By Armen Koloyan in Prague and Emil Danielyan
Armenia and Turkey have held confidential negotiations to discuss a new opening for the normalization of their strained relations, a leading Turkish newspaper reported on Friday.
A senior U.S. official, meanwhile, expressed hope that Turkish President Abdullah Gul will accept his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian’s invitation to arrive in Yerevan on September 6 for a World Cup qualifier match between the two countries’ national football teams.
The mass-circulation daily “Hurriyet” said senior diplomats from the two countries met in the Swiss capital Berne on July 8 and and held talks for several days. It quoted the unnamed head of the Turkish delegation in the talks as saying that “the meeting took place in a positive atmosphere.” No details were reported.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan did not deny the report, saying the two countries have contacts "from time to time" and stressing that Ankara favours dialogue with its northeastern neighbour. "We have contacts with Armenian colleagues from time to time," Babacan told reporters, according to AFP news agency. "It is important to discuss how relations between the two countries can be normalised through dialogue."
The Armenian Foreign Ministry could not be reached for comment on Friday.
According to “Hurriyet,” the reported talks were made possible by Sarkisian’s recent overtures to Ankara, including the invitation extended to Gul. In an article published by “The Wall Street Journal” on July 9, Sarkisian said Armenia is ready to engage in “a new phase of dialogue with the government and people of Turkey.”
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told the private NTV television on Wednesday that Gul has not yet decided whether to accept the extraordinary invitation. "Such a participation would depend on the developments ahead of the match," he said.
Babacan also said that the onus is on the Armenian side to normalize Turkish-Armenian relations. “Armenia should decide: Should the problems continue or should we open a new chapter in relations?” he said, according to “The Turkish Daily News.”
Gul was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate Sarkisian on his victory in Armenia’s recent presidential election. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Babacan sent similar messages to their newly appointed Armenian counterparts in April. They both said Ankara wants to start “dialogue” with Yerevan to address problems hampering the normalization of Turkish-Armenian ties.
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza described these developments as “quite encouraging” and urged both sides to step up the search for a rapprochement. “I think they have a real chance to do so,” he said.
“President Gul is a courageous leader, and we very much hope that he will be able to accept that generous invitation from President Sarkisian, which would transform this modest football match into what could be a real ground-breaking moment,” Bryza told RFE/RL.
Bryza also praised Sarkisian for stating last month that Yerevan is ready to accept, in principle, the Erdogan government’s proposal to set up a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians who would examine the 1915 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
The apparent policy change was condemned by the Armenian opposition led by former President Levon Ter-Petrosian and prompted concern from the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun), a junior partner in the governing coalition. Dashnaktsutyun leaders say Sarkisian has clarified that the would-be commission should study “details of the genocide,” rather that determine whether the mass killings constituted a genocide.
Writing in “The Wall Street Journal,” Sarkisian appeared to further backpedal on his June statement and revert to his predecessor Robert Kocharian’s belief that the 1915 massacres and other issues of mutual concern should be discussed by a Turkish-Armenian inter-governmental body.
“It is odd to us that some people have decided to criticize President Sarkisian for taking those courageous steps when in fact some of those same people used to propose those very same steps,” Bryza said, in an apparent reference to Ter-Petrosian, who is known for his otherwise conciliatory line on Turkish-Armenian relations.
Bryza also made clear that the United States has no plans to offer to act as a mediator in a Turkish-Armenian dialogue. “The parties need to talk to themselves and figure out what they want,” he said. “If they ask us to do that, we would consider it. But we are not mediators of Armenia’s relations with Turkey.”