On October 14 in the Turkish town of Bursa, a World Cup football qualifier match there could have consequences far beyond the pitch. Turkey is going to take on Armenia, a country with which it has a disputed history, a closed border and no diplomatic ties. But if all goes to plan, the Armenian President will be in attendance, and a document will have been signed in the days preceding the match to restore ties and open the border.
At stake is a painful history of mass murders during the First World War, which the Armenians – and most of the rest of the world – insist was genocide, while Turkey refuses to recognise as such. Add to that a war between Armenia and Turkey’s ally Azerbaijan, and relations have been extremely sour – at best simply non-existent – since the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The powerful Armenian diaspora in France and the US has long been vociferous, more so than local Armenians, in insisting that reconciliation with Turkey can only come after an apology from Ankara, which is unlikely to be forthcoming.
It has taken football to make the breakthrough. In early September last year, to the surprise of many, Armenian president Serzh Sarkisian invited Turkey’s president Abdullah Gül to view the match between the two countries in Yerevan. To even more surprise, Gül showed up. Ever since then this “football diplomacy” has been followed up with frequent high-level negotiations, and the Turkish side has said it wants to open the border by the end of the year.
The implications are huge. Landlocked countries never have it easy when it comes to imports and exports, but few are harder hit than Armenia. With the closed Turkish border to the west and the closed Azeri border to the east, all that is left is a short boundary stretch in the south with Iran, and a longer stretch with Georgia. This is also fairly useless given that Georgia’s own border with Russia – once Armenia’s biggest trading partner – is now closed, destroying the transit route.
As such, opening up the border could be a huge boon for Armenia itself, and could also kickstart a new route for trade through the Caucasus from Asia to Europe, rejuvenating once-grand Turkish border cities such as Kars (immortalised in Orhan Pamuk’s recent novel, Snow).
For now the biggest problem is still the unresolved dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, officially part of Azerbaijan but controlled by Armenian-loyal forces. Turkey has always supported Azerbaijan, as a fraternal nation, and it remains to be seen whether it will put aside this support and make peace with Armenia. Equally, until that dispute is solved, the full potential of transport corridors through the Caucasus will never be realised.
There may be some faint hope though – when Armenia and Azerbaijan were drawn in the same qualifying group for the Euro 2008 tournament, the matches were simply cancelled. But two weeks ago, an Azerbaijani youth judo team travelled to Yerevan for the European judo championships, and papers are now rife with talk of “judo diplomacy”. There’s a long way to go, but it’s certainly a start.