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Mediation Perspectives: Armenia and the Customs Union – Window of Opportunity for Nagorno-Karabakh?

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Sargsyan, Medvedev, Aliev
Sargsyan, Medvedev and Aliev. Photo: Commons.

Policymakers and analysts have spent the past two decades applying the same insights and settlement approaches to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with the same limited impact. There is an underpinning perception that everything that could have been said has already been said. This, combined with a set of overused words such as ‘stalemate’, ‘deadlock’, ‘frozen’ and, more recently, ‘simmering conflict’ brings with it a certain level of fatigue and apathy on the part of the conflict parties and external observers.

However, tangible contextual changes within protracted conflicts often open up windows of opportunity for new dynamics in peace processes. In this respect, does Armenia’s stated intention to join the Russian-led Customs Union provide a window of opportunity for renewed mediation in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict?

Yerevan looks to Moscow

On September 3rd, 2013, the Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan declared his country`s intention to join the Customs Union (CU), a move that effectively puts to an end almost four years of negotiations with the European Union (EU) over an association and free trade agreement. The declaration came as a surprise to many observers and policymakers both domestically and internationally, while others took it as business as usual. Created in 2010, the Customs Union has been a platform for economic integration between Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia. The CU is also expected to evolve into a ‘Eurasian Union’ that reflects Russia`s perceived ambitions to “re-Sovietize” its former neighborhood and counter the regional influence of the EU.

Despite Sargsyan’s recent announcement, determining the future course of Yerevan regarding the CU – not to mention the impact it might have on a conflict settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh – remains compromised by the lack of quality academic research, broad public discourse and credible public opinion surveys. All that is known at the time of writing is that the roadmap for Armenia`s accession is under development with the country expected to join the Customs Union by February 2014, despite the denials of some analysts and opposition parties.

The prospect of Armenia compromising its hard-won sovereignty by joining the CU has also caused social unrest and political discontent at home. However, Armenia’s opposition remains weak and fragmented, thereby making the prospect of a bottom-up reversal of Sargysan’s decision unlikely. In this respect, the government continues to stifle socio-political unrest (under the pretext of law and order) and will most likely follow through on its stated intention to join the CU.

Questions, questions

Among the biggest questions that will need answering should Armenia join the CU is to what extent will its membership alter the dynamics of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and how might it affect the OSCE Minsk Group peace process? Indeed, given Russia`s strategic and military alliance with Armenia, and its role as a lead mediator in the Minsk group, how would an even closer political and economic union with Russia affect the negotiation process and the current mediation format?

This, in turn, raises some pertinent follow-up questions:

  • What does Armenia’s accession mean for Nagorno-Karabakh? Does the de-facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh join as well or would there be a customs border between it and Armenia? Given Armenia’s membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), would Nagorno-Karabakh immediately fall under its security umbrella? If the answer to this question is yes, then renewed hostilities between Armenia and Azerbaijan will remain a distant prospect. Preservation of the status quo would also mean the same old muddling through the current peace process. However, it is difficult to imagine that Azerbaijan would accept the de facto settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in this manner. This, in turn, begs another question:
  • Will Azerbaijan consider joining the CU against all odds? This seemingly unlikely option is not that far from reality. If ever such a decision is made, it will likely happen as a result of political pressure applied by Russia, and by no means for economic reasons. What this type of settlement would entail remains to be seen.

In any event, if the Customs Union eventually evolves into a Eurasian Union with Armenia – and possibly Azerbaijan – then it is highly likely that the settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict will become an ‘internal’ matter for Russia and a future Eurasian Union. This is likely to render the current international Track 1 mediation efforts irrelevant.

So, even in the absence of substantial answers to the abovementioned questions, it’s safe to assume that Armenia`s possible accession to the CU will not present a much needed window of opportunity for the OSCE-led mediation process. If anything, it confirms Russia`s ambitions to consolidate its strategic foothold in the South Caucasus and Armenia`s inability to follow through on the much talked about ‘complementarity’ of its foreign policy. Yet, rather than causing inertia within the  international community over Nagorno-Karabakh, it should be a call for more vigilance and creativity from conflict resolution professionals and conflict parties alike.

Anna Hess Sargsyan is a program officer in the Mediation Support Team at the Center for Security Studies (CSS). She is working on inclusivity issues in peace processes with a regional focus on Northeast Asia, South Asia, and South Caucasus.

“Mediation Perspectives” is a periodic blog entry provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. 

For additional material on this topic please see:

Paving a Rough Road to Vilnius: Russia’s Preventive Punishment of its “Near Abroad”

Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia: Political Developments and Implications for US Interests

Armenia and Azerbaijan: A Season of Risks

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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