- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

ISTANBUL | Turkey and Armenia could be on the brink of a historic reconciliation that will include a joint investigation of the killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915, Turkish diplomats and specialists say.

Hugh Pope, Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group, said that after two years of secret talks, the historic rivals are nearing agreement on a sweeping package that includes opening a border closed since 1993, diplomatic relations and a bilateral intergovernmental commission on issues ranging from taxes and public health to the history of what Armenians have called genocide by the Ottoman Empire, which preceded modern Turkey.

Turkey is also expected to issue a “road map” on a solution for Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in Azerbaijan that has been under de facto Armenian control since 1994.

“The parameters of the deal are very much set,” Mr. Pope said. “The only thing holding things back now is nerves.”

The Wall Street Journal first reported the potential deal on Thursday, and said it could be unveiled as soon as April 16, when Turkey’s foreign minister is expected to fly to the Armenian capital.

Turkish diplomats in Ankara and Washington confirmed the peace progress but not the date for an announcement, which could follow by only a few days President Obama’s visit to Turkey.

“These are extremely serious negotiations,” said a senior Turkish diplomat, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “We are optimistic and we have been working hard and hopefully we will see positive developments.”

“These are highly sensitive negotiations and both sides have gone to great lengths to keep them secret,” added a Turkish foreign ministry spokesman.

Armenian officials in Yerevan and Washington declined comment.

Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee, a U.S. group, said, “Any durable reconciliation has got to be built upon Turkey’s acceptance of its past, and that is acknowledging the Armenian genocide.”

Last month, Armenian Foreign Minister Edward Nalbandian acknowledged that Turkish-Armenian talks had taken place but said they had not touched on the 1915 killings.

The deal would be a radical change of direction for Turkey, which closed its border with Armenia in support of its Azeri ethnic cousins fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1993. Turkish experts said the concept has gained strength since the AK Party took power in Turkey in 2002 and that talks accelerated after Turkish President Abdullah Gul attended a Turkey-Armenia soccer match in Yerevan in September 2008.

“There is very detailed specific set of steps that could be taken,” said Mark Parris, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey who now heads a program on the country at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Opening borders, establishing embassies, trade development and a historical commission to look into the events of 1915 would put things in a different universe.”

Mr. Parris said he was not sure what the impact of Mr. Obama’s visit might be on the peace process. During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama called the Turkish killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians “genocide” and said he would support a resolution in the U.S. Congress recognizing it. Also, on April 24, the White House traditionally issues a statement commemorating the killings.

Turkey denies a genocide occurred.

Thomas de Waal, author of a highly regarded book on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, said the emerging deal has a lot to do with changes in Russia’s south Caucasian policy since it went to war with Georgia in August 2008.

“The war really drove home Armenia’s reliance on Georgia as a trade conduit,” he said.

“Russia saw that blowing up one Georgian bridge was enough to deprive [its Armenian ally] of imports for a week. Plus the fact is that Russia now owns Armenia’s economy. If you own the telecom sector and railways, opening up the border is in your interest.”

c Barbara Slavin and Eli Lake contributed to this story from Washington.


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