Turkish Soccer Fans Told to Behave During Game With Armenia

By Delphine Strauss
Financial Times
Wednesday, October 14, 2009

BURSA, Turkey, Oct. 13 -- World Cup soccer fans in the old Ottoman capital of Bursa were under orders to display the best of "Turkish hospitality" to signal a willingness to end a century of animosity, as Armenia's president arrived to watch Wednesday's match between the two national sides.

Ticket sales have been tightly controlled, brandishing of provocative symbols has been banned, and one group of notoriously unruly local fans even received a visit from Turkey's president to urge that they be on their best behavior at a game where, for many, diplomacy matters more than the score.

Serzh Sargsyan's visit, the first by an Armenian president in a decade, echoes the ice-breaking gesture of his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, welcomed at a game in Yerevan a year ago. It also marks a diplomatic breakthrough after a landmark agreement was reached Saturday to restore bilateral ties, reopen the shared border, and let historians discuss the massacres and deportations that took place in the last years of the Ottoman empire.

Mutual animosity is rooted in the 1915 killings by Ottoman Turks of up to 1.5 million Armenians. Turkey also closed its border with Armenia in 1993 to support ally Azerbaijan in a war with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

"The Armenian president and the Armenian national team will see what Turkish hospitality is," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday. "I believe our country and the citizens of Bursa will not bow their heads to politics and to the aims of those who want to use the game to achieve something else."

Giving the Armenian visitors a good welcome for the qualifier for next year's World Cup is not just about national pride. Both countries must ratify their agreement in the teeth of fierce public opposition, and Turkey, keen to play a bigger role in regional diplomacy, is anxious to show the world that Turks are not obstructing peace.

If ratified by the countries' parliaments, the agreement will lessen Armenia's economic isolation, boost Turkey's standing in the region and reduce the risk of a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations. The 1915 massacres have prompted battles in Washington between the White House and lawmakers pushing to recognize the killings as genocide.

But Erdogan has signaled that Turkey is unlikely to open its border until Armenia agrees to withdraw troops from at least some of the Azeri territory they occupy. Sargsyan faces an even stiffer test in persuading Armenian diaspora groups that Yerevan is not abandoning its quest to recognize the killings as genocide.

Bursa's residents say they are ready to back up their leaders with a display of friendship, but few seem confident that the match will pass without incident.

Authorities are refusing to sell tickets to associations from the city's large Azeri community, but nationalist groups urged people online to defy a ban and come with the Azeri flag in support of Nagorno-Karabakh.

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