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Armenia's Soccer Defeat Opens Door To Breakthrough In Turkey Relations

  • Barcin Yinanc

Abdullah Gul (left) and Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan

Abdullah Gul (left) and Serzh Sarkisian in Yerevan

"Sometimes small coincidences lead to big events," said the Turkish President Abdullah Gul to the small group of journalists that accompanied him on his historic visit to Yerevan.

When the news came last November that the Turkish and Armenian national soccer teams were drawn in the same group, it is hard to know whether Gul foresaw that this small trick of fate would make him the first Turkish president in history to visit Armenia. But what we know for sure from his close advisers is that when he received the news that Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian invited him to Yerevan to watch the match together, his immediate reaction was positive.

"Turning down the invitation would have given a negative image of Turkey to the world. It would have created the impression that Turkey is closed to dialogue, against initiatives on human issues," a close adviser to Gul says. But in the cost-benefit analysis, it is not the cost of saying no, but rather the benefit of saying yes that determined the final decision. Gul embarked on this historic visit with the clear intention and hope that it would herald a new phase in the bitter relations between two traditional foes.
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The visit, which was criticized by opposition parties, signals a significant shift in Turkey's policy toward Armenia. The question of whether ethnic Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks during World War I were victims of genocide, and the conflict over the Azerbaijani enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, poisoned relations from the outset when Armenia declared its independence in 1991. Turkey refused to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia due to its international campaign for the killings to be classified as genocide and closed its border after Armenia occupied parts of neighboring Azerbaijan, Turkey's close ally. With the lack of progress on both issues, Turkey stepped up its isolation policy by excluding Armenia from regional projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that transports Azerbaijani oil to Turkey via Georgia.

Although Armenia most probably suffered from this exclusion policy, it neither withdrew its claims of genocide nor endorsed a more flexible stance on the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, prompting some Turkish decision makers to question the merits of the policy vis-a-vis Armenia and start looking for a way out.

But former Armenian President Robert Kocharian's rejection of successive Turkish overtures, such as establishing a commission of historians from both countries to reach consensus on the 1915 killings, meant those who favored a positive engagement with Armenia could not gain the upper hand among policymakers.

The debate continues today. Advocates of the isolation policy point to the results of the February 2008 Armenian presidential election. Former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, who is known to be more conciliatory on both Turkey and Azerbaijan, made a surprise political comeback and Sarkisian's victory against him was highly contested.

The Turkish government was expecting Sarkisian to follow the same line as his predecessor. But it was pleasantly surprised to see a leader more willing to break the deadlock in relations.

"Sarkisian's legitimacy was highly shaky. He read the message coming from the street and endorsed a more conciliatory line with Turkey," says a Turkish diplomat. Even before Sarkisian's invitation, the two countries' diplomats started to hold secret negotiations with the aim of normalizing relations.

Russia Changes The Equation

To what degree Turkey's policy of isolating Armenia has played a role in the current rapprochement is open to debate, but what it did for sure was to push Armenia into the arms of Russia. Surrounded by two hostile states, it was only natural for Armenia to remain close to Russia.

The recent tension between Georgia and Russia changed the balance of forces in the Caucasus and has convinced many that it is time for Ankara and Yerevan to set aside their differences. "We don't want a polarization between Russia and Armenia on one side, and Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Georgia on the other side," says an adviser to the government. The Turkish government is quite nervous of the fact that Russia has increased its influence in the region, and a strategy to contain Moscow requires the resolution of the conflicts among Caucasian states.

Furthermore, the crisis has revealed yet again the need for alternative energy-export routes. As the route through Georgia will remain vulnerable for some time, Armenia could be an attractive alternative.

The recent war between Russia and Georgia highlighted the danger that the "frozen" conflicts in the region could again turn violent, raising the risk of instability, but at the same time created an opportunity for new diplomatic efforts to resolve those conflicts, observes Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan. The Turkish government's proposal for a new mechanism for resolving those conflicts, the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, would encompass Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. But the proposal would have lacked credibility in the absence of a real dialogue between Turkey and Armenia, and hence provided another reason for Gul to go to Yerevan.

The Turkish president clearly took a risk. He left Turkey under fierce criticism from the opposition and risked humiliation by demonstrators in Yerevan. But the Armenian government kept its word and the visit, which lasted only a few hours, ended without incident.

The statements by both presidents suggest a genuine eagerness on both sides to start a new phase in diplomatic relations. No one is expecting a change in relations overnight. There will be lengthy and complicated discussions over the terms for the normalization of ties. But the difference this time is that Turkey is about to embark on a new policy of positive engagement with Armenia, which in turn must reciprocate with a more conciliatory line.

As Gul said following his talks in Yerevan, the visit has broken down a psychological barrier. He might also be right when he said that relations between the two countries will never be the same.

The Armenian team lost 2-0 to the Turks. But the historic match may have opened the door to a win-win situation for both countries.

Barcin Yinanc is managing editor of the "Turkish Daily News." The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
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