Diplomacy as « Man of the Match »

The football game opposing Turkey and Armenia on Wednesday in the qualifying rounds of the next FIFA World Cup to be held in South Africa in 2010, clearly dominated by Turkey (2-0), proved, above all, a crucial victory for diplomacy in improving relations between the two countries. With Turkey holding a relatively disappointing third place and Armenia struggling to score points on the board, hopes for a ticket to the 2010 World Cup had vanished long before Wednesday’s encounter. Representing nothing more than a friendly sporting encounter, this game formed, nevertheless, an important step forward for diplomatic talks between the two countries, “recorded in history”, says Armenian Panorama news, “as a match making two hostile states become closer”. Following the signing of an agreement between Turkish and Armenian officials during the past weekend, both parties walked out on the pitch on Wednesday, intending to demonstrate the progress made in resolving diplomatically a historical feud dividing them.

The resumption of talks between Armenian and Turkish officials to restore ties and the openness of their shared borders formed the result of a “landmark accord” signed by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Armenian counterpart Edward Nalbandian, reportsGuardian columnist Robert Tait. Fox News stresses how the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations has been affected by a century-long dispute over the allegation by Armenia and a number of historians that Ottoman Turks carried out genocide against thousands of Armenians during the First World War, an accusation that Turkey denies.

Following the unexpected attendance by Turkish president Abdullah Gül of the first leg of qualifying games held in Armenia in September, the presence of Armenian President Serge Sarkissian at the game held in the Turkish city of Bursa days only after the signing of the accords sparked, this time, much optimism for the normalization of relations between both countries, comments La Tribune. Both presidents clearly demonstrated mutual admiration, congratulating each other for “taking bold steps toward reconciliation”, stresses Aljazeera. Historical grievances will not be resolved overnight, says Abdullah Gül in the Hürriyet Daily News , but Wednesday sporting encounter may have marked the start of the long melting process of “the iceberg of problems” which has impeded the normalisation of relations between Turkey and Armenia.

Both parties had feared the outbreak of incidents caused by the presence of a number of movements opposing the normalization process in and around the stadium. Unsurprisingly,Le Monde stresses that the naming of Armenian players and the subsequent anthem were not spared full-hearted Turkish jeering, despite the release of doves as a sign of peace. As a means of enforcing the ban of political messages exposed in Turkish football stadiums, officials increased police and anti-riot forces in an attempt to control any disturbances, reports Çetin Cem Yilmaz for Hürriyet Daily News .

The evening was marked by very little signs of violence, despite an earlier incident involving a bus of Armenian journalists targeted by a handful of Turkish supporters, swiftly contained by Turkish authorities, points out BBC News. The overall diplomatic success of the sporting event was briefly stained by scarce criticism over the ban of Azerbaijani flags, a country which, Mustafa Aydin describes in Spotlight Europe, has maintained strategic interests in the development of Turkish-Armenian relations. Indeed, Armenia occupies since 1993 the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which had resulted in the closure of frontiers between Armenia and Turkey, a historical ally of Azerbaijan.

The normalisation of Turkish-Armenian relations thus seems to be under way, but how long will it last? Many skeptics claim that the accords signed in Zurich offer only a fragile base on which to construct the future of relations between two historical foes, despite the decision to create a commission to clear doubts and reservations over the genocide question. Influential Armenian Diasporas present in the United States and other Western nations request Turkish recognition of genocide and will not permit any real rapprochement until this dispute is settled, notes the New York Times. It thus seems that much of the melting of Gül’s Turkish-Armenian “iceberg of problems” and many football games have yet to take place before any form of progress towards greater stability in the Caucasus can be observed.


Andrew Bower