Armenian Reporter

Armenia receives Turkey’s president for six-hour visit

Thousands engage in civil protest

Reciprocal visit set for August 2009

Abdullah Gul with Serge Sargsian and demonstrators.
Abdullah Gül, center, is received by Serge Sargsian at the presidential palace in Yerevan as protestors invoke Armenian grievances against Turkey. Photo: Photolure.

by Tatul Hakobyan

 

YEREVAN – “I am from Kars,” “I am from Ardahan,” “I am from Van,” “I am from Igdir,” the placards read. Thousands of Armenians, mostly members and supporters of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (Dashnaktsutiun), formed a human chain lining the streets of central Yerevan along the route President Abdullah Gül of Turkey was expected to travel on September 6, on the first-ever visit of a Turkish president to Armenia. They were protesting Turkey’s denial of the Genocide and its anti-Armenian policies.

Anahit Berberian, whose ancestors had lost their home and property in Van stood on Baghramian Avenue and held up a poster which read, “My homeland is near lake Van.”

“Unfortunately I have seen Van only in pictures. I believe that if I go to Van it will intensify the pain of having lost a fatherland,” she told the Armenian Reporter while holding the placard in her hand, waiting for Mr. Gül.

Armineh Khachaturian’s roots are from Kars. When asked her why they were not protesting against President Serge Sargsian, as he was the one who had invited Mr. Gül, Ms. Khachaturian said that Mr. Gül had only been invited to watch soccer.

“Wherever Gül goes, Armenians protest, and it would have been disgraceful if there were no protests in Armenia. I have been raised in a Western-Armenian family. My grandmother and grandfather were raised in an American orphanage. They lost their parents during the Genocide. Up until the day she died, my grandmother would see the Genocide in her dreams and wake up from them. Even in her dreams she was running from the Turks,” she said.

Flags side by side

On September 6, under the shadow of Mount Ararat, an Airbus A-319 with the red Turkish flag on its tail, landed at Zvartnots Airport. The airplane brought President Gül to Armenia.

With a broad smile under his mustache, Mr. Gül walked down the steps. On September 3, after a meeting of Turkey’s national security council, Mr. Gül, who for two months had told journalists no decision had been made, finally found the courage to accept his Armenian counterpart Mr. Sargsian’s no-less-brave invitation to visit Yerevan and watch the match between the national teams of their two countries together.

Under the whistles and calls for “recognition” of demonstrators, Mr. Gül and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edward Nalbandian of Armenia, who had greeted him on the tarmac of Zvartnots International Airport, sat in a bulletproof car, which had been specially sent from Turkey, and drove away. The Armenian authorities had done everything in their power to keep Mr. Gül as far as possible from the protest actions of the ARF, which is a coalition partner in the government.

Armen Rustamian, representative of the Supreme Council of the ARF, explained to Turkish journalists that the protests were neither against the invitation of the Armenian president, nor against Mr. Gül’s visit.

“An important step”

“On the contrary, we consider this an important step for Armenian-Turkish relations. We want the Turkish president to have a very clear understanding of those issues which worry the Armenian nation and which need to be resolved. The priority is the recognition of the Armenian Genocide,” said Mr. Rustamian.

In general, Mr. Gül’s visit did not cause protests in Armenia’s political and social arenas, except for the ARF and like-minded media.

Most Armenian dailies carried an advertisement in Armenian and English which read, “Welcome Honorable President Abdullah Gül. Fair play beyond 90 minutes. That’s our wish.” This full-page ad was placed by companies affiliated with Argentinian-Armenian businessperson Eduardo Eurnekian, including Zvartnots Armenian International Airports and Converse Bank. Some of those dailies that ran the ad are usually ready to tear apart anyone who talks about the necessity to stabilize Armenian-Turkish relations and would dispute former President Robert Kocharian’s insistence that Armenians and Turks are incompatible.

A few days before the September 6 match, the Armenian Football Federation unexpectedly changed its logo: whereas the previous logo had included a representation of Mount Ararat, which is one of the Armenian nation’s symbols and is in the territory of present-day Turkey, the new one portrayed a soccer ball over Armenia’s coat of arms. During the past few months, Armenian television stations have broadcast very little that is anti-Turkey.

Opposition figure Levon Ter-Petrossian also praised Mr. Sargsian’s invitation and Mr. Gül’s decision to visit. “I can only welcome Gül’s invitation, especially because it is a convenient opportunity. There are no political intrigues at play, only a sporting event that may provide the conduit to begin melting the ice,” Mr. Ter-Petrossian said at a news conference on December 2. “It is strange that no high-ranking Turkish official has ever come to Armenia. I went to Turkey three times as Armenia’s president and [former president] Robert Kocharian also went. Armenian presidents have been in Turkey four times, and not one high-ranking Turkish official has ever been to Armenia. This is not a normal phenomenon nor is it normal relations,” Mr. Ter-Petrossian added.

Mr. Kocharian earlier had said that if he had been president, he would not have invited Mr. Gül to Armenia.

