Armenian president on historic visit to Turkey

15th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

The trip came just four days after Turkey and Armenia, backed by world powers, signed milestone deals aimed at ending decades of hostility and establishing formal ties.

Bursa -- Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian arrived in Turkey Wednesday to attend a World Cup football game as the two nations pressed ahead with painstaking efforts to overcome a bloody history.

Sarkisian flew in to the northwestern city of Bursa just four days after Turkey and Armenia, backed by world powers, signed milestone deals aimed at ending decades of hostility and establishing formal ties.

Greeted at the airport by Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Sarkisian smiled as he watched a brief performance by Turkish folk dancers.

The two nations have been estranged since World War I when, Armenians say, 1.5 million of their kin were killed by their Ottoman rulers in what was a genocide, a label Turkey fiercely rejects.

Two other Armenian presidents have visited Turkey in the past for international gatherings, but Sarkisian was the first to come on a bilateral occasion.

The outcome of the match is of no significance as both Armenia and Turkey are already out of the running for the 2010 World Cup finals, but the political stakes are high.

Wary that nationalist fans may spoil what is intended to be a show of bridge building between Sarkisian and Turkish President Abdullah Gul, the authorities have imposed stringent security measures and tough rules for spectators.

Gul and Sarkisian were to hold talks and dine before they watch the match, in the company of UEFA President Michel Platini. A reception was to follow the game before Sarkisian flies back home.

Swiss-mediated talks since August 2007 resulted Saturday in the signing of two protocols that pave the way for establishing official relations and opening the border between the two countries.

The deals still need parliamentary ratifications to take effect and the process is certain to be uphill amid nationalist ire in both countries.

Armenia's opposition Wednesday condemned Sarkisian's trip to Turkey, accusing him of betraying the country's interests.

And for many Turks, the peace effort amounts to selling out Azerbaijan, one of Ankara's closest allies, whose conflict with Armenia over the disputed Nagorny Karabakh region had led Turkey in 1993 to seal its border with Armenia.

Turkish officials have banned political chants at the match and made it clear the display of Azeri flags would be unwelcome.

Some 3,000 police were on duty for the game, in addition to plain clothes officers assigned to sit among spectators to prevent any disturbance.

Ticket sales were restricted, with most reportedly distributed to military academy students, police and their families, prompting protests outside the stadium by some 300 fans shouting "Where are the tickets?”

"I think the state does not really want its citizens to come to this match," Koksal Isik, 56, said after failing to obtain a ticket.

President Gul has met with leaders of fans groups to personally ask them not to overshadow the game and return the "hospitality" he was shown when he himself travelled to Yerevan in September for the first-leg match.

In a gesture to their Armenian guests, the fans were expected to greet them with a folk song popular in both Turkey and Armenia, believed to be telling a Turk's love for a blonde Armenian woman.

Public sentiment was mixed ahead of the game as residents predicted a smooth match, but cast doubt on peace-making with Armenia. Street vendors continued to sell Azeri flags.

"We will show him (Sarkisian) hospitality, but still... the protocols are not good... It would be a shame if Turkey was tricked on this," pensioner Zeki said, voicing concern over Nagorny Karabakh's future.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stressed Tuesday that progress on the Nagorny Karabakh conflict would determine the Turkish parliament's ratification of the deals with Armenia.

Hande Culpan/AFP/Expatica

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