ANKARA (AFP)–Although President Abdullah Gul on Saturday will become Turkey’s first head of state to visit Armenia, his bid to ease relations between Ankara and Yerevan has angered nationalists in Turkey that continue to deny Turkey committed Genocide against the Armenia’s.
Gul will go to Yerevan to attend a football match between the two countries, which will face off in a qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup finals.
"A visit around this match can create a new climate of friendship in the region," the Turkish presidency said in a statement. "It’s with this in mind that the president has accepted the invitation."
But while some in the Turkish media have hailed the visit as historic and a potential breakthrough, the trip remains highly controversial. Amid a wave of opposition criticism, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)–to which Gul belongs–adopted a very cautious tone.
"I think it is very positive that the president is going. Rejecting the [Armenian] invitation would have meant sacrificing sports to politics," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in televised remarks.
State Minister Mehmet Aydin appeared to acknowledge the political significance of Gul’s move. "The facts that we have do not support the theory that the visit will resolve all the problems, but it is not right to assume that nothing will come of it either," Aydin was quoted by the Anatolia news agency as saying.
Turkey’s main opposition party said Gul’s decision will send the wrong signal to Armenia.
"Armenia does not recognize Turkish borders and accuses Turkey of having carried out genocide," said Mustafa Ozyurek of the main opposition Republican People’s Party. "This step will only serve to encourage the opposing party," he said, referring to Armenia.
The vice president of the MHP nationalist party, Tunca Toskay, called the visit "totally unjustified while the Turkish people are unjustly accused through lies of having committed genocide and while Armenia’shows no sign of renouncing its policy in this respect."
The trip, which comes amid heightened tensions in the Caucasus region following the conflict last month between Georgia and Russia, will only last a few hours, a Turkish diplomatic source said. But some Turkish media said it could be enough to begin real change in relations between the nations.
Hasan Cemal of Milliyet newspaper proposed that a minute of silence be observed in the stadium before the match "in memory of the tragic page in our common history and the suffering experienced by the Armenia’s and Turks in the past".
Turkey has refused to establish diplomatic relations with Armenia’since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991, and the key reason has been Yerevan’s campaign for international genocide recognition. In 1993, Ankara closed its border with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region in Azerbaijan, which proclaimed independence from Baku as the Soviet Union was collapsing.