By Emil Danielyan
Armenia and Turkey appear to have taken a significant step towards the normalization of their historically strained relations during Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s weekend visit to Yerevan which he described as “fruitful.”
Gul and his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian sounded unusually optimistic about the future of bilateral ties, despite skirting the key issues hampering a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement during their talks on Saturday. Their foreign ministers discussed these issues at length and were reported to make considerable progress during their separate meeting in the Armenian capital.
"I believe my visit has demolished a psychological barrier in the Caucasus," Gul was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying on his return to Ankara. "If this climate continues, everything will move forward and normalize." The trip, which lasted for only a few hours, was “fruitful” and “promises hope for the future,” he said.
Gul arrived in Yerevan to watch the first-ever game between the two countries’ national football teams at Sarkisian’s invitation, which was extended in June amid a rare thaw in the Turkish-Armenian rapport. The two men attended the match, which Turkey won 2-0, after a one-on-one meeting and a dinner in the presidential palace in Yerevan.
“We expressed hope that we can display the good will to solve the existing problems between our countries and to ensure that these problems are not passed on to the next generations,” Sarkisian told a joint news conference after the talks. “I saw a readiness, I saw a desire to establish peace and stability in the region, and I am very happy with that. I highly appreciate Mr. President’s decision to accept my invitation.”
“This visit will create a good opportunity to improve bilateral relations,” Gul said, for his part.
Gul told journalists in Ankara the next day that he is “pleased” with Armenia’s stated support for the Turkish proposal to set up a new security and cooperation grouping in the region. The so-called Caucasus Security and Stability Platform would comprise Turkey, Russia and the three South Caucasus states.
"The most important issue in the Caucasus is the Karabakh issue. My visit to Yerevan may contribute to the resolution of this problem," he said.
Still, the Turkish leader made clear he and Sarkisian avoided discussing the two main obstacles to the normalization of bilateral ties: the unresolved Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute and the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire. "He did not mention or even hint at the so-called genocide claims," Gul said of Sarkisian.
These contentious issues were tackled instead by Foreign Ministers Ali Babacan and Eduard Nalbandian, who went into late-night talks after the football match. A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Babacan and Nalbandian “expressed their determination” to achieve a “full normalization” of Turkish-Armenian relations. The two ministers will meet again in New York later this month and will take other “consistent steps in that direction,” the statement said.
“Although I cannot go into details, some consensus was reached for the normalization of bilateral relations,” another Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be identified, told “The New York Times.”
The Turkish daily “Hurriyet” claimed on Monday that Babacan and Nalbandian reached agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey and the opening of their border. Citing unnamed Turkish diplomats, the paper also said Gul and Sarkisian agreed to “speed up efforts” to form two commissions tasked with looking into the Armenian massacres and dealing with economic issues of mutual interest.
An Armenian diplomatic source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, denied the “Hurriyet” report, though. Sarkisian’s office could not be reached for comment.
Ankara has until now made the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border conditional on a Karabakh settlement acceptable to Azerbaijan and a halt to the Armenian campaign for genocide recognition. It maintains that Ottoman Armenians died in much smaller numbers as a result of internal strife, rather than a genocidal policy pursued by the government of the crumbling Turkish empire.
The two nations will remain deeply divided by their conflicting accounts of what happened in 1915 even if they open embassies in each other’s capital. In a stark reminder of this reality, hundreds of Armenians lined the route of Gul's motorcade to demand Turkish recognition of the genocide. "1915 - Never Again," read one of their banners held by the protesters, most of them supporters of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Several dozen young activists of the nationalist party represented in Armenia’s government held a torch vigil at the Tsisternakabert genocide memorial overlooking Yerevan’s Hrazdan stadium, the venue for the match.
Also, a crowd of about 200 people led by Dashnaktsutyun’s top leaders was allowed to gather near the presidential palace in Yerevan. Opposition parties have for years been banned from rallying supporters in that area, suggesting that the Armenian government at least acquiesced to the anti-Turkish protest.
Gul could see and hear the protesters chant “Recognition!” as he got out of his limousine and was welcomed by Sarkisian outside the presidential residence. He was greeted by boos and hissed by Armenian fan when he and Sarkisian took their seats behind a bullet-proof glass in Hrazdan’s VIP box hours later.
The crowd of about 40,000 spectators then jeered Turkey’s national anthem, prompting a stern rebuke from Fatih Terim, the Turkish squad’s famous coach, at a news conference after the otherwise good-tempered match. Terim at the same time praised the local fans for being respectful towards about 200 Turkish soccer fan who arrived in Yerevan for the game. They sat near a smaller group of Turks who waved the national flags of the two countries and held a banner calling for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation in the Armenian, Turkish and English languages.
Despite the expressions of anti-Turkish sentiment, Gul and other Turkish officials appeared satisfied with the first-ever visit to Armenia by a president of Turkey. According to Western news agencies, the Turkish press ran jubilant headlines on Sunday, with the conservative “Zaman” newspaper describing the visit as "new era" in bilateral ties and the popular “Milliyet” speaking of "a beginning full of hope."
"A beautiful beginning," another Turkish newspaper, “Vatan,” said on its front page. "A hope-inspiring meeting," said the daily “Radikal.”
Political analyst Cengiz Candar warned that a failure to live up to raised hopes could worsen the mood. "There will be great disappointment if the rapprochement triggered by football is not followed by the establishment of diplomatic ties and the opening of the border," he said, according to AFP.