Turkish-Armenian Soccer Diplomacy

September 5, 2008

  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.            Turkish soccer fans watching a big match                                                                                                                                                   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 panderTurkey's Gul and Germany's Merkeling 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’.    


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This is indeed a historical visit. The ultimate goal ofthe relations between Turkey and Armenia should be theeconomics, not what happened 100 years ago. Dwelling onthe past is fruitless. Many unspeakable events had happenedbetween countries around the world and the culprits of theseevents are dead and gone. We can not hold their childrenand grandchildren responsible for them. Unless we forgive each other and work towards the betterment of our societies,the peoples of Armenia and the Eastern Turkey will continueto suffer. Perhaps, a soccer match is all we neededto get the ball rolling. Godspeed.

Posted by Ned | Report as abusive

It is astonishing to read that “Armenians describe the events as genocide” by Paul de Bendern, “Turkey’s Gul sees hope beyond Armenia soccer match”, The Guardian and Reuters, September 6, when then International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) affirm the Armenian genocide.Raphael Lemkin, a lawyer of polish Jewish descent, coined the word “Genocide” to describe what had happened to the Armenians; deliberate, systematic, planned, perpetrated extermination.Before the word genocide was created to describe the barbarity that befell the Armenians, Winston Churchill and others referred to it as the Armenian holocaust.To deny a genocide is to murder the victims a second time by erasing them form the pages of history.Abdullah Gul’s Turkey has to answer for the crime of genocide.

Posted by Berge | Report as abusive

To Berge,”Forgiveness ends all suffering and loss”.This is all I have to say.

Posted by Ned | Report as abusive

Ned,How on earth can you make that kind of insensitive comment?

Posted by Jake | Report as abusive

when a nation admits the crimes it did, then forgiveness is granted , denial is worst than the crimes done,

Posted by jacob | Report as abusive

For Armenians in the Diaspora and the Republic of Armenia 1915 Genocide (=crime against humanity AND a more than “proven” fact) recognition by Turkey is of absolutely vital importance for a host of reasons, the main ones being ethnic and national survival and national security, i.e. living/exisiting side by side a nation that has not yet recognised this crime. Turkey must understand this and act, better sooner than later. Armenians meanwhile will relentlessly pursue their course, pushing for recognition in the US and elsewhere.Armenia’s offer for an open dialogue, cleverly accepted by Turkey (for a variety of reasons), apart from possible short-term bilateral and regional effects, political and economic, has a global dimension. It is an opportunity to create an atmosphere where greater mutual understanding and eventually – recognition and what comes after recognition might not seem so remote and impalatable for the two nations linked by centuries of co-existence, mutual interests and at times sympathy and friendship at people’s level, interrupted by the bloody events of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Posted by Caucasus | Report as abusive

When PBS/FrontLine decided to approve the “Turkey: A Family Erased” by an Armenian documentary filmmaker George Kachadorian, it stroke a familiar chord — just two years ago, on April 18, 2006, PBS aired a similarly biased documentary “Armenian Genocide”, which too had a predetermined and one-sided outcome to classify the events during the WWI in the Eastern Anatolia as an “Armenian genocide” and to ignore the plight of Muslims, that is ethnic Turks, Azerbaijanis and Kurds, who have equally suffered as anyone else during the war and invasion of their homeland.It is of course no secret that the events in Eastern Anatolia during the WWI remain a controversial issue, with disputing Turkish and Armenian narratives as to the true nature and scope of the events of 1915. Therefore, introducing undue bias on the complex nature of these events through televised narratives would be detrimental to the efforts that are exerted towards establishing an understanding between Turkey and Armenia concerning diverging interpretations of this issue.Furthermore, the PBS/Frontline broadcasting, for the second time, an Armenian version of events, is glaringly ignoring the plight of the “other side”, the estimated one million Turks, Kurds and Azerbaijanis massacred in the same period in the same region, or almost a thousand Azerbaijanis slaughtered as recently as 1992 by Armenian forces in the town of Khojaly in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.Moreover, PBS/Frontline ignore the fact that several U.S. Members of Congress withdrew their signatures from Armenian lobby’s attempt to enact a non-binding resolution, and that several countries, such as UK, Sweden, Bulgaria and even Israel refused to recognize the Armenian allegations and adopt the unfair and inaccurate classification of the events as “genocide”.The PBS/Frontline documentary, and accompanied website materials and narratives, also ignores a peculiar fact that while all Turkish archives are open and have hundreds of Armenian researchers in them, the archives in Armenia are sealed off and the only Turk who somehow got permission to do research there a few years ago, was upon completion of his research arrested for two months and all his research and materials confiscated. He was released from maximum-security prison only after high-level interference and plea to President Kocharyan by US officials and pro-Armenia lobbyists, like former Majority Leader Sen. Bob Dole.Whilst it is claimed that “‘Rough Cut’ videos will adhere to the same rigorous journalistic and production standards as all FRONTLINE/World reports”, at the same time Mr. Kachadorian’s documentary and narrative is filled with grave errors – from statistical (Encyclopedia Brittanica, after carrying out extensive research, has come to the conclusion that about 600,000 Armenians perished, not up to 1,5 million as claimed by Mr. Kachadorian) to the false claim that “Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk was subsequently arrested for saying that 1 million Armenians had been killed in Turkey” (he was not).I truly hope that you will take into consideration Turkish-American and Azerbaijani-American community’s sentiments and rightful expectation of receiving a fair treatment as far as this sensitive issue is concerned, and that the PBS/Frontline broadcast would: 1) offer a more comprehensive background that could be helpful for establishing a just and equitable discussion of the events of 1915; 2) I would also like to offer my help and assistance to PBS making another documentary with emphasis given to the Turkish perspective on the issue of events of 1915, to balance George Kachadorian’s documentary; and 3) Additionally, next February 25, it will be the 17th anniversary of the Khojaly Massacre, and PBS could prepare a special report about its masterminds and its victims, including orphanchildren, scattered across Azerbaijan, who can often tell their stories themselves.

Posted by susan cohen | Report as abusive