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Normalizing Armenia-Turkey relations

The two sides have signed an historic — but shaky — accord re-establishing diplomatic ties.

Armenia's opposition supporters holding a giant Armenian flag during a protest in Yerevan Oct. 9, 2009, against plans to sign Turkish-Armenian protocols scheduled on Oct. 10. The placard on the right reads: "No concessions for the Turks." (David Mdzinarishvili/Reuters)

[Editor's note: this story was updated to account for the events of Saturday, Oct. 10 and Sunday, Oct. 11.]

ISTANBUL, Turkey — It began with a soccer match, and it may just end with one. Seeds of a new friendship were planted last September when Turkish President Abdullah Gul became the first modern Turkish leader to visit Armenia, for a match between the two countries (which Armenia lost).

Now, more than 15 years after Turkey closed its border to Armenia, the two states appear ready to move beyond their differences — which are significant — and sign an accord committing them to re-establish diplomatic ties and open their common border.

The historic accords, scheduled to take place in Zurich on Saturday would be a huge step towards ending a century of hostility. But the signing was delayed at the last minute Saturday due to objections by Turkey to Armenia’s planned statement, which reportedly included the word "holocaust".

The signing went ahead, but by early Sunday, Prime Minister Recep Tayip Erdogan had already cast doubt on the agreement, saying the opening of its border with Armenia would be linked to progress on the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority enclave which broke free from Turkish-backed Azerbaijan and has been a stumbling block for reconciliation since. Azerbaijan, for its part, said on Sunday a peace deal between Armenia and Turkey could threaten security in the region and "cast a shadow" over its relations with Ankara. 

The signing ceremony had been scheduled two days before the Oct. 14 World Cup Qualifier match between Armenia and Turkey, taking place in the western Turkish provincial capital of Bursa and attended by the Armenian president, Serzh Sargsyan.

However, simmering territorial disputes and the vexed question of how to describe the Ottoman-era massacres of Armenians remain a further complicating factor in their plans, as seen in Armenia's curveball — the planned statement that almost derailed the Saturday signing.

Predominately Christian Armenia and Muslim Turkey have been at odds since World War I and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, when 1.5 million Armenians were slaughtered in what is widely referred to as the Armenian genocide, a label rejected by Turkey. Then, in 1993, Turkey closed its frontier with Armenia in solidarity with its Muslim ally Azerbaijan during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, where ethnic Armenians threw off Azeri rule with the backing of Armenia.

Magnifying the difficulties facing Turkish policymakers right now is the timing. The government’s push for the normalization of Armenian ties coincides with an anticipated official move to deal with the lingering Kurdish issue, compounding any unease Turks already feel about the rapid pace of change in their nation as it vies for EU membership.

“I want to be open, you know,” explained Ali Diker, 24, a shop worker in Istanbul’s Cihangir district. “But the government is asking not only to change how we feel about Armenia, but also to rethink the Kurdish question. It’s a lot of change.”

There is much to gain from the Armenian protocol: it would improve Armenia's struggling economy, strengthen Turkey's credentials with the West as a modernizer and bolster security in the South Caucasus region, a key transit corridor for oil and gas supplies to the West.

A full deal seemed imminent last April, when the two countries initiated a preliminary agreement, including a plan to reopen the border. The agreement quickly fell through, when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reverted to Turkey’s earlier stance, insisting that peace with Armenia would come only if the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was resolved.

Many argued that Turkey had never really had the intention of making peace, but had simply created the illusion of possible reconciliation to pre-empt the U.S. Congress from adopting a resolution to label the mass slaughter of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide.

This time, however, the efforts seem organized, thoughtful, and most importantly, genuine. Still, several hurdles remain, the largest being the Karabakh peace process.

In an attempt to secure a lasting peace in the region international mediators have been pressuring Armenia to negotiate with Azerbaijan over Karabakh – attempts which many hope will come to fruition in the latest round of talks. Just two days before the ceremony in Zurich Saturday, the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan met to discuss Karabakh in Moldova's capital Chisinau.

"There are intensified efforts ... to make sure that at some point, relatively soon, there will be something from the Karabakh process that could help the Turkish-Armenian process move forward," a senior European diplomat said in an interview with Reuters.

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev, seemed less optimistic, however, telling Azeri state television on Friday that talks with his Armenian counterpart on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh had been fruitless.