Armenia And Turkey Reach For Cooperation Over Conflict

Turkey and Armenia are signing an agreement Saturday that aims to reopen their border and ease more than a century of sometimes bloody tension. Host Scott Simon talks to Hugh Pope, Turkey Project Director for the International Crisis Group about the two countries' resumption of diplomatic relations for the first time since World War One.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The foreign ministers of Armenia and Turkey are scheduled to meet in Switzerland today to establish diplomatic relations 16 years after the border between the two countries was closed. Secretary of State Clinton will attend the meeting to demonstrate U.S. support, but there is a lot of domestic opposition in both countries.

We're joined now by Hugh Pope, who's the Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. HUGH POPE (International Crisis Group): Good morning.

SIMON: And this disagreement is both more than a century old and very current.

Mr. POPE: Exactly. And this is possibly the most hopeful thing that we've had happened in the last 80 years, and it's an extraordinary act of bravery actually by both governments. As you mentioned, the opposition is strong.

SIMON: Some of the hard feelings, of course, date back to World War I and the genocide of Armenians.

Mr. POPE: Absolutely. And this, at last, offers a way forward on that issue. This has been going on far too long. Both countries want closure on this, even though they sometimes don't really admit it openly. But the old system, where you had on one side the Turks denying everything and on the other side the Armenians insisting that only their story was right, was clearly getting both sides nowhere. It was a kind of psychological trench warfare and I think it was just making both sides feel worse about it.

SIMON: But there was a bit of more point of disagreement - not to weigh it on the same scale - but in 1993 Turkey closed its border with Armenia.

Mr. POPE: Remember when we used to talk about closing the border - I crossed that border in those days. It was a once-a-week train. So when we say close the border, it's just a train, a weekly train service was stopped. But that was during a time when Armenia was advancing almost unchecked into the territory of a neighboring country, Azerbaijan, with which Turkey at the time felt very, very close links - linguistically, culturally.

Turkey was showing a reaction. The trouble is, like all these diplomatic actions, it just got stuck on a closed border.

SIMON: What happens after the protocols are signed today?

Mr. POPE: Well, first of all, a month after the ratification of these protocols through the parliaments of both Armenia and Turkey, you have the establishment of diplomatic relations for the first time. And then two months later, that's when we'll see the beginning of the opening of the border.

And there will be an intergovernmental commission between the two countries that will discuss all the outstanding issues between the two countries. And one of those sub-commissions of that intergovernmental commission will start discussing history.

SIMON: What do you think is driving both countries to attempt an accord now?

Mr. POPE: Well, the Turkish side, it's very clear. For 80 years they've had this problem. But now we have a government that is trying to create a region of stability around itself. The foreign minister calls it a zero-problem neighborhood. And if they're really sincere in doing that, they have to open up, have to open up with Armenia, and it's not just psychological, it's to do with the attempt to join the European Union; they have to have good relations with their neighbors, and secondly, the Turkish ambassador here in Washington probably spends two-thirds of his time dealing with Armenian genocide issues. Obviously for the Armenian side it's also very important, that they basically have two of their borders are closed - one with Azerbaijan and one with Turkey.

And if it has an open border to the West, it will not only have a new trade route, which is very important, as we saw in the Georgia war last year, when the whole of Armenia's imports were closed off for the whole week, it just comes through one road - also Armenia gets an opening to the West (unintelligible) almost to Europe, you could say.

SIMON: Have you heard from any in the large Armenian-American community?

Mr. POPE: Yes. They're very passionate about this issue. It's an identity issue. The tragedy is that this has become almost the only thing which is holding some of the groups together. And I would urge them to think about something. If they want to move forward on this, they want to reach closure, go to the old trench warfare of the past, get them anywhere. I think I would argue 80 years has shown that has not convinced either the Turks or the Armenians to move forward.

And Turkey is moving towards a recognition of the atrocities that occurred. And this is the kind of thing that I think could give both communities closure on this.

SIMON: Hugh Pope is Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group. Thanks so much.

Mr. POPE: Thank you.

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