Soccer diplomacy - lessons for Armenia and Azerbaijan
Soccer diplomacy - lessons for Armenia and Azerbaijan
What to Watch at the UN General Assembly, plus Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive and the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Clashes
What to Watch at the UN General Assembly, plus Ukraine’s Kharkiv Offensive and the Armenia-Azerbaijan Border Clashes
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Soccer diplomacy - lessons for Armenia and Azerbaijan

The images of Turkish-Armenian reconciliation over the past few days have been stunning: high politics and world-class leaders standing together in Zurich for the signing of bilateral protocols on Oct. 10; four days later, a down-to-earth meeting of national soccer teams in Bursa for the World Cup qualifying match, watched by Turkish President Abdullah Gül and his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarksyan. 

Who knows which event was viewed more in Turkey, Armenia and beyond. But what is clear is that the process has something to offer everyone.

This is one of the main differences between the Turkey-Armenia and the Azerbaijan-Armenia reconciliation processes. The first has been developing for the past decade, not only (or even mainly) at the negotiation table but amongst all levels of society. As far back as 1995, Turkey reopened the air corridor between Istanbul and Yerevan and allowed free travel for Armenians. Tens of thousands of Armenians vacation on Turkey's Riviera each summer, while up to 40,000 Armenian passport holders are now employed in Istanbul. For a decade, civil society organizations have been setting up a wide range of Turkish-Armenian joint events among artists, photographers, youth, journalists, intellectuals, business persons, etc. The very day of the Bursa match, 20 of the most prominent Turkish and Armenian journalists met in a nearby hotel to discuss how they could further support reconciliation.

These projects achieve varying levels of success, but each has broadened public support for the recent diplomatic progress. In parallel, Turkish thinking about the Armenian genocide question has opened up remarkably. Last December, some 30,000 Turks signed an online letter apologizing for what happened in 1915.

On the other hand, Armenians and Azerbaijanis have had virtually no contact since the signing of the Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire in 1994. Even soccer has failed to provide an opportunity for friendly rivalry. In 2008, Azerbaijan and Armenia could not agree on locations to play qualifying matches for the European Cup. Armenia had requested that the games be played on a normal "home and away basis" whereas Azerbaijan refused to host the Armenians and wanted both games to be played on a neutral ground. Eventually the two matches were canceled, and the countries received no points.

Azerbaijan has been especially critical of its citizens who travel to Armenia, accusing them of "normalizing relations with the occupiers of Azerbaijani lands." Since 2001, when an Armenian NGO activist was beaten upon landing at the Baku airport, only a handful of Armenians have traveled to Azerbaijan. When Turkish journalists from the influential NTV station traveled to Nagorno-Karabakh this last September, Baku withdrew NTV's accreditation in Azerbaijan.

While public diplomacy and people-to-people contact have helped establish the basis for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation, these have not yet been given a chance in Armenia and Azerbaijan. For this reason, it is very likely that the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is still some time away. The geopolitical environment, unity of the mediators of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, personal rapport between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President Sarksyan all support a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But the two presidents have yet to openly tell their citizens the parameters of the agreement on basic principles they have been considering since 2005, or at least allow them to freely meet to discuss and overcome deep suspicion and mistrust.

Turkey's leadership has made strong statements since Saturday's protocol signing ceremony, linking their ratification and implementation with progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly said last Sunday, "I want to reiterate once again that Turkey cannot adopt a positive attitude unless Armenia withdraws from occupied Azerbaijani territories." Similarly, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quoted as stating: "We, the government, want the protocols to pass through Parliament, but they need to be submitted for approval in an appropriate psychological and political atmosphere. … Not only Karabakh, but also the seven Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh are under occupation. That should come to an end."

Turkey seems to be expecting a symbolic gesture from Armenia to appease Baku and Turkey's own nationalist opposition. It has spoken about Armenian withdrawals from one or two of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, or the acceptance of an Azerbaijani proposal to turn the strategic Lachin corridor linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia into a "road for peace." These piecemeal concessions are contrary to the comprehensive approach that has been promoted since 2005 by the OSCE Minsk Group to establish agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia on basic principles that would eventually serve as the basis of a peace deal. At this level, a meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents last Thursday in Moldova facilitated by the Minsk Group failed to register progress.

Expecting the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to go hand-in-hand with Turkish-Armenian reconciliation is short-sighted. Armenia may well use Turkey's public linking of the two processes to take a harder line in the Nagorno-Karabakh negotiations, knowing full well that if Turkey's Parliament refuses to ratify the protocols because of Nagorno-Karabakh, it will be internationally condemned. If the ratification and implementation of the protocols go forward, however, improved Turkey-Armenia relations can help lay the foundation for gradual confidence building between Armenia and Azerbaijan, break Armenia's regional isolation and contribute to diminishing Armenian security fears. The credibility of these fears, used to justify the occupation of Azerbaijani territory, will quickly diminish both inside and outside Armenia.

The Oct. 10 protocol signing ceremony was not only the fruit of years of gradual confidence building and quiet mediation by the Swiss Foreign Ministry, but also the success of French, Russian and United States foreign ministers' engagement the day of the event. Ultimately, progress toward the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will require similar high-level engagement. But until then, the demonization of "the other" has to stop in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and trust and dialogue must be restored, especially if citizens of the two countries are going to accept the peace deal their presidents eventually agree to. This is where Turkey can make a real difference and contribute to the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by working with its Azerbaijani and Armenian cousins to break down negative perceptions, facilitate links and restore communication. Then all three sides can win.

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