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Armenia: Football Diplomacy & Relations with Turkey

A number of World Cup qualifying matches were played worldwide on Saturday, but even if Georgia was drawn against Ireland and had to move the venue for the football match to Germany following the war with Russia, many were instead interested in what might prove to be a historic political rather than sporting event. Without diplomatic relations or an open border, Armenia played against estranged neighbor Turkey in its capital, Yerevan.

Moreover, despite historical grievances over the 1915 massacre and deportation of ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, Turkish President Abdullah Gul arrived in Yerevan to watch the match alongside his Armenian counterpart, Serge Sargsyan. Armenians and many historians consider the killings to be Genocide while Turkey denies the claims. Many were therefore quick to describe Gul's arrival an exercise in “football diplomacy.”

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Armenia-Turkey World Cup Qualifier, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

Unzipped, for example, realized the significance of the match as long ago as November when the draw was first made.

Fantastic draw! That will be THE matches! I will do whatever possible or impossible to be present there. Hope that Armenian and Turkish fans will behave, and we won't witness any ugly scenes, but rather will celebrate the occasion to get to know each other better and use sporting spirit for reconciliation (not destruction!), and a pint of beer? It's funny that football draws frequently bring us with ‘sensitive’ outcomes. It's more than a fate…

Later, in July when the invitation for Gul to attend the match was made, Unzipped applauded the move. Despite previous criticism of Armenia's new president who took power after a flawed election in February and a 20-day State of Emergency after at least 10 people died in post-election clashes with police, the blog hoped that the football match could represent a new start in relations between the two countries.

This is the most straightforward gesture to date from a head of state in Armenia to propose Turkey to open up a new page in relationships. Overall, I welcome this proposal. It is courageous and right thing to do from Serj Sargsyan side.

As the date of the match — 6 September — drew closer, other bloggers began to speculate on what led up the possibility of the Turkish President stepping foot on Armenian soil. One of those was West of Igdir which also started to comment on what would undoubtedly prove to be an unprecedented and historic occasion if Gul arrived in Yerevan.

As it stands we are a mere four days away from the much-heralded soccer diplomacy and leaves everyone asking “what's going to happen?” Officially, we don't even know if Gul is going or not. Sargsyan extended his invitation months ago, shortly after secret talks in Switzerland were leaked to the public, but Gul has yet to officially respond. […]

[…]

No matter what, it seems this historic and extremely improbable visit will be going through after all. With confirmations from just about everyone but President Gul himself, with Turkish special forces apparently already on the ground in Yerevan preparing for his protection, there is little reason to think otherwise.

Not everyone was happy with the thought of Turkey's president arriving in Armenia, however. Last Tuesday, for example, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation — Dashnaktsutyun (ARF-D) staged a rally in Yerevan to mark the 17th Anniversary of Independence being declared in the breakaway region of Nagorno Karabakh. Although poorly attended, the nationalist political party threatened to stage street protests if Gul arrived.

ARF-D Demonstration

ARF-D Demonstration, Zvartnots Airport, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

A few days before the match when Turkey finally announced that he would, the ARF-D were adamant that such protests would occur. However, on the day of the football game itself, Unzipped found that not many Armenians appeared eager to participate.

Particularly, Dashnaks (via Yerkir newspaper) call all supporters to gather today at Zvartnots airport and surrounding areas at 5pm local time to ‘greet’ Turkey’s president upon arrival.

Dashnaks also drive around central Yerevan streets today urging people via loudspeakers to join their protest actions. Few seem enthusiastic to do so.

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Armenia-Turkey World Cup Qualifier, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

And as it happened, the protests were indeed small, with most Armenians viewing the event merely as a sporting one. Even so, the political ramifications of the match were obvious. Turkey won 2-0 amid high security and although the performance of the Armenian team disappointed many, the precedent had been set for building upon what some consider a brave and historic move by both presidents.

Everything related to this much – in the build up to this game – was more about politics than actual football. Perhaps, this was the most politically colored football match ever. The funny thing is that as soon as the game started, politics became something very secondary to me, I did not even feel the presence of Turkish and Armenian presidents side by side watching the match. It was all about sport for me, again, at last.

[…]

The good thing is that despite worries of possible nationalist outburst or ugly scenes, nothing of that sort happened. Security was pretty tight, at least in terms of numbers one could spot. Even plastic bottles were not allowed inside the stadium. Things went well, overall, except perhaps booing when the national anthem of Turkey played on. […]

Back to the football diplomacy. The day passed. At least on surface things seem went well. Follow-up practical actions, if any, will determine whether football diplomacy worked. I sincerely hope so.

Talk Turkey also welcomed the move.

