President Serzh Sarkisian arrived in the Turkish city of Bursa on Wednesday on a brief visit that marks a new milestone in Armenia’s “football diplomacy” with Turkey praised by world powers.
Sarkisian and Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul were due to attend a return match of their countries’ national soccer teams there later in the day. The two leaders watched together the first Turkey-Armenia match in Yerevan in September last year, giving new impetus to fence-mending negotiations between their governments.
Sarkisian, accompanied by Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian and other Armenian officials, arrived at Bursa airport late in the afternoon. He was greeted there by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in an official ceremony broadcast live by Armenian and Turkish television. Sarkisian smiled as he watched a brief performance by Turkish folk dancers.
A statement issued by Sarkisian’s office earlier in the day said the president will first visit Armenia players and coaching staff to “encourage” them ahead of the politically charged game. It said Sarkisian will then go into talks with Gul that will start in a one-on-one format and continue in the presence of senior government from both states.
The two presidents will have dinner before heading to Bursa’s Ataturk Stadium. Gul will give a reception in honor of his Armenian counterpart after the match. It was not clear if they will make public statements after the talks as they did in Yerevan last year.
Turkish authorities mounted tight security measures in and around the stadium hours before the match. Turkish media has reported that thousands of uniformed and plainclothes security personnel will be deployed there to avoid possible provocations. Fans will only be allowed to carry Turkish and Armenian flags. Turkish officials have banned fans from chanting political slogans and displaying Azerbaijani flags at the match.
Ticket sales have been restricted, with most distributed to students of military academies, police and their families, according to media reports. President Gul has met with leaders of fans groups to personally ask them not to overshadow the game and return the "hospitality" with which he himself was greeted in Yerevan.
AFP news agency reported that in a gesture to their Armenian guests, the Turkish fans were expected to greet them in the stadium by singing a folk song about a blonde lover, which is popular in both Turkey and Armenia.