Accessibility links

The Outbreak Of 'Football Diplomacy'

  • Jeremy Bransten
  • Charles Recknagel

Turkey and Armenia are two countries whose enmities are well-known.

They do not have diplomatic relations, their border has been closed for 15 years, and there are two deeply felt issues that separate their peoples.
Members of the visiting Turkish national football team practice in Yerevan on September 5.

One is the mass killings of Armenians in Turkey during and just after World War I. Armenia calls the killings genocide. Anyone referring to them that way in Turkey faces criminal prosecution.

The other issue is Armenia's support of Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan. Ankara accuses Armenia of occupying part of the territory of one of Turkey’s closest allies. Armenia says it is helping its ethnic kinsmen defend themselves.

So, little wonder that many people -- including in the two countries themselves -- view the outbreak of "football diplomacy" with amazement.

Armenia's and Turkey's national teams meet in Yerevan for a World Cup qualifier on September 6. Turkish President Abdullah Gul will attend the match jointly with Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian.

Some have argued that there is a sea change in the usually hostile relations between the two countries.

But analysts say the sudden thawing in relations is not as sudden as it may seem.

Alexander Iskandarian, a political analyst at the Caucasus Media Center in Yerevan, says there is strong political support there for detente with Ankara. That gave President Serzh Sarkisian the confidence to publicly invite his Turkish counterpart in July to come to the game.

Iskandarian says the political support includes Armenia's opposition parties, assuring a welcome even if there are some street protests.

Iskandarian says Yerevan's hope is that a thaw would lead to a permanent reopening of the Turkish-Armenian border. The border has been closed for 15 years by Turkey over Armenia's support for Nagorno-Karabakh. As a result, Armenia has no rail-link to the West -- despite the fact some 70 percent of the country's trade balance is with Europe.

How important is that to Armenia's commercial life?

Iskandarian says "you don't need to be an economist or a businessman to answer this question."

"To bring one kilogram of goods from Europe to Armenia is as expensive as bringing one kilogram of those good from Europe to Australia," Iskandarian says. "It is because the Turkish border is closed. And now, in the last weeks, it is even worse because, before that, almost all goods that came to Armenia came from Georgia or Iran and Georgia now, in fact, is semi-closed."

In Turkey, too, there seems to be a sense that a rapprochement is both possible and advantageous.

Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the "Turkish Daily News" in Istanbul, points to the massive coverage and "big interest" in the debate over whether Gul should have accepted the Armenian invitation.

Akyol says is it particularly significant that the Turkish military has not objected to the diplomatic initiatives.

"In Turkey, the military generally has nationalist reflexes. But on this issue, the military did not create a problem for the government. And the military didn't act as if it was disturbed," Akyol says. "Right now, the nationalist parties in the parliament are more nationalist than the military on some issues. And probably on this one, I think the military is not disturbed because the military understands that Turkey needs to secure its Caucasus borders and needs to have good relations. So, probably the military is not a big obstacle on this issue."

It is still unclear how long both the Armenian and Turkish sides may have been preparing for the seemingly sudden breakthrough of the football game.

The Turkish media quoted senior Turkish Foreign Ministry officials as saying recently that they had been meeting secretly with Armenian counterparts in Switzerland for some time. That would indicate that ground had been carefully laid beyond merely having a successful World Cup qualifying match.

Akyol sees Ankara's interest in a detente as part of a larger Turkish strategy of stabilizing relations with its bordering states. Previously, Turkey has turned its attention west to Greece and southwest to Syria and Iraq. Now, the focus is to the east.

"The grand brain behind Turkey's current foreign policy is Professor Ahmed Davutoglu," Akyol says. "He's a top adviser to the prime minister on foreign policy and he's the one who started the Israeli-Syrian negotiations, who started this with northern Iraq."

Akyol says Davutoglu "has a principle in foreign policy that he introduced and that is zero problems with [Turkey's] neighbors."

"Because of that policy, Turkey started to solve all of its problems with its neighbors. That includes Greece -- there are still some issues with Greece, but Turkey is in a much better situation now -- with Bulgaria, with Iraq, with Syria, with Iran," Akyol says. "And this also, of course, includes Georgia and now Armenia is now the only problem that Turkey has, the only neighbor with whom Turkey doesn't have diplomatic relations and the only neighbor with whom there are tense issues."

The motives for Turkey's multidirectional stabilization strategy are themselves multiple.

One is the fact that having normal ties with neighbors is a precondition for ever joining the EU.

Another is that Turkey is a major transit point for energy from the south -- Iraq -- and the east -- the Caspian basin -- and that helping stabilize these regions directly helps the Turkey's economy.

Finally, there may be a sense that if Turkey does not assert its interests in these regions it will lose influence to foreign powers that do. In the Caucasus the power Ankara must come to terms with is a newly assertive Russia. Moscow’s invasion of Georgia directly concerns Ankara because, among other things, Turkey wants a secure route for the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

With political opinion running in favor of rapprochement in Ankara and Yerevan analysts in both capitals see a growing possibility for diplomatic ties and opening the border.

The question, however, is whether either or both sides would put preconditions to establishing normal relations. And the subject of pre-conditions returns to the two main emotional issues separating the two countries today.

"Turkey would be willing to establish relations. Again, there would be reactions in Turkey -- there are different political camps in Turkey -- but I think the current government and the presidency are hoping to establish bilateral relations," Akyol says. "And the biggest obstacle to that might not necessarily be the 'genocide issue,' but the Azeri issue. Part of Azerbaijan is still under Armenian occupation -- Karabakh. And Turkey, since it feels very close to the Azeris, Turkey is always on the side of Azerbaijan on that conflict. So that might be even a bigger obstacle."

In Yerevan, analyst Iskandarian agrees. He notes that Armenia would not insist on Turkey dealing with the genocide charges as a precondition for relations.

"The official position of Yerevan is that we agree to open the border and normalize diplomatic relations without any preconditions," Iskandarian says. "So, Armenians are ready to [separate] diplomatic relationships with Turkey from other problems that are in the relationship between even, I would not say between the Turkish and Armenian states, but between the Turkish and Armenian people's memory, mentality, etc."

That leaves Nagorno-Karabakh. The test in the days ahead will be how far the successful "football diplomacy" in Yerevan goes to cooling high emotions over the enclave in Azerbaijan. Then perhaps it will be possible to see if real diplomatic ties might follow.
Video
Hopes For An Open Border

RFE/RL's Armenian Service asked residents of the border village of Akhurik what an open border and restored transportation links with Turkey would mean for them. Video

XS
SM
MD
LG