The Armenian national soccer team arrived in Bursa yesterday. The game is no more than a formality for fans of the two teams as both have already lost the chance to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, but it has long been a source of diplomatic controversy due to uncertainty over Sarksyan's participation.
Sarksyan had previously said he would not attend Wednesday's return game unless there was progress toward opening the border between the two countries. His remarks on Monday came as he was speaking to reporters at Yerevan's airport before flying to Moscow, where he was to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. Turkey was actually one of the first countries to recognize Armenia's independence in 1991.
The two countries have been holding closed-door talks for over one-and-a-half years on ways to restore diplomatic relations and open their mutual border, closed by Turkey in 1993 in protest of the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani territory during a war over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Sarksyan will become the first president of an independent Armenia to visit Turkey when he attends the game under tight security in Bursa.
The protocols signed in Zurich require ratification by both parliaments, a process that could yet be derailed by the festering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Armenian-backed breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh.
Long and winding road ahead
Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan announced on Monday that he plans to accept an invitation from his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gül, to watch a low-excitement 2010 World Cup qualifying second-leg match between the Turkish and Armenian national teams to be held at Bursa's Atatürk Stadium on Oct. 14.
Although the deal signed on Saturday calls for a reopening of the border, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reiterated on Sunday that Armenia must first withdraw from the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The statement appeared to be an effort by Turkey to appease its close ally Azerbaijan, which said the new agreement will aggravate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. While praising the agreement to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia and reopen their border, Erdoğan called progress with a former bitter foe an “important step” that would lead to cooperation and dialogue.
However, Erdoğan said the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute must be resolved to enable Turkey to take steps to normalize ties and for the deal to be approved by Parliament.
“We want all conflicts to be resolved, and we want all borders to be opened at the same time. [But] as long as Armenia does not withdraw from occupied territories in Azerbaijan, Turkey cannot take up a positive position. If problems between Azerbaijan and Armenia are resolved, the public would accept Turkish-Armenian relations more easily. Approval in Parliament would be so much easier,” he said.
Sarksyan said on Monday the statements by Turkey's leaders were addressed primarily to the people of Azerbaijan. "If Turkey is not going to ratify it, why has it signed it? Today the ball is in Turkey's court. We have already spoken out about our steps and will move in this direction. We have enough patience to wait for developments. We will move forward without wavering,” Sarksyan said.
Gül, who will host Sarksyan in Bursa, has admitted that the process ahead for complete normalization of ties is full of obstacles. “Of course, difficult issues don't become easy. An iceberg doesn't melt in a day,” Gül told reporters in Kayseri on Sunday, voicing his hope that Sarksyan would agree to come to Bursa.
In an address to the people of Armenia delivered on Saturday ahead of the signing ceremony, Sarksyan had indicated that his country would not give up efforts for international recognition of the alleged Armenian genocide.
Asked in a recent interview with French media if Turkey is ready to recognize the World War I killings as genocide, Gül said: “We are very open on the subject, but if there is such an allegation -- which we don't accept, by the way -- who is going to decide?” He said Turkey has said a committee of historians should decide whether the killings were genocide. The Armenian-Turkish agreement calls for a panel to discuss “the historical dimension” of the killings, including “an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations.” However, Gül said: “I think we have to move past this. There is a new period starting. ... It's a period of peace, stability, confidence, security and cooperation.”