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Saturday, September 30, 2006

by Simon Ostrovsky and Mariam Haroutunian

YEREVAN - French President Jacques Chirac on Saturday urged Turkey to recognize World War I-era massacres of Armenians as genocide if it wants to join the European Union, speaking during a visit to the Armenian capital.

In comments that are likely to irritate Ankara and put a further strain on its relations with France, Chirac told a news conference Turkey needed to face up to its Ottoman past in response to a question on the nation's EU ambitions.

Asked if he thought Turkey should recognize the 1915-1917 massacres as genocide before it joins the EU, the French president replied: "Honestly, I believe so."

"All countries grow up acknowledging their dramas and their errors," said Chirac, who is on a two-day visit to Armenia, where he has paid homage to Yerevan's "genocide" memorial and attended the inauguration of a "France Square" in central Yerevan.

Until now, France had refused to make a direct link between the genocide issue and Turkey's EU membership bid. The bloc has not made it a condition of entry.

But a response to the same question by Chirac's Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian was markedly softer, reflecting Armenia's desire to mend ties with its neighbor and improve its struggling economy.

"We don't see any danger in this process," Kocharian said of Turkey's EU aspirations, "but we would like that our interests would be discussed in the process too," he added.

Kocharian said it would be in Armenia's interests to have a neighbor "with a value system that allows for free movement and open borders."

France, which has 400,000 citizens of Armenian descent, officially recognized the events as genocide in 2001, putting a strain on its relations with fellow NATO member Turkey.

A proposal by France's socialists to make genocide denial a crime punishable by a year in prison and a 45,000-euro fine has elicited further ire in Turkey, but Chirac said he did not support the proposal.

"France has fully recognized the tragedy of the genocide and all the rest is more like polemics than legislative reality," he said of the proposal.

Armenia has campaigned for Turkey to recognize the WWI massacres, in which it says 1.5 million Armenians died, as genocide.

But Turkey argues that that 300,000 Armenians and at least as many Turks died in an internal conflict sparked by attempts by Armenians to win independence in eastern Anatolia.

Today's Armenia is in an unenviable geopolitical position.

Flanked to the south-west by historical foe Turkey, its eastern borders press up against Azerbaijan, with which Yerevan is still technically at war over the Nagorny Karabakh enclave.

As a result, its only access to the outside world is through Iran and Georgia.

But as relations between Russia and Georgia sour, exemplified by this week's Russian-spy row in Tbilisi, transporting Russian goods to Moscow's ally Armenia has become more difficult.

"Armenia is very interested in the normalization of Georgian-Russian relations because it directly effects our economy," Kocharian said.

Chirac, whose country makes up part of the so-called Minsk Group of mediators between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has tried to personally intervene in their conflict by meeting both presidents in Paris earlier this year.

A framework agreement on the resolution of the territorial dispute was widely hoped for during a Paris meeting between the two Caucasus presidents, however no visible progress was made.

Chirac defended the Minsk Group, which Azerbaijan has criticized, saying its experts "have done good work, of course in an infinitely complex situation."

The ethnic-Armenian enclave of Karabakh is within Azerbaijan's territory but Armenians currently control it as well as seven surrounding Azerbaijani regions.

Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the war, in which some 25,000 people died, ending in a shaky 1994 cease-fire.

09/30/2006 12:27 GMT

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