On September 3 Turkish President Abdullah Gul announced that he had accepted an invitation from Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian to attend the soccer match between the two countries in the Armenian capital of Yerevan on September 6 as part of the qualifying group stages for the 2008 World Cup. It will be the first time a Turkish head of state has ever visited Armenia.
The announcement followed weeks of speculation and has proved to be highly controversial inside Turkey. Opposition parties had called on Gul to decline the invitation in protest over Armenian support for the breakaway region of Karabakh in Azerbaijan and the continuing campaign by the Armenian diaspora for the massacres and deportations of ethnic Armenians during the final years of the Ottoman Empire to be recognized as genocide.
Turkey was among the first countries to recognize the Republic of Armenia following its declaration of independence in 1991. Ironically, at the time, one of the leading advocates of closer ties between the two countries was Alparslan Turkes (1917-1997), the founder of the Turkish ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Relations soured, however, when Yerevan supported an armed uprising by ethnic Armenians in Karabakh against the Azerbaijani government in Baku. In addition to religious and linguistic ties, Ankara has been eager to maintain a close relationship with Baku in order to fulfill its ambition of making Turkey an energy hub for exports of oil and natural gas from the Caspian basin and Central Asia. In 1993 Turkey severed all diplomatic ties with Armenia and closed their shared land border. There are now regular flights between Yerevan and Istanbul; but, despite pressure from both the international community and local business organizations in eastern Turkey, the land border remains closed.
In recent months, however, there have been signs of a possible rapprochement. On July 18 Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan confirmed 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 (see EDM, July 25). Hopes were further raised by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s proposal of a “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform,” following the outbreak of fighting between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia in early August. Erdogan’s plan envisages creating a regional framework that would enable the countries of the Caucasus to resolve their differences without recourse to violence.
Erdogan’s proposal appears to have been motivated by the combination of a genuine desire to stop the bloodshed in South Ossetia and his ambition for Turkey to prove itself as a regional superpower, which includes being recognized as a major player in the Caucasus. Erdogan appears to have failed to understand that Russia’s policies toward both South Ossetia and Abkhazia were motivated by a desire not to avoid conflict but simply to assert its preeminence in its “near abroad.” Nevertheless, Turkey could hardly propose dialogue and closer regional cooperation and then reject Sarkisian’s invitation to Gul to attend a soccer match.
In a statement posted on its website in the ponderous opacity of formal Turkish, the office of the Turkish presidency acknowledged that the visit would be concerned with more than the game itself.
“The match offers important opportunities in addition to being a sporting event,” noted the statement. “It is believed that this opportunity that has arisen should be evaluated in the best possible manner by all sides, particularly at a time when the peoples of the Caucasus are experiencing worrying developments. It is thought that the visit that will be made in relation to this match can contribute to the development of a new friendship in the region. It is with this understanding that the president has accepted the invitation” (website of the Turkish presidency, www.tccb.gov.tr)
What the statement goes on to describe as “the opportunity provided by this visit for the two peoples to understand each other better” (www.tccb.gov.tr) is likely to be fairly fleeting. According to reports in the Turkish media, Gul will spend only five to six hours in Armenia. Accompanied by Babacan, he will fly from Ankara to Yerevan on the Airbus 319 known as Ana, which was bought by Erdogan for his official use, and which, as the Turkish media have proudly noted, has a large Turkish flag painted on its tail (Hurriyet, Milliyet, September 4). Gul will arrive in Yerevan about two hours before the match and have an approximately one hour meeting with Sarkisian at the Armenian presidential palace. The two will then travel to the stadium to watch the match together. As soon as the match is over, Gul will be driven to the airport and fly straight back to Turkey (Milliyet, Radikal, Hurriyet, September 4).
Nobody seriously expects the visit to result in any breakthrough in the longstanding disputes between Turkey and Armenia. Opponents of the visit have criticized Gul for making what they regard as a meaningless gesture and warned that he is likely to face vociferous protests from Armenian ultranationalists in the stadium.
“Will Armenia completely abandon the genocide claims of the diaspora? Will they withdraw from the Azerbaijani territory they have occupied?” asked columnist Altemur Kilic in the Turkish ultranationalist daily Yeni Cag (Yeni Cag, September 4).
Fatih Terim, the coach of the Turkish national soccer team, has expressed concern that all the talk of the symbolic value of Gul’s visit is distracting attention from the game itself. It is a match that Turkey should and must win in order to boost its chances of qualification for the finals.
“This is just a game of soccer for us, not a war,” said Terim. “We can’t carry the burden of history on our shoulders” (Milliyet, Hurriyet, Zaman, NTV, September 4).
But, on Saturday evening, when the populations of Turkey and Armenia tune in to watch the game on television, undoubtedly most will not only be remembering history but wondering whether the time has now come for relations between the countries to have a future.