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An inkling of a thaw

Though the chasm between Turkey and Armenia is bitter and vast, recent niceties stir faint hope.

April 25, 2008

History can comfort or afflict us, and affliction was the order of the day Thursday as Armenians around the world commemorating the genocide of their people by the Ottoman Empire from 1915 to 1917 were met by Turks protesting that the genocide never took place.

The argument over remembrance and denial of the Armenian genocide has in recent years moved from France to the U.S. Congress and now to Israel, which faces its own moral and political dilemmas in deciding whether to debate the issue in the Knesset. Turkey is strongly lobbying to prevent such a debate. Like the United States, Israel is now torn between its commitment to confront genocide deniers of all kinds and its geopolitical interest in maintaining relations with its only Muslim ally.

It's a lose-lose proposition for any nation involved in the dispute, and for the millions of Turks and Armenians alive today who will have to continue to live next to each other. It's a winner, however, for Russia, which has been competing with the United States for influence in Armenia and which has leverage over the former Soviet republic's economy.

Given their rock-hard positions, there is little chance that the genocide issue will soon be resolved to the satisfaction of either side, but there is, for the first time, a faint hope for a thaw in relations between modern Turkey and Armenia. In Yerevan, President Serge Sargsyan took office this month after a deeply flawed election in which he promised to improve ties with Ankara. And although the two countries have no diplomatic relations, Turkish President Abdullah Gul was among the first to congratulate him -- and to express his desire to normalize relations.

These meager niceties between longtime foes should be extended. Turkey's offer to create a panel of historians to investigate the atrocities of 1915 remains objectionable as long as it continues to deny that the slaughter of Armenians constituted genocide. Still, there are areas for cooperation. Turkey could temporarily reopen its closed frontier with Armenia -- with the caveat that it could shut the border again if relations sour.

A friendly, democratic government in Ankara could help Yerevan rebuild its frayed ties with the West, improve its economy and, eventually, negotiate peace with Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Demonstrating the political maturity to pursue rapprochement with Armenia could bring Turkey closer to its goal of joining the European Union. History need not be destiny.

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