YEREVAN, Armenia – Armenia and Turkey agreed Monday to final talks aimed at establishing diplomatic relations and resolving a seemingly intractable rift that dates to the massacres of Armenians under Ottoman rule nearly 100 years ago.
Both sides said in a joint statement they expected the talks to take six weeks and to end with an agreement setting up and developing ties.
Armenian President Serge Sarkisian, however, has indicated the long-running dispute over the World War I-era killings of Armenians would not be a deal-breaker between the two neighbors.
“It’s important that historical justice be restored. It’s important that our nations are able to establish normal relations. It’s important, finally, that this not be repeated in the future,” Sarkisian said in an interview published Monday by the BBC Russian service. “But we do not regard a recognition of genocide as a preliminary condition for establishing relations.”
Historians estimate that, in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, up to 1.5 million Armenians were killed by Ottoman Turks in what is widely regarded as the first genocide of the 20th Century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, contending the toll has been inflated and that the casualties were victims of civil war.
Turkey was one of the first countries to recognize Armenia’s independence in 1991, but the two countries never established diplomatic relations and their joint border has been closed since 1993.
Illustrating just how intractable the Armenia-Turkey dispute has been, Israel and Germany managed to establish diplomatic relations in 1965, just 20 years after the end of the Holocaust, in which German Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews. Today, the two nations enjoy close ties.
In contrast to Turkey, however, Germany accepted responsibility for the genocide immediately after the war and began paying millions of dollars of reparations to Jewish survivors.
In agreeing to move forward and normalize relations, landlocked Armenia is eager for a reopening of the border and the trade opportunities it would bring. For Turkey, improved ties with Armenia is key to its goal of membership in the European Union and enhanced stature in the region.
The border was closed after Armenian forces took control of the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Turkey, which shares close cultural and linguistic relations with Azerbaijan, had insisted its talks with Armenia proceed in parallel with Armenian-Azeri discussions.
The joint statement released by the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministries said the two countries would start consultations to sign two protocols – one to establish diplomatic ties, the other to develop relations. The talks, with continued mediation by Switzerland, are to last six weeks.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, however, that opening the border was out of the question for now. “A longer process is required for that,” he was quoted by Turkey’s NTV television station as saying Monday.