West Welcomes Turkish-Armenian ‘Football Diplomacy’

YEREVAN (RFE/RL)–The United States and the European Union have welcomed Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s decision to pay a historic visit to Armenia and expressed hope that it will foster the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations.

"I warmly welcome President Gul’s decision to attend the World Cup qualifying match between Armenia and Turkey in Yerevan on Saturday,” the EU’s Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in a statement on Friday.

“The crisis in Georgia has underlined the importance of good neighborly relations in the region, including Turkish-Armenian relations,” Rehn said. “I hope that President Gul’s important first step will be soon followed by others that lead to a full normalization of relations between these two countries, which would enhance stability in the region and prepare the ground for strengthened regional cooperation.”

The EU’s French presidency issued a similar statement on Thursday, expressing “joy” at Gul’s acceptance of President Serzh Sarkisian’s invitation to visit Yerevan for the football game. “This visit constitutes a strong and encouraging gesture for relations between Armenia and Turkey,” it said.

The U.S. also praised the “football diplomacy” that has brightened prospects for the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations, a key U.S. foreign policy goal in the region. "We welcome President Gul’s decision to travel to Yerevan," Mark Toner, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department’s European bureau, told the “Turkish Daily News” on Thursday.

"We commend both presidents for their courage to take steps to strengthen peace and prosperity throughout the region," Toner said. "We hope this historic meeting will help build momentum toward the full normalization of Turkey-Armenia relations.”

Gul discussed his forthcoming trip to Yerevan in a phone call with U.S. President George W. Bush earlier this week.

Both the U.S. and the EU have for years been trying to help ease Turkish-Armenian tensions, something which they believe is essential for bolstering stability in the volatile South Caucasus. They have repeatedly urged Turkey to unconditionally establish diplomatic relations and open its border with Armenia.

Announcing the acceptance of Sarkisian’s invitation on Wednesday, Gul’s office said the upcoming World Cup qualifier “will be instrumental in removing the barriers blocking rapprochement between the two peoples with a common history.” However, Ankara has so far left no indication that it is ready to abandon its preconditions for improving relations with Yerevan.

The main precondition is a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict acceptable to Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally. Turkey also wants an end to the decades-long Armenian campaign for international recognition of the World War I-era mass killings of Armenia’s in the Ottoman Empire as genocide.

Sarkisian and Gul are expected to discuss these issues during their meeting in Yerevan that will precede their joint attendance of the Turkey-Armenia match. According to the Turkish daily “Zaman,” Gul will reiterate Ankara’s proposal to set up a commission of Turkish and Armenian historians that would study the veracity of the 1915-1923 Genocide.

Armenia rejects that idea, suggesting that these and other sensitive issues be tackled by a Turkish-Armenian inter-governmental body instead. Sarkisian said in a newspaper interview last week that an intergovernmental commission, to be established only after diplomatic relations are normalized, will not examine the veracity of the Genocide.

“Zaman” said that while in Yerevan Gul will also bring up Turkish efforts to form a new regional cooperation structure that would bring together Turkey, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Sarkisian responded positively to the idea during talks with a visiting senior Turkish diplomat earlier this week.

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