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Can Football Diplomacy Lead To Peace?

Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian
Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian has decided to try a little "football diplomacy" to defuse longstanding tensions with neighboring Turkey.

During a visit to Moscow in June, Sarkisian made waves by publicly announcing that he would like his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, to come to Yerevan to watch a World Cup qualifying soccer match between the two countries in September.

The Armenian leader repeated the invitation in a commentary titled "We Are Ready To Talk To Turkey," published in the U.S. daily "The Wall Street Journal" on July 9.

"There is no real alternative to the establishment of normal diplomatic relations between our countries," Sarkisian wrote. "It is my hope that both of our governments can pass through the threshold to this new open door."

The Turkish Foreign Ministry says it is "studying" the proposal.

The sports element lends Sarkisian's overture a tantalizing historical appeal, evoking memories of the "ping-pong diplomacy" of the 1970s -- when an exchange of table-tennis teams helped set the stage for eventual rapprochement between the United States and China.

But what caused many observers to wonder aloud whether the current initiative might just lead to something serious was Russia's apparent willingness to throw its diplomatic weight behind the idea -- and grab the mantle on an issue where U.S. diplomats have, until now, played the leading role.

"Russian diplomats have been given the task of moving beyond the American initiative to normalize Armenian-Turkish relations," David Hovhannisyan, a former Armenian diplomat and Yerevan-based political analyst, says.

Hovhannisyan adds that it is highly unlikely that Sarkisian would have made his dramatic gesture in Moscow without his host's consent. Moreover, just a week after Sarkisian's visit to Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov traveled to Istanbul, with the Armenia issue reportedly part of his agenda.

Adding to the air of anticipation, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian flew to Washington for an official visit this week.

"Moscow has developed a good relationship with Ankara, and being able to continue to develop that relationship, without complications emanating from its support for Yerevan, would be something that I think the Russian government would welcome," says Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Mosaic Of Distrust

Turkey's frosty relations with Armenia, however, are part of a larger mosaic of deep animosities, historical grievances, and bitter tensions that have long plagued the region.

Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Armenian independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But when Armenian forces occupied Azerbaijan's Nagorno-Karabakh region, Ankara broke off diplomatic ties with Yerevan and closed its border with Armenia.

Most analysts say it is highly unlikely that Turkey would make any moves toward rapprochement with Armenia without Azerbaijan's consent -- making Armenian-Turkish reconciliation tightly bound to a settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh issue.

Moreover, Yerevan's claim that the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I constitutes genocide is angrily rejected by Turkey and continues to be a major roadblock in normalizing relations. In an attempt to entice Istanbul, Sarkisian has offered to have a joint commission of Armenian and Turkish scholars investigate the claims.

Observers in Turkey nevertheless remain skeptical.

Turkey's president, Abdullah Gul
"It looks like Armenia seriously wants to negotiate, but as far as we see there is no change in their position on Karabakh or on questions of Turkey's territorial integrity," Omer Lutem head of the Armenia department at the Istanbul-based Eurasian Strategic Research Center told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service in a recent interview. "Will they give up on their claims of genocide, or will they fight? Will they make changes or not? It is not clear. If there will not be any changes, how will the question be resolved?"

Alizira agreed that untangling this web and resolving these issues would prove to be a complicated task. "There have been a lot of false dawns on this front," he said.

But some observers say that the politics of the region at this particular time gives Moscow plenty of incentives to try.

Moscow's Motives

Russia has been steadily losing influence in the South Caucasus in recent years. Relations with Georgia are embroiled in deep hostility over the pro-Moscow separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and over Tbilisi's bid to join NATO. Azerbaijan, whose energy wealth grants it a degree of independence from Moscow, is increasingly looking West as well.

Russia maintains a large degree of influence in Armenia, where it maintains a military base and has invested heavily -- particularly in the energy sector.

Alexander Iskandarian, director of Caucasus Media Institute in Yerevan, calls Armenia "Russia's only trusted partner in the South Caucasus," adding that it is not in Russia's interests to have such an ally isolated, with its borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan closed. Moreover, Russian firms investing in Armenia badly want the border opened so they can use the country as a springboard to expand into markets throughout the region and beyond.

"When Russia was in a different position in the South Caucasus, the fact that Armenia was so isolated wasn't so troublesome. Since the situation has changed, Russia is less satisfied with this situation," Iskandarian says. "If the road to Turkey were open, and it will open if there would be normal diplomatic relations, Russian capital here could use this. It could go to the Turkish market, export goods and services. And Russian capital and Russian investment in Armenia is not small. This opens possibilities and makes entry into the Southern European and Middle Eastern markets cheaper."

Total Russian investment in Armenia reached $1.2 billion this year. A spin-off company of Russia's former electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems operates Armenia's only nuclear power plant and would like to use Armenia's grid to sell power to Turkey and elsewhere in the region. The state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom owns a majority stake in Armenia's gas-distribution network. Russian investment is also heavy in the banking and gaming sectors.

Questions remain, however, about whether Russia has enough over Turkey and Armenia to broker a deal.

"I don't think that they have much leverage on the Turkish side of the fence, and I'm not sure how much leverage they have on the Armenian side of the fence," Aliriza says. "Secondly, the Russian-Turkish relationship, which is so important to Moscow and to Ankara for so many reasons, is not going to be a function of the Turkish-Armenian relationship from Moscow's point of view."

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