Turkey, Armenia try to mend ties through soccer

Turkey and Armenia are hoping soccer diplomacy will help them overcome decades of antagonism rooted in Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians that many historians call a genocide.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul travels to Armenia on Saturday to attend a soccer match between the two historic foes - becoming the first Turkish leader to set foot in Armenia since the former Soviet republic declared independence in 1991.

Although Turkey was among the first countries to recognize Armenia's independence, the two neighbors have no diplomatic relations and their border has been closed since 1993.

Historians estimate up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks around the time of World War I, an event widely viewed by genocide scholars as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey disputes it was genocide, saying the toll has been inflated and those killed were victims of civil war and unrest.

More recently, ties have been frozen over Turkey's opposition to Armenia's support for ethnic Armenians who control the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan, a close Turkish ally.

Little progress is expected on the genocide issue or on Nagorno-Karabakh when Gul meets with Armenian President Serge Sarkisian on the sidelines of the 2010 World Cup qualifier match - in which Turkey is heavily favored.

But the visit is heralded as sign of a thaw.

"This visit will contribute - even if slightly - to an improvement in the lack of confidence between the two countries," wrote Semih Idiz, a foreign affairs commentator for the newspaper Milliyet. "Taking up tougher issues will only be possible after this."

Gul's last-minute decision to accept Armenia's July invitation to the match may be linked to Turkey's desire to carve out a regional peacemaker role amid tensions sparked by Russia's invasion of neighboring Georgia.

Turkey, a NATO member, has cause for alarm about how Russia's recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia might inspire its own separatist Kurds, or provoke Armenia to boost support for the separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh.

In the wake of the Georgia conflict, Turkey has proposed a regional grouping for stability in the Caucasus - and closer ties with Armenia is essential for its success. The grouping would include Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has mended relations with all its neighbors except Armenia, gradually improving ties with traditional rivals such as Greece, Bulgaria and Syria.

Improved links with Armenia are likely to help lift strains on Turkey's relations with other countries that have or plan to formally recognize the massacres as genocide.

Turkey canceled military contracts with France last year after that country announced plans to make denying the genocide a crime. In October, a U.S. congressional measure to declare the Armenian deaths as genocide was stopped after the Bush administration warned it would damage relations with Turkey, an important ally in this region.

Turkey's two major opposition parties have objected to Gul's trip, claiming it does not serve national interests. Gul justified his decision by saying the visit would "contribute to the creation of a climate of friendship in the region."

No hordes of fans from this soccer-crazy country are expected to travel to Armenia for the game, and even politicians who usually watch Turkey play abroad will not make the trip.

Turks still harbor animosity toward Armenia over the killing of dozens of Turkish diplomats by an Armenian terrorist group, ASALA, in the 1970s and 1980s, vengeance for the World War I-era Armenian massacres.

While the match is hotly anticipated in Armenia, with TV stations urging fans to attend, a nationalist party planned demonstrations against Gul's visit.

Turkey coach Fatih Terim warned this week that the political tensions could distract the team.

"We are going to a football match, not to war," he said. "We cannot bear the weight of history on our shoulders, that would slow us down ... It will mess up our play."

Gul, foreign minister in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government before being elected president last year, has favored improved ties with Armenia. The current foreign minister, Ali Babacan, has confirmed there have been informal contacts between the two countries "from time to time."

Turkey closed its border with Armenia in 1993 during a war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Muslim ally of Ankara, in order to pressure the Armenians into ending the conflict.

The move has hurt the economy of landlocked Armenia, which has called on Turkey to reopen the border crossing.

Armenia's bitter relations with Azerbaijan and Turkey have resulted in the small country being excluded from energy pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey via Georgia. Armenia has also been kept out of a railway project that will link the three.

Armenians, supported by numerous scholars, claim an organized genocide was carried out in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire and are pushing for the killings to be recognized as among history's worst atrocities.

Turkey has called for the establishment of an international committee of scholars to study the events in a bid to improve ties, but Armenia has declined to consider this until relations are forged.

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