Saturday, 6 September 2008

Football diplomacy


Amernia versus Turkey - a true historic game not only because these two teams have never played against each other before, but also because it's the first time ever a Turkish president visits the small landlocked Caucasus country. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and Armenia became independent in 1991 the two countries haven't had diplomatic relations. The 325 kilometer border between the two countries has remained closed for 15 years now.

The tension is palpable as we arrive at the stadium just outside Yerevan's city center. Highest security everywhere: police, military, bodyguards, secret service - with such a high level visit, 150 Turkish officials and more than 400 international journalists, the Armenian government obviously doesn't want to take any risks.

It would actually be the ideal time to break into Armenia's central bank, one of our colleagues jokes. Hmmmm.


So here we are in Yerevan's modern Hrazdan stadium. It's a beautiful late summer evening, very windy, something historic is in the air. I'm surprised to see that the stadium is not sold out. Ok, I hadn't expected to see heaps of Turkish fans. Fifa had reserved 2,700 seats for them, but with the closed Turkish-Armenian border it's clear that it was very difficult for them to travel to the Armenian capital.

Earlier in the day I had met a few dedicated Turkish fans who had driven all the way - 12 hours via Georgia. But in the end, they were only a handful. And the few planes that were chartered from Istanbul, I was told, were full with Armenians living in Istanbul - not Turks.

Tonight seems to be all about politics. As the Turkish anthem plays, everyone in the stadium gets up, though buuhhing and whistling is clearly overriding the music. Armenian fans seated in the wing facing president Abdullah Gul and his Armenian counterpart unfold a huge banner saying RECOGNITION & REPARATION.

The Armenian genocide is still on everyone's mind here. And you actually can't blame them, with more than 1 million Armenians massacred by the Turks in 1915 during World War I. The Turks have always denied this was a massacre. But for Armenia and many other countries around the world there's no arguing about it, it was genocide and it's high time for the Turkish neighbour to admit it.

But back to the game. No, I'm not biased.


It's actually a rather boring game, neither Armenia nor Turkey plays particularly well. Turkey scores twice, much to the disappointment of Armenian fans. The less than 100 Turkish fans parked in one corner of the stadium have no chance to make their voices heard and both times the Turks score the stadium is silent. So much so, I both times have to ask my neighbour, a Japanese political correspondent based in Cairo looking rather bored, if this was actually a goal. Quite unreal, but no doubt historic. Let's hope the next goal will be forming diplomatic relations.

Football diplomacy by Aventures

Friday, 5 September 2008

So this is the Georgian border

The Georgian-Russian conflict and the fall out for Armenia was a recurring theme during our three day visit to Yerevan. Borders and relations with neighbouring countries are a pretty hot topic for Armenians. Their tiny landlocked country backs onto Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Georgia - as you can imagine that means Armenia's foreign policy is a balancing act between friends and foes.

The borders with Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed and completely sealed off, roads and rails lead nowhere - well, with the exception of smuggling and illegal trade of course. Then there's Georgia - 70 % of Armenia's imports transit through this northern neighbour. But obviously the conflict has had disastrous economic consequences for Armenia - for 20 days the rail and road links from the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti to Yerevan were closed. Fuel ran out in Yerevan, food supplies were severely shortened, most of the trade was rerouted through the Persian Gulf and Iran.

Armenia is now walking a very thin line trying to stay neutral and juggling interests between its strategic ally Russia, its natural partner Georgia and southern neighbour Iran. Then there's the EU and the US to take into consideration. Washington is heavily lobbied by the big Armenian diaspora in the US. As for Brussels, the majority of Armenians, especially young ones, would like to join Club Europe in some not too distant future.

How's all that for a diplomatic challenge?

We asked Arman Kirakosyan, Armenia's Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister, what the official position towards the conflict in Georgia was. Surprisingly he replied: "There is none."

Well, maybe diplomacy is not that difficult after all. I wonder what his boss thinks.


To see a little practical foreign policy in action, we were squeezed into a minibus and dispatched to the Georgian-Armenian border. Now, I had my doubts as to what exactly we would be able to see there and what the whole point of this excursion was. And as it turned out I was not wrong.

Under the strict observance of a customs official who had joined us from Yerevan, meticulously filming our every move, we had a chat with the guy in charge of the check point. Sure, he said, there were long queues to enter Armenia when the conflict erupted and Russian troops were moving closer to Tbilisi. Thousands of Georgians, as well as expats were fleeing the country. But the Armenian customs and immigration officials were, as he proudly announced to us, always well prepared, and the situation was back to normal within a few days. As you can imagine the group 15 journalists was less than impressed with such a, let's say, "textbook" official response.

Eager for more concrete info, we assaulted the border crossing with our cameras - very much to the dismay of our border chief who quickly called us back and summarily imposed a PHOTO BAN. So next we pursued anyone crossing the border.

