An important step forward

Armenia and Turkey took important steps toward overcoming a long bitter history this month. The two governments’ agreement to establish diplomatic ties will help reduce the enmity that has dominated their relationship for nearly a century. It could also help transform relations in southeastern Europe as well as improve Turkey’s relations with the European Union.

That is, of course, only the potential. The ill will that prevails in relations between Armenia and Turkey will take generations to erase, and could be rekindled without much effort.

Armenia and Turkey disagree bitterly over events that began in 1915. A wave of violence swept across Turkey, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians. The Armenian community, along with many historians, believe the deaths were the result of genocide — a deliberate policy of the Ankara government to cleanse the Ottoman Empire of minorities. The Turkish government has long maintained that it was not at fault. It has insisted that people died either as a result of deportation or relocation, or because of the civil war that was being waged against the Ottoman Empire.

Regardless of the explanation, Ankara argues that the death count has been exaggerated, the killings were not deliberate and the word genocide cannot be applied to “the events of 1915.”

The disagreement poisons relations between the neighbors to this day. While Turkey recognized Armenia when it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the genocide allegation prevented the two governments from establishing full diplomatic relations.

The relationship suffered another setback two years later, when Turkey closed the border with Armenia in retaliation for Armenia’s support for separatists in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that broke away from Azerbaijan during a civil war that claimed 30,000 lives. In 1994, Armenia occupied the area and the situation remains deadlocked to this day.

Despite divergent interpretations of history, the two governments have tried to improve relations. For the past two years, Switzerland has mediated negotiations, with additional help from other concerned governments, particularly Russia and France. The United States has taken an interest in the talks as well, with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton playing a key role in bringing the two sides together.

Those efforts paid off Oct. 10, when the foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey signed an agreement to establish diplomatic relations, open the border between Turkey and Armenia that has been closed since 1993, and establish committees to work on economic affairs, the environment and other bilateral issues.

While there is no mention of the genocide controversy — a group of historical experts will study the question — the prospect of its mention almost derailed the signing. Just before the ceremony, Mrs. Clinton brokered a deal between the two sides in a hotel parking lot. Several hours of discussion yielded an agreement in which neither side would make a statement at the signing. While such sensitivity at this stage hardly augurs well for the relationship, the fact that the two governments instead focused on the need to move forward is a hopeful sign.

Obstacles remain. The agreement does not go into effect until after it has been ratified by both countries’ parliaments. Nationalists in both countries vehemently oppose the deal, and Azerbaijan has reacted with dismay to the agreement. Its foreign ministry complained that “the normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia before the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijan . . . casts a shadow over the spirit of brotherly relations between Azerbaijan and Turkey.”

Turkish officials have insisted that Armenian concessions are necessary if Ankara is going to ratify the deal. While concessions appear unlikely, there are indications of progress in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In short, delay is likely, but most observers believe it will be months, rather than years.

Benefits of the accord provide considerable impetus for the two sides to push ahead. Open borders should spur trade for the two economies. A more peaceful region, along with open borders, also makes possible new pipelines that could reshape oil markets. These pipelines would transit southeastern Europe, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian oil. Turkey would get dividends from those pipelines, too, as they would transit its territory.

Even more important, the settling of the dispute with Armenia has cast Ankara as a forward-looking and progressive government. This image will be increasingly important as Turkey’s negotiations with the EU progress. Ankara needs to eliminate all potential obstacles to its membership in the union. A deal with Armenia helps.