Turkish-Armenian Soccer Diplomacy
Following the national soccer team to a foreign country is usually a safe enough bet for any national leader. Photographs of the president or premier smiling and waving, the local colour, the national flags all play well at home; a few platitudes to charm the local press and a handshake. Simple, harmless political fun. When Turkish President Abdullah Gul visits Yerevan this weekend for Turkey’s World Cup qualifier against Armenia, however, there will be nothing simple about it. For the two countries, divided over a wartime slaughter that occurred early in the last century, it will be a historic moment, fraught with perils. For many Armenians, Gul’s presence will be an act of sheer effrontery by a state they accuse of an act of genocide against the Armenian people; an act of savagery by the old, collapsing Ottoman Empire for which they demand an apology and redress. For many nationalist Turks, his unprecedented venture, the first visit to Armenia by a Turkish leader, borders on betrayal of their country which they say committed no genocide. Hundreds of thousands, Turks and Armenians alike, they argue, died in the fierce fighting that consumed the region. Opposition leader Deniz Baykal gave a taste of that mood, remarking sarcastically that Gul should lay a wreath at the Yerevan genocide monument. Recklesness or statesmanship? Whichever it is, if it is either, it is arguably an act of political courage — as was the invitation issued by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan. Gul might have left well alone as generations of Turkish leaders have done before him. Few in Turkey or Armenia, would have raised an eyebrow. There may well be anti-Turkish demonstrations in Yerevan and rumblings at home. Gul, a naturally mild-mannered man, must watch his words and his body language. Maybe soccer diplomacy could break the ice between Armenia and Turkey in the same way ping-pong diplomacy launched relations between the United States and Communist China. Gul’s visit to Armenia is the latest in a string of Turkish foreign policy interventions around his country’s troubled border areas, involving Syria, Iran, Israel, Iraq and more recently Georgia. Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan might be seen as pandering to a foreign policy fantasy nurtured by Washington and Brussels of a Turkey building bridges between the West and the Arab world, helping secure the energy routes of the Caucasus and healing the wound of Cyprus; but Ankara is pursuing its own vested interests. While the Turkish economy may prosper in Istanbul or central Anatolia, the country’s east remains steeped in poverty. Why? Look around. Eastern Turkey is caught, effectively, in a dead end, surrounded by closed or virtually closed borders and weak neighbouring economies. Armenia is one such neighbour, but an important one. A landlocked country still emerging from the ruins of the Soviet Union, Armenia also suffers from a closed border with its huge western neighbour. The argument about whether or not the events of the last century were an act of systematic killing, a genocide, will continue with a passion. The idea that governments write history or interpret it is not one that sits easily with me. I’ve lived in countries where the history books are written by the government or the Party. The Turks have compromised themselves over decades on this count by prosecuting historians or journalists who dare to entertain the question of whether there was genocide; but things in Turkey are changing. The country is opening, if not quickly enough for some. Armenians might argue that the killing in what is today eastern Turkey is not history but very much a modern event for families driven into exile and living with the consequences. Some of those exile families, from Paris to Los Angeles, are among the most vocal proponents of diplomatic action against Turkey. Soccer matches can be emotional occasions. Turkish and Armenian colours will vie for attention. Hopefully, the emotion this time will be confined largely to the action on the pitch, but politics will be foremost in many people’s minds, within and beyond the borders of Turkey and Armenia. A risky and courageous political act by Gul or a move long overdue for both Turkey and Armenia? Much depends on what comes after the final whistle. Both sides are showing good will. The Armenians, for instance, are removing from the emblems on their kit the image of Mount Ararat, a mountain now in Turkey but closely linked to Armenian culture and history. As Turkish national coach Fatih Terim said on Tuesday, the team is going to Yervan ‘to play a game and not to fight a war’.