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In Turkey, taboo lifts over past treatment of Armenians

Last week, Prime Minister Erdogan proposed a joint study into Armenian claims of genocide.

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When Turkish executive Noyan Soyak helped found a group to bring together businessmen from Turkey and Armenia, the organization stepped into a gaping void.

"When we started [in 1997], it was difficult even to publicly pronounce the word 'Armenia' or 'Armenians' in Turkey," says Mr. Soyak, whose group today has some 250 Turkish and Armenian members.

The Armenian issue has long been one of the most fraught in Turkey, the limits of its discussion strictly controlled by the state. Driven apart by nearly a century of hatred and accusations of genocide, the two neighbors became further estranged after diplomatic relations were broken off by Ankara in 1993, in the wake of Armenia's occupation of a large chunk of territory belonging to Turkish ally Azerbaijan.

But Soyak and others say something has changed - that Turkey's increasing democratization and reforms related to its European Union membership bid have slowly started to soften the country's historical stance.

Despite the lack of official relations, a growing number of nongovernmental Turkish groups - from academics and businessmen to musicians and women's organizations - are now meeting with their Armenian counterparts, in the process helping to redefine the debate in Turkey and ease the enmity between the two nations.

"Any and all kinds of relationships are important for softening up the infrastructure for the politicians," Soyak says. "Governments can't move as quickly as we do, so civil society groups are leading the way."

Hrant Dink, the editor of Agos, a newspaper serving Turkey's Armenian community, says the evolution of what is allowed to be said can be seen in the pages of his publication. When Agos was launched 10 years ago, Mr. Dink took an indirect approach to writing about the past. "Previously, when we talked about history, we didn't mention things that happened but focused on culture instead," says Dink, speaking in the newspaper's Istanbul office.

"Slowly we started to ask what happened to the Armenians," he says. "Now we're at the point of telling what happened."

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