Armenia has suspended parliamentary ratification of a historic accord aimed at normalizing relations with Turkey.
President Serzh Sarkisian signed a decree on April 22 suspending the ratification and announced the move in a televised address to the nation.
"We have decided not to exit the process for the time being but rather to suspend the process of ratifying the protocols," Sarkisian said. "We believe this to be in the best interests of our nation. Armenia's signature under the protocols will remain, because we want to maintain the existing momentum toward normalizing relations, because we want peace."
He added that "our political objective of normalizing relations between Armenia and Turkey remains valid, and we will consider moving forward when we are convinced that there is a proper environment in Turkey, and the leadership in Ankara is ready to reengage in the normalization process."
The two countries agreed in October to reestablish diplomatic ties and reopen borders after decades of hostility. But they have since accused each other of trying to set new conditions on the deal.
The announcement came hours after Armenia's ruling coalition called for suspending the ratification process, saying Turkey had refused "to honor its commitment to ratify the protocols unconditionally and within a reasonable time frame."
"Since Turkey is not in a position today to ratify the protocols and links it to different issues, in particular with the Nagorno-Karabakh problem, we thought it would be correct if the president of the country suspended [the ratification process] until the Turkish side is able to ratify the protocols," Galust Sahakian, head of the parliamentary faction of the majority Republican Party of Armenia, told RFE/RL.
Yerevan's decision appears to have caught Turkey by surprise.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking before Sarkisian's announcement, said his country remained committed to peace protocols with Armenia.
Erdogan told reporters in Ankara, "We have expressed on several occasions our commitment to the letter and spirit of the protocols and the target of putting them into practice."
He added, "We have also explained on several occasions...how the ratification process can be advanced and how we can achieve the target of comprehensive peace in the region."
The reference to regional peace suggested he had no intention of abandoning his calls for settling the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as part of the normalization process.
Turkey supports Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia over the breakaway region.
There is no official reaction yet from Azerbaijan, which has put heavy pressure on Ankara to link the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to the Turkey-Armenia deal.
Backdrop Of Mistrust
Tensions have been high for months in both Armenia and Turkey since the two sides signed the accord under international mediation in Zurich in October.
The deal calls for Turkey and Armenia to reestablish diplomatic ties and open their border. The border was closed by Turkey in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan during its war with Armenia over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
It also calls for Ankara and Yerevan to set up a joint commission of historians to investigate the mass killings of up to 1.5 million Ottoman Armenians during World War I. Yerevan, which is set to hold its annual commemoration of the killings on April 24, calls the killings genocide, while Turkey says the deaths were part of the wider conflict.
But the accord has been mired in mistrust between the two sides almost from the moment it was signed.
Yerevan was angered when -- one day after the Zurich deal -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it could not be implemented until Armenia withdrew from Nagorno-Karabakh, which it has held since the war. That was despite the fact the normalization accord made no mention of the conflict between Yerevan and Baku.
Similarly, Ankara was infuriated when the Armenian Constitutional Court ruled in January that the protocols were in compliance with the Armenian Constitution, including Paragraph 11 of the Armenian Declaration of Independence.
That declaration states Armenia's support for achieving international recognition of the "1915 Genocide in Ottoman Turkey." Ankara called the ruling an effort to cast the accord as an agreement that genocide took place even before the joint commission of historians could begin debating.
Now A Non-Starter?
The question now is whether the troubled normalization accord is essentially dead after the April 22 action or whether Yerevan's statement is an effort to pile international pressure on Turkey.
If the Armenian ruling coalition statement means the accord is dead, that would not only raise tensions between Turkey and Armenia -- and between Armenia and Azerbaijan -- but also disappoint the accord's international backers.
Among the senior international dignitaries who flew to Zurich for the signing of the normalization deal in October were U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, and EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana. All hoped the deal would lay the basis for a more peaceful era in the Caucasus by demonstrating that traditional foes can negotiate solutions.
The Armenian Foreign Ministry said Foreign Minister Eduard Nalbandian met with EU ambassadors to the country on April 22 to discuss relations between Yerevan and Ankara.
U.S. President Barack Obama also made a personal effort to kick-start the frozen accord when he held a meeting with Sarkisian and Erdogan in Washington on the sidelines of this month's nuclear-security summit.
U.S. State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the Obama administration still hopes that ties between the two countries can be normalized. He said Washington had anticipated the Armenian decision.
"I think we're encouraged that neither side has walked away from the process, but I think we all recognize that we'll just need some time to perhaps create some new momentum that allows the process to move forward," Crowley said. "This is something that the Armenians had hinted to us that they were prepared to do, so we're not surprised by the announcement."
But if the Armenian move is not intended as a death blow for the deal, it would still be a sobering measure of how much more work the two sides -- and the foreign mediators -- yet have to do if the accord is ever to become a reality.
written by Charles Recknagel in Prague based on contributions from RFE/RL's Armenian Service and correspondent Satik Vantsian; also with additional agency reports