By Anna Saghabalian
President Abdullah Gul will face protests the moment he arrives in Yerevan and hear calls for Turkey to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide during the football match which he is due to attend on Saturday, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun) said on Thursday.
Dashnaktsutyun leaders gave details of their planned demonstrations against the first-ever visit to Armenia by a Turkish president the day after its official confirmation by Ankara.
A statement posted on Gul’s website said he has accepted his Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian’s invitation travel to Yerevan to watch the World Cup qualifying match between Armenia’s and Turkey’s national football teams. It expressed hope that the historic trip would provide an opportunity for the two countries to understand each other better and create a new climate of friendship in the region.
Sarkisian likewise hopes that the visit will make it easier for Ankara and Yerevan to build on the recent thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations. But Dashnaktsutyun, an influential party represented in his government and favoring a harder line on Turkey, is less than enthusiastic about Gul’s arrival.
“There is so much bizarre enthusiasm surrounding all this at the social level that one might think we are to greet our missing brother,” complained Armen Rustamian, one of the party’s top leaders. He said Dashnaktsutyun will press ahead with the planned protests to show the world that Turkish-Armenian reconciliation is impossible without the recognition of the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.
Giro Manoyan, another Dashnaktsutyun figure, said failure to stage such protests would allow the Turks to claim that genocide recognition has lost its urgency for the people of Armenia. “We will express our political stance in a normal and acceptable way,” he said.
According to Rustamian, the demonstrations will start at Yerevan’s Zvartnots international airport where Gul is scheduled to arrive on Saturday morning. He said “thousands” of Dashnaktsutyun supporters will rally there before flocking to the Hrazdan stadium where they will chant genocide recognition slogans during the match. In the meantime, another crowd of activists will march to the genocide memorial on the nearby Tsitsernakaberd hill to light torches in memory of more than one million Ottoman Armenians killed between 1915 and 1918, he told journalists.
Rustamian added that Dashnaktsutyun leaders have discussed the planned actions with Sarkisian and that the president is not unhappy with them. “There is a full understanding on the issue between us and the president,” he said.
“We believe our president will understand and our people will participate,” Manoyan said, for his part.
The Football Federation of Armenia (FFA) has said that local soccer fans will be banned from bringing genocide-related and “political” banners to the 53,000-seat stadium. The FFA also controversially changed the Armenian team’s emblem last month. Its new logo no longer depicts the biblical Mount Ararat, which is located in northeastern Turkey but is considered by many Armenians as their main national symbol.
The FFA insists that the emblem change was not politically motivated. But Rustamian cast doubt on the credibility of these assurances, saying that it would be “shameful” if the federation thereby tried to please the Turks.
Gul’s upcoming visit has highlighted Dashnaktsutyun’s differences with Armenia’s long-running policy toward Turkey. Sarkisian and his predecessors have stood for an unconditional normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations and reopening the land border between the two neighboring states.
Manoyan reiterated on Thursday Dashnaktsutyun’s belief that an open border with Turkey would not necessarily be good for the Armenian economy. “Unless we are internally prepared, that border may also have negative consequences,” he said.
Manoyan also stressed the importance of genocide recognition in any Turkish-Armenian dialogue. “It’s not a precondition for starting relations,” he said. “But relations can not be normalized if Turkey fails to recognize the genocide.”