Well, and also Turkish President Abdullah Gul is coming to visit.
It’s hard to overstate how bizarre and awesome this is. But first, some context. This visit is happening because of three things: football, local politics, and war.
First, the football. (Americans may want to skip the next few paragraphs.)
Over a year ago,Armenia and Turkey both got picked to be in Group 5 (Europe) for the 2010 World Cup.
Brief summary for Americans: the World Cup is every four years. About 170 countries want to be in it, but there are only 31 slots. So for the next two years, that 170 will get relentlessly whittled down.
Those 31 slots? One is for the host country (South Africa) and the others are divided by region. So, Europe gets 13 slots, Asia gets five, and so forth. There are 53 European countries competing for those 13 slots. So, those 53 teams have just been divided into nine qualifying groups – eight of six teams and one of five. The winners of each European group will qualify for the World Cup finals, and the best eight runners-up will play off for the other four berths.
It’s complicated, but basically fair — the draw for the qualifying groups is totally random. This can lead to interestingly weird situations, such as the occasional “Group of Death” when three excellent teams are squeezed together. And in this case, it’s put Turkey and Armenia — who don’t have diplomatic relations and who, to put it nicely, don’t much like each other — in the same group.
The odds of this were about one in ten (once Armenia was drawn for Group 5, what were the chances of Turkey being in that group too? Five other slots in the group, 52 other countries — 5/52, or about 9.8%), so it’s not that surprising. But it means Armenia and Turkey have to play each other twice, once at home, and once away. The first of those two games is this weekend, in Armenia.
So: a year ago, Armenia discovered it had to either suck it up and host the Turks, or forfeit the games. The previous Armenian administration — President Robert Kocharian — sucked it up, albeit reluctantly. They said they’d follow the rules to the letter, and provide security, and all, but they weren’t going to like it. Certainly there was no hint of making the Turks welcome.
But! Kocharian left office in April (after some unpleasantness, some of which was discussed on this blog) and was replaced by his Defense Minister, Serge Sarksyan. And President Sarksyan has taken a different position. He has made it clear that his administration would be delighted to host the Turkish team and any other prominent Turk who cared to come along. He’s made that statement concrete in several ways, including waiving visas for Turkish visitors. Not that Armenia has ever had a lot of Turkish visitors, what with not having diplomatic relations and the border being closed and all, but they did require visas for any there might have been. Now they won’t.
Why? We-ell, I didn’t understand Armenian politics when I lived there — these people ltaught Byzantine politics to the Byzantines — but to simplify a hideously complex story, Kocharian was pandering to the nationalist party while Sarksyan thinks he can throw it overboard. Oh, and also Sarksyan’s administration started with a huge PR fiasco, viz., shooting unarmed protestors in the streets of the capital. That got the international community… well, “outraged” is much too strong, but “vaguely unhappy” would probably cover it. So a sudden dramatic act of diplomatic magnanimity is a good idea right now.
Finally, there’s Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia’s long territorial dispute with neighbor Azerbaijan. Both sides have been stubborn and stupid, but right now Armenia has more to lose. Turkey has strongly supported Azerbaijan — not surprising, since Azeris are basically Turks — but now might be a good time for Armenia to look for some daylight between these two allies.
And then of course the war in Georgia. Both Turkey and Armenia have been seriously inconvenienced by this, albeit in different ways. Turkey is worried about its oil pipeline through Georgia, and also about Russia’s heavy-handed reminders about the 1936 Black Sea Convention. (Long story.) Armenia is worried because, with the Turkish and Azeri borders closed, almost all their imports and exports go through Georgia. Armenians are very pro-Russian (while Turks tip a bit towards Georgia), but the war has dramatically reminded Armenia just how vulnerable they are as long as those borders are closed.
All that said, this is still bizarre and awesome. It’s bizarre because Armenians have a couple of million good reasons to hate the Turks, while the Turks have spent the last 90 years or so trying to convince themselves otherwise. The genocide is still the central fact of Armenian history, and the Turks are still denying it. It’s fair to say that Armenians in Armenia are less freaked by this than Armenians in the diaspora, but that’s not saying much. It’s a huge, huge deal.
It’s awesome because, well, it is. Sooner or later someone has to reach out. Maybe nothing will come of it. Probably nothing will come of it. And maybe the reasons are short-sighted or banal. But still: an attempt is being made. That’s really something.
Okay, just so we don’t end on that note, let’s go back to football. Group 5 is sort of a Group of Death, you know? It has one international powerhouse, Spain, and two plausible contenders, Belgium and Turkey. Bosnia and Armenia… well. So figure that Spain will take first place, and whoever wins the Belgium-Turkey game will try to win one of the five second-place slots.
This means that, if Armenia could somehow eke out a draw — never mind a win — they’d probably spike Turkey’s World Cup chances. And probably not do the Turkish-Armenian reconciliation process much good, either.
We’ll see soon enough!