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Turkey moves to engage more deeply in Mideast – and with neighbors

Turkey's government has inked new accords with Armenia and Syria, evidence of its bid to establish itself as a regional soft-power broker.

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Turkish leaders have also made clear their intent to soon introduce a broad democratization initiative to deal with the Kurdish issue. And Turkey has given its support to reunification talks between the Greek and Turkish governments of divided Cyprus.

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Turkey's taboos hurt it abroad

The Turkish government's moves are being enabled, on the one hand, by a gradual change in society and political life that has made it easier to talk about these issues.

"Until very recently, the public had been conditioned to accept things from the perspective of statism, nationalism, and chauvinism," says Dogu Ergil, a professor at Ankara University. "But the dominance of the state over issues and making them taboo and undebatable is fading."

Ankara also appears to be driven by a realization that these taboos were hurting Turkey's ability to make an impact abroad. "That position was limiting.... Until recently, Turkish foreign policy was mostly reactive, it didn't take any initiatives, and it didn't do things beyond its own borders," says Mr. Barkey.

Analysts say moving ahead on restoring ties with Armenia makes strategic and political sense for Turkey, a European Union candidate country. "[The agreement with Armenia] will do a lot to counter prejudices in Europe about what kind of country Turkey is, that it's not just a strategic asset but also a country that can deal with its history and its own past. That will have a lot of impact in Europe," says Hugh Pope, Turkey analyst for the International Crisis Group, a policy and advocacy organization based in Brussels.

Turks being asked to think differently

Still, making such an abrupt shift on what had been untouchable issues may be difficult. After decades of being told that there is no such thing as Kurdish identity or that discussion of the Armenian genocide issue was forbidden, Turks are being asked to think differently. "[Y]ou are talking about a public that has been indoctrinated for decades on these issues. Now we are talking about preparing the public psychologically for dealing with these problems in a different way," said Lale Kemal, a columnist for the English-language Today's Zaman.

"More important than any legal change is to prepare the public ... that we should normalize relations with Armenia and deal with the Kurdish problem because these are in Turkey's interest," he adds.

But Mr. Ergil points out that for Turkey, a secular nation founded in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, sharp change is nothing new. "This country shifted to a republic from a dynastic empire in a matter of a few years. The alphabet was shifted in a matter of a year from using an Arabic script to using Latin script. People had to accept it," he says.

"That was more radical than this."