Last September, Turkish President Abdullah Gül traveled to Yerevan to attend a World Cup qualifying match between Armenia and Turkey. This October, Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian is expected to attend another Armenia-Turkey match in Istanbul — as long as Ankara makes moves to open the Turkish-Armenian border. And thus, amidst a flurry of criticisms, doubts and speculations, football diplomacy between the two countries has taken hold.
Gül’s trip drew heavy criticism from both Turks and Armenians — many Turks (and particularly Turkish nationalists) claimed the visit showed a sign of weakness on Turkey’s part and would hurt Turkey’s image; some Armenians claimed that the visit was simply a reaction to the Russian invasion of South Ossetia — that the Turks felt they needed to exercise more power in the region to fight off a Russian threat.
Indeed, Gül’s daytrip to Yerevan marked the first visit of a Turkish leader to Armenia in the entire history of the two nations. The Republic of Turkey has been around since 1922; the Democratic Republic of Armenia was founded in 1918, though was taken over by the Communist Party in 1920, was swept into the Soviet Union in 1922 and finally gained independence in 1991 after the USSR’s collapse. Of course, the real trouble began before either country even existed — Armenians were always viewed as second-class citizens in the Ottoman Empire, and things got really nasty when more than 1 million Armenians were killed under Ottoman Turkish rule between 1915 and 1918. Since then, the question of whether the mass killing of Armenians should be declared a “genocide” has been cause for the complete lack of diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia. The “genocide” issue has also been a topic of international debate and even caused a rift between the U.S. and Turkish governments in 2007, when a bill proposing official use of the term “genocide” came to the U.S. House floor.
So. Now what? Today, both governments announced that they would officially establish diplomatic ties, meaning that leaders of both countries will meet and discuss their “issues”– sans football and with the help of Swiss mediators. As far as any of us can tell, the most pressing issues are:
1.The aforementioned “genocide” snafu
2. The Nagorno-Karabakh dispute (In short: the Armenian majority in the Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan wants to secede and join with Armenia; the Azerbaijanis don’t especially like this, considering that Nargorno-Karabakh is officially considered part of Azerbaijan, though the Soviets declared it an “Autonomous Region” in the 1920’s due to its 90+% Armenian majority. Turkey has sided with Azerbaijan on this issue and closed its borders with Armenia in 1993 as a result of the dispute.)
3. The opening of the Turkish-Armenian border.
I predict that the issues will be addressed in this order: 3, 2, 1. I don’t really want to go into my own thoughts on Issue 1, as I’d prefer not to be attacked by The Internet; with regards to Issue 2, I’m not especially knowledgeable, but there’s certainly no way of getting it figured out any time soon — or at all — and I think it should actually be avoided for the time being in favor of Issue 3. Getting the Azerbaijani government and Nagorno-Karabakh separatist representatives involved will only greatly complicate the Turkish-Armenian issues. What Turkey and Armenia really need is some relationship counseling under supervision of Swiss therapists, followed by alone time — candlelit dinners, long walks on the border, that sort of thing.
At any rate, the fate of President Sarkisian’s intended visit to Istanbul to watch the October 14th match rests firmly on the progress of Issue 3. Will these border-opening moves be made? Will Sarkisian be allowed to sit in the Armenian fan section, or will ne need to sit with the Turkish leaders to conform to diplomatic etiquette? For that matter, IS there even an Armenian fan section in Turkish football stadiums? And most importantly — who will win and will the results affect non-football diplomacy?