Turkey, Armenia set reconciliation talks

Diplomatic ties, not massacre, is on the agenda

By Avet Demourian
Associated Press / September 1, 2009

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YEREVAN, Armenia - Armenia and Turkey, bitter foes for a century, took a step toward reconciliation yesterday by revealing that they would launch final talks aimed at establishing diplomatic ties. They won’t, however, discuss the deepest source of their enmity: the World War I-era massacres of Armenians under Ottoman rule.

Both sides said in a joint statement they expected the talks to take six weeks and to end with an agreement setting up and developing ties. The two countries, whose shared border is closed, are US allies and came under American and European pressure to move toward peace.

The talks still face pitfalls and will follow months of inactivity after signs of promise earlier in the year when President Obama appealed for reconciliation during a visit to Turkey.

The parliaments of the two countries must ratify a deal on diplomatic normalization, and in Turkey, nationalist sentiment and suspicion about Armenian intentions are particularly high.

Also, despite an agreement that the process should proceed without preconditions, Turkey’s prime minister has linked it to a resolution of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri region that was occupied by Armenian troops. The Turkish population shares close cultural and linguistic relations with Azerbaijan, which is pressing Turkey for help in recovering its land.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday that Turkey would “guard’’ Azerbaijan’s interest during its reconciliation with Armenia, saying in comments broadcast by NTV television that “our aim is to establish stability in the Caucasus.’’

Turkey, however, clearly seeks to enhance its growing image as a regional statesman and a coveted ally of world powers in a strategic and often unstable region. The rapprochement with Armenia coincides with efforts to resolve a long-running feud with Turkey’s Kurdish minority - issues that are vital to Turkish efforts to earn membership in the European Union.

Turkey’s Islamic-oriented government is not immune to domestic pressure, especially from nationalists who believe Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to undermine secular principles. That internal division has contributed to slow progress on the Armenian issue.

“Turkey was perceived in Washington as the party that was dragging its feet,’’ said Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey project at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Taspinar said that the announcement of talks was positive but that it might be more cosmetic than substantive.

“It’s better than nothing,’’ he said. “We have plenty of reasons to be skeptical.’’

One of the biggest disputes between the neighboring countries is over the World War I-era massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, which historians widely regard as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide.

Armenian President Serge Sarkisian indicated the dispute would not be a deal-breaker.

“It’s important that historical justice be restored. It’s important that our nations are able to establish normal relations,’’ Sarkisian said in an interview published yesterday by the BBC Russian service. “But we do not regard a recognition of genocide as a preliminary condition for establishing relations.’’

Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, but the two countries never established diplomatic relations.