5 Min Read
By Hasmik Mkrtchyan and Paul de Bendern
YEREVAN/ANKARA, Sept 5 (Reuters) - A soccer match in Yerevan's Hrazdan stadium on Saturday could herald a fresh start in relations between Armenians and Turks that have been marred by hostility for nearly 100 years.
President Abdullah Gul will become the first Turkish leader ever to set foot in neighbouring Armenia when, at the invitation of his Armenian counterpart, he flies to Yerevan to watch his national side play Armenia in a World Cup qualifying match.
The visit has huge symbolic importance for two countries which have no diplomatic ties and whose relationship is haunted by the killings of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during World War One.
If they can move beyond the symbolism to re-establish normal relations, that could have huge significance for Turkey's role as a regional power, for energy flows from the Caspian Sea and for Western influence in a South Caucasus region where Russia flexed its muscles last month by sending troops into Georgia.
"Football diplomacy will become a new term in the international community's lexicon," if after Saturday's match there is a real improvement in relations, former Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian told Reuters.
Turkey has never opened an embassy in Armenia and in 1993 Ankara closed their land border in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan, a Turkic-speaking ally which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Armenia, supported by many Western historians, says up to 1.5 million of its people were killed in a genocide. Turkey denies there was genocide and says the deaths were the result of inter-ethnic conflict that also killed many Muslim Turks.
But Russia's decision last month to send its forces into Georgia, an ex-Soviet state which borders both Armenia and Turkey, has convinced many that it is time for Ankara and Yerevan to put their differences aside.
Western-backed pipelines shipping oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Turkey's Mediterranean coast bypass Armenia and bend north instead to go through Georgia.
With that route looking vulnerable after the Russian intervention, Armenia could be an attractive alternative route.
Russia's actions -- which have unsettled its neighbours and been widely condemned by the West -- have also encouraged NATO member Turkey to seek a bigger role as a regional power broker, a task hampered by its lack of ties with Armenia.
"The crisis in Georgia has underlined the importance of good neighbourly relations in the region, including Turkish-Armenian relations," said Olli Rehn, the European Union's enlargement commissioner.
Not everyone welcomes Gul's visit. Turkey's main opposition Republican Party urged the Turkish president not to go.
In Yerevan, the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party said it activists will be at the airport where Gul is to arrive and the football stadium to stage protests demanding Turkey recognise the World War One killings as genocide.
Extra security will be laid on at the stadium for Gul and the 150-strong Turkish delegation.
Observers in both countries hope substantial negotiations will follow on from Gul's visit, which will include talks and a dinner hosted by Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan.
For Yerevan, a first step would be for Turkey to re-open the rail link with Armenia. For Ankara, it would be for Armenia to stop lobbying foreign parliaments to recognise the World War One killings as genocide, and for some movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
"I suppose for Turkey it wants to strengthen its position in the region and immediately wants to avoid a situation next year when the U.S. Congress would most likely pass a resolution recognizing the killings as genocide," said William Hale, an author and expert on Turkish politics.
The key though is what happens after the final whistle blows on Saturday. "This is a feel-good all round," said Oskanian, who now heads the Civilitas Foundation for democracy and development issues.
"The challenge is to make it a meaningful win-win and it can be that only if there's a continuation to this initial demonstrative period," he said.
"If this doesn't happen ... then Turkey will have demonstrated that all this was just a show. And that means both Armenia and the region will be the losers."
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