[…] Although there have been opposition in Turkey about this historic visit, and no doubt the same on the Armenian side, this visit couldn’t have come at a better time.

With the ongoing Russian restructuring and its hopes of revitalizing the Soviet empire, closer relations between affected neighboring countries are very critical in any normal setting. Then there’s the issue of reconciling differences regarding the ‘Genocide’ matter. And the hope for a closer dialogue without the presence of any third parties whose justification for their own existence is the continuation of the very same discord they supposedly are for ending.

A good start . . .

Writing a day after the match, West of Igdir says that despite opposition to the football match from nationalists on both sides, there can be no other way forwards. The blog makes specific reference to the Armenian Diaspora which is more vocal and heated in its condemnation of Turkey than their local counterparts.

[…] I think the best thing for the diaspora to do is watch how this goes between the governments and assess the results. No reason to stand in its way, the diaspora must and will remain strong but at the same time should adopt this spirit of friendship. There's nothing I hate more than stories of Armenians in the diaspora meeting Turks and saying something mean or irrational at them as soon as they hear they are a Turk. That's small minded and applying the same sort of racist idealogy on them as the Young Turks did to our ancestors.

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Turkish Fans, Armenia-Turkey World Cup Qualifier, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

Ironcially, however, citing additional security concerns, only a handful of Turkish fans were given the opportunity to travel to Armenia for the game as Armenia: Higher Education & Sciences explains. The specialist blog also says it believes education is key to resolving some of the many outstanding issues which are still obstacles to normalizing relations.

[…] today’s match will unfortunately fail to deliver as Turkey’s authorities have refused to let their football fans cross the border into Armenia. The Armenian president will meet his Turkish counterpart but Armenian football fans and Yerevan residents in general won’t have the opportunity to meet Turkish supporters.

But, with an invitation from Gul extended to his Armenian counterpart to attend the rematch next year, Talk Turkey makes special reference to Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist and writer who was gunned down in Istanbul last year. It is time, the blog says, for citizens on both sides of the border to reach out to each other.

[…] Abdullah Gul invited the Armenian President to watch the rematch in Turkey. Wouldn’t it be great if the Turkish people, including its Armenian citizens, all show up in support of Armenia, wearing ‘We Are All Armenians’ shirts, as they did immediately following Hrant Dink’s murder.

Time to rise to the occasion. What do you think?

The sports diplomacy, as was the earthquake diplomacy between Greece and Turkey recently, is a great excuse for the parties to start the dialogue and improve relations, and put an end to the stalemate of ridiculousness once and for all.

Yet, while many Armenians and Turks hope that Saturday's match could mark the way forwards, others such as Petites et Grandes Aventures were unimpressed by the match from a sporting perspective. True, the blog says, the match was historic, but there were many problems highlighted that still need to be resolved. Moreover, the fact that they weren't made the match somewhat boring.

Earlier in the day I had met a few dedicated Turkish fans who had driven all the way – 12 hours via Georgia. But in the end, they were only a handful. And the few planes that were chartered from Istanbul, I was told, were full with Armenians living in Istanbul – not Turks.

[…]

But back to the game. No, I'm not biased.

It's actually a rather boring game, neither Armenia nor Turkey plays particularly well. Turkey scores twice, much to the disappointment of Armenian fans. The less than 100 Turkish fans parked in one corner of the stadium have no chance to make their voices heard and both times the Turks score the stadium is silent. So much so, I both times have to ask my neighbour, a Japanese political correspondent based in Cairo looking rather bored, if this was actually a goal. […]

More photographs and commentary are on my The Caucasian Knot.

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Armenia-Turkey Football Match

Armenia-Turkey World Cup Qualifier, Yerevan, Republic of Armenia © Onnik Krikorian / Oneworld Multimedia 2008

9 comments

  • Thank you for your references to my blog and your intelligent round-up as always on blogging about this issue. I do agree the game itself was rather boring but the political undertones (or more like over) a far more exciting component for me and I think most. Wow do our guys need to get in shape if they hope to win some.
    I wish more Turks such as the officials who had wanted to go were able but I understand why they were urged to keep away. I also have heard rumor (which I believe) that many tickets were purposely not sold since Armenian security crowd control is notoriously awful at these games. It’s hard to know what will come next but I believe developments should be relatively quick.

  • when did genocide become “massacre and deportation,” Onnik?

  • Simon (Blogian), it becomes that at 5am in the morning when I’m not able to write additional sentences and paragraphs explaining the issue and instead have a link on those words that leads to…

    Armenia: April 24 — Genocide Memorial Day

    Yesterday marked the 93rd Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and the deaths of approximately 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey. Often described as the first Genocide of the 20th Century, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin invented the term in the 1940s with the Armenian and Jewish Holocausts in mind.

