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Unofficial Commission Acts to Ease Turkish-Armenian Enmity

A group of prominent people from Armenia and Turkey put the final touches today on a reconciliation commission intended to open the way for a new era in relations between two neighbors divided by nearly a century of conflict and hatred.

The participants, including some former officials, have been meeting discreetly for many months. This was the first time they had spoken publicly about the effort, which is likely to evoke strong reactions among Turks and Armenians worldwide.

The private group, the Turkish- Armenian Reconciliation Commission, is trying to foster cooperation and communication that will lead to direct talks between the governments of the two countries.

“This is not a substitute for what the Turkish and Armenian governments must do, but it can contribute momentum and develop recommendations,” David L. Phillips, an American who teaches conflict prevention at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, said in a telephone interview from Geneva, where he moderated the meeting today.

Turkey broke diplomatic relations and closed its border with Armenia almost a decade ago after a war started between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally. The deeper division, however, is rooted in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire.

By most historical accounts, the Ottomans killed more than one million Armenians between 1915 and 1923 in a concerted effort to eliminate the ethnic Armenian population from what is now Turkey. Armenians have waged an international campaign to have the events declared genocide.

Turkish officials reject calling the deaths genocide, disputing the number killed and the circumstances. In a new government publication, Turkey said that there were far fewer deaths and that Muslims were also killed when Armenians rebelled against the Ottoman government.

The 10-member commission will not determine the validity of either position. Instead, it will explore ways to bridge the gap, participants said.

“The intent is not to find what the truth is, but it is to open new horizons for the future and enhance mutual understanding,” Ozdem Sanberk, executive director of a private foundation in Istanbul and a former Turkish ambassador to Britain, said in an interview.

Alexander Arzoumanian, chairman of the main opposition party in Armenia and a former foreign minister, said the commission offered a chance to overcome past conflicts by opening a dialogue.

Similar private efforts have paid off elsewhere, including in South Africa, said Elie Wiesel, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and a professor at Boston University. “I see this event as a miracle,” Mr. Wiesel said in a telephone interview from New York. “If Turks and Armenians can meet and talk, that means others can do it, too.”

The reconciliation commission finalized language today for its founding charter and developed a list of initial activities. It will support cultural exchanges, efforts to improve business and tourism and programs in education and research. Plans call for a collaborative documentary on nationalism and discussions with historians, lawyers and psychologists.

The Turkish and Armenian governments are not involved, but participants said both had given tacit approval. The State Department supported the initiative; and Andranik Migranian, an Armenian adviser to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, is a commission member.

Several commission members said initial suspicions and wariness among members had given way to an encouraging degree of cooperation and understanding. But they said uncertainties remained.

“I’m sure there are people who will give us a chance and people who are interested in keeping the situation the way it has been,” said Van Z. Krikorian, a lawyer in New York and chairman of the Armenian Assembly of America, the largest Armenian- American advocacy group. “It may crash and burn.”

Armenian-Americans are among the harshest critics of Turkey’s treatment of Armenians, but Mr. Krikorian said he expected a majority to welcome the dialogue.

One of the biggest challenges, some members said, will be persuading Turks and Armenians to recognize their starkly different psychological interpretations of what happened from 1915 to 1923.

Vamik D. Volkan, a commission member and psychiatry professor at the University of Virginia, said the deaths of relatives and ancestors at the hands of Turks were an essential part of the identity of most Armenians, while Turks were taught little about what happened in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

“There is no such thing as being Armenian without a reference to what happened,” said Dr. Volkan, who was born in Turkish Cyprus. “We lost an empire, and we did not grieve over it.” Dr. Volkan said Armenian participants were surprised to learn that some of the Turks came from families that had suffered after being driven from other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

“Armenians cannot even imagine that Turks suffered, too,” he said. “The key will be to find an empathetic understanding that they all suffered.”

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