Turkey and Armenia break the silence

Armenians remember the genocide as the two countries prepare to talk about reopening their border

For Armenians, today marks an annual day of remembrance for a genocide dating back to the First World War. Historians estimate that 1.5 million Armenians were killed under Ottoman rule, an incident that’s poisoned relations with the Turks ever since. This year, though, there’s a positive development: Armenia and Turkey have announced plans to re-establish diplomatic ties, agreeing on a road map that should reopen the border between the countries after more than 15 years. Foreign ministers for both nations are expected to meet soon in Switzerland for mediation.

The Turkish-Armenian border has been closed since 1993, when Turkey sided with oil-rich Azerbaijan, a country at war with Armenia. But this only aggravated existing hostilities. While the genocide has been officially recognized as such by several countries (including Canada), Turkey has yet to acknowledge it. This week, the country recalled its ambassador to Canada after Stephen Harper spoke at a vigil commemorating the mass killings. And, when questioned during Barack Obama’s recent visit to Ankara, Turkish president Abdullah Gul called it “not a legal or political issue, but an historical issue.”

Taner Akçam, a prominent Turkish historian, says that reopening the border would ease poverty in the region by encouraging trade. “I was born in the province that borders Armenia,” he says. “Everyone wants the border open.” After Turkey closed it off, he adds, Armenia was taken under Russia’s wing; re-establishing ties “could move Armenia towards the West.” Both the U.S. and the European Union support reopening trade between the countries, and if Turkey succeeds in joining the E.U., Armenia would benefit from having a member state as its neighbour.

While it does not appear that Turkey will be required to recognize the genocide as a term of the agreement, Akçam believes that resuming diplomatic ties between should create much-needed dialogue around the mass killings that took place in the First World War. “This is crucial for Turkey’s democracy,” he says. “If a country does not face its own history, it cannot develop a democratic future.”