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Armenia and Turkey — not so fast

Obstacles to reopening the two countries' border include Azerbaijan, parliamentary approval and the weight of history.

Armenian players warm up during a training session at Ataturk stadium in Bursa, Oct. 13, 2009. Armenia will play against Turkey in a World Cup 2010 qualifying soccer match on Oct. 14. (Osman Orsal/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Turkey and Armenia have engaged in “soccer diplomacy” days after the two countries signed a monumental peace deal — a landmark step that could lead to the end of nearly a century of hostile relations between them and transform their region.

President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia plans to attend a World Cup qualifying match with Turkey in Bursa, near Istanbul, on Wednesday, in a reciprocal gesture after his Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, traveled to the Armenian capital Yerevan for a World Cup game last year.

Gul’s visit — not quite on the level of Anwar Sadat’s journey to Israel but nevertheless a groundbreaking gesture — culminated in a signing ceremony Oct. 10 in Zurich, Switzerland. There, Armenia and Turkey’s foreign ministers (under the eyes of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy representative) signed protocols that could ultimately normalize relations and open their shared border, which has been closed since 1993.

For both countries, full relations would deliver significant benefits. Armenia is a tiny, land-locked nation, suffering heavily from the world economic downturn. Its two international borders, with Georgia and Iran, provide some trade, but the country is for the most part economically isolated. With an open border, the 77 million-strong Turkish market would open up.

Turkey for its part would take another step toward its goal of becoming a dominant regional power, and a major oil and gas corridor. Ankara also wants to become a member of the EU, and Brussels has indicated that the lack of ties with Yerevan is a key stumbling block.

But a number of factors remain that could still unravel the entire peace process between these historic and bitter adversaries — for one, their shared history.

A century ago, Armenians were concentrated in the portion of the Ottoman Empire that is now northeastern Turkey. When World War I broke out, large numbers sided with Tsarist Russia, the Ottoman Turks’ adversary. Masses of Armenians were killed in the fighting, and the entire region was emptied of its Armenian population, which had lived there since antiquity.

Armenians, supported by numerous international historians, say what happened was genocide and ethnic-cleansing, and possibly up to 1.5 million perished. Turkey says that regular fighting accounts for the deaths, and that the numbers are grossly inflated and likewise play down Turkish fatalities. Discussing the “Armenian genocide” is a punishable crime in Turkey (though recently it seems application of that law has softened somewhat).

The difficulties became bluntly evident at the signing ceremony itself. Clinton arrived in the Swiss commercial center expecting to give her blessing to a done deal. Instead, she was forced to scramble to save the event itself, as the two sides refused to sign since they could not agree on the wording of their final statements. In the end, the signing took place without any additional remarks.

Probably the most controversial element of the agreement is a clause establishing a joint commission to investigate what is simply called the “historical dimension” of the two countries’ relationship.