Can football help normalise relations between Armenia and Turkey?
With Armenia and Turkey facing off Saturday at the EURO 2024 qualifiers, Euronews is taking a look at the troubled history between the two nations. More than a century after the 1915 massacre of more than 600,000 Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman Empire, the neighbours still don’t maintain diplomatic relations.
However, football had already served as a bridge between Yerevan and Ankara. That was between 2008 and 2009, with two matches, one in the Armenian capital Yerevan, and the other in the Turkish city of Bursa.
The famous “football diplomacy” paved the way for the signing of the 2009 Zurich Protocols, aimed at improving diplomatic relations.
Despite the pleasant exchanges, these protocols have come to nothing, and this status quo is likely to continue according to journalist Tigrane Yegavin, who stresses that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan “relies too much on his electoral base to be reappointed president”.
Azerbaijan’s central role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict
The Turkish president “relies heavily on an ultranationalist electorate” for his domestic policy, he says. “And you have the geopolitical factor with the alliance with Azerbaijan,” Yegavin continues.
It’s a relationship that can be summarised by a slogan regularly used by the governments of Ankara and Baku, which consider themselves to belong to “two states and one nation”.
In solidarity with Azerbaijan, “the Republic of Turkey unilaterally suspended its relations with Armenia in 1993,” after Yerevan’s victory in the first Nagorno-Karabakh war, notes political scientist Ahmet Insel. Since then, Baku has become a central player in the Armenian-Turkish issue and has been demanding that Yerevan recognise its sovereignty over the disputed territory populated by Armenians.
Ankara aligns itself on the Azerbaijani demands in keeping the Armenian border closed. “The cost of Armenian-Turkish normalisation is too high for the Turkish president,” analyses Tigrane Yegavian.
In the second war in 2020, “Turkey supplied drones to Baku, which were decisive” in the Armenian retreat, says Ahmet Insel – a defeat experienced as a national humiliation in Yerevan.
Already at the time of the Zurich protocols in 2009, “the Azerbaijanis were up in arms against this process,” says Tigrane Yegavian, adding: “But Turkey is not at all opposed to the opening of the borders if the Armenians manage to put aside the Karabakh question, and above all respond to the demands of the Azeris, i.e. territorial concessions, a corridor in the south of Armenia (editor’s note: towards the exclave of Nakhichevan) because the Turks see this country as an important communication route to link them to Azerbaijan.”
These concessions requested by Azerbaijan are categorically rejected by Armenia, which it believes invokes its sovereignty. The corridor is also seen as a threat by Iran, which does not want its access to Armenia to be impeded.
What can we expect from the Turkish presidential election regarding relations between Ankara and Yerevan?
Can the Turkish presidential election of 14 May move the lines and allow for a rapprochement between Yerevan and Ankara?
“If there is a change of government and majority, we should not expect rapid and significant changes in this area,” said Ahmet Insel, as the coalition formed around the candidate Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, composed in particular of nationalist parties, including the IYI Party.
This political group “comes from the far-right nationalist Grey Wolves party and would be very reluctant to overrule the will of Azerbaijan”, he says.
“On the other hand, what can change is perhaps adapting a less aggressive and threatening attitude towards neighbouring countries than the attitude deployed lately by President Erdogan’s diplomacy,” he said, listing the cases of Greece, Libya, Syria and Iraq.
In the event of a victory for the opposition, “we can perhaps expect to have a little calm, a little peaceful relations and, perhaps, prepare the ground for discreet diplomacy to be able to establish relations between Armenia and Turkey at the appropriate time,” he says, stressing that positive signals give cause for hope.
“There was an exceptional opening of the Armenian-Turkish border on 7 February, when Armenia sent aid to help the victims of the 6 February earthquake” in southern Turkey, he says.
“Turkish public opinion did not expect such a show of solidarity from the completely fantasised neighbour Armenia,” explains Tigrane Yegavian. “In Turkey, there is a whole narrative that is extremely hostile to Armenians, who are still perceived as internal enemies, as traitors or as external enemies who aim to tarnish Turkey’s image, because they do not recognise this massacre,” he says.
There is a rapprochement and football can add to this dynamic,” says Ahmet Insel, who hopes that a dialogue is possible between the two peoples.
“Normalisation and reconciliation are two different things,” he says, but “with the establishment of diplomatic relations, exchanges between civil societies will allow much more understanding by the majority of Turks who ignore or refuse to recognise the killings, and this will pave the way for recognition, but it may still take many years” he concedes.
If the current government in Yerevan says it is ready to establish relations with Turkey to get out of its geographical isolation and its ultra-dependence on Russia, it seems that the Azerbaijani obstacle prevents, for the moment, the development of Armenian-Turkish relations.
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