Go and watch some football

The Turkish president should go to Yerevan and catch a game

Abdullah Gül

The Turkish president should go to Yerevan and catch a game

Saturday marks the return of international football in Europe after an interval of almost three months, as 53 teams begin to compete for thirteen spaces at the next World Cup in 2010. Turkey is in Group 5, and it has long been clear that its single greatest opponent will be Spain, the reigning European champions. But it was another fixture that everyone noticed when the group was drawn last November: Turkey versus Armenia.

Turkey will play ten qualification matches over the course of the next twelve months, and the first and last of these will be against Armenia. In footballing terms, it shouldn’t be much of a contest: Turkey is a very strong side, ranking 13th in the world, while Armenia trails at number 94. Expect the Turks to win; anything less than a draw would be a great upset.

But it isn’t just about football that Turkey’s media is talking about this week. Also being debated – fiercely at times – is whether or not President Abdullah Gül should accept an invitation from his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan, to watch Saturday’s game in Yerevan together.

To describe Armenians and Turks as “having a history” is to vastly downplay what they have been through. The two are intertwined – or were, until around a 150 years ago – having lived alongside each other within the Ottoman Empire. Armenians, as Christians, had a privileged minority status and held many an influential position in the Ottoman civil service, particularly in the Empire’s latter years. In fact, it was sometimes difficult to describe them as a minority: in many parts of Anatolia that are now Eastern Turkey, for instance, the number of Armenians almost equalled the number of Turks. This was the case as recently as the beginning of the First World War.

Of course, something happened to change that, because the number of Armenians living in Turkey today wouldn’t fill a small town. That something remains deeply controversial both in Turkey (as in January last year) and abroad (see here and here for background). And it isn’t just claims of genocide that have led to today’s tension between the two countries. Armenia and Azerbaijan, a close Turkish partner, are still technically at war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey closed its border with Armenia over the issue more than a decade ago.

With so many factors to consider, Mr Gül has yet to RSVP. A delegation from the Turkish foreign ministry is in Yerevan this week to invite Armenia to join Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s plans for a Caucasus Alliance, but they are also there to discuss the potential visit too, and Mr Gül has said his decision will be announced after the delegation reports back.

There has been plenty of opinion from inside Turkey as to whether he should go, with the opposition being, well, rather opposed. Atilla Kaya, deputy leader of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), said Armenia “does not recognise the territorial integrity of the Turkish Republic you represent. It also occupies another Turkic territory. I call on you not to go to Armenia.” Main opposition leader Deniz Baykal agrees, saying Mr Gül should recognise Turkey’s friend in the region is Baku, not Yerevan.

Neither is there much enthusiasm from the ruling AK party. At its parliamentary assembly on Monday, AK MPs voted not to send representatives to accompany Mr Gül, should he decide to go. It looks like it would be a very lonely visit.

If he did accept, Mr Gül’s visit would be fleeting. There are no diplomatic relations between the two countries, which means that, far from an official welcoming ceremony at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, Mr Gül would land, travel directly to the stadium, watch the match, and then leave. Any discussions with Mr Sargsyan – and surely they would be superficial – would occur during the match. The engines on Mr Gül’s aircraft would not even be switched off in the interim (carbon footprint, anyone?). This visit would hardly open the border tomorrow.

But that is no reason to turn the invitation down and happily, there are some in Turkey who agree. The influential Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association, TUSİAD, has urged Mr Gül to accept, saying that in the present climate of tension elsewhere in the Caucasus, any opportunity to improve relations should be taken.

And quite right too. The Armenian president’s invitation is an immense gesture and the perfect first meeting for further talks later on. It would not estrange Azerbaijan overnight, nor would it be a betrayal of the position Turkey took on the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. All the visit would demonstrate is that both sides are ready to talk. And seasoned observers know that alone would be a remarkable step forward.

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