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By Emil Danielyan
The United States is pressing Turkey to use a rare opportunity to normalize relations with Armenia that arose after the shock assassination of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, a senior U.S. official indicated on Wednesday.

“The issue of trying to use the tragedy of Hrant Dink’s murder to improve relations with Armenia is a major focus of our relationship with Turkey right now,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told RFE/RL.

Bryza said U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who met her Turkish counterpart in Washington on Tuesday, is personally “encouraging” a Turkish-Armenian “reconciliation process” that would address the mass killings and deportations of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. He said the issue will also be high on the agenda of his visit to Turkey that begins on Thursday.

Official Yerevan appears to be pessimistic about the success of those efforts, however. In an article published by “The Los Angeles Times” on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian complained that Ankara is refusing drop its preconditions for establishing diplomatic relations with Yerevan and opening the Turkish-Armenian border.

“Ankara has let a rare moment pass,” Oskanian wrote. “Three weeks after the assassination of acclaimed Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, it appears the Turkish authorities have grasped neither the message of Hrant's life nor the significance of his death.”

“We all hoped that the gravity of this slaying and the breadth of the reaction would have compelled Turkey's leaders to seize the moment and make a radical shift in the policies that sustain today's dead-end situation,” continued Oskanian. “However, after those initial hints at conciliation, the message out of Ankara has already changed.

“Last week, according to the Turkish media, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there can be no rapprochement with Armenians because Armenians still insist on talking about the genocide.”

Dink’s January 19 shooting, widely attributed to his outspoken views on the Armenian tragedy, was universally condemned in and outside Turkey. Tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul for the funeral procession for the slain editor of the bilingual “Agos” weekly, one of the biggest public events in the country’s recent history. The massive outpouring of grief and anger led many Turkish commentators to urge a softening of the long-standing Turkish policy towards Armenia.

However, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul made it clear late last month that his government will not reconsider that policy unless Armenia and its worldwide Diaspora stop campaigning for international recognition of the Armenian genocide. A high-ranking Turkish Foreign Ministry official reportedly reaffirmed this line at a meeting with Oskanian’s deputy Arman Kirakosian, who flew Istanbul to attend Dink’s funeral.

Still, Bryza insisted that the opportunity to improve Turkish-Armenian ties in the wake of Dink’s murder “most definitely is not lost.” “We want a real discussion so no one can deny what happened [in Ottoman Turkey,] while at the same time improving bilateral relations between Armenia and Turkey,” he said in a phone interview. “All of that should happen without preconditions by anybody.”

Ankara specifically wants Yerevan to accept Erdogan’s calls for the creation of a Turkish-Armenian commission of historians that would look into the tragic events of 1915-1918. Armenian leaders regard the idea as a Turkish ploy designed to scuttle the increasingly successful genocide recognition campaign.

Oskanian asserted in his article that genocide recognition is “no longer a historical issue in Turkey, it's a political one.” “The [Turkish] prime minister is right,” he said. “Armenians do insist on talking about the genocide. It's a history-changing event that ought not, indeed cannot, be forgotten. However, we also advocate a rapprochement. And one is not a precondition for the other.”

“If Turkey can't seize the moment, it should not be surprised when others do,” he added, referring to a U.S. congressional resolution that recognizes the slaughter of more than one million Ottoman Armenians as genocide.

The draft resolution, co-sponsored by more than 140 legislators, was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last week. It calls on President George W. Bush to “accurately characterize the systematic and deliberate annihilation of 1,500,000 Armenians as genocide.” Bush has declined to use the politically sensitive term in his annual messages to the influential Armenian-American community.

Bryza stressed that this should not be construed as a policy of genocide denial. “We do not deny the mass killings and forced exile of up to 1.5 million Armenians,” he said. “There is no denial of that. All we say is that how we refer to those horrible events should be determined not by a political decision, but by very thoughtful people who have a candid and maybe painful exploration of their shared past.”

“We can’t block it,” Bryza said, referring to the genocide resolution. “All we can do is to have a discussion with the congressional leadership and explain our position. We are going to do everything we can to make our case.”

(Photolur photo: Matthew Bryza.)
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