Turkey and Armenia to sign historic reconciliation accords

Turkey and Armenia are expected to sign landmark reconciliation deals this weekend in Zurich in the presence of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The accords are a major step towards ending nearly a century of hostility between the two.


Pictured: Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian (right) and Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan in Yerevan on April 16, 2009.


AFP - Turkey and Armenia are expected to sign landmark deals this weekend to normalise ties, in a major step towards ending nearly a century of hostility over their bloody history and improving stability in the Caucasus.

Although neither Turkey nor Armenia on Thursday confirmed a date for the ceremony, Russia -- a close ally of Yerevan reportedly invited to the event -- said the accords would be inked on Saturday in Zurich.

The ceremony will see the two neighbours, at odds over the World War I massacres of Armenians under Ottoman rule, sign two protocols, agreed under Swiss mediation, to establish diplomatic ties for the first time and open their border which has been sealed for more than a decade.

Both countries have much to gain from reconciliation. An agreement would help Turkey's troubled bid to join the European Union and boost its desire for more influence in the Caucasus while land-locked Armenia would see its economy improve and find itself closer to the West.

But Saturday's signing marks only the first step in a lengthy process during which the two countries need their respective parliaments to ratify the protocols in order to take effect.

Although both the governments have the parliamentary majority for the adoption of the protocols, they are not expected to rush ahead due to domestic opposition and, most importantly, wrangling over the unresolved Nagorny-Karabakh dispute.

The Armenian leadership is under fire at home for allowing the creation of a commission to study the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians under the deal with Turkey -- a point that critics say calls into question Yerevan's genocide claims.

Armenians say that 1.5 million of their kinsmen were systematically killed by Ottoman Turks during 1915-1917.

Turkey rejects the genocide label, says the number of Armenians who died in what was civil strife is inflated and has refused to establish diplomatic ties over Yerevan's campaign to have the killings recognised as genocide.

The dispute over Nagorny-Karabakh -- an Armenian-majority enclave which broke free from Azerbaijan after a war by Yerevan-backed Armenian separatists in the early 1990s -- also has the potential to spoil the rapprochement.

In 1993, Turkey closed its border with Armenia to support close ally Azerbaijan, which has strong ethnic, trade and energy links with Ankara.

Turkish officials have said that the border will remain closed unless Yerevan and Baku make progress towards resolving the conflict.

"The lack of progress on Nagorny-Karabakh could leave the protocols in limbo as the government could submit the protocols to parliament, but not seek a vote on them," Mustafa Aydin, a professor of international relations from Ankara's TOBB University, said.

Armenia rejects any link between Nagorny-Karabakh and the rapprochement process.

Beril Dedeoglu, an international relations professor at Galatasaray University, said even limited progress, such as partial withdrawal of Armenian soldiers from the enclave, could give Turkey room to move on the protocols.

"Such a move could be perceived as a sign of Armenia's good will, preventing the dispute from deadlocking reconciliaton efforts," she said.

Concessions on Nagorny-Karabakh would not sit well with the Armenian public opinion and the influential diaspora that is already uneasy over the protocols, Wolfango Piccoli from the Eurasia group, a London-based political risk consultancy firm, said.

An international tour by Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian this week to draw the diaspora's support saw thousands protest him in France, the United States and Lebanon.

The signing of the protocols will precede an eagerly anticipated football match between the two countries.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul has invited Sarkisian to watch the second leg of a World Cup qualification match between their countries on Wednesday. It remains unclear whether Sarkisian will come.

Gul had visited Armenia in September 2008 for the first-leg match, giveing an impetus to the reconciliation talks.

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