09/05/2008, 00.00
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Football diplomacy between Ankara and Yerevan

by Mavi Zambak
Turkish President Gül accepts invitation to attend a football match between Armenia and Turkey. For the past 15 years the two countries had no diplomatic relations and their borders were sealed. Political and oil interests explain the president’s yes.
Ankara (AsiaNews) – After three days of silence Turkish President Abdullah Gül accepted an invitation by his Armenian counterpart President Serzh Sargsyan to attend tomorrow’s qualifying match between Armenia and Turkey in the Armenian capital of Yerevan for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

Such an extraordinary event is important not so much for the outcome of the football (soccer) match but as the first step in a process that could solve the many complex disputes between the two countries.

For the past 15 years Turkey and Armenia have had no formal diplomatic relations. Over the same period of time their shared border has been sealed, this despite the fact that Turkey one of the first countries to recognise the independence of the former Soviet Republic in 1991.

Relations, never strong at the best of times, broke down definitely when Armenia occupied 20 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory, when it invaded Nagorno Karabakh. They became toxic when the Armenians began insisting that Turkey recognise the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1916 in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire.

What is certain, according to Ömer Engin Lütem, director of the Ankara-based Institute for Armenian Research, is that the Turks realise now that opening to Armenia does not mean owning up to the genocide charge. The Turkish press has encouraged this rapprochement on political and economic grounds. Many people also want to see a commission of inquiry into issues like “Diaspora” Armenians.

In 2005 Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already suggested the creation of a joint Armenian-Turkish commission of historians, but former Armenian President Robert Kocharyan proposed instead an “intergovernmental commission” to re-establish diplomatic relations and discuss the international recognition of the genocide with eventual compensation.

Since then everything has been at a standstill, wall against wall, with Turkey still denying the charges of “genocide” and dismissing the whole issue as an invention to weaken the Turkish nation.

The good will of the Armenian host has to be admired. In arguing for the Gül invitation he said: “During the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkey closed its border with Armenia as an expression of ethnic solidarity with Turkic Azerbaijan. The regrettable result is that for almost 15 years, the geopolitically vital border between Armenia and Turkey has become a barrier to diplomatic and economic cooperation. It is closed not only to Armenians and Turks who might want to visit their neighboring countries, but to trade, transport and energy flows from East to West.”

“There may be possible political obstacles on both sides along the way. However, we must have the courage and the foresight to act now. Armenia and Turkey need not and should not be permanent rivals. A more prosperous, mutually beneficial future for Armenia and Turkey, and the opening up of a historic East-West corridor for Europe, the Caspian region and the rest of the world, are goals that we can and must achieve.”

In Turkey the opposition reacted negatively to Gül’s decision to go to Yerevan, viewing it as giving in to Armenia. The Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) even called the trip an insult to the honour of the Turkish nation and an “historic error’. In light of the close ties between Armenia to Russia, the decision for them bodes ill for Turkey’s historic ties to Georgia and especially Azerbaijan, a nation closer to Turkey in terms of history, ethnicity and language, because of the.

In Europe the response has instead been positive. EU enlargement commissioner Olli Rehn called the trip an “important first step” and said he hoped it would “soon [be] followed by others that lead to a full normalisation of relations between these two countries.”

From his See in Istanbul Armenian Patriarch Mesrob II expressed through his secretary hope that the football match might be an opportunity for these two nations to renew friendship and brotherhood.

Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is backing the “sport meeting” between the two presidents, hoping it might be the first step in realising his much vaunted proposal for a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform” which initially should include Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Armenia, followed later by other neighbouring countries. This platform has a “geographic basis” whose goal is “peace and security in the region” as well as “economic cooperation and energy security.”

It is clear that behind the idea of acting as a mediator for peace and stability, there is Ankara’s desire to meet the country’s continuous and pressing need for energy supplies. For this reason in particular, it is trying to strengthen ties with Georgia and Azerbaijan without antagonising Russia since 60 per cent of its methane requirements come from the Russian giant who this year will become Turkey’s main trading partner, replacing Germany. And lest we forget Russia maintains strong ties to Armenia.

In the meantime, 12,000 tickets have been reportedly sold already, 2,700 to Turkish spectators, who had the US$ 50 entry visa fee waived.

Photo: the match between the two Under 19 national teams.

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