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Armenia, Turkey sign accord

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helps the two nations with last-minute negotiations on a landmark agreement to establish diplomatic relations and open their sealed border.

October 11, 2009|Times Wire Services

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND — Turkey and Armenia signed a landmark agreement Saturday to establish diplomatic relations and open their sealed border after a century of enmity, as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton helped the two sides clear a last-minute hurdle.

The contentious issue of whether the killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during the final days of the Ottoman Empire amounted to genocide is only hinted at in the agreement.

Better ties between Turkey, a regional heavyweight, and landlocked Armenia have been a priority for President Obama, and Clinton had flown to Switzerland to witness the signing, not help close the deal.

Clinton told reporters later that each side had problems with the other's prepared statement and that the Armenian foreign minister called his president several times.

"There were several times when I said to all of the parties involved that this is too important," Clinton said. "This has to be seen through. We have come too far. All of the work that has gone into the protocols should not be walked away from."

The accord is expected to win ratification by both nations' parliaments and could lead to a reopening of their border within two months. The frontier has been closed for 16 years.

Diplomats said the Armenians were concerned about wording in the Turkish statement that was to be made after the signing ceremony at the University of Zurich and had expressed those concerns "at the last minute" before the scheduled signing ceremony.

Clinton had arrived at the ceremony venue after meeting separately with the Turks and Armenians at a hotel, but abruptly departed without leaving her car when the problem arose. She returned to the hotel, where she spoke by phone from the sedan in the parking lot, three times with the Armenians and four times with the Turks.

At one point in the intervention, a Swiss police car, lights and siren blazing, brought a Turkish diplomat to the hotel from the university with a new draft of his country's statement.

After nearly two hours, Clinton and Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian met at the hotel and drove back to the university, where negotiations continued.

In the end, the Turks and Armenians signed an accord establishing diplomatic ties that could reduce tensions in the troubled Caucasus region and facilitate its growing role as a corridor for energy supplies bound for the West. The agreement faces nationalist opposition, and protests have been particularly vociferous among the Armenian diaspora.

The agreement calls for a panel to discuss "the historical dimension" of the killing of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. The discussion is to include "an impartial scientific examination of the historical records and archives to define existing problems and formulate recommendations."

That clause is viewed as a concession to Turkey, which denies genocide, contending the toll is inflated and those killed were victims of civil war.

The politically powerful Armenian American community, which Obama courted during his campaign, appeared split over Saturday's accord.

"If Turkey normalizes relations with Armenia and ends its blockade of that landlocked country, it would be a very positive step for the region," said a statement by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Glendale), a leading supporter of Armenian genocide resolutions in Congress. He said , however, that "Turkey must not be allowed to rewrite the history of the Armenian genocide as a price of diplomatic relations."

The Armenian National Committee of America blasted the accord, saying, "The Obama administration's attempts to force Armenia into one-sided concessions is shortsighted and will, in the long term, create more problems than it solves."

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