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ARMENIAN OPPOSITION CONSIDERS SUPPORTING CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM

By Emil Danielyan

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Armenian authorities have been given a major boost in their standoff with the opposition with the Council of Europe’s effective endorsement of their draft amendments to Armenia’s controversial post-Soviet constitution. Experts from the Venice Commission have declared that the amendments’ passage at a referendum expected this November would contribute significantly to the country’s democratization and advance its European integration.

The move created a serious dilemma for the Armenian opposition, which had hoped to use the vote for another attempt to depose President Robert Kocharian. It also caused a rift between moderate and more radical opposition groups — another welcome development for the ruling regime.

Reform of the constitution, criticized for giving the president of the republic disproportionate powers, was one of the conditions for Armenia’s accession to the Council of Europe in January 2001. Kocharian’s first attempt to expedite it ended in failure when his package of amendments did not win sufficient popular support at a referendum in May 2003. Kocharian and his three-party governing coalition have since been revising that package to make it more acceptable to the domestic public and the Council of Europe.

They avoided making major changes in the constitutional draft until facing strong criticism and warnings from the Venice Commission as well as the Parliamentary Assembly of the Strasbourg-based pan-European body in June. Armenian officials pledged to further curtail the sweeping presidential powers before sending a revised draft to Strasbourg on July 7. The Venice Commission said in a July 22 report that Yerevan has honored those commitments, concluding that the final version of the proposed constitutional changes constitutes “a good basis for ensuring the compliance of the Armenian Constitution with the European standards in the fields of respect for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.” The commission expressed hope that the opposition will be “mature” enough to help the authorities enact those changes.

But Armenia’s largest opposition group, the Artarutiun (Justice) alliance, is clearly unhappy with the latest draft and is demanding additional changes. The first and foremost of them relates to the formation of the government. The authorities have agreed to strip the Armenian president of his discretionary right to sack the prime minister and his cabinet. Only the parliament would have such authority in the future. But opposition leaders say this change would be nullified by another draft amendment that empowers the president to dissolve the National Assembly if it twice rejects his prime ministerial nominees.

Artarutiun also wants serious limitations on the presidential authority to appoint and sack virtually all judges as well as a constitutional provision mandating direct elections of Yerevan’s mayor, who is currently named by Kocharian. The latter is only prepared to allow the mayor’s appointment by an elected municipal council.

The opposition demands have already been dismissed as “ridiculous” by Tigran Torosian, the deputy parliament speaker and a senior representative of the ruling coalition. Torosian warned on July 22 that Artarutiun will commit “political suicide” if it campaigns against the reform. Indeed, the opposition bloc now risks finding itself at loggerheads with the Council of Europe and perhaps major European governments that hold sway in the organization.

Hanrapetutiun (Republic), the most radical of nine parties aligned in Artarutiun, has made it clear that it will not support the reform under any circumstances.. The party, led by the firebrand former prime minister Aram Sarkisian, has publicly attacked its opposition allies for taking a more conciliatory approach.

There is clearly little the opposition can gain in return from endorsing the reform and somehow legitimizing a regime repeatedly criticized by the West for falsifying elections and abusing human rights. An amended constitution is unlikely to have any bearing on the root cause of Armenia’s problems: chronic vote rigging. The Council of Europe, however, continues to put the emphasis on the passage of new laws rather than the enforcement of the existing ones that already provide for free and fair elections. No wonder that Armenia is now hardly more democratic than it was before joining the organization.

Opposition support is essential for the success of the constitutional reform. To pass, the constitutional amendments have to be approved by a majority of referendum participants that make up at least one-third of Armenia’s 2.4 million eligible voters. Clearing that threshold requires a high degree of political consensus that is currently absent. Besides, many Armenians seem apathetic to the issue. A recent opinion poll found that less than one-third of Yerevan residents would likely take part in the constitutional referendum if it were held now.

Some local observers believe that the only way for the authorities to ensure a desired outcome of the referendum is to falsify its results. And this is what opposition leaders seem to be banking on as they prepare for another bid to bring the recent wave of ex-Soviet revolutions to Armenia. Their previous campaign of anti-Kocharian demonstrations last year failed to attract strong public support and was easily suppressed by security forces.

Defense Minister Serge Sarkisian, Kocharian’s most likely successor, indicated on July 24 that the regime is ready to go as far as to order troops into the streets of Yerevan to hold off another opposition challenge. “Who is their Hercules who will come and crack my head and sit in my chair?” he asked members of a pro-government youth organization. “How do they imagine cracking Kocharian’s head and occupying his post?”

(Report by a Venice Commission working group on Armenia, July 22; Haykakan Zhamanak, July 26; Aravot, July 26; RFE/RL Armenia Report, July 4, 22)

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