘genocide ‘Robert Tait
The first tentative steps towards healing generations of bitterness
between Turkey and Armenia will take place in a football stadium in
Yerevan tomorrow when the two nations meet in a World Cup qualifier
watched by their respective presidents.
In what has been termed "football diplomacy", Turkey’s president,
Abdullah Gul, will attend the match after accepting an invitation from
his Armenian counterpart, Serge Sarkisian, in an attempt to kick-start
relations between the two neighbours, who do not have diplomatic ties.
An estimated 5,000 Turkish fans are also expected in Yerevan, Armenia’s
capital, after the Armenian authorities waived normal visas controls
for the match in a goodwill gesture.
The presence of a large travelling army of supporters has provoked
fears of violent clashes with Armenian nationalists, who have vowed
to demonstrate against Gul’s visit, the first to Armenia by a modern
Turkish head of state.
In a sign of the political sensitivity, Gul only confirmed on Wednesday
evening that he would make the trip, ending speculation that had been
growing since the invitation was sent in July.
A carefully worded statement from his office said that the occasion had
"meaning beyon d being just a sporting event". It added: "The visit
held in the context of a match will contribute to the creation of a
climate of friendship in the region. The match will be an opportunity
to overcome obstacles and prepare a new ground to bring the two
The presidents are expected to watch side-by-side after discussions on
a catalogue of issues that evoke emotion, mistrust and vast differences
Ankara and Yerevan have long been at odds over Turkey’s refusal to
accept as genocide the deaths of up to 1.5 million Armenians at the
hands of Ottoman troops during the first world war. Turkey insists that
far fewer died, and that many of the deaths were caused by starvation
and disease, but proposes establishing a joint historical commission
to examine the issue.
Despite that longstanding disagreement, Turkey was among the first
countries to recognise Armenia’s independence following the collapse
of the Soviet Union in 1991. But formal relations were subsequently
frozen when Armenia occupied the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region
following a war with Azerbaijan, Turkey’s close ally. Turkey also
resents Armenian territorial claims on its eastern borders.
The troubled backdrop drove opposition politicians to urge Gul not
to accept the invitation, with Deniz Baykal, leader of Turkey’s
oldest party, the Republican People’s party – founded by Ataturk,
declaring that he would rather watch the game in20Baku, Azerbaijan’s
capital. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action party, said
the president "should not go before the problems between Armenia and
Turkey are solved".
Plans for a parliamentary delegation from the ruling Justice and
Development party (AKP) to accompany Gul were scrapped amid fears of
the trip becoming submerged in party politics.
However, the government supports rapprochement with Armenia as part of
prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal for a Caucasus stability
pact, promoted by Turkey following the recent clash between Russia and
Georgia. It is also keen to prevent the genocide issue clouding future
relations with the US and the EU, which have both given favourable
hearings to arguments presented by Armenian diaspora groups.
Mensur Akgun, foreign policy programme director of Tesev, a Turkish
thinktank, said the visit could lead to an accord on the question,
thus improving international perceptions of Turkey. "There may be some
progress on the joint commission to see if it was really genocide under
the 1948 UN definition, meaning we will be able to face our own history
which is obviously really good for a democracy," he said. "With respect
to Turkey’s international relations there is a lot to be gained."
Alexander Iskandarian, director of the Caucasus Institute in Yerevan,
said normalised relations with Turkey would provide Armenia with a
direct pathway to Europe, which the landlocked country lacks. "At the
moment we have open borders with just two of our neighbours, Georgia
and Iran," he said. "It costs us the same to import 1kg of goods from
Europe as it does from Australia, yet most of our trade is with Europe.
Open borders with Turkey would be very important to us."
Backstory The opening for the thaw in relations came when Turkey and
Armenia were drawn in the same World Cup qualifying group. It will
be the first time they have met at a senior level. President Serge
Sarkisian of Armenia saw it as a chance for "football diplomacy"
based on "ping-pong diplomacy", when the restoration of US-Chinese
ties in 1972 was presaged by table tennis matches.
"Just as the people of China and the United States shared enthusiasm
for ping-pong … the people of Armenia and Turkey are united in their
love of football," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. "Whatever
our differences, there are certain cultural, humanitarian and sports
links that our people share, even with a closed border."
Amid fears of clashes between fans, Turkey’s coach, Fetih Terim,
called for calm, saying: "This is only a football game not a war. We
cannot carry the weight of history on our shoulders."