YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–Armenia’s President Serzh Sarkisian insisted on Tuesday that he will not travel to Turkey in October to watch the return match of the two countries’ national football teams unless Ankara moves to reopen the Turkish-Armenian border.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul extended a relevant invitation to Sarkisian after paying a visit to Yerevan in September last year, during which the two leaders jointly attended the first Turkey-Armenia game. The so-called “football diplomacy” ushered in a Turkish-Armenia rapprochement that left the two neighbors on the verge of normalizing their strained relations earlier this year.
But negotiations between the two countries have come to a standstill after the countries on April 22 issued a joint announcement on a “roadmap” to normalizing relations. The announcement came on the eve of the annual anniversary of the Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Turkish government and its timing is believed to have allowed U.S. President Barack Obama to backtrack on his pledges to officially recognize the genocide.
The statement was soon followed by repeated declarations from the highest levels of Turkey’s government conditioning the establishment of diplomatic relations with Armenia to a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict favoring Azerbaijan.
“Given the existing situation, we certainly expect to witness soon constructive steps with which our [Turkish] partners would try to create a proper environment for the return visit of the president of Armenia,” said Sarkisian. That means taking “real steps” to honor Turkish-Armenian agreements reached during the year-long dialogue, he said.
“That is, I will leave for Turkey if we have an open border or stand on the brink of the lifting of Armenia’s blockade,” added the Armenian leader.
The remarks reflected Sarkisian’s frustration with Turkey’s unwillingness so far to unconditionally establish diplomatic relations and reopen its border with Armenia despite concessions made by him. Yerevan insists that the Turks dropped their preconditions for normalizing bilateral ties during months of fence-mending negotiations.
Analysts close to the conflict, however, point to a long-running policy in Ankara that has sought to couple rapprochement with Armenia to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in an attempt to convince international mediators that the the success of one process hinges on the other.
Sarkisian is accused of willingly allowing Turkey to gain a foothold in the Karabakh peace process and sacrificing U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide without securing the lifting of the 16-year Turkish blockade or any guarantees for Karabakh. He is also being condemned for his apparent acceptance of a Turkish proposal to form a panel of historians that will “examine” the events of 1915.
Earlier in July, a two-day Pan-Armenian conference in Stepanakert, organized by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, demanded Sarkisian make immediate and drastic corrections to his administration’s flawed approach to both the ongoing negotiations with Turkey and the Nagorno-Karabakh peace talks. A resolution, unanimously passed by the summit’s 135 delegates on July 14, demanded that Armenia immediately break off from negotiations with Turkey.
The ARF shortly after called for the resignation of Armenia’s Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian to eliminate “the negative consequences that have emerged in the foreign policy domain.”
Under growing pressure at home, Sarkisian issued his warning to Ankara after talks with Serbia’s visiting President Boris Tadic. He said he briefed Tadic on his Western-backed diplomatic overtures to Turkey.
Sarkisian said the two leaders agreed on the need for a peaceful resolution of conflict in the Balkans and the South Caucasus “in accordance with the principles and norms of international law.”
“We believe that there are no universal ways of solving conflicts,” he told reporters. “Every conflict has its own history, causes and its own unique course.”
It was an apparent rejection of parallels between the conflicts over Nagorno-Karabakh and Kosovo, a breakaway Serbian region that has been recognized as an independent state by much of the international community. Kosovo’s secession in strong support for the principle of territorial integrity voiced by Serbian leaders.
Tadic himself has called for the application of that principle to the Karabakh dispute in the past. With journalists not allowed to put questions to either president, it was not clear if he stands by that statement.
Also, Serbia was one of the few European nations that voted in March 2008 for a UN General Assembly resolution that claimed Azerbaijani sovereignty over Karabakh and demanded an “unconditional” Armenian withdrawal from the liberated territories.