Turkey to kick off 'football diplomacy'

The president of Turkey Abdullah Gul is about to make history by travelling to Armenia for a football match.

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ISTANBUL // Abdullah Gul, Turkey's president, is about to make history by travelling to Armenia for a football match, thus becoming the first Turkish head of state to visit the neighbour despite the two countries' continued disagreement over the deaths of up to 1.5 million Anatolian-Armenians almost 100 years ago.

Accepting an invitation by Serzh Sarkisian, his Armenian counterpart, Mr Gul, who will arrive in Yerevan tomorrow to see the first contest between Turkey and Armenia in a World Cup qualifying match, is hoping the game will contribute to a "new climate of friendship in the region", his office said in a statement. In Istanbul, Alen Markaryan, a Turkish football fan of Armenian descent, agreed. "This match could be a first step to overcoming the coldness between the two countries," said Mr Markaryan, 42, who heads Carsi, a fan club of Besiktas, one of Istanbul's biggest football clubs.

The match will be the first meeting between the top teams of the two neighbouring countries that have no diplomatic relations and whose common border is closed. Mr Markaryan said he was looking forward to the beginning of a process of reconciliation. "We all hope for the start of better relations," he said. He compared Turkey's relationship to Armenia with those to Greece, another traditional enemy with whom Ankara has begun to build new bridges in recent years. "It was the same with Greece, but the wall is crumbling," Mr Markaryan said.

Fatih Terim, Turkey's national football coach, also hoped the match could contribute to better relations between the two countries, but said politics should be left to politicians. "If you think about political problems and about historical accusations, you will not be able to prepare for any match," he said. Armenia has lifted visa restrictions for Turks to attract as many Turkish fans as possible.

Turkey and Armenia are separated by history as well as by modern conflicts. Armenia says up to 1.5 million Anatolian-Armenians died in massacres and death marches that started in 1915 in the Ottoman Empire, in what Armenians say was genocide by the Turks directed against a Christian minority. Turkey puts the number of victims much lower and says the deaths were caused by unrest and wartime conditions that also killed many Muslim Turks.

The bilateral relationship became more difficult in the early 1990s, when Turkey backed Azerbaijan in the war against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan. Still, the two countries had to make a new start, Mr Markaryan said. "I hope that the two peoples get rid of their prejudices," he said. Many of the 80,000 Armenians who live in Turkey today complain about discrimination and say they are afraid of Turkish nationalists, especially after a young extremist shot Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist, in Istanbul last year.

Carsi, the fan club run by Mr Markaryan, made headlines after the murder by expressing its solidarity with Mr Dink. "We are all Armenians," read a sign unfolded by Carsi members in the Besiktas stadium. The club also supported black football players who had become victims of racial abuse. Mr Markaryan said he saw no problems between ordinary Turks and Armenians, but that politicians had played up the differences. He said he was the best example for normality - an Armenian who leads a football fan club in Turkey.

The Turkish-Armenian "football diplomacy", which has been compared in the Turkish press to the "ping-pong diplomacy" that led to better relations between the US and China in the 1970s, could provide a chance to break the deadlock, but also carries political risks for Ankara. A visit by Mr Gul to Yerevan may not go down well in Azerbaijan, Turkey's ally that continues to live in a state of war with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Mr Gul's trip to Yerevan may also jeopardise the president's standing in his own country, said Can Fuat Gurlesel, the head of the Institute for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Istanbul. "A gesture like that will be seen positively abroad, but it will be dangerous domestically", as Armenia had not made it clear yet that it accepts the border, he said. Ever since Mr Sarkisian invited Mr Gul to Yerevan, media and politicians in Turkey have been debating if the president should go.

Many newspaper columnists, business organisations and some pro-democracy groups had called on Mr Gul to travel to Yerevan. But opposition politicians say the trip will send the wrong signal. According to Mr Markaryan, who will not go to Yerevan tomorrow, the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement should not be limited to football. Turkey should open its border with Armenia for trade in order to help the landlocked neighbour, he said. "Armenia is a weak and poor country."

As for tomorrow's match, Mr Markaryan predicted a Turkish victory, but not a towering one. "There won't be many goals," he said. "The match is going to be heated." @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae