Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Armenia v Turkey: The start of something better

In a world where half the countries just want to get on with each other peacefully and the other half are quite happy being peaceful on their own, football can always be guaranteed to disrupt and maintain the status quo in equal quantities.

Take the qualifying competition for the FIFA 2010 World Cup. Among its hundreds of planned fixtures, you'll find the one between Sudan and Chad that's been postponed indefinitely because the two teams are on the brink of war and the one between North and South Korea who have had, let's say, an uneasy relationship over the years.

Yet last weekend, two teams came together that had never met in a full international match despite sharing a border with each other - a border that has remained closed since 1993 due to numerous political disagreements and a chapter in history that remains an open wound for millions of people to this day.

The match took place in Yerevan last Saturday, where Armenia played Turkey in a European Group 5 tie. Since the early part of the 20th century, relations between the two have been volatile following the alleged attempt by the Ottoman Empire's 'Young Turk' government to exterminate two million Turkish Armenians who'd been seeking greater independence.

By 1923, it's said that 1.5 million Armenians had perished in massacres, on death marches and in concentration camps. Turkey claims that up to half a million Turks and Armenians died in civil conflict and insists there was no genocide - a claim contradicted by Armenia and a growing number of other countries.

There's also the issue of Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, an area which officially falls within the boundaries of Azerbaijan which the Azerbaijanis (with Turkey's backing) oppose.

Both nations have maintained a resolute stand-off ever since the Armenia-Turkey border was closed by the latter fifteen years ago. Since then, Armenia has been forced to conduct its international trade via Georgia, which has recently been involved in a conflict of its own with Russia, as well as Iran.

It therefore seems an appropriate time for Armenia to be open towards a new era of open dialogue with their Turkish neighbours as the two countries seek a peaceful future together. That era appeared to begin on Saturday when Turkey's President, Abdullah Gul, attended the World Cup qualifier in Yerevan at the invitation of his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sargsyan.

It was the first time a Turkish head of state had visited Armenia, and understandably his transit from the airport to the Hrazdan Stadium was greeted by hundreds of protestors holding banners with messages such as "Turkey admit your guilt" and "1915 never again".

On arrival at the stadium, the two Presidents took their place in an executive box protected by bullet-proof glass where handshakes were exchanged in acknowledgment of the landmark event. They shared the stadium with 35,000 Armenian fans - most, if not all of whom booed the Turkish national anthem - and around 200 Turkish supporters who were segregated from the rest of the crowd and were heavily guarded by Armenian police.

The result of the game was largely a foregone conclusion - Turkey, ranked tenth in the world, beating 98th-placed Armenia 2-0 - but the fact that both Presidents had even met in the first place suggests something more significant had been achieved here. A first step had been made on the long road to a more peaceful relationship between Turkey and Armenia and the heads of both nations, plus observers from afar, seem grateful for that.

"I was happy to see that we were unanimous with the Armenian side on the need for mutual dialogue to remove barriers to improving bilateral ties" said President Gul. "I underlined that there is no problem that dialogue cannot solve" he added after talks with his counterpart.

President Sargsyan said that there was "a political will to decide the questions between our countries so that these problems are not passed onto the next generation."

Politicians from both sides are now expected to discuss ways of resolving the long-running conflict and strengthen economic ties between Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan. A proposal has also been put forward to set up a commission of unbiased historians to examine the murders of Armenians in 1915.

With President Sargsyan invited to attend the return World Cup qualifier in Ankara next year, an uneasy and tentative air of goodwill now prevails over these two countries. No-one is expecting to put the events of the past to one side as they strive for better relations, but thanks to the involvement of football as a diplomatic conduit, the future may now be a little brighter for all concerned.

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