If the Balkans were the tinderbox of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Caucasus contends for “honors” since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Starting with the Armenian-Azeri war over Nagorno-Karabakh and the Georgian conflicts with Abkhazia and Ossetia and then the brutal Russian wars with Chechnya blood has flown in the Caucasus with troubling regularity.  With a signing of an agreement to establish diplomatic ties and open borders, Turkey and Armenia have taken a major step to resolve one of the older conflicts in the region.

Armenia’s (and Georgia’s) location has contributed to its troubled history over the past 2000 years.  After a brief moment of imperial glory under Tigranes the Great, the country would be the subject of numerous wars between the Roman Empire and Parthia.  This rivalry would be passed on to their Byazntine and Sassanid Persian/Arab/Seljuk Turkish neighbors.  After the establishment of the Ottoman Empire the region would be the subject of numerous wars with Safavid Persia and then the Russian Empire.  It was the latter rivalry during the First World War that led to one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in history.

Worried about an Armenian fifth column in the face of Russian military advances the Turkish government forcibly deported large Armenian populations.  In the ensuing massacres and deportation an estimated 1.5 million Armenians died.  Armenians and most of Western Europe termed this genocide.  The Turkish Republic vehemently opposes the designation of “genocide” arguing a lack of intent or organized slaughter of the Armenians who mostly died due to starvation in war time.

I first learned about the vehemence of these positions in my college days when the Usenet group soc.history was rendered unusable for over a 5 year period by repeated postings on the subject by a small group of Armenians and Turks.  Turkish sensitivities on the subject remain touchy with an acknowledgment of the deaths as genocide on Turkish soil leading to prosecutions for insulting Turkishness.  Likewise the Armenian Diaspora, particularly the influential American component, has aggressively pushed for recognition of the deaths as genocide.  The bruised national egos and the ghosts of the dead have long made any rational discussion of the subject between the aggrieved parties close to impossible.

And then oil stepped in to complicate the picture.  The discovery of oil in Azerbaijan with whom Armenia went to war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh made the complicated traditional American sympathy for the Armenian position (often the product of domestic politics with respect to the Armenian Diaspora) with self interest in the need for Azeri oil.  Armenia is a logical transit point for the oil pipeline intended for the Black Sea.  Complicating matters further is the Turkish diplomacy in the post-Soviet world directed at enhancing common cultural ties with their ethnic cousins in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

Saturday’s agreement is a major first step towards cooling down the temperature in the region (and improving Western access to the all important oil).  Many more steps need to be taken and it still remains to see if the ghosts of the past will continue to spook an attempt to step into the sunlight.  If Turkey and Armenia (and Azerbaijan) do resolve their differences it will be a positive example to their Georgian, Abkhazian and Ossetian neighbors to follow.

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