Turkey and Armenia inch forward

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The soccer was disappointing: A scrappy game on a rough pitch whipped by turbulent winds that sent many a pass askew. But the Armenia-Turkey World Cup qualifier in Yerevan, Armenia's capital, on Sept. 6 was an almost unbelievable event. The 2-0 victory for the Turks was beside the point. All eyes were on the two countries' presidents, sitting together in the stadium -- albeit behind bulletproof glass -- in a brave attempt to bury one of the Caucasus' most bitter legacies.

This was the first visit by a Turkish head of state to Armenia, and it was all the more remarkable for taking place less than a month after Russia's invasion of Georgia set the Caucasus on a knife's edge. It's part of a realignment in which Turkey, caught between its NATO membership and its energy reliance on Russia, is pushing for a regional diplomatic initiative that would bring together Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Turkey.

Within that context, Armenians and Turks are seizing a chance to stop their futures being mortgaged to history. That includes the dispute about the Armenians' demand that the Turks recognize there was a genocide in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 that killed 1.5 million Armenians, many of them women and children. Turkey, which succeeded to that empire in 1923, agrees that hundreds of thousands died as a result of massacres, forced marches, famine and disease, but it says that this was World War I, that many Turks were killed by Armenians and that the Armenian militia was openly aligned with the invading forces of the Ottomans' enemy, the Russians.

It is not just the Armenian side that has to overcome bitterness. Armenian attacks from 1973 to 1994 killed 42 members of the Turkish foreign ministry and their families all over the world, including, in 1973 and 1982, Turkish consuls general in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Turkey also closed its border with Armenia in sympathy with Azerbaijan during the 1988-94 Nagorno-Karabakh war, in which Armenians, seeking self-determination for that Armenian-majority enclave, seized more than 15% of Azerbaijan and drove more than 700,000 Azeris from their homes (more than 400,000 Armenians also fled or were driven from Azerbaijan).

The two sides do not have formal diplomatic relations, but Turkish President Abdullah Gul's visit to Yerevan, at the invitation of Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan, did not come out of the blue.

Turkey has in recent years pushed its idea that the genocide issue should be turned over to a mutually agreed, neutral commission of historians, although many Armenians in the diaspora, mainly in California, France and Lebanon, want full recognition of the genocide to come before normalized diplomatic relations. In April, Armenia elected Sargsyan, who began to stress Armenia's desire for normalization. Formerly secret meetings between Armenian and Turkish diplomats are now moving forward faster and with greater transparency.

Turkey has many reasons for reaching out to Armenia beyond stability in the Caucasus. Seeking regional influence, it is working to improve relations with all its 10 difficult neighbors, and notably with Cyprus, where it is backing progress toward a settlement to reunite Turkish Cypriots with the rest of the Mediterranean island. It wants to show that it can resolve disputes, which will bolster its negotiations to join the European Union. It also needs moral points in its struggle with the Armenian lobby, which will next year almost certainly try again to win U.S. official recognition of an Armenian genocide.

Trouble in the neighborhood is also concentrating minds in Armenia, which spun free of the Soviet Union in 1991. Its future no longer seems secure, given its near total strategic dependence on a newly assertive Russia, a border with a difficult Iran and the fact that 70% of its trade passes through unstable Georgia.

There were fewer Armenian boos and hisses for Gul in the soccer stadium than might have been expected, nationalist parties muted their opposition, and the several hundred protesters along his motorcade route simply held placards demanding genocide recognition. Participants said real warmth characterized the relations between the officials, who rediscovered how close Turkish and Armenian cuisine and social culture remain.

In Turkey, meanwhile, almost all major media commentators cheered Gul's decision to travel to Armenia, and two-thirds of Turks told pollsters they approved. A top retired Turkish ambassador publicly suggested that Turkey would do well to exchange ambassadors, open the border, apologize for the events of 1915 and offer compensation and even citizenship for the descendants of those expelled.

A dispute that has done Turkey and the Caucasus so much harm may have begun to abate. As Gul put it: "We are all the children of the same Earth, with memories that are both bitter and sweet."

Hugh Pope is author of "Turkey Unveiled: a History of Modern Turkey" and is Turkey project director for International Crisis Group.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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