It must have been a pretty funny sight. 15 journos representing 15 different EU countries hunting for any snippet of information, a good quote, or something that would have made this 7 hour drive worth our while. Even a Georgian Khachapuri would have been welcomed.

But I guess we lingered around long enough and made the local chief feel important with all these microphones and recording devices poked at him. Whatever it was, he suddenly had a change of heart and said it's OK to take photos. So, out came the cameras again, and this time we were more like a group of Japanese tourists taking souvenir shots from an exotic location. Perhaps he also felt a little guilty as next thing we were treated to a round of beers! So much for rules and regulations at the border.

Despite the Armenian hospitality, most of us were a bit frustrated to travel all this way and to not be able to cross the border and drive the remaining 70 kms to Tbilisi.

Nagorno Karabakh, the Armenian enclave in neighbouring Azerbijan, would also have been so much more interesting, but I guess that's what you have to deal with when you're on a press trip.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

ENP - getting along with the neighbours

The European Neighbourhood Policy - or ENP as Eurocrats love their EU jargon - was developed in 2004. It was formulated shortly before the "Big Bang" when the EU was about to expand eastwards to include 8 former communist countries and to the south with the two Mediterranean islands of Cyprus and Malta.

In short, the EU was looking to its new southern and eastern neighbours and wanted to strengthen prosperity, stability and security - in the interest of all concerned.

The ENP encompasses Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Moldova, Morocco, Occupied Palestinian Territory, Syria, Tunisia and Ukraine. Working towards "deeper political relationship" and "economic integration" - those are the buzzwords, even if some of these countries do not have a specific EU outlook or any intention of ever joining the European Union.

The central element of the European Neighbourhood Policy is the bilateral ENP Action Plan agreed between the EU and each partner. It's probably no surprise that Belarus, Syria and Libya haven't signed one of those... and ah, Russia hasn't done so either, but that's a whole different chapter...


Anyway, I've spent today in Brussels being briefed on the ins and outs of the ENP, on the results of the EU emergency Caucasus summit and the wider political implications for the region. It's quite an interesting time traveling to Yerevan. I'll keep you posted!

Recipe for Lavash

Travel always equals food for me so here's one for foodies.

Lavash is thin, soft flat bread that is served with dips and used for wraps.

Serves 8 large pieces or 16 small pieces.

Ingredients:

* 1 pkg. yeast
* 1 1/2 cup warm water
* 2 teaspoons sugar
* 4 1/2 cup all purpose flour
* 1 tablespooon toasted sesame seeds
* 1 tablespoon toasted
* 1 1/2 teaspoon salt

Preparation:

Coat a large bowl with oil. Set aside.

In a measuring cup, combine yeast, water and sugar. Mix until yeast is dissolved.

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour and salt. Add yeast water mixture and form a dough. Knead dough by hand for 10 -15 minutes. 5-8 minutes is sufficient if using a knead hook on a mixer.

Once dough is kneaded, place ball of dough in oiled bowl. Roll the dough around the bowl to coat it with oil. Cover and let rise for 1 -1 1/2 hours, or until dough doubles in size.

Once dough has doubled, punch down to release air. Continue to knead for about 5 minutes.

Divide dough into 8 separate balls of dough. Cover and allow to rise for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Once risen, roll dough out to thin rectangles, about 12"x10" for large or 8"x6" for small flatbreads. They should be as thin as pizza dough.

Puncture rectangles with a fork. Brush dough with water and sprinkle sesame seeds. Bake on baking sheet for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Continue baking remaining dough.

Eat in the company of good friends and conversation. European Neigbourhood Policy is optional.

Off to 'Lavash' Armenia

Early in July I received a call from Brussels asking me if I'd be interested to travel to Armenia as part of a European Neighbourhood Policy seminar organised by the European Journaliam Centre and the European Commission. The focus: Trade Flows and Internal Security in Armenia. Maybe you can guess what my answer was.

The last time I was in Armenia was more than 20 years ago... I was travelling with my parents through the Caucasus. First stop was Tbilisi and then we made our way to Yerevan. I vividly remember visiting the local market - the vendors were so much friendlier than in Moscow, where we were living at that time. I can still picture the zesty lemons and colourful exotic fruits I had missed for years in the Russian capital.

Of course it was not the West, and of course it was difficult to find anything but the typical Soviet era state run restaurants. Let's just say they were always slightly rundown, cold and deserted, staffed by grumpy waitresses wearing ugly uniforms and bad makeup, and decorated in bad taste 60's furniture and curtains that hadn't been washed for years. Does anyone know that sort of very distinctive Soviet smell?

As a 12-year old I was not a big fan of Russian cuisine, but I remember my enthusiasm for Armenian food and particularly lavash - a thin, paper-like bread they served us with vegetables. Yummy!!

So, of course there was little hesitation in saying "yes, let's go to Armenia!". And well, what about the European Neighbourhood Policy? What was that all about again? Ok, maybe it hasn't gripped my attention but with the ongoing crisis in the Caucasus there's no better time to be in the region looking at European foreign policy.

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