Christian Science Monitor
October 10, 2009, Saturday

Next Nobel Peace Prize: Turkey and Armenia?

the Monitor's Editorial Board


Will the winners of the next Nobel Peace Prize be the leaders of
adversaries Turkey and Armenia?

It's not every day that two neighboring but not neighborly countries
agree to overcome a century of deep hostility, especially states that
sit at one of the world's most strategic - and volatile - crossroads.

In Zurich, diplomats from both countries - one a Christian nation and
the other Muslim - signed an historic agreement Oct. 10 to normalize
relations and open their border. Included was a provision for a
historical commission to look at the deeply divisive issue of up to
1.5 million Armenians killed during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

Impoverished Armenia, the tiniest of the former Soviet countries, hugs
the southern tip of the tinderbox Caucasus region that lies between
the Caspian and Black seas. It shares a border to the north with
Georgia - invaded by Russia in 2008 - and to the west with Turkey.

Turkey, a member of NATO, seeks to become an oil-and-gas corridor
connecting energy-rich Russia and the Caspian with Europe and the
Middle East. As part of this goal, it is pursuing an ambitious policy
of "zero problems" on its borders.

Regional stability could flow, and more oil and gas, too, if the
parliaments of Turkey and Armenia ratify the agreement.

Ratification is iffy, however, considering the gaping historical rift
that has separated these two neighbors all these years. Armenians call
the deaths of their ancestors at the end of World War I a genocide.
Turkey says it was a tragic result of war.

Another impediment: the "frozen conflict" of Nagorno-Karabakh, a
separatist Armenian enclave in nearby Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan has put considerable pressure on its friend, Turkey, to
make normal relations with Armenia contingent on resolving the
conflict.

These chest-high hurdles make it all the more remarkable that Turkish
President Abdullah Gul and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan
apparently want to walk the road to reconciliation. They started a
year ago, when Mr. Gul attended a Turkish-Armenian soccer match in
Armenia - an unprecedented and highly visible gesture. Mr. Sargsyan
has been invited to a match in Turkey next week.

But years of quiet discussion among senior opinion makers and
intellectuals on both sides preceded this public diplomacy. Armenians
who want to break out of their landlocked and poor economy are looking
for normal relations with Turkey. Turks are being driven by business
interests and the "zero problems" policy.

Ankara and Athens, for instance, have entered a period of detente, and
relations between Turkey and Syria have greatly improved. Ankara is
reaching out to Tehran. Turkey has played the role (unsuccessfully so
far) as negotiator between Syria and Israel. In the back of Gul's mind
must be the calculation that normal relations with Armenia could
tighten Turkey's ties to Russia - which has backed Armenia in the
post-Soviet period.

If Gul and Sargsyan succeed, that might point the way to resolving
other so-called "intractable" disputes in the Caucasus, and perhaps
even the Turk-Greek problem over a divided Cyprus. True reconciliation
may rejuvenate Turkey's stalled bid for membership in the European
Union by showing that Ankara is a security problem solver. And it
could increase prosperity in the region by opening more trade to
Armenia and perhaps making it part of the region's energy network.

The provision for a commission to "impartially" examine historical
records and archives may not bridge the passionate disagreement about
the Armenian massacre. But it can create an atmosphere of more open
discussion - and that's needed in both countries. At the same time,
international mediation continues on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Nationalist forces in Turkey and Armenia will try to derail the
agreement, and prevent ratification. It will take skilled leadership
on the parts of Gul and Sargsyan to sail past these political shoals -
and perhaps all the way to Oslo to collect the next Nobel.