By Sebastian Alison
(Reuters) - Turkish accession to the EU should lead to a more open society which would open its border with Armenia and recognize a genocide of Armenians early last century, Armenia's foreign minister said on Thursday.
Vartan Oskanian told Reuters in an interview in Brussels that the European Union should press Turkey "aggressively" to reopen the border. EU leaders decide next week whether to start accession negotiations with Turkey.
"Certainly if Turkey becomes an EU member and implements all the requirements, meets the criteria, that would mean Turkey would be a much more open society," he said. "Armenia would like to see the open border issue... be raised by the European Union more assertively, more loudly, even more aggressively, because this is an important issue also for the European Union," Oskanian added.
Armenia says 1.5 million of its people died between 1915 and 1923 in a systematic genocide and says the decision to carry it out was taken by the political party then in power in the Ottoman Empire, popularly known as the Young Turks. Turkey denies genocide and relations with Armenia have been tense ever since. Their border is closed because of Armenia's occupation of part of Azerbaijan including the ethnic Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Oskanian said recognition of the genocide was still on Yerevan's foreign policy agenda, and he hoped Turkish accession to the EU would help achieve it. "In the case of EU accession we hope it will lead to much freer discourse within the country which eventually may lead to recognition."
Oskanian said if EU membership forced Turkey to open the border, it would facilitate trade and boost the economy in poor eastern regions of Turkey as well as in Armenia. "Turkey's foreign policy should be in line with Brussels," he said. "That means Turkey cannot have closed borders with its neighbors."
He added that Armenia had lost an estimated $1 billion in trade over the last 10 to 15 years because of the closure, and the EU needed to push for its reopening. "After all Armenia, along with the other two Caucasus countries (Azerbaijan and Georgia) is a member of the European Neighborhood Policy," he said, referring to a new EU initiative to boost ties with its closest neighbors.
"We have no border with any other EU or prospective EU member state, Turkey is the only one. If they do not take that obligation, do not rise to the occasion, the whole new neighborhood policy will be rendered obsolete, at least for Armenia."
Oskanian said he was cautiously optimistic on progress towards peace with Azerbaijan, after a difficult period when veteran Azeri leader Heydar Aliev died at the end of 2003 and was replaced by his son, Ilham. "The start was very difficult with the Azeris after the change of players," he said. "I guess both sides are beginning to warm up to each other and that gives us some hope that we will be able to make some progress."