"Football Diplomacy" between Armenia and Turkey

Hawks and Agitators Marginalised

The FIFA World Cup qualifying match that wrote diplomatic history: Turkey played in Armenia last Saturday. And this gave the governments of the two neighbouring countries that have long been deeply at odds a chance for rapprochement. Baha Güngör comments

No notable events occurred during Abdullah Gül's visit on Saturday as the first Turkish president to set foot in the Republic of Armenia since its founding in 1991. A few small groups protested, but they, as well as the "hawks" in Ankara, who even accused Gül of "betraying the fatherland", received little attention from the international community.

Armenian head of state Serge Sarkisyan proved to be a congenial host and refrained from statements that could have strained the atmosphere. The nationalist extremists and agitators had no opportunity to put on a major display.

That Gül would end the holy month of Ramadan with its prescribed days of fast in Armenia of all places at the side of the Armenian president is due to the drawing of qualifying groups for the World Cup 2010 in South Africa.

Triumph of reason

There were many fears, but in the end reason triumphed. After the recent Georgia conflict, Turkey and Armenia must be more aware than ever that striving for peace and for a solution to their existing conflicts is much better than insisting on nationalist and irrational extremist positions.

Both Armenia and Turkey passed the international test of diplomatic maturity on the football field with flying colours. In the stadium's honorary box seats they watched the game together. And television images of their friendly gestures symbolise the willingness of both sides to enter into dialogue.

Armenia is very interested in opening as soon as possible the border it shares with Turkey, which has been closed since 1993. This is also in Turkey's interest, which is searching for new routes to transport crude oil and natural gas out of the Caspian region.

In 1991, Turkey was among the first countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union to recognise the new Republic of Armenia. But the historical territorial demands made by the Armenians angered Turkey so much that diplomatic relations were broken off in 1993 and the border was closed.

Chance for dialogue

In one year the return match will be held in Turkey. Time enough for diplomats on both sides to free themselves from the ballast of historical necessities and to push forward the process of dialogue. Almost a century has passed since the events of 1915-1916.

For Armenia the death of hundreds of thousands of Armenians was "genocide". Internationally cautious diplomats talk about "massacres". Turkey repudiates the number of 1.5 million Armenians and admits only around 200,000 killed "in the chaos of World War I".

Meanwhile diehard Turkish nationalists are rendering their country poor service and have accused Gül of "betraying the fatherland" after his trip to Yerevan.

This circle still does not want to accept that the concept of the nation state has changed radically in the 21st century. In Europe nations who fought and caused even greater destruction and human suffering in the Second World War have come together to forge a lasting peace.

In the Balkans internationally backed efforts are fully underway to work through the atrocities of the 1990s and to pave the way to peace.

That Turkey and Armenia have the stature to make peace for the benefit of both countries is the best outcome of the football match, the victor of which was Turkey. But both Gül and Sarkisyan walked away with the diplomatic victory.

Baha Güngör

© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

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