Turkish president to try football diplomacy in Armenia

Agence France Presse
Sept 5 2008

Turkish president to try football diplomacy in Armenia

ANKARA (AFP) ‘ Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul goes to Armenia
Saturday to watch a football match and start to tackle nearly 100
years of animosity over Ottoman Empire massacres that has left the two
neighbours barely able to talk to each other.

But Gul has come under attack at home for the major policy change that
will see him become the first Turkish head of state to visit
Armenia. He will join his counterpart Serge Sarkissian in Yerevan to
watch a qualifying match between the two countries for the 2010 World
Cup finals.

Ties between the two have been poisoned by Armenia’s campaign to have
the World War I killings of Armenians in Ottoman Empire Turkey
recognised as genocide.

The trip will only last a few hours, but Gul and Sarkissian are
expected to hold talks ahead of the match on regional issues such as
Ankara’s proposal for a Caucasus regional security forum, trying to
avoid contentious bilateral problems, according to diplomatic sources.

The last time leaders from the two countries met was in 1998 on the
sidelines of an international gathering. That ended when Turkey’s
Suleyman Demirel left the room after Robert Kocharian of Armenia
insisted that Ankara acknowledge the killings as genocide.

Armenians claim up to 1.5 million of their people were killed in
orchestrated massacres during World War I as the Ottoman Empire was
falling apart.

Turkey rejects the genocide label and argues that 300,000-500,000
Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when
Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided
with invading Russian troops.

The painful episode sends nationalists into a frenzy in both countries
nearly a century after it happened.

Gul’s visit has sharply divided public opinion.

Opposition parties and some private groups have condemned the trip,
others see it as a rare opportunity to seek a new era in troubled
bilateral ties.

"What has Armenia done to change its policy of hostility towards
Turkey over the issue of Armenian lies, what has it done to withdraw
from Azerbaijani territory? Nothing," Deniz Baykal, leader of the
Republican People’s Party (CHP) told Turkish news channel NTV.

Any change between the two neighbours will take time.

Armenian and Turkish diplomats have met four times since 2005 in
neutral countries in a bid to find common ground. The last time was in
July in Switzerland. No progress has been announced publicly.

Experts in both countries have stressed that this is just a cautious
first step.

"The Turkish president’s visit to Armenia is of huge importance," said
Yerevan-based political analyst Sergei Shakariants.

"But it is impossible to expect that a first meeting will be enough to
resolve problems that have endured for centuries. This meeting is a
simple first contact," he said.

"Gul’s visit is a bold move, but one should not expect much from it,"
said Cengiz Aktar, an international affairs expert at Istanbul’s
Bahcesehir University.

"First of all, there is no a real desire in Turkey to make peace with
Armenia and the atmosphere is not suitable for ground-breaking moves."

The Turkish government has adopted a cautious tone.

"The facts that we have do not support the theory that the visit will
resolve all the problems, but it is not right to assume that nothing
will come of it either," State Minister Mehmet Aydin was quoted by the
Anatolia news agency as saying.

Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia since the
former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991.

The two states have found no way to discuss the past.

In 2005, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan proposed a joint
commission of historians to investigate the World war I events, saying
Turkey should not be ashamed of its history. Armenia rejected the idea
as a political maneouvre.

In 1993 Turkey shut its border with Armenia in a show of solidarity
with its close ally Azerbaijan, then at war with Armenia over Nagorny
Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region in Azerbaijan which declared
independence.

The move dealt a heavy blow to Armenia, an impoverished nation
sandwiched between Turkey and Azerbaijan in the strategic Caucasus.

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