ANKARA (RFE/RL)–The presidents of Armenia and Turkey watched together a match of their national soccer teams in the Turkish city of Bursa on Wednesday night after holding talks and praising significant progress in their efforts to normalize bilateral relations.
The two men made no public statements before and after the match which Turkey won 2-0. News reports said Sarkisian and members of an Armenian government delegation accompanying him attended an official reception given by Gul before heading back to Bursa airport at around midnight local time.
Gul and Sarkisian began the talks in a local hotel in the company of their foreign ministers and other top officials about four hours before the match. “We are not writing history, we are making history,” the official Anatolia news agency quoted the Turkish president as saying during the 40-minute session.
The normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, continued Gul, is a thorny process that cannot be completed “in one day.” “We have witnessed together that we can solve difficult problems during this process,” he said.
“A legal platform was prepared. The next step will be to make progress on this platform,” added the Turkish president.
According to Anatolia, Sarkisian spoke of “difficulties” he has experienced in selling the Turkish-Armenian agreements signed in Zurich on Saturday to the domestic public and the worldwide Armenian Diaspora. He insisted that most Armenians as well as Turks approve of the deal paving the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states and reopening of their border.
“The number of people thinking positively will increase over time,” Sarkisian was reported to say. “We are doing the right thing.”
The two presidents then spoke tête-à-tête and had a dinner before watching the game later in the day. Sarkisian smiled and congratulated Gul with a handshake every time the Turkish team scored in front of a capacity crowd of about 20,000 spectators that packed Bursa’s Ataturk Stadium amid tight security measures. Despite appeals from loudspeakers for respect, Turkish fans booed Armenia’s national anthem at the start of the generally well-tempered game. The BBC reported that other Turks released white doves in a gesture of peace that drew applause in the stadium.
The Turkish anthem was similarly jeered by Armenians when the two teams played in Yerevan in September last year. In both cases, authorities strictly banned any banners with political or hate messages. The Turkish police also banned fans from bringing Azerbaijani flags, widely distributed in Bursa by a local labor union in recent days, to the stadium.
Speaking to Armenian journalists after the game, Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian said it was a “good opportunity” for the two governments to take stock of the more than yearlong dialogue between them. He said Gul and Sarkisian also spoke about “what should be done after the signing of the [Turkish-Armenian] protocol four days ago so that they can be rapidly implemented.” The protocols, which call for diplomatic relations and an open border between Armenia and Turkey, need to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries before they can come into force.
“This would open the closed door that has long separated our countries and peoples and enable us to lay the groundwork for the development of relations between our countries,” said Nalbandian.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other Turkish officials have made clear that Ankara will not reopen the Turkish-Armenian border before a solution is found to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Armenian leaders, for their part, have threatened to walk away from the deal if the Turks stall the ratification process.