(Michael Stott, Reuters) - 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.
"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."
After decades of hostility, Muslim Turkey and Christian Armenia announced in April a "roadmap" for re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening their shared border. But Ankara's Muslim ally Azerbaijan said Armenia should first leave Nagorno-Karabakh, a mostly ethnic Armenian enclave which broke away after fighting a bloody war with Azerbaijan in the 1990s and claims independence. Turkey then offered support for the Azeri position, complicating further progress in talks with Armenia.
Semneby said in the interview, conducted at the end of a visit to Moscow last week, that it was important the "pause" in the peace process 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."
Turkish Prime Minister 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," 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."
Talks on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh have been dragging on for more than a decade under the auspices of the Minsk Group linking Russia, France and the United States. But Armenia, whose president, Serzh Sarkisian, is from Nagorno-Karabakh, is reluctant to budge and Azerbaijan periodically threatens military intervention.
Nonetheless Semneby believes real progress is being made. "It is clear that if you look at the negotiating process, it is intensifying," he told Reuters. "We had in a month two meetings and there will be another relatively soon between the presidents."
Asked about the risk of conflict, Semneby said it would be foolish to neglect it but he felt both sides understood the enormous costs which would be involved in any large scale military engagement. "Even with this very dangerous posturing that we see sometimes and the fact that the forces are not separated and there are incidents all the time, the two sides are by now used to managing incidents," he said.
"If anything, the Georgia war (last year with Russia), demonstrated the risks of military engagement ... it was also a wake-up call to both countries how vulnerable they are."