Page last updated at 02:59 GMT, Sunday, 11 October 2009 03:59 UK

Front seat view of Clinton diplomacy

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, travelling with Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton and Philip Gordon. Courtesy: US state dept
Clinton and Philip Gordon try to seal the deal. Photo: State department

It was meant to be the most uneventful stop of our trip.

Land in Zurich mid-morning, go straight to the historic and luxurious Dolder Hotel and mill around for a few hours while Turks and Armenians, with a lot of help from the Swiss and the Americans, finalise the details of an agreement that had been in the works for weeks.

We were planning to be in London by dinner time.

After all, the only reason we were actually making the stop in Zurich with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was because it appeared that all the t's had been crossed.

But when a conflict has been going for almost a century and the two parties are so bitter about the past and passionate about the issues, which touch on the very core of their identity, we should have known to expect a few bumps in the road.

It's what you sign up for when you're trying to help people resolve long-standing problems
Hillary Clinton

The ceremony for the signing of two protocols to normalise relations and establish diplomatic ties between Turkey and Armenia had been due to start at 1700.

The Clinton motorcade left the Dolder Hotel at 1700, snaking its way down the hills towards Zurich University and the Churchill hall, the venue of the event.

The motorcade stopped, we started to get out but were suddenly instructed to get back in.

The doors were slammed, the cars made a U-turn and we retraced our steps, amid much confusion in the press vans, where journalists accompanying the secretary started taking guesses and making frantic phone calls.

Did we get the wrong location? Had the agreement collapsed?

High drama

It soon became clear something had gone wrong at the last minute.

We were back at the hotel, standing outside the cars, while the secretary of state sat in her black BMW sedan, being briefed by her staff, including the state department's top man on European affairs, Philip Gordon.

Turkey-Armenia deal signed
Who actually sealed the agreement will be up for debate

The Armenians had objected to the statement that the Turks were planning to make at the ceremony and had never left the hotel. The Turks were already at the venue.

It was high drama diplomacy as the negotiations unfolded in front of us.

The secretary of state worked the phones, two mobile phones in fact according to officials, as her staff hovered, brought papers to her and ran in and out of the hotel.

At one point a police car took off, all sirens wailing, only to return some five minutes later, carrying back another piece of paper - the Turkish statement with handwritten edits from the Turkish delegation still waiting at Zurich University.

Mrs Clinton eventually went into the hotel while we all waited and sent out our stories for the world to hear.

Two hours after the ceremony was due to start, Mrs Clinton and her Armenian counterpart finally emerged and got into her car together.

There was no turning back this time for Edward Nalbandian, though he still made calls to his president back in Yerevan.

Mrs Clinton later told reporters she did most of the talking, appealing to the minister not to walk away from what had been achieved so far. She also said that both sides had raised concerns.

Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton is on a five-day tour of Europe

We arrived at the university expecting the ceremony to start and then we waited some more.

By e-mail, Mrs Clinton's staffers informed us that the situation was "fluid".

Intense shuttle diplomacy was going on - the Turks were in one room, the Armenians in another as the Swiss mediators, and the American, Russians, French and others went back and forth, carrying pieces of paper.

Ministers missed their planes, Mrs Clinton missed her London dinner plans but an hour-and-a-half later, the Armenians and the Turks put pen to paper.

The solution? No-one made a public statement.

It is very rare for a ceremony of such historic importance to be so silent.

Beyond the announcement by the host, Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, and the applause after the protocols were inked, not a word was uttered.

Afterwards, Mrs Clinton told us that the protocols in themselves were the statement - "that was the substance of what this is about, what the protocols said, people are free to say whatever else they want, but let the protocols be that statement, because in effect, that's what we were there to sign".

That may well be a good way to put a positive spin on what was an interesting compromise which only underscores the challenges ahead as the two countries strive to overcome years of enmity and send the protocols to be ratified in two parliaments facing opposition from nationalist parties.

On the flight to London, we asked Mrs Clinton whether this had been the most challenging diplomatic endeavour she had undertaken.

"It's what you sign up for," she replied, "when you're trying to help people resolve long-standing problems."

As members of the state department press corps we, of course, get mainly one version of the events, the American one - so maybe the Russians feel they were actually the ones who clinched the deal, or perhaps the French will say they came up with the creative solution of not making a public statement.

But we certainly got a front seat view of the American diplomacy machine in full action.

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