By Emil Danielyan
In a fresh overture to Ankara, Armenia decided on Thursday to unilaterally suspend its visa regime with Turkey to facilitate the arrival of Turkish fans for the upcoming first-ever match between the two countries’ national football teams.
The Armenian government said Turkish citizens traveling to Armenia from September 1-6 will not require entry visas. “The decision was taken to enable citizens of the Turkish Republic to attend the September 6 game between the football teams of Armenia and Turkey to be played in Yerevan,” read a government statement.
Armenia and Turkey were drawn into the same European group of the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and are scheduled to play each other in Yerevan and Istanbul. The two teams have never faced each other before.
The forthcoming match in Yerevan’s Hrazdan stadium will come amid renewed hopes for a normalization of relations between the two bitterly estranged neighbors that have no diplomats relations and open border. Ankara offered to embark on a “dialogue” with Yerevan shortly after Armenia’s February 19 presidential election controversially won by Serzh Sarkisian. The latter responded positively to the offer, calling for a “fresh start” in Turkish-Armenian relations.
Earlier this summer, Sarkisian signaled his government readiness to accept, in principle, a Turkish proposal to form a joint commission of historians who would look into the 1915-1918 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He also invited Turkish President Abdullah Gul to arrive in Yerevan and watch with him the World Cup qualifier.
Gul has yet to respond to the invitation. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said last month that Gul’s decision will depend on unspecified “developments ahead of the match.” A senior U.S. diplomat told RFE/RL on July 18 that the first-ever trip to Armenia by a Turkish president would be a “real ground-breaking moment.”
Under the rules of world football’s governing body, FIFA, a country hosting a World Cup match must set aside at least 5 percent of stadium seats for traveling fans. The Hrazdan stadium has a capacity of more than 50,000 seats, meaning that 2,500 Turks are entitled to cheering for their team there.
The decision to waive the visa regime was meant to underscore Yerevan’s readiness to allow the presence of a sizable traveling crowd at Hrazdan. Media reports in Turkey have said that as many as 10,000 local fans are eager to travel to the Armenian capital.
The Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) said on Thursday, however, that it has still not been approached by the Turkish Football Federation, which is supposed to distribute game tickets in Turkey. “We still have no information about how many Turkish football fans would like to attend the game,” the FFA’s executive director, Armen Minasian, told RFE/RL. “We have received no applications from the Turkish Football Federation yet.”
With the widely anticipated match bound to arouse nationalist passions in both countries, the presence of a large number Turkey supporters would be a major security headache for the Armenian authorities. The unusual sight of visiting fans waving Turkish flags in a stadium adjacent to Yerevan’s 1915 genocide memorial could infuriate the home crowd.
But Minasian downplayed the security risk. “The government and the FFA are taking all necessary measures to prevent incidents during the march,” he said.
(Turkish Football Federation photo: Turkish players celebrate their dramatic quarter-final victory over Croatia during the 2008 European football championship in Austria.)