Aktuelle Meldung, , Gütersloh: Following soccer diplomacy: Turkey, Armenia and the European Union

Editorial by Armando Garcia Schmidt, Bertelsmann Stiftung project "Europe's Future"

At least that’s how things looked on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2009, when the presidents of Armenia and Turkey met at their countries’ World Cup qualification match in Bursa, Turkey. The round of soccer diplomacy had actually commenced a year earlier at the first-round game in the Armenian capital and many hopes have been riding ever since on the symbol-rich attempts by Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Armenian President Serzh Sargsian to bring their countries closer together. Not only have the two politicians been putting their best foot forward, negotiations for a rapprochement have also been taking place in the background, aided by Switzerland’s diplomats. This process ended a few days before the Bursa match with the signing of two protocols on the normalization of the countries’ relations in Zurich.     

With the Zurich protocols and the Armenian president’s visit to Turkey, the soccer diplomacy’s euphoric phase came to an end. Now it will be necessary to enter a more fragile phase, during which a constructive relationship will have to be built between two nations that have tended to see each other as antagonists. Moreover, as the presidents’ soccer-match exhilaration begins to evaporate, critics have also begun making themselves heard. The Turkish government, for example, has been put under pressure by the nationalistic opposition and their allies in Baku to link the rapprochement and the opening of borders to Armenia with tangible progress in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Parts of the opposition in Armenia and the Armenian diaspora – above all in France, the United States and Lebanon – have become quite vocal in insisting there be no closer ties between the countries unless Turkey unequivocally acknowledges the World War I genocide against Armenians.

In addition, a foreboding of possible future events occurred on October 10, 2009, in Zurich, when an unexpected development overshadowed the festive signing of the protocols. In a meeting that lasted for hours, the Turkish and Armenian delegations wrangled over the exact wording of the declaration that was to be released following the signing ceremony. The result of the unplanned wrestling match was silence: Neither delegation released a statement, since that might have superseded the protocols’ carefully formulated contents and forced the other side into a response. The protocols have of course been signed, but now must be approved by each country’s parliament, a hurdle that could also stymie the still very new process of reconciliation.  

What are needed in this situation are capable, independent mediators who are able to withstand long periods of lack of progress and who, in lieu of soccer players, can move quickly when needed.

How is the EU reacting to these developments? It and its member states are making all the right noises, while remaining hesitant when it comes to taking action. Although three high-level representatives from the EU were present in Zurich on October 10 -- French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, EU High Representative Javier Solana and Slovenian Foreign Minister Samuel Zbogar (reflecting Slovenia’s position as chair of the EU Council’s Committee of Ministers) -- neither Sweden as current president of the EU Council nor the European Commission sent envoys to the signing ceremony. Two days after the signing, the EU Council president rose to the occasion and released a brief press release welcoming the development.

In fact, until now the entire process has been actively supported by others. Two years ago Switzerland secretly began mediating between Armenia and Turkey. The concrete results of this Helvetian initiative were the two protocols that outline the path to the re-establishment of bilateral relations. The United States also took an active role. In his first official foreign trip as US president, Barack Obama encouraged Turkey to pursue its new policy of openness vis-à-vis all of its neighbors and to thereby increase its role as an anchor of stability in the region. Switzerland’s persistent diplomacy was actively supported behind the scenes by the US.

On October 10, moreover, Hillary Clinton and her Swiss counterpart were the ones to intervene and mediate between their Armenian and Turkish colleagues in the conflict over the wording of the statements. The dispute on the day of the signing shows how fragile the nascent rapprochement sill is. Had the protocols not been signed in Zurich, the entire process would have been stalled for decades once again. While the US secretary of state and Swiss foreign minister were busy engaging in the happenings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the other chief European diplomats provided their own odd complement to the soccer diplomacy: They merely waited to see what happened, spending the evening together watching the soccer match between the Russian and German national teams.

The EU’s relationship with the process of rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia has been characterized by nothing more than benevolent passivity, something that has two main causes. On the one hand, it derives from the EU’s relationship with Turkey, which is unresolved and tends to be governed more by emotion than by rational political decision making. Yet it must be noted that the EU can itself benefit from a Turkey that pursues a “European” foreign policy and uses “soft power” to achieve long-term benefits for both itself and its neighbors. This fundamental change in policy should in any event be welcomed and supported, regardless of whether Europe views Turkey long-term as an external partner or a member of the EU. It’s precisely here that the EU -- and above all Paris, Berlin and Vienna, the major skeptics when it comes to Turkey’s accession -- is proving recalcitrant. The fear of being forced into action by a successfully transforming Turkey seems to have impaired its ability for rational decision making.

On the other hand, the EU remains incapable of unambiguously addressing the core issues of war and peace in its immediate vicinity -- despite, or precisely because of, the diversity of policy approaches (ENP, Black Sea Synergy, Eastern Partnership) it employs vis-à-vis its neighbors to the east. The EU’s efforts to deal with latent conflicts, especially, for example, in the south Caucasus, are generally seen as ambivalent and haphazard. While there is talk of stability, peace and development as a precursor to democracy, in contrast to tiny Switzerland, the big EU does not see itself as capable of promoting a strategic vision for solving existing conflicts, outlining a path toward those solutions and becoming actively involved in efforts to realize them.

What is clear is that the EU would be the beneficiary should the recent developments continue to bear fruit. It would benefit from a peaceful Caucasus as a transit corridor for energy supplies and an Armenia that orients itself toward the West, and it could only be happy about a Turkey that presents itself as European, whether willingly or not. The EU should do all in its power to support the process of rapprochement between the two states, which is now entering its critical phase. In such efforts, Europe’s sports stadiums should only be needed for cheering and kick-offs.