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Victoria Abraamian : ‘Armenia: Constitution Deal in Sight’ – Turkish Weekly

The
Armenian government and the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission have
reached a provisional deal to break a deadlock over stalled
constitutional reform.

The
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, PACE, of which Armenia
is a member, had strongly criticised the country for sticking to an
undemocratic constitution. Further criticism had come from the Armenian
parliamentary opposition, which has boycotted plenary sessions of
parliament for two years.

Now
the authorities have agreed to work on a new draft constitution for
debate in parliament in August which will be put to a national
referendum before the end of November.

The
Venice Commission, which gives expert advice on constitutional matters,
had expressed concerns about three parts of the constitution. In
particular, they proposed abolishing the president’s right to sack the
prime minister unilaterally and that the new premier should be
appointed with the approval of a majority in parliament. It also wanted
to see the end of presidential power over judges, and requested that
the mayor of Yerevan – the capital city home to a third of the
population – become an elected official.

“Power
is very attractive and it’s hard to give it up,” noted Armen Rustamian,
a parliamentary deputy from the pro-government Dashnaktsutiun party. “I
don’t want to name names, however after constitutional reforms many
will lose their levers of influence. By following the agreements that
have been made Armenia really can get itself out of a constitutional
crisis.”

Matyas
Eorsi, leader of the Liberal Democratic and Reformers’ Group in PACE,
was less shy of naming names. He told the session, “The only man
abusing his powers and blocking the process of constitutional reforms
in Armenia is President Robert Kocharian. Reading the report on
constitutional reforms in Armenia you get the impression that the draft
constitution is not uniting but dividing the nation.”

Most
observers agree that if the government keeps to its part of the deal,
this will mark a political climb-down for the president.

“If
all the demands of the Venice Commission are adopted, then Kocharian’s
power will definitely be weaker,” said Hovsep Khurshudian, political
analyst with the National Centre for Strategic Studies in Yerevan. “But
let’s not forget that even the most ideal constitution can be violated.”

A
weakening of presidential power on all these fronts will diminish
Kocharian’s ability to dominate the country and ensure success for his
chosen successor when his second and final presidential team ends in
2008.

Armenia’s
much-criticised constitution dates back to 1995. At the time doubts
were cast on the legitimacy of the referendum under which it was
adopted. On coming to power in 1998, Kocharian raised the issue of the
need to change the constitution, but so far all attempts to do so have
failed.

On
becoming a member of the Council of Europe in 2001, Armenia pledged to
change its constitution but voters rejected draft changes put to a vote
in 2003.

Since
then the council and the Armenian government have begun to clash
openly, both about the timetable for changes and their substance. This
culminated with a statement by the Venice Commission on May 26, which
expressed deep disappointment with the lack of progress made by the
governing coalition.

Commission
members then visited Armenia and signed a memorandum with the Armenian
government. At the June 23-24 session of PACE, during discussion of the
latest draft, discontented deputies passed a resolution calling on the
Armenian authorities to heed the Venice Commission’s proposals.

Jerzy
Jaskierna, rapporteur for the parliamentary assembly of the council on
Armenia’s constitutional reforms, told the session, “The constitutional
reforms ought to be rooted in an atmosphere of mutual trust and
dialogue between the authorities and the opposition.”

The
Armenians must now present the Venice Commission with a new improved
package of constitutional reforms drawn up on the basis of its
recommendations by July 7. The new document will be written by
presidential representative Armen Harutiunian, Justice Minister David
Harutiunian, the head of Armenia’s delegation to PACE, Tigran Torosian,
and other members of the governing coalition. This will then be put to
a second reading in parliament by August 20. A public referendum to
approve it should then be held before November.

The
Armenian parliamentary opposition is now cautiously optimistic. “It’s
obvious that if the president’s hyper-powers are removed and an
independent judicial system is set up, we will register progress,” said
leading opposition deputy Shavarsh Kocharian.

“If
the comments and proposals of the Venice Commission are included in the
draft constitutional reforms then we are ready to suspend our boycott
of work in parliament that we began in 2003 and take part in the work
on constitutional reforms in the National Assembly,” said Shavarsh
Kocharian, who is no relation to the president.

“I
think it would be very dubious to hold a referendum without mutual
agreement,” agreed pro-government deputy Armen Rustamian. “We have
really done serious work and we can’t turn back halfway.”

In
a June 28 meeting with Ambassador Roland Wegener, a German diplomat who
represents the council’s committee of ministers’ monitoring group,
President Kocharian said, “The constitutional referendum will be
adopted as a result of collaboration. It will defend constitutional
reforms and convince society that that the referendum will be a good
change for the future.”

At
the PACE session, many delegates from different countries warned that
Armenia will be in serious trouble if the constitutional reform process
fails again. The assembly has the right to strip Armenia of its voting
rights or even suspend its membership altogether, although this was not
put on the agenda.

“If
Armenia fails in a referendum a second time then we will begin to have
big problems with the Council of Europe,” warned analyst Khurshudian.

Victoria Abraamian works for the Ayb-Fe news agency in Yerevan.


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