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Opinion: The Turkey-Armenia detente

Why it's good news for the region and the US.

Armenian National Team supporters hold a banner with Armenian colors at the Hrazdan Stadium during World Cup 2010 qualifier soccer match between Turkey and Armenia in Yerevan, Sept. 6, 2008. This week, the two countries announced their intention to open their shared border and establish diplomatic ties. Many see it as an encouraging first step in the long journey toward understanding. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON — This week, Turkey and Armenia announced their intention to establish diplomatic relations, open the closed border between the two countries and launch a series of talks and confidence-building measures aimed at resolving long-standing disputes and fostering closer cooperation.

To be sure, these protocols will need to be ratified in Ankara and Yerevan, and some important political hurdles remain. But these new accords, reached with the help of Swiss mediation, could transform regional stability in the Black Sea region. They are also very good news for American and European interests.

These positive developments are a direct result of the opening established last September when Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, took up an invitation from the Armenian president, Serzh Sargysan, to attend a Turkish-Armenian soccer match in Yerevan. The visit was unprecedented and groundbreaking.

In a more fundamental sense, this week’s announcement flows from years of quiet, unofficial dialogue among senior intellectuals and opinion shapers on both sides. The changed atmosphere also shows the influence of business leaders keen to capture the benefits of bilateral trade, and enlightened policy figures anxious to take a long-standing problem off the table.

The normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations will produce clear benefits for the region and transatlantic security interests. First, an open border will contribute to the economic development of Armenia and rebalance the country’s position between East and West. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict pitting Russian-backed Armenia against Turkish-backed Azerbaijan, and the closure of Turkey’s border with Armenia in 1993, Yerevan’s ties to the West have remained underdeveloped. Open links to Turkey will give Armenia new options on the international scene and contribute to the economic development and stability of the country. (Substantial numbers of Armenians already work and trade in Turkey on an undocumented basis.)

Second, improved relations between Armenia and Turkey can have an important demonstration effect. Multiple flashpoints and “frozen conflicts” around the Black Sea underscore the dangers of resurgent nationalism against a backdrop of economic strain. The conflict between Russia and Georgia, and looming tensions between Russia and Ukraine, highlight the risk. Open borders and confidence-building measures can encourage the emergence of a more integrated Black Sea region, rather than a retreat to inward-looking, nationalistic postures. If Ankara and Yerevan can change course and resolve disputes long seen as intractable, this can set a positive precedent for crisis management and conflict resolution from the Balkans to the Caspian, and beyond. Could the “intractable” Cyprus dispute be next?