x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Football diplomacy between Armenia and Turkey

Serge Sarkisian, the Armenian president, shook hands with his Turkish counterpart when the Turks won the arch enemies' World Cup qualifier.

ISTANBUL // When his national football team conceded the first of two goals in a match against its long-time arch enemy Turkey, Serge Sarkisian, the Armenian president, did something that surprised his hosts so much that the scene was replayed on Turkish television over and over. He smiled and shook hands with his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul. It was one of many symbolic moments of warmth and reconciliation during Mr Sarkisian's visit to the north-western Turkish city of Bursa on Wednesday night, a trip that made the Armenian president the first head of state of his country to travel to Turkey for a bilateral meeting. Coming just days after the two countries signed agreements to normalise relations, Mr Sarkisian's visit cemented a new era in ties that are burdened by history and regional disputes.

"We do not write history here, we are making history," Mr Gul told the Armenian president in a meeting before the match, Turkish media reported yesterday. The so-called "football diplomacy" between the two countries started when Mr Gul went to Yerevan last year to watch the first of two qualifying matches between Turkey and Armenia for next year's world cup in South Africa. Turkey won both matches, 2-0, but neither team managed to qualify for the world cup.

But football took second place in Bursa. "Peace won," the daily Milliyet said in a headline yesterday. Hurriyet, another newspaper, reported on its title page that Mr Sarkisian shook Mr Gul's hand after the first goal. "The first congratulation after the Turkish goal came from the Armenian president," the daily said. As a sign of peace, white doves were set free in the stadium in Bursa before the match. After talks in a hotel, the two presidents travelled to the stadium together in one car that flew the flags of both countries. During the match, Mr Gul and Mr Sarkisian were seen chatting with each other via an interpreter.

Edouard Nalbandian, the Armenian foreign minister, was quoted as saying he was impressed by the hospitality displayed by Mr Gul. "Dishes were brought today from Ankara that were made especially for the occasion by Mr Gul's wife," the minister said. "It was a special expression of warmth." Turkey and Armenia are divided by the memory of the death of up to 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, when the Ottoman Empire was crumbling during the First World War. Armenia and many international scholars say the massacres against the Anatolian Armenians amounted to genocide. Turkey rejects that accusation and says the deaths were the result of wartime conditions.

Relations are complicated further by a conflict between Armenia and the Turkish ally Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave on Azeri territory. Turkey closed its border with Armenia in protest against Armenian military operations in Karabakh in the early 1990s. In months of closed-door negotiations under Swiss mediation, Turkish and Armenian diplomats agreed on several protocols designed to normalise ties between the two countries. The protocols, signed last weekend in Zurich, say the two countries are ready to establish diplomatic relations, open the closed border and create a joint commission of historians that will look at the events of 1915.

However, it is unclear how soon the agreements will be implemented. Under pressure from nationalists and a public wary of any step that could leave Azerbaijan out in the cold, the Turkish government has said parliament in Ankara will ratify the protocols only if there is movement in the Karabakh conflict and a withdrawal of Armenian forces, a condition that could mean that implementation of the protocols is de facto shelved.

Armenian diplomats, quoted by the AFP news agency, said after the meeting of Mr Gul and Mr Sarkisian in Bursa that Armenia "expects to get a guarantee from Turkey that the ratification will not be drawn out and will occur within a logical time frame". According to Hurriyet, Armenia insists on a ratification before next spring. Mr Gul conceded that the process of reconciliation will be difficult. Both sides agreed that "the steps taken are not easy ones at all", the president was quoted by Turkish media as saying. "We are moving forward slowly."

In Bursa, signs of difficulties were almost just as numerous as gestures of friendship. Turkish fans in the stadium loudly booed when the Armenian national anthem was played before the match, and there were angry whistles every time the Armenian team was in possession of the ball during the match. Milliyet reported that police in Bursa foiled a plan by Turkish nationalists to drive onto the pitch with a bulldozer and unfold an Azeri flag.

But overall, optimism prevailed. Before returning to Armenia around midnight, Mr Sarkisian told journalists that the two countries "accomplished a great job today". Mr Gul was asked by a reporter if the rapprochement between the two long-time enemies may even result in a Nobel Peace Prize for the two presidents. "The important thing is to turn the whole region into a region of co-operation," Mr Gul said. "People pay talk about that," he added in reference to the Nobel Peace Prize. "But we are doing our job."

tseibert@thenational.ae