Turk ey, Armenia to launch talks on diplomatic ties

By AVET DEMOURIAN | Associated Press | August 31, 2009 - 3 hours, 11
minutes ago

Armenia and Turkey, bitter foes for a century, took a step toward
reconciliation Monday by announcing they would launch final talks
aimed at establishing diplomatic ties. But they won't 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
U.S. 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 is 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 Monday 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

"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 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, contending the toll has been inflated and that
the casualties were victims of civil war.

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

"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 Monday 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 and their joint border has been closed since

Illustrating just how intractable the Armenia-Turkey dispute has been,
Israel and Germany managed to establish diplomatic relations in 1965,
just 20 years after the end of the Holocaust, in which German Nazis
and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews. Today, the two
nations enjoy close ties. In contrast to Turkey, however, Germany
accepted responsibility for the genocide immediately after the war and
began paying reparations to Jewish survivors.

The joint statement released by the Armenian and Turkish foreign
ministries Monday said the two countries would start consultations to
sign two protocols _ one to establish diplomatic ties, the other to
develop relations. The talks, with continued mediation by Switzerland,
are to last six weeks.

In agreeing to move forward and normalize relations, landlocked
Armenia is eager for a reopening of the border and the trade
opportunities it would bring.

The border was closed after Armenian forces took control of the
Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The Turkish foreign minister said, however, that opening the border
was out of the question for now. "A longer process is required for
that," Davutoglu said Monday, according to NTV.

Turkish-Armenian ties began to improve after a so-called soccer
diplomacy campaign last year, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul
attended a World Cup qualifier in Armenia.

Sarkisian in the past has said he wants progress on the reopening of
the border before he agrees to attend an Oct. 14 match in Turkey _
about six weeks away.

Armenian political commentator Artyom Yerkanian, speaking during a
special broadcast on Armenian television late Monday, suggested the
agreement to establish ties could be signed at the October match in

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a
major Jewish organization in the U.S., welcomed the announcement.

"Whatever historical pain and differences are, the best way to deal
with them is for the two governments to reconcile and establish
relationships and to deal with the past," he said. "If it happens, I
think it's good news."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the announcement, saying in
a statement that "normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey
would constitute an event of historic import that would contribute to
regional stability." Sarkozy opposes Turkey's entry into the EU.

Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, and Josef
Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.