Can Soccer Heal Turkey-Armenia Rift?

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l. to r.: Adem Altan / AFP / Getty; Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP / Getty

Turkish president Abdullah Gul, left, and Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian, right.

Soccer's world governing body FIFA pays no heed to historical enmities or geopolitical feuds in the draw for the World Cup qualifying tournament; only seedings count. That's how South Korea ended up facing the diplomatically sensitive challenge of having to beat North Korea in order to secure one of the 32 places at World Cup 2010 in South Africa. Even more potentially volatile was the May 31 match-up between Sudan and Chad — FIFA postponed that one indefinitely, because the two countries were on the brink of war. (A World Cup qualifier in which El Salvador beat Honduras in 1969 saw long-running tensions erupt into a brief war.) But many in Turkey and Armenia are seeing their national teams' World Cup encounter in Yerevan on Saturday as an opportunity to help thaw the troubled relationship between the two countries.

Among the fans taking their seats for the game in the Armenian capital will be Turkey's President Abdullah Gul and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian. Gul's visit is the first ever by a Turkish head of state to Armenia, and it is being heralded as a potential breakthrough in efforts to normalize relations between the traditional adversaries. Their common border was sealed in 1993 as the two countries found themselves supporting opposite sides in the conflict between Azerbaijan and its breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and they have never enjoyed diplomatic relations.

France, which holds the presidency of the European Union, is welcoming the visit as "historic and highly symbolic," and as a "strong and encouraging sign" for relations between the two countries. Gul's office said in a statement that the visit "will be an opportunity to overcome obstacles and prepare a new ground to bring the two people together." Armenia's President Sarkisian told his country's diplomats this week that "without forgetting the past, we must look to the future." He added, "If there is a dialogue, we can discuss any, even the most difficult questions. We must shape a mutually beneficial agenda and begin contacts without preconditions."

But political analysts say that while the visit may be historic, it is at best only a first step. Both countries have been seeking ways to re establish normal relations at least since Sarkisian was elected earlier this year, but obstacles include the ongoing dispute over Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, claimed by Azerbaijan with Turkey's backing. And then there's the long-standing tension over Turkey's refusal to call the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks during the First World War a genocide.

"What we are seeing is some prospect of the de-escalation of conflict between the two peoples, but it's not going to be easy," says former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Mark Parris, currently a scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Both capitals have wanted to find a solution for some time, but third parties — including Azerbaijan, in the case of Turkey, and the Armenian diaspora, in the case of Yerevan — have militated against one."

Gul is expected to spend only a few hours in the Armenian capital, but his aides say that on the sidelines of the soccer match, the Presidents will discuss a Turkish proposal to establish a new regional "platform" to facilitate conflict resolution and strengthen economic ties among Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Russia and Azerbaijan. They may also discuss a proposal to set up a commission of unbiased historians to examine the murders of Armenians in 1915.

Adding urgency to the current discussions is the Russian invasion of Georgia, which has raised fears not just in Turkey but also in the West that instability in the region could interrupt energy supplies from the Caspian through Turkey to Western consumers. Ankara hopes its proposed "platform" would help reduce regional tensions.

Armenia is particularly eager to find a way to reopen its border with Turkey, because it is currently forced to conduct its international trade via Georgia's Black Sea ports. That corridor has been squeezed by the Russian military action in Georgia; a key railway bridge was mined and the port of Poti remains occupied by Russian troops.

Still, nationalist elements in both countries are opposed to any kind of rapprochement. Deniz Baykal, leader of Turkey's Republican People's party, said he would prefer to see President Gul attend a match in Baku instead. Devlet Bahceli, leader of the Nationalist Action party, said it was a mistake to travel to Yerevan before Turkey and Armenia had solved their problems.

Domestic political opposition may limit the room for maneuver of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) but its Armenian initiative is part of the party's broader strategic framework of "zero problem with the neighbors," and includes diplomatic efforts in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.

Saturday will not be the first time that the two countries have clashed on the soccer field. In July, a youth match saw Armenia win 2 -1. But Turkey's senior national side is currently ranked tenth in the world, and it would be a major upset for 98th-ranked Armenia to prevail. While Turkey is a soccer-mad nation (some 5,000 fans are traveling to the match on special visas issued by the Armenian government ) organizers are hoping that the two sides will keep their passions on the pitch. As for embracing the opposing side after the match, all eyes are likely to be on the presidential box. The presidents, in this case, will lead the way.