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Turkey Working to Improve Relations with Armenia

Turkey says it has agreed on a plan to improve long-strained relations with its neighbor Armenia. The announcement is further fueling hopes that nearly a century of bilateral tensions and hostility could be coming to an end.

Nineteen-year-old Ana is from the Armenian city of Yerevan, but she works as a nanny for a Turkish family in Istanbul. She is one of thousands of young Armenians, who have left home and now work illegally in neighboring Turkey.

Ana says, "you can work here and buy things and do what you want. In Armenia you cannot live like this because there is no work and even if there is, they pay very little"The economy in Armenia is dead she says, "We live more comfortably here with my family."

For the past 16 years Turkey has enforced an economic embargo against Armenia, following that country's war with its neighbor Azerbaijan. Armenia still occupies nearly of fifth of Azeri territory. The conflict against a key Turkish ally added fuel to historical tensions between Turkey and Armenia.

Yerevan accuses Turkey of the 1915 Armenian genocide, a charge Ankara strongly denies. It says the killings of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire occurred in a civil war in which many Turks died as well.

Despite the long-standing tensions, in the past few months there has been a thaw in icy relations.

A football match between the two countries in Yerevan last September saw Turkey's President Abdullah Gul accept an invitation from his Armenian counterpart to attend. The match was the unlikely catalyst of the start of a rapprochement. In a matter of months, years of distrust appeared to have been cast aside, with intense discussions now focusing on ending the embargo.

Turkish Minister for EU Enlargement Ergemen Bagis is optimistic about future relations.

"There are up to 70,000 Armenians living in Turkey, mostly working illegally, mostly working as nannies or nurses for either new born children or very elderly," said Ergemen Bagis. "We are talking about 15 percent of Armenia dependent on the monies coming from the workers in Turkey. But also when I also think Armenians immigrants coming from Armenia, Turks are trusting the Armenian nannies and nurses with lives of most valued babies and elders. I see a light at the end of the tunnel, that peace is possible."

To reach out to the Armenian people the Turkish state broadcaster earlier this month launched an Armenian radio channel. Unfortunately it broadcasts in a dialect not used by most Armenians. Despite the hiccup, the gesture was widely welcomed, as part of wider rapprochement, especially by the European Union, which Turkey wants to join, and also importantly by U.S. President Barack Obama.

During his campaign for office, Obama committed to signing legislation recognizing the mass killings of Armenians as genocide. Although when he visited Turkey earlier this month, he indicated he was more anxious to see relations between the two countries improve.

"What I would I like to do is to encourage President Gul to move forward with what have been some very fruitful negotiations and I am not interested in the United States in any way tilting these negotiations one way or another, while they having useful discussions," said President Obama.

Analysts say those words caused a collective sigh of relief in Ankara. Turkish diplomatic sources warn any genocide recognition would wreck U.S. Turkish relations and scupper current Armenian rapprochement efforts.

A Turkish Armenian, Sarop, says a thaw in tensions is more important than genocide recognition

"I think Turkish people do not want to say genocide and I do not want to tell a name, I think Turkish people should feel the Armenian people who died in 1915 their pains, they have to feel," said Sarop. "It is important for me. Armenians want Turkish people have to share their pain only. And I think the border will open and the relations will get better."

But such hopes may just remain that.

Ending the Turkish embargo is now the source of numerous Turkish TV discussions. The issue is dominating much of the country's media and much is critical of the government, which is accused of bowing to international pressure and selling out its ally Azerbaijan. Political scientist and columnist Nuray Mert:

"It is very big issue because the international system forces Turkey to normalize relations but also there is this internal pressure against it, and this internal pressure can easily be manipulated by opposition parties," said Nuray Mert. "And they are also using Azerbaijan, our brother nation, whatever. That we are cheating our brothers, their difficulties are not settled yet between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as you know. And all Turkish press and political opposition is using Azerbaijan issue against the government. So I think the government finds itself in very difficult position."

The repercussions are already being felt.

The Azeri president this month agreed to sell the country's huge gas resources to Russia, instead of Turkey. Gas analysts say that supply is crucial to a planned pipeline to run through Turkey to Europe.

The Azeri agreement with Russia is non binding, but is seen as a warning to Ankara, not to open its border with Armenia until Yerevan withdraws its forces from Azerbaijan. Experts warn that is not expected to happen soon.

But Washington is pressing Ankara to open the border as soon as possible, putting Turkey in an increasingly difficult position.