BACKGROUND: Armenia’s president Serzh Sargsyan faced a serious embarrassment during the summit of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council on May 29 in Astana, as he could not sign the treaty on establishing the Eurasian Union. Before the signing ceremony, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev read a letter from Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev requiring Armenia’s admission to the union only within its internationally recognized borders. Nazarbayev also clearly stated that Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko had known about Aliyev’s letter and had agreed on further joint actions. Sargsyan, in turn, was only informed during a televised session in Astana.
As the presidents of Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia required establishing customs control posts on the border between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh before joining the Eurasian Union, Armenia’s signature of the Eurasian Union treaty was postponed and is currently scheduled for October.
Sargsyan’s embarrassment was largely a result of his own policies aimed at pleasing Russia, and demonstrated the failure of the analytical departments of the president’s staff, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Security Service. It should be recalled that during the previous summit of the Eurasian Economic Council in October 2013, Lukashenko stated that Armenia would have to resolve its territorial dispute with Azerbaijan, and that Customs Union members would consider Azerbaijan’s position on the issue. Kazakhstan’s officials also made several statements conveying the same message.
The massive gunfire and attempted subversive operations on the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh and on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan between July 30 and August 4 became another serious challenge for the Armenian government, but at the same time provided an opportunity to mobilize public support. This is particularly important for Sargsyan who needs to dissuade possible mass protests as economic decline continues.
IMPLICATIONS: The recent hostilities on the line of contact followed by a presidential meeting in Sochi have different connotations. The Armenian army’s relative success in deterring Azerbaijani forces has been used by President Sargsyan’s proxies and loyal media to relieve public discontent. Moreover, Prime Minister Hovik Abrahamyan together with several cabinet members and MPs went on a tour to the border regions and Karabakh. Abrahamyan’s activity may be viewed not only as an attempt to relieve negative public opinion because of the recent considerable increase in energy prices and other actions taken by the government: he is also likely preparing for the next presidential elections as Sargsyan will not be able to run for a third time. It should be noted that Abrahamyan could secure support from the second largest party, Prosperous Armenia. The party’s leader, Gagik Tsarukyan, and Abrahamyan are in-laws and have joint business interests. However, Abrahamyan is not the only candidate seeking to cultivate a tough man’s image; Minister of Defense Seyran Ohanyan is also currently widely praised by different actors. Ohanyan moved to Armenia from Karabakh in 2007, following the path of Sargsyan and his predecessor Robert Kocharyan, and may potentially become a favorite of the powerful Karabakh clan.
Following the trilateral presidential meeting in Sochi on August 8-9, Vladimir Putin is increasingly seeking to cast himself as a peacemaker and to alleviate the damage done to Russia’s image by its actions in Ukraine and the downing of the MH17 flight. Hence, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan presents Russia with an opportunity to present itself as a key partner in supporting international peace and security. However, Russia’s sincerity can be questioned based on several factors: its continuous contribution to the militarization of the region by supplying both conflicting parties with arms; a massive propaganda campaign blaming the West, and primarily the U.S., for the increase in tensions; and, as even some Russian experts admit, attempts to replace the OSCE Minsk Group mediation efforts and to compel Armenia and Azerbaijan to accept Russia’s special role in the region. Characteristically, after the Sochi meeting Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a statement mentioning future meetings in a trilateral format as agreed upon, and also mentioned a “contact group” that would presumably act outside the Minsk Group framework.
Concerning Eurasian Union membership, some members of the Armenian government are for several reasons becoming less enthusiastic about it, although they still pay lip service to their commitment to “Eurasian integration.” First, there is a clear perception that sanctions against Russia will diminish the union’s economic perspective. Second, negotiations with the Eurasian Economic Council concerning possible exemptions from higher customs duties have not been successful. Third, applying the Customs Union’s tariff regime would result in a breach of WTO rules followed by a possible requirement to compensate WTO members’ financial losses.
Another important factor is Belarus’s and Kazakhstan’s non-enthusiastic attitude to Armenia’s prospective membership. Belarus and Kazakhstan currently have an opportunity to prevent the adoption of regulatory decisions biased in favor of Russia, but Armenia is considered too loyal to Moscow and its membership could presumably result in Russia de facto having two votes. Hence, the Armenian government may try to avoid Eurasian Union membership by using Belarus’s and Kazakhstan’s objections rather than by openly challenging Russia.
The government must also consider the possibility of public upheavals in a few months as a consequence of deteriorating economic conditions. Many Armenians working in Russia return to Armenia in November or December and then go back to Russia in February or March. As the Russian economy is currently likely to decline and a number of jobs may disappear, a large number of men could be unable to work and support their families as they have been doing for years.
CONCLUSIONS: While skepticism towards the West’s initiatives still persists, the recent border clashes have induced the part of society less influenced by Russian propaganda to question Russia’s role in resolving the Karabakh conflict and providing security guarantees for Armenia. An understanding that Russia and the Collective Security Treaty Organization would not act to protect Armenia in case of a large-scale war is taking root, albeit slowly. Importantly, Armenian officials have excluded the possibility of deploying Russian “peacekeeping” troops in Karabakh and adjacent territories; the Ministry of Defense made an official statement before the meeting in Sochi, and Sargsyan confirmed this stance after returning to Yerevan.
Being stuck with the invasion of Ukraine and hopefully unable to engage simultaneously in a massive operation in the South Caucasus because of logistical problems and other reasons, Russia still views the region as its backyard. Its interest in becoming the exclusive arbiter and using borderline tensions as a tool of pressure on the conflicting parties should be awarded more attention. Besides, the massive militarization of the region may at some point, after another outbreak of gunfire on the line of contact, develop into a large-scale conflict even though neither party would be able to solve its proclaimed goals.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Armen Grigoryan is an Armenian political scientist. His research interests include post-communist transition, EU relations with Eastern Partnership countries, transatlantic relations, energy security, and conflict transformation. He is the author of several book chapters, conference reports, and analytical articles.
(Image Attribution: Wikimedia Commons/www.kremlin.ru)