By Burak Akinci, Agence France Presse
President Abdullah Gul on Saturday becomes Turkey's first head of state to visit Armenia, but his bid to ease relations with a historic foe that accuses Turks of genocide has angered nationalists.
Gul will go to Yerevan to attend a football match between the two countries, which do not have diplomatic relations and remain deeply divided over the World War I massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire.
"A visit around this match can create a new climate of friendship in the region," the Turkish presidency said in a statement. "It's with this in mind that the president has accepted the invitation."
The two countries will face off in a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup finals and Armenia's President Serge Sarkisian invited Gul last month to attend.
While some in the Turkish media have hailed the visit as historic and a potential breakthrough, the trip remains highly controversial. Amid a wave of opposition criticism, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- which Gul belonged to before being elected president last year -- adopted a very cautious tone.
"I think it is very positive that the president is going. Rejecting the (Armenian) invitation would have meant sacrificing sports to politics," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised remarks.
State Minister Mehmet Aydin appeared to acknowledge the political significane of Gul's move. "The facts that we have do not support the theory that the visit will resolve all the problems, but it is not right to assume that nothing will come of it either," Aydin was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying.
Turkey's main opposition party said Gul's decision will send the wrong signal to Armenia over its campaign for the deaths of Armenians in 1915-1917 to be recognised as "genocide".
Armenia says up to 1.5 million people were killed in orchestrated massacres during World War I as the Ottoman Empire fell apart before being dismantled in 1920. Turkey rejects the genocide label and argues that 250,000- 500,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in civil strife as Armenians fought for independence in eastern Anatolia and sided with invading Russian troops.
"Armenia does not recognise Turkish borders and accuses Turkey of having carried out genocide," said Mustafa Ozyurek of the main opposition Republican People's Party. "This step will only serve to encourage the opposing party," he said, referring to Armenia.
The vice president of the MHP nationalist party, Tunca Toskay, called the visit "totally unjustified while the Turkish people are unjustly accused through lies of having committed genocide and while Armenia shows no sign of renouncing its policy in this respect."
The trip, which comes amid heightened tensions in the Caucasus region following the conflict last month between Georgia and Russia, will only last a few hours, a Turkish diplomatic source said. But some Turkish media said it could be enough to begin real change in relations between the nations, comparing it to the "ping-pong diplomacy" between the United States and China in the 1970s.
Hasan Cemal of Milliyet newspaper proposed that a minute of silence be observed in the stadium before the match "in memory of the tragic page in our common history and the suffering experienced by the Armenians and Turks in the past".
Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the key reason has been Yerevan's genocide recognition campaign. In 1993, Ankara closed its border with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region in Azerbaijan which proclaimed independence.