Turkish President Abdullah Gul has accepted an invitation from President Serge Sargsyan of Armenia to attend a World Cup qualifying soccer match between the countries. The two nations remain deeply divided over the World War I-era massacres of Armenians under the Ottoman Empire and do not have diplomatic relations. As Dorian Jones reports for VOA, the visit is being seen as an important breakthrough for bilateral relations.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul will head Saturday to Yerevan to watch the Turkish national football team play a World Cup qualifier. Although President Gul will only spend a few hours in the Armenian capital, Turkish international relations expert Cengiz Aktar says the visit is significant.
"It is very important but one should not exaggerate its significance. Either if they can establish a sort of personal relationship, President Gul and President Sargsyan, all the best. This is how things advance. But the problems are so deep that one such visit is definitely not enough to solve them," he said.
In a statement released by Mr. Gul, the visit has the potential of creating a climate of friendship in the region. The Turkish president is scheduled to meet with his Armenian counterpart for talks during his visit.
Turkey and Armenia have no diplomatic relations because of Turkey's opposition to Armenia's occupation of a region of Azerbaijan -- a close ally of Turkey.
The rivalry also stems from Armenia's insistence that the deaths of an estimated 1.5 million ethnic Armenians around the time of World War I be recognized as genocide. Turkey says the killings occurred at a time of civil conflict and that the casualty figures are inflated.
The embargo has hit the Armenian economy hard and, according to Cengiz Aktar, that hardship has intensified with the Georgian conflict restricting trade access to the important Black Sea port of Poti.
"The port of Poti is under Russian occupation and the Turkish border is closed, so Armenia is in the hands of Russia and Iran. They want desperately for this Turkish border to reopen," he said.
The leaders of Turkey's main opposition parties have strongly condemned President Gul's decision to visit Yerevan, accusing him of betraying the country and its Azerbaijan ally. And, in Armenia, the nationalist Dashnaktsutyun party said it activists will be at the airport where Mr. Gul is to arrive and the football stadium to stage protests demanding Turkey recognize the World War One killings as genocide.
But the United States and the European Union have welcomed the president's decision. The Turkish media also is broadly supportive of the visit, along with many organizations.
One such group is Fans Without Borders which is sending a group to Yerevan to call an end to the Armenian embargo. One member is Ceran Kener:
"Our is aim is that to say that we don't leave this issues to the States. We don't want to leave this issue to the Diaspora. We want to deal with this issue with ourselves," he said.
Turkish diplomatic sources say that while little diplomatic progress will be made during short visit, the real test will be if substantial negotiations will follow after Mr. Gul's visit.