Turkey and Armenia: Second Round of Soccer Diplomacy

Turkey and Armenia: Second Round of Soccer Diplomacy
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“Rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is on a very different ground than in the past and there is again a shimmer of a possible understanding”

Turkey was placed in Group D of the Euro 2024 qualifying draw together with Croatia, Wales, Latvia and Armenia.

Turkey's pairing with Armenia presented an interesting coincidence.

In the 2010 World Cup qualifiers, they had also ended up in the same group.

The two countries, which did not have diplomatic relations at that time, had begun a process of détente at the time. In a period known as "soccer diplomacy," Turkish President Abdullah Gul traveled to Yerevan to watch the match between the two countries, and in return, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan came to Turkey to watch the rematch in Bursa.

Today, when the two countries are seeking dialogue, they are again in the same group, and it will be interesting to see if a similar scenario will be repeated.

What happened in 2008-2009?

When Armenia gained its independence in 1991, Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize the country. However, Turkey closed its land borders with Armenia in 1993 due to the Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh, where the majority of the population is Armenian. The borders have remained closed ever since.

After a long period of non-relations, the AKP government's desire for rapprochement with Armenia as part of its zero-problem policy with its neighbors was reflected in public opinion. Then-Turkish President Abdullah Gul addressed a letter to Serzh Sargsyan, who was elected president in 2008. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan also sent a letter of goodwill to their Armenian counterparts.

At a time when this desire for rapprochement was intensifying, Turkey and Armenia were drawn into the same group for the 2010 World Cup qualifying matches. Sargsyan took this opportunity to invite Abdullah Gul to watch the Armenia-Turkey match in Yerevan. Gul accepted the invitation and attended the match in Yerevan on September 6, 2008, which Turkey won 2-0. Gul, in return, invited Sargsyan to the rematch and they watched the return match together in Bursa on October 14, 2009, which Turkey again won 2-0.

During this period, Turkey fully opened its airspace to Armenian airplanes. Foreign ministers began to hold bilateral meetings whenever they came together for international meetings.

The concrete result of this rapprochement was the signed protocols.

On October 10, 2009, the foreign ministers of the two countries signed protocols in Zurich, mediated by Switzerland, the United States, the European Union, France, and Russia. According to the protocols, official diplomatic relations were to be established, the Turkish-Armenian border, which has been closed since 1993, was to be opened, and a joint historical commission was to be established to conduct research into the Armenian genocide.

However, Azerbaijan raised objections at this point. Displeased with Turkey's rapprochement with Armenia, Azerbaijan took action after its warnings failed to bear fruit. During the rapprochement process, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry declared on April 9, 2009, that the opening of the Turkish-Armenian border was unacceptable. In addition, Azerbaijan, which sells natural gas to Turkey, made attempts to raise prices.

In the face of growing opposition from nationalist circles in both Turkey and Armenia, the protocols could not proceed with their implementation thereafter. The Armenian Constitutional Court vetoed some articles of the protocols, while Turkey did not go ahead with the ratification process on the pretext that Armenia had not ended its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

As a result, the protocols were never put into effect and the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement initiative ended without coming to fruition.

Is soccer diplomacy back?

After ten years in which no steps were taken to improve relations, Azerbaijan, with the full support of Turkey, attacked Nagorno-Karabakh and captured a number of territories. The conflicts, which were settled by Russia's intervention, brought relations between Turkey and Armenia to a new dimension. Turkey viewed the end of the Armenian occupation in Nagorno-Karabakh as a gateway to normalization of relations.

In December 2021, Turkey and Armenia appointed representatives for bilateral negotiations.

In the meantime, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu met at the Antalya Diplomatic Forum on March 12, 2022, while President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan at the European Political Community Summit in Prague on October 6, 2022.

It was at this point that Turkey and Armenia were once again drawn into the same group for Euro 2024 qualifying. This coincidence has led many observers to wonder whether soccer diplomacy would take place again.

Murat Yetkin, a prominent Turkish journalist, considers that the situation is different today than it was in 2008, since the end of the Armenian occupation of Karabakh. The fact that the soccer teams of both countries have been drawn again in the same group to participate in the European Championship after thirteen years could facilitate the normalization that has already begun, Yetkin believes. He reminds, however, that for Yerevan the road to Ankara still goes through Baku.

Garo Paylan, an Armenian deputy for the Kurdish HDP in Turkey, emphasizes Turkey's key role in the negotiations. Paylan, however, regrets the lack of public interest in the two countries. "I believe we are closer to peace than ever, but I think our greatest problem in this regard is the lack of public interest. That is, the lack of interest of civil society, professional associations, intellectuals and journalists in Turkey and, on the other hand, the understandable prejudices of public opinion, civil society and the opposition in Armenia that reveal a distrustful view of this issue."

Benyamin Poghosyan, founding president of the Yerevan-based Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies, believes that Erdogan's position cannot be swayed by external factors. “The international community, particularly the EU, may foster expert and civil society-level dialogue between Armenia and Turkey to keep the momentum. In this context, confidence-building measures may play a vital role in establishing trust between sides. The EU's experience of pushing forward confidence-building measures, including between Armenia and Azerbaijan after the 2020 Karabakh war, can and should be used in this area too” Poghosyan commented on the issue.

Whether soccer diplomacy comes about or it is to be avoided in order to avoid repeating the past, it is certain that the rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is on a very different ground than in the past and that there is again a shimmer of a possible understanding. At a time when Russia's global position is also being questioned, diplomatic relations between Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan will undoubtedly have many regional and global implications as well.