Armenia, Turkey Ease Tensions After Historic Yerevan Summit

By Emil Danielyan

YEREVAN (RFE/RL) — Armenia and Turkey appear to have taken a significant step towards the normalization of their historically strained relations during Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s weekend visit to Yerevan, which he described as “fruitful.”

Gul and his Armenian counterpart, Serge Sargisian, sounded unusually optimistic about the future of bilateral ties, despite skirting the key issues hampering a Turkish-Armenian rapprochement during their talks on Saturday. Their foreign ministers discussed these issues at length and were reported to make considerable progress during their separate meeting in the Armenian capital.

“I believe my visit has demolished a psychological barrier in the Caucasus,” Gul was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying on his return to Ankara. “If this climate continues, everything will move forward and normalize.” The trip, which lasted for only a few hours, was “fruitful” and “promises hope for the future,” he said.

Gul arrived in Yerevan to watch the first-ever game between the two countries’ national football teams at Sargisian’s invitation, which was extended in June amid a rare thaw in the Turkish-Armenian rapport. The two men attended the match, which Turkey won 2-0, after a one-on-one meeting and a dinner in the presidential palace in Yerevan.

“We expressed hope that we can display the good will to solve the existing problems between our countries and to ensure that these problems are not passed on to the next generations,” Sargisian told a joint news conference after the talks. “I saw a readiness, I saw a desire to establish peace and stability in the region, and I am very happy with that. I highly appreciate Mr. President’s decision to accept my invitation.”

“This visit will create a good opportunity to improve bilateral relations,” Gul said, for his part.

Gul told journalists in Ankara the next day that he is “pleased” with Armenia’s stated support for the Turkish proposal to set up a new security and cooperation grouping in the region. The so-called Caucasus Security and Stability Platform would comprise Turkey, Russia and the three South Caucasus states.

“The most important issue in the Caucasus is the Karabagh issue. My visit to Yerevan may contribute to the resolution of this problem,” he said.

Still, the Turkish leader made clear he and Sargisian avoided discussing the two main obstacles to the normalization of bilateral ties: the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute and the Armenian campaign for international recognition of the 1915 Armenian Genocide.

These contentious issues were tackled instead by the foreign ministers of Turkey and Azerbaijan, respectively, Ali Babacan and Eduard Nalbandian, who went into late-night talks after the football match. A statement by the Armenian Foreign Ministry said Babacan and Nalbandian “expressed their determination” to achieve a “full normalization” of Turkish-Armenian relations. The two ministers will meet again in New York later this month and will take other “consistent steps in that direction,” the statement said.

“Although I cannot go into details, some consensus was reached for the normalization of bilateral relations,” another Turkish Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be identified, told the New York Times.

The Turkish daily Hurriyet claimed on Monday that Babacan and Nalbandian reached agreement on the establishment of diplomatic relations between Armenia and Turkey and the opening of their border.

Citing unnamed Turkish diplomats, the paper also said Gul and Sargisian agreed to “speed up efforts” to form two commissions tasked with looking into the Armenian massacres and dealing with economic issues of mutual interest.

An Armenian diplomatic source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, denied the Hurriyet report, though. Sargisian’s office could not be reached for comment. Ankara has until now made the establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of the border conditional on a Karabagh settlement acceptable to Azerbaijan and a halt to the Armenian campaign for Genocide recognition. It maintains that Ottoman Armenians died in much smaller numbers as a result of internal strife, rather than a genocidal policy pursued by the government of the crumbling Turkish Empire.

Hundreds of Armenians lined the route of Gul’s motorcade to demand Turkish recognition of the Genocide. “1915 – Never Again,” read one of their banners held by the protesters, most of them supporters of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutyun). Several dozen young activists held a torch vigil at the Tsisternakabert genocide memorial overlooking Yerevan’s Hrazdan stadium, the venue for the match.

Also, a crowd of about 200 people led by Dashnaktsutyun’s top leaders was allowed to gather near the presidential palace in Yerevan. Opposition parties have for years been banned from rallying supporters in that area, suggesting that the Armenian government at least acquiesced to the anti-Turkish protest.

Gul could see and hear the protesters chant “Recognition!” as he got out of his limousine and was welcomed by Sargisian outside the presidential residence. He was greeted by boos and hissed by Armenian fan when he and Sargisian took their seats behind a bulletproof glass in Hrazdan’s VIP box hours later.

Security was tight, especially on Gul’s airport route and at the match with local media reporting that both Turkish and Armenian snipers were training their sights across the stadium.

Traffic was blocked around the ground and fans were subjected to repeated body searches as they entered.

Fans dispersed peacefully following the match, which Turkey won 2-0.

The crowd of about 40,000 spectators then jeered Turkey’s national anthem, prompting a stern rebuke from Fatih Terim, the Turkish squad’s coach, at a news conference after the otherwise good-tempered match. Terim at the same time praised the local fans for being respectful towards about 200 Turkish soccer fan who arrived in Yerevan for the game. They sat near a smaller group of Turks who waved the national flags of the two countries and held a banner calling for Turkish-Armenian reconciliation in the Armenian, Turkish and English languages.

Despite the expressions of anti-Turkish sentiment, Gul and other Turkish officials appeared satisfied with the first-ever visit to Armenia by a president of Turkey. According toWestern news agencies, the Turkish press ran jubilant headlines on Sunday, with the conservative Zaman newspaper describing the visit as “new era” in bilateral ties and the popular Milliyetspeaking of “a beginning full of hope.”

“A beautiful beginning,” another Turkish newspaper, Vatan, said on its front page. “A hope-inspiring meeting,” said the daily Radikal.

Political analyst Cengiz Candar warned that a failure to live up to raised hopes could worsen the mood. “There will be great disappointment if the rapprochement triggered by football is not followed by the establishment of diplomatic ties and the opening of the border,” he said, according to AFP.

Many international leaders welcomed the move.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called the visit “courageous and historic.”

“While the region is in the midst of a serious crisis, (his visit) is a courageous and historic gesture for Turkish-Armenian relations,” Sarkozy, who currently holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, said in a statement.

“It allows hope for progress soon in establishing normal relations between Turkey and Armenia,” he added.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Matthew Bryza said “we welcome the courage that Armenian and Turkish presidents have shown by agreeing to meet.”

Bryza added: “We welcome the courage both presidents have shown by agreeing to meet. They demonstrated wisdom in embracing a football match as an opportunity to create new openings in pursuit of peace and prosperity.

“This meeting reflects the reality that for centuries, the people of Turkey and Armenia have inhabited a common Anatolian home. We hope this meeting will generate accelerated progress toward a just and lasting settlement of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, which must proceed from the principle of respect for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity, and evolve into a political compromise that incorporates other principles of international law and diplomatic practice.”

Gul’s office said he will visit Azerbaijan this week, days after his landmark trip to Armenia. He was scheduled to travel to Baku on Wednesday to discuss his weekend talks with the Armenian head of state in Yerevan.

(Mediamax and Agence France Presse contributed to this report.)