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Turkish foreign minister: Turkey, Armenia still have far to go in restoring relations with one anoth

ANKARA, Turkey – Turkey and Armenia are at the beginning of a ‘long process’ toward normalizing relations, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said yesterday, suggesting the issue surrounding the massacres of Armenians 90 years ago remains tricky.

Armenia and Turkey, bitter foes for a century, took a major step toward reconciliation late yesterday, announcing they were launching final talks aimed at establishing diplomatic ties. The Swiss-mediated talks were expected to last six weeks, the sides said in a joint statement.

Turkey is under intense pressure from its ally the United States, and the European Union, which it hopes to join, to improve ties with Armenia.

President Barack Obama, visiting Turkey in April, called on his hosts to come to terms with the past, resolve its dispute with Armenia and reopen the border.

The move comes weeks before Turkey and Armenia’s soccer teams are to meet in a World Cup qualifier. Turkey’s president attended the first game in Yerevan in April, but Armenia’s President Serge Sarkisian said he would not travel to the Oct. 14 match in Turkey until progress was made on reopening the border.

‘It would be an embarrassment if the Armenian president does not come,’ said Bulent Aliriza, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. ‘With this process they are able to find a way for him to attend.’

The protocols to be signed by the two countries say Turkey and Armenia agree to open the border within two months after they formally come into force.

One of the biggest disputes is over the World War I-era massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, which many historians regard as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies the deaths constituted genocide, contending the toll is inflated and those killed were victims of civil war.

In a minor victory for Turkey, the protocols say the countries will agree to ‘implement dialogue on the historical dimension with the aim to restore mutual confidence.’ Turkey has pressed for an independent committee of historians to determine whether the deaths were genocide.

The two countries will engage in an ‘impartial scientific examination of historical records and archives,’ according to the documents.

‘It is a long process,’ Davutoglu said told Turkey’s NTV television on a visit to northern Cyprus. ‘But every long process has a beginning.’

Foreign policy analyst Semih Idiz said the committee allows the two sides to improve ties without being stymied by the genocide issue.

‘The sides are not changing their stance on the genocide issue – they are isolating the issue so that they may proceed with establishing ties without letting it interfere in the process,’ Idiz said.

The parliaments of both countries must ratify a deal on diplomatic normalization. In Turkey, suspicion about Armenian intentions runs particularly high.

Turkey’s prime minister has also linked normalization to resolution of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri region occupied by Armenian troops. Turks have close cultural and linguistic relations with Azerbaijan, which is pressing Turkey for help in recovering its land.

Azerbaijan yesterday made clear it opposed the opening of the border without a Nagorno-Karabakh settlement.

‘The position of our country is based on announcements of Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan,’ who ‘said on May 14 that the border will open only after the complete liberation of occupied Azerbaijani territories,’ Azerbaijan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Elkhan Polukhov told The Associated Press.

‘The Turkish premier announced that Ankara will not back down from this position by a single step and will not make any moves in that direction without the approval of Azerbaijan,’ he said.

Turkey’s two main opposition parties blasted the agreement.

‘They are making unilateral concessions,’ said Onur Oymen, deputy head of the main opposition Republican People’s Party. ‘That border was to be opened on condition that (Armenia) withdraw from Azeri territories. There is no sign of that. This is shameful!’ he said.

‘This allows Turkey to lay the red carpet so that the president of Armenia, who swears at Turkey at every occasion, can watch a soccer game,’ said a nationalist party official, Deniz Bolukbasi.

Davutoglu said Turkey would safeguard Azerbaijan’s interests throughout the reconciliation process.

‘If all parties show goodwill the Nagorno-Karabakh issue can be resolved. We believe this can be achieved,’ he said, pointing at recent progress in talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan mediated by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Both the United States and the EU welcomed the thaw in relations.

Davutoglu said the rapprochement with Yerevan is part of Turkey’s wider policy of ‘zero problems’ with neighbors. Turkey has gradually improved ties with longtime foes and neighbors including Greece, Syria and Bulgaria.

Turkey is seeking to enhance its image as a regional statesman and an ally of world powers in a strategic and often unstable region.

It is also trying to resolve a long-running feud with its Kurdish minority – an issue vital to Turkish efforts to earn membership in the European Union.

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.

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