    Every year on 24 April, a date marking the roundup of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in what is now Istanbul, Armenians commemorate the massacres and deportations worldwide. In Yerevan, this is particularly the case with hundreds of thousands marching up to the Tsitsernakaberd memorial overlooking the capital to lay flowers and pay their respects.

    http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/2008/04/25/armenia-april-24-genocide-memorial-day/

    Basically, when I’ve been going to bed at 7am each morning for the past few nights because of the match and the visit, I don’t think it’s too much to expect people to click through for more information if they don’t already actually know. Interestingly, I’ve used this term before and never had such a response.

    So, I suppose it just goes to show how sensitive some are to Gul’s visit to Armenia. Anyway, in the days of hyperlinks, can I suggest you click through in future. This post is not about putting the Armenian argument as part of a war of words. It’s about putting a lot of information and commentary a mouse-click away.

    Apologies for not being able to please all of the people all of the time, but there’s plenty of references to the Genocide spelt out as such on most of the posts linked to — including those by myself. This post was already too long for Global Voices Online without spelling out every single issue.

    Instead, that’s what the source posts are there for.

  • The Armenian Genocide (Armenian: Հայոց Ցեղասպանութիւն, Turkish: Ermeni Soykırımı), also known as the Armenian Holocaust, the Armenian Massacres and, by Armenians, the Great Calamity (Մեծ Եղեռն)—refers to the deliberate and systematic destruction (genocide) of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire during and just after World War I. It was characterised by the use of massacres, and the use of deportations involving forced marches under conditions designed to lead to the death of the deportees, with the total number of Armenian deaths generally held to have been between one and one-and-a-half million. Other ethnic groups were similarly attacked by the Empire during this period, including Assyrians and Greeks, and some scholars consider the events to be part of the same policy of extermination.[

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_Genocide

    Interestingly, many international media outlets used other words — The Associated press said “WWI-era atrocities that began in 1915,” for example, while EurasiaNet says “Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 slaughter of thousands of ethnic Armenians.” When space and time permits, the international media can objectively spell out the issue in more detail as Reuters did.

    Abdullah Gul held talks with Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian after which the two agreed there was now the “political will” to improve relations frozen for decades by lingering bitterness over 1915-1917 massacres.

    […]

    Armenians say up to 1.5 million of their people were killed between 1915 and 1917 in orchestrated massacres during World War I as the Ottoman Empire fell apart – a claim supported by several other countries.

    Turkey rejects the genocide label and argues that 300,000-500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife when Armenians took up arms for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.

    Or as they did in this news item:

    The visit has huge symbolic importance for two countries which have no diplomatic ties and whose relationship is haunted by the killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War One.

    […]

    Armenia, supported by many Western historians, says up to 1.5 million of its people were killed in a genocide. Turkey denies there was genocide and says the deaths were the result of inter-ethnic conflict that also killed many Muslim Turks.

    And the BBC:

    Turkey has rejected Armenia’s campaign for the killings of some 1.5m of its citizens, by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1917, to be classified as genocide.

    More than a dozen countries, various international bodies and many Western historians have recognised the killings as genocide.

    Turkey admits that many Armenians were killed but it denies any genocide, saying the deaths were a part of World War I.

    But ultimately, Global Voices Online is not about supporting one side or the other. It is about referring to posts made by others. Therefore, in addition to the matter of time constraints as well as space, there is plenty of reference material linked to from this post — and not just on the Genocide, but also on Hrant Dink’s murder.

    There is also this comments section which is meant for discussion, but ultimately, click through the links. This post is about reaction and commentary on the football match, the background to which can be found by clicking through.

    Indeed, there’s far greater information on the matter linked to from this post than in anything written in the international media. You just need to use your mouse. Nevertheless, I’ve now added the following.

    Armenians and many historians consider the killings to be Genocide while Turkey denies the claims.

    Again, I suggest everyone clicks through on the links for more detailed information and a summary of what people think on the matter.

  • […] The full post is available on Global Voices Online. […]

  • […] the historic visit by Turkish president Abdullah Gul to Yerevan at the weekend to watch an Armenia-Turkey World Cup qualifying match with his local counterpart, […]

  • […] citizens visited the Genocide Memorial and Museum in Yerevan on the sidelines of this month's World Cup qualifying football match between Armenia and Turkey. However, as one comment says, it is unclear how many were ethnic Armenians or ethnic Turks. […]

  • […] but with momentum reported in talks to normalize relations between Armenia and Turkey following a historic visit by Turkish President Abdullah Gul to Yerevan in September, as well as moves to resolve the conflict over Nagorno Karabakh including peace-building […]

  • […] the historic first visit of the Turkish president to Armenia last year, and an online apology for what most historians […]

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