Better Policies. Better Future.

Yerevan After Gul: Half Way There

He began by saying, "Yesterday was a very important and historic day for us." At some point in his speech he said: "Half the journey is taking the first step. The presidents have come half way. Having reached the half-way point they instructed their ministers to accomplish the rest of the journey." Armenian's Foreign Minister Edvard Nalbantyan invited us to lunch. In the Foreign Ministry, one of the splendid buildings surrounding Republic Square in Yerevan, we sat in his office and talked about Abdullah Gul's "historic visit" and we lunched together. Sitting at the table and translating for us was Arsen Avakyan, who had translated for Gul and Sarkisyan during their meeting. By us I mean myself, Hasan Cemal, Ali Bayramoglu and Mustafa Karaalioglu. Also at this desk-cum-dining-table sat Ministry Spokesman Tigran Balayan and Armenia's representative for the KEIB [Black Sea Economic Cooperation Union] in Istanbul. In order to emphasize just how seriously Turkish-Armenian relations were normalizing Nalbantyan said time and time again that both presidents had "the will" to do this and that this "will" would with Foreign Minister Ali Babacan's resolve speed itself along. Another two stopping points on this "road" are "the establishment of diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia" and "the opening of borders." Neither of these points can exist without the other.

We witnessed just how seriously this business was being treated. After our soccer team beat the Armenian team 2-0 we went up to the highest part of the spectators' box. We joined a small party held in the back in honour of Abdullah Gul and the Turkish delegation. Suddenly before us appeared Armenia's President Serj Sarkisyan and our President Abdullah Gul. Abdullah Gul introduced each one of us in turn. Sarksiyan launched into the subject right away. The final score was not important for him. The event was a means of "rapprochement." His mood was one of a relived childhood. He said he would be coming to Turkey on 14 October, not neglecting to add laughingly, "But not for a grudge match." Nalbantyan told us at yesterday's lunch that the visit would be on the date on which another Turkish-Armenian soccer match would be played, and would be just as "historic." Both countries' foreign ministers have immediately started work on what needs to be done between "Historic Saturday" in Yerevan and 14 October in order to "complete the other half of the journey." After the party Gul and Sarkisyan left the Hrazdan stadium for Gul's trip back to Turkey. Sarkisyan's senior adviser, who was at these high level talks, was left to take us back to our hotel. He gave us a lift in his car. On the way he said that "both presidents had agreed to the principles and that both ministers would begin working to bring those principles to life and to provide logistics." We arrived at the hotel and set up "our HQ" in the cafe in front. We chatted about the historic day and the soccer match. At 0215 [local] Ali Babacan and his entourage left the Foreign Ministry building directly opposite us. Nalbantyan told us yesterday what happened that evening after the match: "After the match Babacan and I spoke for two-and-a-half hours. We are going to meet up again in New York in two weeks' time. After that there will be no more pauses. To date there have been too many halts and at each one we have waited a long time. That is not going to be the case from now on. In the days ahead we are going to talk about concrete stuff now. Armenia has the intention and the desire for this. We saw that same intention on the part of Turkey. There are no countries in the world that have closed borders while having diplomatic relations." You can find in Nalbantyan's words an indicator of the rapprochement created between Turkey and Armenia. We also spoke about the Turkish initiative: Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform. Armenia accepts this 100 per cent and considers it important. Although nobody wants to make any promises or take responsibility it would not come as a surprise, looking at the mood in Yerevan, to hear that diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia have been resumed and that the borders have been opened before 14 October. However, in the spirit of "once bitten twice shy" we still have reservations: we shall believe it when we see it.

Having arrived in Yerevan before Abdullah Gul and stayed after he returned we were in a position to measure the outcome of this "soccer diplomacy" and the climate both before and after this "historic" visit. We can say that the silent protests along Gul's trip from the airport to the city, the Dashnak placards that were opened and immediately closed again during the soccer match plus the whistles that were heard when our national anthem was played are too insignificant to overshadow the "spring climate" that has been created between Turkey and Armenia as fall sets in. One Dashnak official wanting to stress that they were not opposed to Abdullah Gul's visit said not to take the protests too seriously adding in a semi-jokingly fashion, "Had we not done that much we may just as well have dissolved our Dashnak Party." Like I said before, this "first" visit by Abdullah Gul needs to create concrete results that really can be considered "historic." This means establishing diplomatic relations between Turkey and Armenia and opening the borders. Edvard Nalbantyan told us yesterday, "We are half way there." The rest of the journey has already begun as of yesterday and in a mood of optimism.