Armenia and Turkey signed a landmark agreement Saturday to establish diplomatic ties, after a dramatic last-minute intervention by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to keep the event from falling apart.
The accord, aimed at ending a century of hostility stemming from Ottoman Era massacres, was brokered by the Swiss over the past two years, with the help of French, Russian and U.S. officials. Clinton had been in frequent contact with the two sides in recent months to help seal the deal.
But just as she arrived at the University of Zurich for the signing at about 5 p.m. Saturday, Clinton heard that the Armenian side was objecting to a Turkish statement prepared for the ceremony, officials said. Clinton's motorcade made a U-turn and raced back to the hotel, where a U.S. diplomat was talking to the Armenians.
In the hotel parking lot, Clinton sat in her black BMW sedan in a soft rain for about an hour, talking on one phone to the Armenian foreign minister and on another to the Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Finally, she went into the hotel to invite the Armenian foreign minister, Edward Nalbandian, to drive with her to the university, where his Turkish counterpart was waiting.
Once there, further hours of negotiating ensued with a broader group of international diplomats, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, before the documents were signed. In an apparent compromise, neither the Turks nor the Armenians made a statement at the ceremony.
The drama was a sign of the enduring suspicion between the two countries and of the difficulties that could lie ahead as their parliaments decide whether to ratify them.
Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia have had bitter relations since a wave of bloodshed starting in 1915 left hundreds of thousands of ethnic Armenians dead.
Many historians call the killings genocide, but Turkey strongly rejects that label, saying people died in forced relocations and fighting.
If ratified, the accord could have implications well beyond Turkey and Armenia. It may ease tensions in other parts of southeastern Europe and provide new opportunities for oil pipelines to the West, U.S. officials said.
Clinton said that as the hours of negotiations ticked on, she repeatedly urged the participants to look at the bigger picture.
"There were several times when I said to all of the parties involved, that 'This is too important. This has to be seen through. You've gone too far. All of the work that has gone into the protocols should not be walked away from,' " she told reporters traveling with her.
The Armenian-Turkish dispute has echoed far beyond the region, prompting battles in Washington between the White House and lawmakers pushing to recognize the killings as genocide.
Both Republican and Democratic presidents have resisted such resolutions, worried that they would damage U.S. relations with Turkey, a NATO member that has provided critical support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The two protocols signed Saturday would establish diplomatic relations, open the border between Turkey and Armenia that was closed in 1993 and establish committees to work on economic affairs, the environment and other bilateral issues.
The protocols do not explicitly mention the genocide controversy, which would go to a committee of historical experts for study.
Clinton declined to characterize the last-minute objections to the statements planned for the signing ceremony.
The rapprochement between the countries is so sensitive that officials were unsure until almost the last minute whether the Armenians would even show up in Zurich for the ceremony.
Clinton did not add the stop to her official itinerary until Thursday. A day earlier, Obama called Armenian President Serge Sarkisian to "commend him for his courageous leadership" on the issue, according to a White House statement -- yet another gentle push.
Clinton has made 29 calls to the parties involved this year in her efforts to promote a settlement.
The Armenian president has faced angry protests in his own country and from Armenian communities in France and Lebanon over the plan to normalize relations.
The politically powerful Armenian-American community, which Obama courted during his campaign, appeared split over Saturday's accord.
"If Turkey normalizes relations with Armenia and ends its blockade of that landlocked country, it would be a very positive step for the region," said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a leading supporter of Armenian genocide resolutions in Congress, in a statement.
He added, however, "Turkey must not be allowed to rewrite the history of the Armenian Genocide as a price of diplomatic relations."
The Armenian National Committee of America blasted the accord, saying, "The Obama administration's attempts to force Armenia into one-sided concessions is short-sighted and will, in the long term, create more problems than it serves."
In pursuing the accord, Turkey won a commitment from Washington to step up its efforts to settle the dispute over the breakaway territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian enclave in the Azerbaijan, officials said. Azerbaijan is an ally of Turkey's.
About 30,000 people have been killed in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Mary Beth Sheridan)
The Washington Post", USA