Turkey, Armenia In Broad Accord

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2009

Turkey and Armenia announced yesterday that they had agreed in principle to normalize relations, a possible breakthrough in a bitter dispute over century-old massacres that has swelled into a politically charged issue for the Obama administration and European governments.

The countries said they had agreed on a "comprehensive framework for the normalization of their bilateral relations," after talks mediated by Switzerland. Their statement gave few details.

U.S. officials said the Obama administration had been quietly working to push the agreement forward, with the American president meeting privately with leaders of the two countries during his trip to Istanbul this month.

"This is a major step forward," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The announcement came just two days before what Armenians will mark as the 94th anniversary of the start of the massacres of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians in Turkey during the demise of the Ottoman Empire. President Obama is expected to give an annual White House statement on the killings on Friday, and had promised during his campaign to describe them as "genocide." In recent years, U.S. presidents have resisted using such language, which Turkey rejects.

The American official said Turkish and Armenian leaders were well aware of Obama's planned statement.

"Maybe the timing had something to do with it," the official said, speaking of the agreement. "But this is a bigger deal." The talks had been going on for about a year, he said, and the tentative accord wasn't a "last-minute panicky thing."

The White House did not respond to queries on whether Obama would still describe the killings as "genocide."

Few people deny that the massacres occurred. But Turkish officials and some historians say that the deaths resulted from forced relocations and widespread fighting when the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire crumbled, not from a campaign of genocide -- and that hundreds of thousands of Turks also died in the same region during that time.

The Turkish-Armenian agreement still must be signed by both countries and ratified by their legislatures. It is likely to stir strong opposition from nationalists on both sides.

The accord would open the border between the neighbors and establish a "road map" for normalized relations, with subcommittees handling matters ranging from economic ties to the environment, the U.S. official said. One of the subcommittees would examine historical issues -- namely the massacres.

In reaching the agreement, Turkey also won a commitment from Washington to accelerate its efforts to settle the dispute over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is inside Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally, but is under ethnic Armenian control.

When they served in the Senate, Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton signed letters demanding that President George W. Bush recognize "the mass slaughter of Armenians as genocide." But Obama did not use that word during his visit to Turkey this month.

Turkey is a key NATO ally, and Obama has said the country, governed by a moderate Islamist administration, could be a bridge between West and East.

Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

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