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Turkey and Armenia: reconciling history

The two countries must get beyond the 1915-1918 genocide because it's in both of their interests.

October 13, 2009

More than a million Armenians were massacred in the final years of the Ottoman Empire, from 1915 to 1918. This bloody chapter of World War I should be recognized as genocide and remembered, not only to honor the victims but for its lessons to future generations. It should not, however, prevent Turkey and Armenia from approving the historic accords signed Saturday in Zurich to restore diplomatic ties and open their shared border. Nor should Armenia's fraught relationship with neighboring Azerbaijan -- Turkey's ally -- derail a rapprochement. The Armenian and Turkish parliaments must ratify the agreements hammered out with the help of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton because reconciliation is in the interests of both nations.

The slaughter is a painful issue for Armenians, particularly so for the diaspora that has fought unsuccessfully for official Turkish and U.S. recognition of the genocide. That is understandable, and they should continue pressing Turkey for an accurate public accounting. Some Armenians fear that the commission to be established under the accords for an "impartial" examination of the massacre is simply a means for Turkey to continue denying history. We also are concerned about this part of the agreement, but we hope in the end it will offer an opportunity for the two sides to face the issue together.

Turkey, meanwhile, should not condition ratification of the accord to open its border on an Armenian withdrawal from Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan inhabited largely by ethnic Armenians and occupied by Armenia since 1993. In fact, a thaw in bilateral relations between Turkey and Armenia should make it easier to resolve the issue between Armenia and Azerbaijan. If Armenia feels more secure, it is likely to be more flexible.

As in all negotiations, both sides must give on important issues if they are to alter the stasis. Armenia is economically strangled. Its need for open borders and a lifeline to Western Europe was driven home during the 2008 war in Georgia, when its main trade route was blocked. The country is losing its best and brightest, who have no real prospects at home. Turkey is seeking further integration with Europe and incorporation into the European Union, and Armenia is one of the issues standing in the way; the Turks must confront their past to better their future.

Fortunately, leaders in Turkey and Armenia understand this and should be applauded for the political risk they are taking at the bargaining table -- as well as in the soccer stadium. Last year, Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended a World Cup qualifier between the two national teams in Yerevan, Armenia, and now Armenian President Serge Sarkisian says he plans to attend one on Wednesday in Turkey. Their sporting spirit is sending the right message to nationalists in both countries.

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