Turkey, Armenia agree on road map to normalize ties

The tentative agreement, which must be ratified by both nations' legislatures, creates a framework for bilateral cooperation.

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Turkey and Armenia have tentatively agreed to normalize diplomatic ties amid fierce rancor over the massacre of more than a million Armenians nearly a century ago. Swiss-mediated talks yielded an accord that would, if confirmed by lawmakers, create a road map for bilateral cooperation between the two antagonistic neighbors.

Armenia has been lobbying Western nations to back its claim that the Ottoman Empire committed genocide against its people during World War I. Turkey has long denied that the killings amounted to genocide. On a recent visit to Turkey, US President Barack Obama called on the country to come to terms with its past and reopen its sealed border with Armenia. During his term as a senator, he joined calls for the US government to recognize the genocide. But on his recent trip, he carefully avoided using the term.

Turkey's government said Wednesday that the talks had achieved "tangible progress and mutual understanding," Bloomberg reports. Last September, President Abdullah Gul became the first Turkish head of state to visit Armenia. To resolve the dispute over the massacres, Turkey has proposed opening the archives of the Ottoman Empire, the forerunner to the modern nation-state, to foreign historians.

The Foreign Ministry said Turkey and Armenia "have agreed on a comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations in a mutually satisfactory manner," according to the statement on its Web site. "In this context, a road map has been identified."

Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports that a joint statement by the foreign ministries of Switzerland, Turkey, and Armenia did not refer to the mass killings that have poisoned relations between the two neighbors, but spoke more broadly of strengthening "peace, stability, and security" in the region. Turkish and Armenian envoys have held closed-door talks in Switzerland for two years, according to Novosti.

The Washington Post reports that Mr. Obama met the leaders of Turkey and Armenia during his visit earlier this month to Istanbul and was supportive of the diplomatic overtures between the two neighbors. Nationalists in both countries may try to scuttle the accord, however, which must be ratified by the two legislatures. The road map would set up joint committees to handle economic affairs as well as historical issues, principally the massacres that began in 1915.

The announcement came just two days before what Armenians will mark as the 94th anniversary of the start of the massacres of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey during the demise of the Ottoman Empire. President Obama is expected to give an annual White House statement on the killings on Friday, and had promised during his campaign to describe them as "genocide." In recent years, US presidents have resisted using such language, which Turkey rejects.

Underscoring US interest in the peace talks, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the bold reconciliation efforts between Turkey and Armenia, says the Associated Press. The Obama administration is keen to strengthen ties with Turkey, which it sees as a moderate Muslim partner in the Middle East. The US has also had a diplomatic hand in the talks between the two as Turkey wants US commitment to resolve a parallel row between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Turkey backs Azerbaijan's claim to the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, where many ethnic Armenians live and which lies within Azerbaijan's borders. Azerbaijan fought with Armenia over control of the region during 1988-1994, amid the breakup of the Soviet Union, before a Russian-mediated cease-fire.

Reporting from the Turkish side of the heavily militarized border, Reuters identifies economic and strategic factors behind the détente between the two countries. The European Union has said a diplomatic pact should help Turkey's bid to join the union. As well as easing tensions in the Caucasus, the talks are also significant for the future of oil and gas supplies from the region. Azerbaijan has the option of sending gas via pipelines through Turkey to Europe or channeling it through Russia.

Despite the concerns, tentative cross-border contacts have generated fragile optimism among many in eastern Turkey, where livelihoods are largely made from farming and where per capita income is around a tenth of levels in affluent western Turkey.
"We want peace. I went to Armenia and I was received very well. We show them hospitality when they come here. I think it would be good for our economy and trade if the border opens," said Ali Guvensoy, chairman of the Kars Chamber of Commerce.
That optimism is shared in landlocked Armenia. A reopening of the border would provide a huge boost to the economy, having already lost out on lucrative energy transit deals and trade with eastern Turkey.
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