Turkey and Armenia Take a Step Toward Rapprochement

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

SECRETARY OF STATE Hillary Rodham Clinton executed some deft diplomacy last weekend as the leaders of Turkey and Armenia signed a potentially historic deal to establish normal diplomatic relations and reopen their borders. We say "potentially" because there are some big obstacles to implementing the accord, which we'll come back to. But Ms. Clinton helped to ensure that the signing ceremony in Zurich went forward after four hours of last-minute mediation. Not for the first time in her short tenure, she proved capable of overcoming an impasse and teasing out a favorable outcome for the United States.

The rapprochement between these two nations matters to the United States for a number of reasons. It could help stabilize the volatile Caucasus region, open the way for new corridors for the export of gas and oil to the West, ease Russia's political domination of Armenia and remove a major irritant from U.S. relations with Turkey. The Obama administration worked diligently to promote the accord: Ms. Clinton made 29 phone calls to the leaders of the two nations. President Obama played a part by sidestepping a campaign promise to formally recognize the mass killing of Armenians by Turks during World War I as "genocide."

The genocide issue -- and the refusal of some in the American Armenian community to compromise on it -- still threatens to undo the deal. The opening of the border, closed since 1993, would be a huge benefit to impoverished and landlocked Armenia. But there is resistance to a provision of the accords that would set up a joint commission to study the history of the massacres. Opponents say this could give Turkey, which denies that a genocide took place, a means to filibuster the issue -- and to stop the annual attempt by some in the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution declaring that genocide occurred. In fact, the issue is one best left to the two countries; that several U.S. Armenian groups have endorsed the accord is a victory for common sense.

A more formidable obstacle to the deal may be Armenia's unresolved dispute with another neighbor, Azerbaijan, over the ethnically Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is occupied by Armenia along with some neighboring Azeri territory. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took the courageous step of declining to make the settlement of this "frozen conflict" a precondition to his accord with Armenia -- thereby inviting the wrath of Azerbaijan, which is an ally and energy supplier to Turkey. But Mr. Erdogan has said -- most recently last Sunday -- that his government will not go forward with the deal unless Armenia executes at least a partial withdrawal from Azerbaijan. That would be a tough step for Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and require considerable international support: more delicate work for Ms. Clinton.

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