Armenia and Turkey, bitter foes for a century, took a step toward reconciliation Monday by announcing they would launch final talks aimed at establishing diplomatic ties. But they won't discuss the deepest source of their enmity: the World War I-era massacres of Armenians under Ottoman rule.
Both sides said in a joint statement they expected the talks to take six weeks and to end with an agreement setting up and developing ties. The two countries, whose shared border is closed, are U.S. allies and came under American and European pressure to move toward peace.
The talks still face pitfalls, and will follow months of inactivity after signs of promise earlier in the year when President Obama appealed for reconciliation during a visit to Turkey.
The parliaments of the two countries must ratify a deal on diplomatic normalization, and in Turkey, nationalist sentiment and suspicion about Armenian intentions is particularly high.
Also, despite an agreement that the process should proceed without preconditions, Turkey's prime minister has linked it to a resolution of the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Azeri region that was occupied by Armenian troops. The Turkish population shares close cultural and linguistic relations with Azerbaijan, which is pressing Turkey for help in recovering its land.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Monday that Turkey would "guard" Azerbaijan's interest during its reconciliation with Armenia, saying in comments broadcast by NTV television that "our aim is to establish stability in the Caucasus."
Turkey, however, clearly seeks to enhance its growing image as a regional statesman and a coveted ally of world powers in a strategic and often unstable region. The rapprochement with Armenia coincides with efforts to resolve a long-running feud with Turkey's Kurdish minority - issues that are vital to Turkish efforts to earn membership in the European Union.
Turkey's Islamic-oriented government is not immune to domestic pressure, especially from nationalists who believe Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to undermine secular principles. That internal division has contributed to slow progress on the Armenian issue.
"Turkey was perceived in Washington as the party that was dragging its feet," said Omer Taspinar, director of the Turkey project at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Taspinar said the announcement of talks was positive, but that it might be more cosmetic than substantive.
"It's better than nothing," he said. "We have plenty of reasons to be skeptical."
One of the biggest disputes between the neighboring countries is over the World War I-era massacre of up to 1.5 million Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, which historians widely regard as the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies that the deaths constituted genocide, contending the toll has been inflated and that the casualties were victims of civil war.
Armenian President Serge Sarkisian indicated the dispute would not be a deal-breaker between the two neighbors.
"It's important that historical justice be restored. It's important that our nations are able to establish normal relations," Sarkisian said in an interview published Monday by the BBC Russian service. "But we do not regard a recognition of genocide as a preliminary condition for establishing relations."
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.
Illustrating just how intractable the Armenia-Turkey dispute has been, Israel and Germany managed to establish diplomatic relations in 1965, just 20 years after the end of the Holocaust, in which German Nazis and their collaborators murdered 6 million Jews. Today, the two nations enjoy close ties. In contrast to Turkey, however, Germany accepted responsibility for the genocide immediately after the war and began paying reparations to Jewish survivors.
The joint statement released by the Armenian and Turkish foreign ministries Monday said the two countries would start consultations
to sign two protocols - one to establish diplomatic ties, the other to develop relations. The talks, with continued mediation by Switzerland, are to last six weeks.
In agreeing to move forward and normalize relations, landlocked Armenia is eager for a reopening of the border and the trade opportunities it would bring.
The border was closed after Armenian forces took control of the Azerbaijani region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Turkish foreign minister said, however, that opening the border was out of the question for now. "A longer process is required for that," Davutoglu said Monday, according to NTV.
Turkish-Armenian ties began to improve after a so-called soccer
diplomacy campaign last year, when Turkish President Abdullah Gul
attended a World Cup qualifier in Armenia.
Sarkisian in the past has said he wants progress on the reopening of the border before he agrees to attend an Oct. 14 match in Turkey - about six weeks away.
Armenian political commentator Artyom Yerkanian, speaking during
a special broadcast on Armenian television late Monday, suggested
the agreement to establish ties could be signed at the October
match in Turkey.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a major Jewish organization in the U.S., welcomed the announcement.
"Whatever historical pain and differences are, the best way to deal with them is for the two governments to reconcile and establish relationships and to deal with the past," he said. "If it happens, I think it's good news."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the announcement, saying in a statement that "normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey would constitute an event of historic import that would contribute to regional stability." Sarkozy opposes Turkey's entry into the EU.