I witnessed history in the making last week when the Turkish President, at the invitation of the Armenian President, paid his first ever visit to Armenia to watch the soccer match between the national teams of their respective countries – a qualifying game for the 2010 World Cup finals.
Before the match, some Armenia’s had been predicting with great nationalistic fervor an outright victory for Armenia, while others were certain that the game would end in a draw, in keeping with the atmosphere of political reconciliation. Armenia’s frowned upon this writer when he suggested that the powerful Turkish team would most probably win and that the practice of state mandated outcomes for soccer games had ceased with the demise of the Soviet Union. As I had anticipated, the Armenian team lost 2-0 in a lackluster game against the more powerful, but overly cautious Turkish team.
When the Turkish President’s jet arrived at Yerevan’s Zvartnots Airport last Saturday, he was greeted with proper state protocol and hundreds of protesters. Later on, as he arrived at the Presidential Palace for a meeting with the Armenian President, there were more protests, not against him or his visit, but the Turkish state’s denial of the Armenian Genocide. There were lengthy debates in both the Turkish and the Armenian press about the appropriateness of such protests.
I believe it would have been highly surprising if the head of the Turkish state that continues to deny the Armenian Genocide had visited Armenia without a single Armenian reminding him that there is an on-going injustice and unresolved issues between the two countries. In the absence of such protests, the Turkish President would have drawn the wrong conclusion that Armenia’s in Armenia had no problems with Turkey and that the Genocide issue is only raised by the Diaspora, particularly since it was reported that the Genocide was not discussed at all between the two presidents. To draw Pres. Gul’s attention to this important issue, ARF members unfurled a giant unsanctioned banner during the soccer match that called for: "Recognition and Reparations."
Many Armenia’s were unhappy that the Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) had just decided to remove the sketch of Mount Ararat from the FFA logo on the Armenian soccer players’ uniforms. They viewed this removal as an undesirable attempt to appease Turkey. Some members of the Armenian Parliament were so irate that they pledged to raise their objection in Parliament and possibly take legal action against the FFA.
Nevertheless, the soccer match provided a unique opportunity for Pres. Sargsyan and Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian to meet with their Turkish counterparts in Yerevan to discuss the Artsakh (Karabagh) conflict, possible diplomatic relations between the two countries, the blockade of Armenia by Turkey, and the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform – a new Turkish initiative. The two foreign ministers, after huddling long past midnight, decided to continue their discussions later this month while attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. Meanwhile, Pres. Gul invited his Armenian counterpart to come to Istanbul on Oct. 14, 2009 to watch with him the return match between the two national soccer teams.
It is not known how much progress was registered in last Saturday’s discussions. Both sides made optimistic statemen’s at the conclusion of their meetings. Several observations could be made, however, regarding recent developmen’s in the region:
- Both Armenia and Turkey have come under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States, Europe and Russia to resolve their long-standing problems which would enable these foreign powers to secure their energy supplies from the Caspian Sea region and engage in the transfer of goods by rail across now closed borders.
- The Georgian-Ossetian-Russian conflict has raised Armenia’s geopolitical significance in the region at the expense of Georgia and Azerbaijan.
- Turkish officials no longer seem to be setting the resolution of the Artsakh conflict as a pre-condition to establishing relations with Armenia.
- Since Pres. Gul was strongly urged by his domestic opponents, hardliners within his own administration as well as Azerbaijani officials not to go to Armenia, imagine how much more pressure he would have to endure should he decide to establish diplomatic relations with Yerevan and open the closed border with Armenia in the near future!
Finally, one concrete attempt at historical reconciliation between a very special Turk and a very special Armenian already succeeded. Milliyet’s journalist Hasan Cemal, the gran’son of one of the three masterminds of the Armenian Genocide, Jemal Pasha, had a very touching meeting earlier this week in Yerevan with the gran’son of his grandfather’s Armenian assassin in Tbilisi in 1922. A few days ago, Hasan Cemal visited the Genocide Memorial in Yerevan and placed a wreath in memory of the Armenian victims!