Unprecedented security

During the six-hour visit of the Turkish president to Yerevan, unprecedented security measures were undertaken. A few days before the visit, 50 members of Mr. Gül’s security team visited Armenia. To ensure Mr. Gül’s safety, Turkey sent eight snipers and, to avoid a possible attack during the soccer match, bulletproof glass had been installed in front of the presidential seats.

The soccer match was the last part of Mr. Gül’s six-hour visit. Prior to the game, the Turkish president had been taken from the airport to the Golden Palace Hotel, where he met members of his country’s national soccer team. After a one-hour rest, the head of the neighboring state was escorted to Baghramian 26: the presidential palace. The Armenian tricolor and the Turkish crescent had been placed together, next to the large reception doors.

And here was the historic moment: Serge Sargsian and Abdullah Gül shook hands and smiled broadly in front of the presidential palace. Under the September sun, Mr. Sargsian’s and Mr. Gül’s faces were beaming with joy.

A historic first

This was the first time in history that a president of Turkey had visited Armenia. In 1935, when Armenia was part of the Soviet Union, Prime Minister Ismet İnönü, who later became president, crossed the border of Soviet Armenia with his delegation for a few hours during their visit to the western provinces of Turkey and returned after having had breakfast. Prior to that, during the two-and-half-year independence of Armenia (May 28, 1918 to December 2, 1920), high-ranking Turkish soldiers crossed the Araks not out of friendship, but to force a humiliating peace agreement or to head the Turkish looting army.

Mr. Gül was visiting to watch the soccer, which was, however, more than just soccer.

Before the start of the Armenia-Turkey match, a meeting between the two presidents took place. Even though no event had been organized for journalists, about 200 journalists visited Yerevan from Turkey. Apart from one video camera, the recordings of which were broadcast by all TV stations, and a number of photographers, no other journalists could even get within a few meters of Mr. Gül. Since Hrazdan Stadium is adjacent to the memorial to the victims of the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish government had forbidden pictures of Mr. Gül being taken in the territory of the stadium. They sought to avoid the possibility of having the memorial to one and a half million Armenian victims in the background of the picture.

Looking to the future

Mr. Sargsian described his position toward the past in a speech to diplomats last week. “Without forgetting the past we must look to the future,” he said. (The full text of the speech appeared in last week’s edition of the Armenian Reporter.) Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Kocharian, who put the international recognition of the Armenian Genocide on Armenia’s foreign policy agenda, Mr. Sargsian during his public speeches and interviews almost never talks about the Armenian Genocide.

According to the Armenian president’s press office, during the meeting between the two presidents, Mr. Sargsian thanked his Turkish counterpart for accepting his invitation and noted that direct contacts are the best solution for the normalization of relations between neighboring countries.

For his part, the Turkish president invited the Armenian president to Istanbul to watch the return match between the national teams of the two countries, which will take place in August 2009.

The Armenian and Turkish presidents talked about the normalization of bilateral relations and exchanged ideas on recent regional developments and issues.

Saying that broad possibilities are opening for the normalization of Armenian-Turkish relations, they emphasized the political will of the two countries’ heads of state to take responsibility and initiate the settlement of existing issues and create an atmosphere of peace and trust in the region. According to Mr. Gül, Mr. Sargsian had taken the first step by inviting him to Armenia. He accepted the invitation by turning it into a joint initiative, which can set an example for the entire region.

“Fruitful and promising”

Mr. Sargsian said that in case of a dialogue it will be possible to discuss even the most difficult issues. “We must aim to solve all existing problems as soon as possible and not pass on this baggage to future generations,” he said.

According to the official statement, Mr. Sargsian and Mr. Gül also discussed Turkey’s initiative of forming a Caucasian Stability and Security Platform. Saying that Armenia always welcomes dialogue and supports strengthening trust, security, and cooperation in the region, Mr. Sargsian considered the Turkish initiative a step aimed at creating a constructive atmosphere in the region.

After the meeting, the heads of the two countries continued their discourse during a working dinner.

On the same day, after the soccer match, Mr. Nalbandian and Foreign Minister Ali Babacan of Turkey had a two-and-half-hour meeting. Armenia’s foreign minister confirmed Armenia’s stance on establishing relations with Turkey without any preconditions and noted that Armenia views Mr. Gül’s visit as a serious stimulus in that direction.

“The Foreign Affairs Ministers of Armenia and Turkey expressed their determination on settling bilateral relations and that consistent steps are going to be taken towards that direction. The Ministers have agreed to meet within the framework of the UN General Assembly meeting at the end of September in New York,” the official statement reads.

In the airplane during his return from Yerevan to his homeland, Mr. Gül told journalists, “The most important issue in the Caucasus is the Karabakh issue. My visit to Yerevan can contribute to the settlement of that issue.”

Mr. Gül assessed his visit to Yerevan as “fruitful and promising,” expressing hope that it might be a turning point for Armenian-Turkish relations.

“I believe that my visit broke the psychological barrier in the Caucasus. If this atmosphere continues, everything will move forward and will stabilize.  I concluded my meeting with positive feelings and thoughts,” he said.

 

   

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