The almost century-old dispute between Turkey and Armenia over the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 has reached a symbolic breakthrough.  A “framework” for normalizing bilateral relations was agreed upon under Swiss mediation, but exactly how it will work to resolve tensions remains unclear.

  Divisions exist within Europe and the Americas over the issue; the BBC:

Argentina, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy, Russia and Uruguay are among more than 20 countries which have formally recognised genocide against the Armenians.

The European Parliament and the UN Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities have also done so.

The UK, US and Israel are among those that use different terminology to describe the events.


The European Union has said Turkish acceptance of the Armenian genocide is not a condition for Turkey’s entry into the bloc.

Canada in particular has been close to the controversy.  On Wednesday, Turkey recalled its ambassador in response to governmental ministers’ participation in an event that labeled the Ottoman-era killings of Armenians as genocide, the Associated Press reported.  Nor is this the first time Turkey has pulled its ambassador to Canada for the taboo word.  A spokeswoman for Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon responded, “Canada’s position on the Armenian genocide is not an indictment of modern Turkey, nor is Turkish Ambassador Rafet Akgunay’s temporary return to Ankara for consultations, a break in our diplomatic relations.”

The U.S. has its own tumultuous history with the issue.  Two years ago the Bush administration put intense pressure on U.S. legislators not to pass a resolution recognizing the deaths as genocide for fear of damaging relations with Turkey.  A similar resolution, however, has recently been introduced.  A hurt relationship with Turkey, a NATO ally, would be damaging at a time when Obama is looking to the alliance for more help in Afghanistan.

However, as a presidential candidate, Obama made a promise to label the deaths as genocide.  A quote from the BBC: “Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”  Although the President has stated that his opinion remains the same, he not surprisingly declined to use the word on his recent trip to Turkey.  Instead, according to The Economist, Obama said:

“[H]istory…unresolved can be a heavy weight…I know there are strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. While there has been a good deal of commentary about my views, this is really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.”

Unfortunately, the Turkey-Armenia framework may be dead in the water, as resolution of Armenia’s Nagorno-Karabakh dispute with Azerbaijan has been tied to the normalization of its ties with Turkey.  Reuters:

Elkhan Polukhov, a spokesman for the Azerbaijani foreign ministry, said on Thursday: “Azerbaijan believes that the restoration of Turkish/Armenian relations must take place within the context of the regulation of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict.”

The Azeri government has put pressure on Turkey over the past days of negotiations, making a trip to Moscow and suggesting that any perceived betrayal by its ally could affect future sales of Azeri gas.

The Financial Times similarly casts doubt on the framework’s chances for success:

But Wednesday’s statement gives few clues as to how Armenia and Turkey will address the issue of the 1915 massacres. Turkey has long proposed a committee of historians, but the details of how such a committee would work are still to be decided.

Nor is it clear how closely further progress will be linked to resolution of the conflict over Nagorno Karabagh – legally part of Azerbaijan, but under Armenian control since a violent civil war erupted in the late 1980s.

If Turkey even partially listens to its ally Azerbaijan’s concerns, the new framework with Armenia could reach a stalemate quickly.  If so, the breakthrough framework and the two countries’ recent “football diplomacy” will remain little more than friendly rhetoric.

With Obama scheduled to give the annual speech in commemoration of the Armenian deaths on Friday, the President is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  Despite his promise to recognize the deaths as genocide, to do so now could compromise the framework agreement.  Yet, the framework is likely to accomplish little due to the Azerbaijan impasse.  Let’s hope the new President’s way with words proves capable of promoting the framework while also honoring the dead.

Valerie Nichols is a web editor at the Atlantic Council.