European Union envoy acknowledges Turkey has “paused” talks with Armenia

A first admission by a senior Western official.

Yerevan – Turkey has taken a “tactical step backwards” on normalizing relations with Armenia because of hostile domestic reaction to the move, the European Union’s envoy to the region said in an interview with Reuters.

“A step back was taken by the Turkish side . . . but this is not a U-turn,” said EU South Caucasus envoy Peter Semneby. “We expect the conversations will continue.”

Armenia initiated talks with Turkey last summer, when President Serge Sargsian invited his Turkish counterpart to Yerevan to watch a World Cup qualifying soccer match. Armenia wanted Turkey to open the land border with Armenia, which it closed 16 years ago, and to agree to diplomatic relations. Turkey sought to show that it is in dialogue with Armenia on a range of issues that include history. The dialogue would allow Turkey to argue that other states, and above all the United States, should hold off on acknowledging the Armenian Genocide, lest the process be undermined.

On April 22, the foreign ministries of Turkey and Armenia issued a joint statement announcing that they had agreed on a “road map” for normalizing relations. On April 24, President Barack Obama issued a statement on Armenian Remembrance Day in which, contrary to his campaign promises, he failed to call the Armenian Genocide by its name.

By then, however, Turkey’s prime minister had already made it clear that Turkey would not open the border with Armenia. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised Azerbaijan during a visit to Baku last month that Ankara would not open its border with Armenia – closed since 1993 – until Armenia ended what he termed its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.

“I see this as a Turkish tactical step backwards,” Mr. Semneby told Reuters. “But fundamentally, the new foreign policy that has been pursued by the Erdogan government, I don’t see that this policy is changing.”

Mr. Semneby said in the interview, conducted at the end of a visit to Moscow last week, that it was important the “pause” in the talks between Turkey and Armenia did not last too long because of the risk that impetus would be lost.

“The normalization [with Armenia] became the subject of quite widespread and heated discussion in Turkey,” he added in earlier remarks to a small group of reporters. “It seems to me, this discussion became more heated than was expected.”