YEREVAN (Reuters) - President Abdullah Gul, making the first visit to Armenia by a Turkish leader, joined Armenia’s president on Saturday at a soccer match which both men said could help end almost a century of hostility.
The neighbors have no diplomatic ties but a relationship haunted by whether ethnic Armenians killed by Ottoman Turks during World War One were victims of systematic genocide.
Security for Gul’s trip was tight. Attack helicopters escorted his jet on arrival and hundreds of demonstrators lined the streets of the Armenian capital, Yerevan.
But the two presidents expressed hope their meeting at the World Cup qualifier, the first match between the two national sides, would herald a new beginning.
The initiative has gained new impetus since Russia’s war with Georgia last month, which raised fears for the security of energy supplies from the Caspian Sea to western Europe.
“We hope we will be able to demonstrate goodwill to solve the problems between our countries and not transfer them to future generations,” Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan told a news conference after receiving Gul.
Gul, alongside Sarksyan, said he was “leaving optimistic”.
“If we create a good atmosphere and climate for this process, this will be a great achievement, and will also benefit stability and cooperation in the Caucasus,” he told reporters after the game, which Turkey won 2-0.
Sarksyan said he would attend the return match in October 2009, and that the invitation to do so suggested Gul “also has some expectations that there will be some movement between these two meetings”.
Turkey has never opened an embassy in Armenia and in 1993 Ankara closed its land border in a show of solidarity with Azerbaijan, a Turkic-speaking ally which was fighting Armenian-backed separatists over the Nagorno-Karabakh region.
But even as the two presidents took their seats together behind bullet-proof glass in a VIP box in the Hrazdan stadium, the challenges were obvious.
Armenian fans booed the Turkish national anthem, and dozens of demonstrators held torches and flowers in silent vigil at an imposing monument to the World War One killings on a hillside behind the stadium.
Protesters in the streets held banners that read: “1915 - Never Again”, and “We Demand Justice”. But not all Armenians were hostile.
“It’s good Gul is here because we have to improve relations with Turkey,” said student Garik Tumanyan, 20. “It’s good for our country, but Turkey must recognize that genocide happened.”
Armenia says 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of Ottoman Turks, and Yerevan insists Ankara should recognize the killings as genocide. Turkey says Turks and Armenians alike were killed in partisan warfare.
But Russia’s decision last month to send its forces into Georgia, an ex-Soviet state which borders both Armenia and Turkey, has convinced many that it is time for Ankara and Yerevan to put their differences aside.
Establishment of normal relations could have huge significance for Turkey’s role as a regional power, for energy flows from the Caspian Sea and for Western influence in the South Caucasus.
Landlocked Armenia, a Soviet republic until 1991, could also derive enormous benefits from the opening of the frontier with its large neighbor and the restoration of a key rail link.
Western-backed pipelines shipping oil and gas from the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast bypass Armenia and bend north instead to go through Georgia.
With that route looking vulnerable after the Russian intervention, Armenia could be an attractive alternative.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan remained in Yerevan for further talks with his Armenian counterpart, Gul said.