Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Soccer Diplomacy Moving Forward?

As it stands we are a mere four days away from the much-heralded soccer diplomacy and leaves everyone asking "what's going to happen?" Officially, we don't even know if Gul is going or not. Sargsyan extended his invitation months ago, shortly after secret talks in Switzerland were leaked to the public, but Gul has yet to officially respond. A late-July visit to Ani was thought to be a nod to and positive sign for Armenia, however based on Gul's comments there, namely "Ani is important to us because...... it is where Turks first entered Anatolia" left me downright angry instead of encouraged. An Armenian reporter on the scene tried to get any sort of positive statement out of Gul but none came. Perhaps he has been coy though, going to Armenia is a major step and major controversy amongst people in both countries and he is likely being careful not to stir the cauldron too much in Turkey. Sargsyan has been more forthcoming and restated his invitation and desire for better relations with Turkey numerous times- aside from the Dashnak minority however I don't think such statements are as controversial within blockaded Armenia.

I've assembled my own timeline of what I think has gone on behind the scenes and why I have always been confident the Turkish president will go, despite what many others have been thinking. News of secret talks were leaked in mid-July, the culprit still a mystery but likely to be either an unhappy faction in the Turkish power structure- it is no secret the military and factions of the opposition want relations with Armenia to remain locked- or Azerbaijan who has been panicking over this development. It is also unknown how long secret talks went on or if they ever would have been revealed if the leak hadn't occured. The invitation to Turkey was extended shortly after, indicating to me it must have been coordinated. Very few things in international relations are not choreographed and I think the fact it shortly followed that round of secret talks is hardly a coincidence. Extending this invitation put Sargsyan out on a limb and Turkey in a corner. Both were put in precarious positions by it, especially Turkey who would look bad internationally by rejecting it. Visiting a nation you have blockaded for 15 years and with whom your "brother nation" is in a state of war with isn't something taken lightly and I can't imagine this invitation wasn't made after careful negotiations and and agreement of both parties behind the scenes. Thus I find it no surprise that all indications are now pointing towards Gul accepting the invitation, which he likely must have done long ago privately, unless we are to believe he actually expects Armenia to completely prepare for his groundbreaking and security nightmare of a visit in a matter of hours.

Speculation on Gul's lack of a response so close to the game has been cause for different speculation in numerous different directions. Some think by not saying yes or no, something can conveniently come up at the last minute which Gul has to attend and he can back out at the last minute, perhaps sending a lesser official or no one at all. However if this was the case I'd think it would have come up already, no sense in having that very important conflicting meeting or event come up just days before the game in what would obviously look like a last minute "I have to stay home and wash my hair" sort of excuse to get out of a bad date. Others think, and what I believe to be much more likely, that this delay is to give those who would protest his visit or seek to cause trouble the least amount of time possible to organize. It makes me wonder why Sargsyan didn't wait longer in extending the invitation if they really want to give them less time, because truly diehard protestors would likely start organizing whether or not he was officially coming just in case, but then again how many diehard protestors can there really be in Armenia itself regarding this issue with so many distractions and the reality of life in Armenia giving them other things to worry about. Speculation as to whether he will or won't attend is rather outdated at this point as over the weekend the small Turkish newspaper Taraf broke the news, though there was still reason to doubt because some speculated it was just a test balloon to gauge reaction. A few days later in an interesting/strange contradiction, Prime Minister Erdogan actually indicated Gul and Foreign Minister Babajan would be in Armenia for the game next week while at the very same event Gul continued to deny he had made a decision. It is also worth noting that there was an interesting exchange of interviews around the same time, one from President Sargsyan and one from Gul, both published in the Turkish newspaper Radikal in which they made friendly overtures to each other, such as Gul telling Armenia that Turkey is not an enemy.

Other occurences on the sidelines of the drama over 'will he/won't he' we have the total renovation of the Hrazdan stadium preparing to host the event, the novelty that the stadium is only meters away from the Genocide Memorial (though I am quite sure Gul will only be going halfway up that hill), and the recent Turkish proposal of a Caucasian Union for Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Turkey and Russia. Some think this was invented purely as an excuse for heightened negotiations between Turkey and Armenia because nobody thinks a regional alliance can actually work, what with Russia at Georgia's throat and Azerbaijan and Armenia in a state of cold war. The Caucasus is a complete mess and Turkey has long wanted to extend its influence there. While the U.S. supports open borders, it is likely Russia's part in this union as well as Turkey's failure to notify the U.S. ahead of time (as they had come to an understanding that Turkey would do regarding any developments in the region) which caused Matt Bryza, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, to respond very surprised and cooly to word of this proposal. If it wasn't for Azerbaijan's influence over Turkey in this matter I wouldn't be surprised if the border was already open, or at least relations further along, but it has been pressure from Baku which has probably been the biggest roadblock for those within Turkey who want to see relations with Armenia. One can't discount the influence of the military and secularists who by and large have been severely opposed to relations with Armenia as well and have long suffered from a monolithic and unchanging option on relations with it. It has only been the road paved by the AKP which brought some new thinking to the Turkish government while diminished the influence of those previously mentioned forces in the government.

In the past few years Turkey has been extending its influence in the Middle East quite a bit, for example by having peacekeepers in Lebanon and acting as a conflict manager for parties in the region. Its ability to do the same to the east has constantly been curtailed by its total lack of influence over Armenia thanks to locked borders and it has had to rely on Georgia as its only outlet. In that sense the football invitation has had pitch perfect timing. For most of 2008 I had been hearing from some people in the know that the west could no longer rely on Georgia and were now in a full-court press for improved relations between Turkey and Armenia. At the time I don't know if anyone could imagine how quickly things would blow up but they knew Georgia was a ticking time bomb, its instability a secret to no one. In light of the war Sargsyan's invitation became that much more vital as Georgia's east-west road has only recently come unblocked and Russia hanging out just miles away. At the same time, the blockade has all put pushed Armenia into Russia's arms and most of its infrastructure has already been bought up by Russia. Turkey and the west have likely decided this has gone on for too long and if they have any hope to remain a power in this vital part of the world they need to do something fast. So this is where we find ourselves today, on the verge of a possible breakthrough in Turkey-Armenia relations after what has been literally almost a century of silence and bitterness. There are still many concerns, not least of which the feeling that Sargsyan is trying to counter his unpopularity at home with support abroad by such moves- and what we can assume might be tough concessions which come from them. Others doubt anything will come from this visit at all, but how can anything so profound happen without a single result?

No matter what, it seems this historic and extremely improbable visit will be going through after all. With confirmations from just about everyone but President Gul himself, with Turkish special forces apparently already on the ground in Yerevan preparing for his protection, there is little reason to think otherwise. Even frenzied Azerbaijan is coming to terms with the eventuality of the visit, articles decrying the potential visit have lessened and Turkish Ambassador to Azerbaijan Hulusi Kilic announcing "Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit to Armenia will be useful for Azerbaijan", anger could still bubble over depending on the visit's outcome. One is left to marvel at the way events have unfolded since last year- Armenia having been grouped in the previous qualifiers with Azerbaijan leading to two canceled games between them after a dispute over venues. It was promised that Armenia wouldn't be grouped as such again, only to have it "randomly" picked to face Turkey instead in this group of World Cup qualifiers! From here things snowballed bringing us to today, where football is the hope to begin diplomatic and economic relations between two long-time enemies, and which can hopefully start to repair the human and emotional gulf which lies between these two peoples as well.

1 comment:

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