Notes From Hairenik
September 7, 2008
On Saturday night a World Cup-qualifying football match was played in Yerevan—the dueling teams were Armenia versus Turkey. It was perhaps the most important game that Armenia has ever played in the history of football and the team was ill-prepared. Turkey won easily, 2-0.

To make the evening even more momentous, Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended the game at President Serge Sarkisian’s invitation. The occasion marks the first time that a Turkish leader has visited the Armenian republic. Apparently President Gul arrived in Yerevan only a couple of hours before the game started. He was received at the Presidential Palace by President Sarkisian where they had a photo op and spoke to reporters. Both presidents were sitting beside one another in a VIP box at the Hrazdan Stadium where the game took place. The camera zoomed in on them every once in a while and spirits seemed high. When the game was over President Sarkisian shook hands with his counterpart very warmly, and it seemed a sort of friendship between the two had already started. As soon as the game was over President Gul was purportedly on his way back to the airport. Incidentally, CNN International reported extensively on the visit emphasizing its importance and conveying the rather positive points of view of both Armenians and Turks regarding normalizing relations.

What does this visit mean? President Sarkisian has been strongly in favor of reigniting dialog with Ankara since taking office. There is an ever-growing sentiment, especially after the fiasco in Georgia last month, that trade between Armenia and Turkey should begin directly over their shared border rather than be conducted through Georgia as it has been for several years. Turkish cargo transport trucks have very successfully been entering Armenia via Georgia for the longest time. But goods from Europe and Russia are for the most part transported to Armenia via Georgian ports at Batumi and more importantly, Poti. A key railway bridge was blown up a few weeks ago in the aftermath of the brief Georgian-Russian war, and as a result truckloads full of various types of goods, including wheat and fuel, were stockpiled in Poti waiting to be transported to Armenia by train. Everything seems to be normalized at the moment, but needless to say Armenia cannot steadily rely on Georgia any longer as a reliable trade conduit with the West. However, an already existing railway link with Kars in Turkey and Gyumri could potentially be put into service once again. Also worth mentioning is that a Russian firm which has taken control of Armenia’s damaged internal railway network will be spending tens of millions of dollars bringing it up to modern-day standards. It means that if a railway link was opened with Turkey somehow, goods from the West would be transported more easily throughout Armenia.

Basically Armenia has just started courting Turkey through a method being referred to by the press as “football diplomacy” in persuading them to start trading directly across the border. Most likely, the first thing the Turkish government will want Armenia to do is to cease all discussion about recognizing the Genocide. I think that will unlikely happen but hopefully, that point will be taken off the table by Turkey as it won’t matter in the slightest since there is a huge market for Turkish goods in Armenia which will expand even more once such a rail link is established. Logically it is in Turkey’s interest now more than ever to trade directly instead of through a middleman. Anyway, this is all guessing and speculation—no one can really say what will pan out of this visit. Realistically, Armenia needs to talk with its neighbors to some degree of diplomacy. Very few would have thought that such a visit would have been possible—Ankara only confirmed acceptance of the invitation a few days ago. Interestingly, President Gul has been advocating recently for the formation of some kind of confederation for dialog between Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan. I’ll have to say that on television it was bizarre to see the two presidents stand side-by-side addressing questions from journalists. Strange days, indeed.

Regarding the football match, the first half was more exciting as the game remained scoreless until the beginning of halftime. Armenia looked good on the surface, although they were not as organized as Turkey on the field. It seemed that Turkey was holding back as well, actually it was fairly obvious. This is a team which currently has a FIFA ranking of 10, while Armenia’s ranked at 98. The second half was sloppy to say the least. Turkey managed to score two goals within 10 minutes of each other with little effort. After the first goal was scored Armenia lost steam fast, and by the end of the half the players seemed to have been standing idle, barely putting up a struggle while mischievous cellophane bags swirled round them in the wind. Their defense was horrendous to put it mildly. During close-ups many of the Armenian players looked out of shape and were breathing hard. Which means that if these guys worked out more and gave up smoking altogether they would have a chance at beating Turkey at a later date. I have no idea how these guys are going to face Spain which is currently in first place in a week’s time.