TURKISH ANALYSIS: Football Diplomacy Does Not Compare With 70s Ping-Pong

ANKARA–Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian’s invitation to his Turkish counterpart to attend a World Cup 2010 qualifying match between Turkey and Armenia is reminiscent of the ping-pong diplomacy that thawed U.S.-Chinese relations in 1971. But whereas the great turning point in the Cold War involved two powers of comparable weight and sound motives for the two sides to compromise on certain policy positions, no such comparisons are yet visible between Ankara and Yerevan.

Associate professor Kamer Kasim, a writer at the International Strategic Research Center, or USAK, said Armenia must be willing to change its attitude on three key matters currently harming Turkey-Armenian relations for the football diplomacy to achieve any meaningful results. “The first is a deletion of the expression ‘west Armenia’ from its declaration of independence, and a signature of an agreement on good neighborliness and the inviolability of borders,” Kasim said in an interview with the Turkish Daily News yesterday.

Armenia’s declaration of independence, signed by its first president, Levon Ter-Petrosian, in 1990, states that Armenia’supports the recognition of international claims of genocide in the Ottoman Empire and “western Armenia,” a reference to eastern Anatolia.

Kasim continued, saying, “Second is progress in the Nagorno-Karabakh case, and third is dropping charges of genocide against Turkey.” Turkey severed diplomatic ties with Armenia in protest of Yerevan’s occupation of the Nagorno-Karabakh region over which Armenia fought Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan in a war in the 1990s.
It is unclear whether or not President Abdullah Gul will fly to Yerevan for the match on Sept. 6.

An alternative to an all-or-nothing approach to the expected fresh diplomatic initiative would be to focus on soft topics shadowed by hard politics. “I do not expect great things from an eventual meeting, but it is evident that there will be a thaw in bilateral relations,” Fuat Keyman, a professor of International Relations at Koc University commented.

Keyman noted that Turkey must take the lead in softening relations and stop pushing Armenia into a corner. “I believe that Turkey is an important player in the Caucasus, Balkans and the Middle East. As Turkey has more influence, Armenia is more and more isolated,” he maintained, making reference to three important projects that connect Georgia, Azerbaijan and Turkey and bypass Armenia — the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline inaugurated in 2005, the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum natural gas line opened end 2006 and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway, construction of which started this year. “Moreover, as Turkey’s negotiation process with the European Union advances, economic and cultural relations will improve with Armenia,” Keyman asserted.

There are internal difficulties that seem to narrow the scope of bilateral dialogue, Kasim argued. The status of the Nagorno-Karabakh region is unlikely to benefit from whatever diplomatic thaw Turkey and Armenia’seek to achieve in the short term, both experts agreed. "Sarkisian is of Karabakh origin, so are his supporters,” noted Kasim, pointing to difficulties the Armenian president might face even if he is willing to adopt a policy change. “Even if the president is willing for progress, it will be negotiated behind the scenes and made public at the last minute,” Kasim stressed.

Another point is the Armenian position, which holds that Armenia is ready to talk without any preconditions. “This is propaganda by Armenian because it is Turkey that brings conditions,” Kasim said, pointing out that no concrete policy changes have yet been proposed by Yerevan.

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