Second Leg: Armenia Loses on Pitch, Pins Higher Hopes on Diplomacy

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BURSA and YEREVAN (ArmeniaNow and AFP) —Armenia and Turkey were looking to finalize their far-reaching rapprochement effort as their leaders watched together their national soccer teams play, amid stepped up security, the second leg of a International Federation of Football Association (FIFA) World Cup qualifier last night.
Armenian President Serge Sargisian flew to the northwestern city of Bursa just four days after Turkey and Armenia, backed by world powers, signed historic deals to end decades of hostility, establish formal ties and open their border.

The protocols still need parliamentary ratifications to take effect and the process is expected to take time amid nationalist ire in both countries.

Flanked by top FIFA and Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) officials, the two presidents, Sargisian and Abdullah Gul, watched from a VIP stand at Ataturk Stadium in Bursa a 10-man Turkey beating visitors from Armenia 2-0 amid a flurry of yellow and red cards distributed by the Swedish official of the match and unyielding attitudes shown by soccer players of both teams.

Despite the “first-class” reception promised by the hosts, the tension on and off the field (including the booing of Armenia’s national anthem ahead of the game, as well as reported “pop-corn and stone throwing” incidents in the direction of Armenian press crews) reflected the uneasy process that the two estranged nations have been through since Yerevan offered a fresh start to Ankara to end nearly a century of political feud between the two neighboring but not neighborly countries.

Now the qualifier played in Bursa marked the completion of a more than a year-long soccer diplomacy initiative of Sargisian who, unexpectedly for many, decided in the summer of 2008 to invite his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul to Yerevan to watch the first-leg match between the two national teams at Hrazdan Stadium.

The start given to what was quickly dubbed “soccer diplomacy” was followed by a journey of more than 13 months. The process culminated in the October 10 signing of two protocols that establish diplomatic ties and aim to develop bilateral relations between the two nations still divided over dark pages in their history, primarily by the genocidal
policies of Ottoman rulers to exterminate Armenians as a race during World War I.

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If ratified by parliaments in both Armenia and Turkey, the deal will pave the way for the opening of the border that has remained closed since 1993. Armenian leaders have insisted that by improving ties with Turkey, Armenia and its 5.7-million-strong worldwide Diaspora do not drop their claims nor will they stop seeking an international affirmation of the Genocide. But Yerevan also stresses it won’t make rapprochement with Turkey conditional on the latter’s immediate admission of Ottoman  responsibility for the killings of more than 1.5 million Armenians and for depriving them of their homeland at the beginning of the last century.

Many Armenians, however, are concerned that some wording in the text of the protocols seals Armenia’s de jure recognition of its existing border with Turkey and compromises on the Armenian case for genocide recognition by calling for the establishment of a body tasked with reviewing historical discrepancies. Besides, Armenians fear Turkey might make the ratification of the protocols and opening of the border contingent on a separate dispute between Armenia and Turkey’s ethnic ally in the region, Azerbaijan. Remarkably, the match in Bursa was preceded by a tense anticipation of a strong Azerbaijani show of protest.

Eventually, it was the FIFA decision to ban all placards and banners with political content at the stadium during the game.

Sargisian and Gul made several exchanges of words during the game, with the Armenian leader shaking the hand of his Turkish counterpart at least once to congratulate him on a Turkey goal. Neither leader talked to the press or immediately made a statement for the media. It could be gathered from scarce reports coming out from the two leaders’ entourages that Sargisian and Gul focused their discussions on the future of the deal that has yet to be approved by the two countries’ parliaments. Both appeared to agree that this ratification should be completed sooner rather than later.

Following face-to-face talks and extended discussions between the delegations, Gul gave a dinner in honor of his visiting guest.

Talking to reporters in Bursa, the Armenian foreign minister said: “Today’s game became a good occasion for the meeting of the two presidents and for them to look back at what has happened between the two countries during the year in terms of normalizing relations as well as to see what is needed to be done, in particular after the signing of the protocols four days ago, so that they are ratified and so that all agreements reached between the two countries are implemented.”

“This will open the closed door that has for long divided our two countries and peoples and will make it possible to lay the foundation for the development of relations between our two countries,” he added.

According to Nalbandian, “dishes cooked by President Gul’s wife had been brought from Ankara” especially for the dinner given by Gul in honor of Sargisian. “With this gesture Gul meant to impart some special warmth to the reception of the president of Armenia,” emphasized Nalbandian.

The Sargisian-led delegation left Turkey after spending several hours there.

Stepped-up security measures surrounded the visit of the Armenian delegations at all levels, including soccer federation officials and journalists. Likewise, a large number of plainclothes police were reportedly enforcing security in the stands.