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Looking for a way forward on Armenia

How the efforts of a small but effective Armenian lobby helped bring the US and Turkey to diplomatic blows.

In an incendiary interview with BBC's Turkish-language service last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went as far as threatening to expel thousands of Armenians living illegally in Turkey as a result of the recent Armenian genocide resolutions passed in Sweden and the United States. "There are currently 170,000 Armenians living in our country,” Erdogan told the BBC. “Only 70,000 of them are Turkish citizens, but we are tolerating the remaining 100,000. If necessary, I may have to tell these 100,000 to go back to their country because they are not my citizens. I don’t have to keep them in my country.”

While it doesn’t look like Turkey is planning to lend action to its threats any time soon, the disturbing connotations of the threat were not missed.

“For my people, such unacceptable comments evoke memories of the genocide,” responded Armenian President Serge Sarkisian in an interview with Der Spiegel. “Unfortunately, these comments don't surprise me, coming from the mouth of a Turkish politician.”

The opening of the border matters immensely to Armenians, whose GDP is 50 times less than Turkey's. Loans to Armenia from the U.S. since 1993 exceed $1.1 billion, about the same amount as the annual financial loss caused by blockades on the Turkish and Azeri borders, according to World Bank estimates. Eighty-five percent of ground access to the outside world is cut off.

“The Turks, Armenians and the United States all dilute the meaning of the word genocide by playing politics with it,” wrote Henri Barkey, professor of international relations at Lehigh University, in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post. “But the U.S. alone has the power to help broker an agreement that would make a meaningful difference in Armenians' lives, by ending their economic isolation.”

Much has been said of the need to pump life back into the Turkish and Armenian reconciliation process, but how to best put to rest the ghosts of the past is an issue that still rankles both sides.

“Such atrocities become very potent and politically crucial symbols,” Moes said. “All too often, though, they are used as political ammunition rather than remembered for the loss of human lives.”

Amid talk of looking for a path for both countries to move forward, all sides seem caught up in a political and emotional tug-of-war between recognizing past horrors and rectifying present inequalities.

“What we need is to sit down, look at the evidence together and set out the facts with a view to learn common lessons and make this memory the common legacy of two people,” said Guenael Mettraux, the author of “The Law of Command Responsibility” and representative of defendants before international criminal tribunals. “Easily said, I realize.”