YEREVAN -- German Chancellor Angela Merkel has described Ottoman-Era mass killings of Armenians as “heinous crimes against Armenians," which "cannot and must not be forgotten.”
Merkel, who arrived in Armenia from neighboring Georgia on the second leg of her three-country visit to the South Caucasus, made the statement following a visit to a memorial dedicated to the victims of what Armenia describes as genocide.
After being greeted at Yerevan’s airport by Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian, Merkel traveled to the Tsitsernakaberd hilltop complex to lay a wreath at the monument dedicated to the World War I-era dead.
Armenians say up to 1.5 million people were killed during World War I as the Ottoman Empire was falling apart, a claim supported by many other countries.
Germany's parliament recognized the massacres as genocide in a resolution overwhelmingly adopted in June 2016. It also acknowledged that Germany, then a military ally of Ottoman Turkey, did nothing to stop the killings.
Merkel avoided using the term "genocide" in her remarks, apparently sidestepping an escalation of tensions similar to that in June 2016, when Turkey reacted furiously to the resolution, recalling its ambassador in Berlin.
Successive Turkish governments have for decades vehemently denied a premeditated effort to exterminate the ethnic Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.
Turkey says Armenians died in much smaller numbers and because of civil strife rather than a planned Ottoman government effort to annihilate the Christian ethnic minority.
Before the trip, Merkel's office said, that during her stop in Armenia and subsequent visit to Azerbaijan on August 25, the chancellor would encourage efforts to reach "a peaceful and consensual solution" to the two countries' long-running territorial conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In Yerevan, Merkel told reporters that "it is important that the conflict is resolved peacefully" and that Germany "stands ready" to contribute to a solution.
Merkel noted that Germany is a member of the so-called Minsk Group of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) which was established to help find a solution to the conflict and that "we stand ready to assume responsibility within the framework of the Karabakh settlement process."
Nagorno-Karabakh, populated mainly by ethnic Armenians, declared independence from Azerbaijan amid a 1988-94 war that claimed an estimated 30,000 lives and displaced hundreds of thousands of people.
Since 1994, it has been under the control of ethnic Armenian forces that Baku says include troops supplied by Armenia, and international efforts to mediate the dispute have failed.
The stop in Yerevan marked Merkel's first official meeting with Pashinian, the former anticorruption campaigner and opposition politician who was elected to the premiership in May after weeks of mass protests against corruption and cronyism.
She told reporters after the meeting that German leaders "followed the events in Armenia and the velvet revolution [that led to Pashinian’s election]."
She said she spoke with Pashinian about both bilateral relations and those within the framework of the European Union.
"Our relations can develop in the economic and cultural fields" and that cooperation can be increased in cultural, education, and IT matters, she said.
Merkel also met with President Armen Sarkisian, telling him Germany wants "to be involved in the reforms" announced by the new government.
"We have closely watched the changes and processes ongoing in your country. We stand ready to continue cooperating on this difficult but important way," she was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
Sarkisian said that "Germany is a very important partner for Armenia. I cannot fail to
mention also Germany's political assistance, which we feel in the process of our cooperation with the EU, as relations with the EU are of very great significance to us."
Armenia has pursued a delicate balancing act over the past decade, maintaining strong ties with Moscow while also developing relations with the European Union.
During her visit to pro-Western Georgia, Merkel said she backed Tbilisi's aspirations to eventually join the EU and NATO, but said she was not able to provide "hasty promises" and that EU membership was not on the "current agenda."