When we set off for Yerevan on a scheduled midnight Armavia flight this Thursday, we saw something we had not seen since long ago on a flight between İstanbul and Yerevan. Instead of men and women carrying several bags, probably goods to be sold in Armenia, as is customary on these biweekly scheduled fights, there were a number of journalists from the Turkish press.
The next largest group comprised Armenians from Turkey and the diaspora heading for Yerevan to support Armenia in the Armenia-Turkey soccer match of the 2010 World Cup qualifier. At 6 a.m. we witnessed another unusual sight. While diaspora Armenians coming from such countries as the US and France had to wait in long lines for their visas to be processed, Turkish citizens passed through passport control very easily — no doubt making some diaspora Armenians jealous.
On Friday morning, the air in Yerevan had changed somewhat compared to the usual atmosphere. Almost all of those who were at the terrace cafe of Marriotte Hotel, located in the Republic Square, were well-known journalists, businessmen or football fans from the diaspora. They discussed where this rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia would head. Contrary to the tense atmosphere of past conferences, meetings and officials visits in which Turkish-Armenian issues were discussed, everyone was smiling this time around, perhaps due to heightened hopes.
The streets were considerably at ease and one could hear Turkish murmurs from every corner. Seeing many familiar faces, I forgot, for a while, where I was. It seemed that Yerevan was glad to host so many Turkish tourists. Some Turkish journalists were unable to find a seat on Armavia’s flights and had to first fly to Vienna and then on to Yerevan.
Tight security measures
When the Turkish team’s plane arrived in, considerably tight security measures were in place at the airport. Turkish journalists in Yerevan jumped in taxis they could find and pursued the bus carrying the Turkish national team. As one of the passengers of about 10 such taxis, I must admit that this chase was very entertaining. We convinced the taxi drivers to engage in a chase seen only in action films right on the streets of Yerevan. Quickly understanding their responsibility, the taxi drivers joined the police escort surrounding the bus.
As we made perhaps our 20th traffic violation on Abovyan Street, one of the most important streets in the city center, a group of five tourists, conspicuously Western (i.e., diaspora Armenians) considering their cries in the face of our violations, shouted, “What you are doing is against the law.” Since we had not time to tell these “modern and learned” diaspora Armenians, who always attempt to teach Armenia something, that we were on duty, we did not take them seriously. Yet, it was quite symbolic and meaningful that the diaspora was protesting — though unconsciously — traffic violations made collectively by Turks and Armenians.
Those who came to Armenian from Turkey for the first time were really surprised and did not refrain from voicing it. Everyone I spoke with told me that they imagined a different Yerevan and that they would have come earlier had they known that the people here were so hospitable and the environment so comfortable. Turks who had been to several Armenian cities, on the other hand, boasted about their experience and teased their colleagues, saying, “You finally realized it, but it is still a work in progress.”
Following from Yerevan as much as I could, several Turkish TV stations asked Armenians in İstanbul which team they would support. This question as well as any answer to it is problematic. Which team will an Armenian who is a Turkish citizen support in the Armenia-Turkey match? The answer is quite simple: Whichever team he wishes to support. However, this question seems to be designed to question whether the loyal community (milleti-i sadıka) is still loyal or whether they will betray Turkey as they have in the past.
“Of course we support Turkey,” these Armenians said, as if to prove that they are good Turkish citizens. And some went further to claim, “Of course, we will score at least five goals at least” — apparently to further weld their loyalty. It is hard to tell whether this test of loyal citizenship measured in terms of supporting a team is sincere or hypocritical for both the interviewer and the interviewee.
Two Turkish businessmen who were invited by the Armenian government and who were to watch the match from the VIP section noted that they initially had worries because this was their first visit to Armenia and that when they told their intention to their families, everyone reacted with fear. They added that upon seeing Armenia, they were completely relaxed and now plan to build a big shopping center in Armenia with their Armenian partners in the future.
“One needs to see this with his own eyes. We are two neighboring countries but we have wrong perceptions of each other. We will tell everyone this when we go back,” they said. When I spoke with Turkish authorities, my first question was whether they were satisfied with the security measures. They expressed their satisfaction saying, “Even matters we did not think of were taken care of.” I spoke with Giro Manoyan, the secretary-general of the Dashnak Party, about protests to Turkish President Abdullah Gül’s visit. He said their protests would be considerably peaceful, that they would not allow flag burnings or hysteria, but that they just wanted to stress their party’s views on Turkey’s policy toward Armenians.
He added that if they had wanted to protest Gül’s arrival, they would have first protested against Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan, who invited him. He further asserted that the match was a dream come true and that every Armenian should feel proud for Armenia’s becoming an independent country and its having a national team that can compete with the Turkish national team.
Gül’s visit to Armenia will also implicitly affect diaspora Armenians, particularly those in Turkey. I think that if this rapprochement continues, the lobbying activities of Armenians in the US for the presidential elections will lose impetus. Things are much more complicated for Turkey’s Armenians. The fact that 20 years after Armenia’s declaration of independence, the Turkish president attached importance to the match with Armenia and accepted the invitation to watch the match came as a surprise for them. Gül’s taking Armenia seriously has led to Turkey’s Armenians’ taking Armenia seriously as well. In this respect, Gül unknowingly built a bridge between Turkey’s Armenians and Armenia.
Opposition critical of leaders
The leaders of opposition parties in both countries did nothing but criticize the respective governments for the last two days. Some people from the Armenian opposition harshly criticized the Armenian Football Federation’s removing the image of Mount Ararat in order to not hurt Turks while Turkish opposition manufactured false and far-reaching fantasies, claiming that a former member of the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA) would sit in the VIP section.
I believe that this historic match in Yerevan was not only a sports contest; the ball passed by Sarksyan was received by Gül. This step is not related only to Turkey’s Armenian policy, but also to the Caucasus policy and Turkish-Armenian rapprochement — perhaps their cooperation is considerably reasonable in the chaotic Caucasus. There may be those who are uneasy about such rapprochement, but this city is very happy today. After so many year, players played their match and the presidents watched them, sitting side by side. Fans freely waved their flags. The winners are the presidents, both courageous enough to meet, and the Turkish and Armenian peoples, who can establish better relations in the future.
There is no need to mention the losers. Those who attempt to exploit the nationalist sentiments of both sides with their pessimistic and hostile behavior and prevent the two nations from coming closer, you watched the match in vain and you lost.
September 08, 2008, Monday